Kanji without Heisig

2009-07-30

A bit of a tangent from the usual german content here. I was just reading a post over at Japanese From Zero where akanpanda asks “does anyone know a *non Heisig* way to learn Kanji? Heisig bores me even when I turn it into a game.” For those who are unfamiliar, the Heisig method of learning kanji is to build up from basic characters to complex ones, so that every complex one consists of pieces that are recognizable characters. You have to follow a certain order so that you always get those basic ones before the advanced ones. Here’s my response:

You probably want to find some way to go hardcore on an SRS because that’s the fastest way to fill your brain with reams of data, but it doesn’t have to be through Heisig. The problem i had with Heisig was learning a bunch of boring characters before the ones that i wanted. Instead of that, you could try adding chars as you encounter them in real life. You may not know the parts of them in an awesome way like in the Heisig method, but it’ll be ok. This way each character will mean something to you, and have value, instead of being force-fed.

What i did was go to the library and get an awesome book that i really wanted to read. A good one for me was a book of short sci-fi stories by famous authors like Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin, except translated into chinese (which is what i was learning). Then i’d go through one page, and just write down all the chars that i didn’t know. I’d look up each one, and make up an Anki card for it. Then i’d try to read the page, hopefully remembering some of the chars that i just looked up.

Every day i’d do my Anki reps, and add a new page full of the characters i didn’t know. As each day went on, I’d be able to read more and more of the stories, at least by guessing new words according to the Hanzi (aka Kanji) that i encountered. The benefit of this method was that all the characters i added were really valuable to me. They were helping me read more and more pages of the awesome book, instead of just being random boring characters from some predefined method. This way, i kept my motivation up because i wanted to get through more pages of the book, and each progressive page was getting easier and easier.

An important part of motivation is self-direction. The fastest way to hate something is to have someone else force you to do it, or to be spoon-fed. Pick your own direction, and you’ll be able to do it for longer. Also, mix things up a bunch. Never just use one method, or one book. Every time you sit down to work on your project, have a variety of materials in front of you and choose whichever one catches your eye first. When you start to get bored of it, just drop it and look around. Pick up the next one that catches your eye. If you have enough interesting materials in front of you, you can go all day. I did this by getting real books from the library. Sci-fi, or translated novels like “the godfather” (which was funny to try to read in chinese). It’s also good to get something that’s familiar, maybe like Harry Potter if you’re into that.

Good luck!

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number of characters for reading?

2009-03-25

I was just browsing the forum on kanji4.us and i saw this reference to another article.

Chinese learners are not used to studying Chinese characters. Now some linguists and language teachers have started to focus their studies on how to enable learners to learn Chinese characters faster. They have discovered that there are aspects that make Chinese characters easy to learn. Firstly, the number of commonly-used characters is limited. According to statistics, one can read non-technical publications without much difficulty, if s/he has a command of about 3,000 characters. Secondly, characters are made of components which, in their part, are composed of strokes. Out of the 400-600 components, only 100 are commonly used, and a considerable part of those are characters by themselves.

I think there’s a difference between “able to read” and “able to read without much difficulty”. In my experience, i learned about 1000 characters through a series of intensive classes, but it wasn’t enough to muddle through any books with any sort of satisfaction. Then last summer i discovered SRS and mnemonics, and i learned an extra thousand characters in july and august, and cemented my knowledge of the old ones that i thought i knew.

I found that around the 1500 character mark (i went through them mostly in frequency order, so this is mostly the most popular 1500 characters), i was able to read books finally. It was hard, since there were still many i didn’t know, but at least the story was finally understandable and i was making good progress on the other characters just by reading.

Now with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000-2500 characters, i’m able to easily read stories by Lu Xun and other real content. I learn lots of new words and characters by doing so. I can really see how knowing 3000 characters would make things so much easier, but i’m just enjoying actually reading things right now so i don’t really have the motivation to study single characters too much.

Overall, i’d say the barrier to reading is much lower than people think. You may hear numbers like “3000” and “4000” and think it’ll take forever, but really i think the minimum you need to work hard to hit is 1500. Once you hit 1500, you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction from actually recognizing so many characters in real books. This will motivate you to do more, and your reading level will go up from there. As someone once said, you get good at reading by reading. Even if you know 3000 characters, you aren’t necessarily good at reading yet either. But don’t place the bar too high. It’s doable sooner than you think.