I’m an avid reader of www.alljapaneseallthetime.com.  In fact, it’s what inspired 桃 and I to really start learning Japanese full-time.  I could go on about how amazing this site is for hours, and how you should probably be reading it before reading Kanji and Tea, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t.  Go and visit it yourself.  You won’t be dissapointed.

Anyway, the reason I mention AJATT is because its host, Khatzumoto tells people to learn their Kanji first, before they do anything else.  When I read this advice, I initially thought it sounded like a good idea.  I had already learned 90% of the Hirigana at this point, so I figured it would be a great next step.  So what did I do?  I logged on to smart.fm (Also a great language learning website, and my personal favourite SRS.  Mostly because I have to do very little setup.) and fired up one of the Kanji sets and began to study.

My progress was dissapointingly slow.  It took a long time to memorize not only the Kanji, but also the Hirigana and English meanings for each new Kanji.  I got frustrated easily and doing a set of ten items could take me up to forty minutes to complete.  Jarred from this harsh experience, and thinking that Kanji was just mind-numbingly difficult to memorize, I went back to Khatzumoto’s site to find out how he learned the Kanji.  Heisig’s Remember The Kanji, said he.  So I checked the book out.

Let me first say that this is the kind of book that every over-acheiving perfectionist will hate at first glance.  In the first few pages of the book it informs you that not only will you not be learning the Hiragana used to compose and pronounce the Kanji you’re learning, you won’t even find out how to say it in Japanese. I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy.  I think a lot of people like to think that they’re pretty smart, and when they are presented with something that appears to be “dumbed down” for us slow, english speaking types, it seems beneath them.  You want to dive right in.

But diving right in is the worst thing you could do.  Not to say you shouldn’t immerse yourself in Japanese, and expose yourself to as much as possible; because you should.  But if you start off trying to learn everything at once, (Hirigana, Katakana, Kanji, pronounciations, grammar, sentences.) you are going to have an extremely difficult time.  Human beings don’t learn like that.  Our brains like baby steps repeated ad nauseam, even if our egos don’t.

So with much cringing and grumbling and feeling like I didn’t need this baby-step learning process, I started Hesig’s RTK.  And you know what?  It’s amazing;  It’s amazing, and it works.

Heisig’s method involves having you learn one step at a time, constantly building off the previous step until you’re writing ungodly complex Kanji and remembering them simply because you already know all the base Kanji that it’s composed from.  It makes sense.

But the important thing, (And really the entire point of this post,) is that you are only learning one thing with RTK.  You’re learning the meaning of the Kanji.  That’s it.  It makes remembering Kanji easy, because really that’s the only big thing you’re trying to remember.  You’re not trying to sort out the Hirigana, the Kanji and the pronounciation, spelling and stroke order, just the Kanji.

That may seem painfully slow at first, and you might think you can do a lot more initially.  I’m not saying that you can’t do more than learn just the Kanji first, but I am saying that it makes life a hell of a lot easier once you know them.  When I actually sat down and thought about it, knowing the Kanji meaning’s in English was a huge step in the language learning process.  I may not know how to say any of these Kanji, or even read them out loud.  But if I have a sentence put in front of me, I can tell you (generally speaking) what that sentence is saying.

Once you have down the English meanings of the Kanji, the rest is cake.  Remembering pronounciations and sounds is much easier if you already have a clear understanding of what a Kanji looks like and means.  You already have that Kanji locked in your memory, all you need to do is attach a sound to it.

So, essentially this is just a long and convulted post telling you that if you open Hesig’s Rememeber The Kanji and feel like it’s too slow a learning process or too small a step to be taking, believe me when I say that it is more than worth it.  You will likely end up learning a lot faster than if you tried to brute force your way through the Kanji using an SRS. (Spaced Repetition System.  See: smart.fm, Anki, Khatzumemo.)

Besides, how awesome would it be to be able to flip through a favourite Manga, or pop on the Japanese subtitles and actually understand what’s being said, without any English being read or heard?  Pretty damn awesome, I say.

4 Responses to Heisig’s Remember The Kanji, or: Why feeling like you’re learning slowly is actually the quickest way to learn.

  1. Momo says:

    I was just logging in to write about how awesome Heisig’s was, only to find you had already written a wonderful entry. =}

  2. Liz says:

    Hooray and agreed! Wonderful observations.

    I just started RTK a couple weeks ago, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s awesome! I’m learning meanings and stroke orders so much more quickly and with more enthusiasm than I ever did trying to do it all at once. (Interesting that we can actually speed up by slowing down.)

    Do you use “Reviewing the Kanji” to review? It’s a site designed to help you review Heisig. I’ve found it very simple and easy to use, and many other Heisig users seem to love it, too. One of the benefits is that people share their stories for the different kanji, so if one of Heisig’s just isn’t doing it for you, you can get some inspiration from others!

  3. Delphine says:

    I *love* Remember the Kanji. Heisig’s method is just so innovative, in my opinion. I actually use SRS along with Heisig’s book and I found it does wonders. If you get Anki, you can download the entire set of flashcards from RTK (it’s in the same order as the book so you can follow along, each card has the kanji number on it for reference, and you don’t have to input anything yourself as someone has already kindly made all of the cards). That would be my biggest advice – use RTK coupled with the accompanying flashcard deck on Anki.

    Whatever technique you use, though, good luck with it! がんばれよ〜 ^-^

  4. Cosmo says:

    I started with Heisig yesterday after quitting several months ago because I had to return the book to the library. Now I own it so no more worries about that. The thing I was noticing today was that learning the Kanji with no readings or anything is sort of like how my 3 year old is learning the alphabet. I realized that we teach kids the ABCs which are barely related to the sounds each letter makes then they have to learn the sounds later once they recognize all of the letters.

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