One Step before the other?

This is a question that came to my mind after reading through a good bit of the Nihongo Pera Pera site. I tend to like reading information from people who are fluent in Japanese that have strong opinions, and this site wasnt’ any different.

When he spoke about his review of Heisig, I can imagine that it would deflate some people who’ve heard people on the internet basically throwing baubles at James Heisig’s feet for creating the system. On this site, the guy said it wasn’t very efficient and that it would be better to do something like Kanji in Context to learn readings, writing and retain memories. What I found interesting is that at my present position, I can take a very interesting, somewhat neutral position on the “Heisig VS. Other systems” debate that rages endlessly on the internet.

The number one thing I have realized is that there is no super fast way to start reading Japanese Kanji. When I say “super fast” I mean like, one month. But a person can definitely start reading Kanji to some extent after three months, and definitely after six. Before I started any sort of Kanji study in any form, Kanji seemed like an endless hurdle that I could never hop over. Literally it was a gargantuan beast that I was facing with nothing but a loin cloth and an old Britney Spears CD. So my sense of “learning time” was pretty skewed, thinking, “it will take years and years to really learn how to read this stuff.”

Back to present day.

The guy from Nihongo Pera Pera said that if you use the Kanji in context books, doing about 25 Kanji a day it should take you about five months to finish learning at the 1945 or so Kanji you need to start reading Japanese. But I realize also that since I was able to study about 1000 Japanese word eadings in under 30 days (and by extension loads and loads of Kanji readings) i am seeing that the “idea of  process” is sort of relative to the sort of work ethic you are willing to put in.

What does this mean? It means I am not disagreeing with Mr. Pera Pera at all, but there are people who have done Heisig in 1.5 to 3 months, then immediately started reading sentences in context and started reading Japanese in mere months. Kanji in Context as he described it, sounded very similar to what I am presently doing, which is learning a new word then seeing an example sentence with the word used. (in the Core2000)

What is key about my observation is that the concept of time here is quite relative from my current perspective. Meaning… what I am finding is the most important thing early on is developing familiarity with Kanji, not memorizing it.

As many an internet head including myself have mentioned, Heisig teaches you Japanese words with the English meanings, then you learn the readings afterwards. Now, for most people who are not consistent (like myself) this might take a while to get through, but MOSTLY because the hurdle is perceived to be so big.

I am talking about “one step before the other” for a specific reason which contradicts and lot of what I’ve written on my blog, but also complements it. Here’s why.

A huge issue with Japanese learners  is that some people want to learn how to write a Kanji and read it at the same time. Others, who use the Heisig method, I think are people who want to believe they can write Kanji which then leads them to believe they can read Kanji meanings later on.

This is the great divide, and here is how time becomes relative in both goals as I am seeing it now.

I will make a scenario of six months.

Kanji system A – person learns Kanji individually + readings in example sentences at a specific rate per day.

Kanji system B – person learns Kanji readings through Heisig in English then uses a gateway system afterwards to learn meanings in context.

What’s the difference, obviously in one system you won’t learn any readings right away. but here’s what I noticed makes this “time relative” if you try to go a little faster.

At 25 characters per day you are doing 750 characters a month.

At 50 characters per day you are doing 1500 characters per month.

Let’s use scenario A: let’s say I do 50 characters per day and finish Heisig in 1.5 months, then I spend the next 3.5 months learning meanings. After only 6 months, I will be reading Japanese and familiar with the characters in the way Heisig taught.

Likewise, if I do the other system at a similar pace, I will be reading Japanese in five to six months as well.

So what’s very interesting to me now is that your approach if you move QUICKLY comes down to a matter of taste. Taking 4 to 6 months to read thousands of Japanese characters is a feat by any stretch of the imagination. Many Japanese people cannot even comprehend systems that allow these Kanji to be taught so quickly and reinforced using targeted software and a few learning books.

This is a big revelation for me, because I proved to myself with my Core2000 studies, that in less than 30 days, sheer exposure to hundreds of words after finish Heisig blasted my Kanji reading ability to significantly higher levels. I was amazed what I was reading after 3 weeks! Does this mean that doing another system is wrong? Certainly not. I think they will both get you to the same place at around the same pace if you want.

The most important thing about our present generation of self-study learners is spaced-repetition software. This basically ensures that you will have a hard time forgetting Kanji meanings as you learn them. So say I take 1.5 months or 3 months to get “familiar” with Kanji with Heisig, then do my SRS to learn the meanings, I will start reading soon after. Likewise, if I am doing another system and I am learning the readings one by one and using SRS, I will not forget them either.

I guess the real point of this post is that people who execute systems consistently will always get good results. Since there is no ” reading Japanese right away” hanging over your heard, the “how” of your familiarity is up to you.

What I realize now for me, is that my original plan (to do Heisig in 3 months) wasn’t a bad one  at all, even though I delayed for almost a year with massive gaps of time in between to finish it. My problem was my idea of belief, which I will not expound on anymore in this post.

But since I’ve gone through those scenarios, and I read that blog recently, I realized that there isn’t really much wrong with “one step then the other”. In my last super long post, I spoke about the “Japanese balancing act”  and a key point in that post was talking about people’s need to do everything at once, which is sort of imposible.

What seems to be the most important is just getting through each hurdle quickly and consistently. So, I am through half of the Core2000 program in under 30 days, and hopefully it will not take me more than a month to finish the other 1000 sentences. So say in 6-8 weeks I will be able to read 2000 sentences. Let’s say I had done Heisig in 1.5 months then took 2 months pressuring a sentence program like Core2000, I could be reading Japanese in only 3.5 months! Obviously, this approach is too hardcore for most people (including me) but it can work. It’s the same thing I’m realizing with other systems, if you put yourself into “beast mode” you can do it as well.

The only thing I will always say about the Heisig method more than any other method is that it helped me to believe I could read and write Japanese characters. I am just that kind of person. Other programs looked a bit daunting for their own reasons, but after I learned how to write my first 250 Kanji with ease, I felt that I was reaching somewhere and it removed some hurdles or blocks from my mind. I believe that if you are a person who is going to worry about learning 2000 Kanji and then trying to remember the reading at the same time, Heisig can help you get “familiar” before you start reading, which if you want, can be done very quickly with strong effort. If you aren’t bothered by learning Kanji individually initially, with the same effort, you can start reading quickly as well. I personally for some reason didn’t like the idea  of the Kanji and the meaning without context, but I’m seeing that stuff like “Kanji in context” is very similar to what i’ve been doing with the Core2000 where you are learning the Kanji reading plus vocabulary words at the same time. Of course using this program now would be moot, since I am basically doing the same thing right now.

So this rant comes from my mind which no longer is just thinking about “theories” of learning, i’ve spent enough time doing basic implementation to see that effort and belief and execution can get you reading more quickly than you realize…. but the fact that is it so much freaking effort is what makes the forums filled with cross-flamers arguing about methods, techniques and so on.

Few languages have such a difficult entry hurdle, which is why I can see why people will debate process and efficiency endlessly (including myself).. but what will happen when I can comfortably read Japanese? Thats’ what i’m aiming for. Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch (I think), Swahili and a bazillion other languages have NO entry hurdle. I can start reading French, German and Spanish right now. I can spend a month studying vocabulary and in three months be speaking functional French. I know this is possible now. Can this be done in the same way in Japanese? No. You cannot read “right away” but what’s so bad with reading (or recognizing ) Japanese after say, six months? That’s what i find is becoming important… recognizing that yes, there is this entry hurdle and people can choose how to hop over it, but it doesn’t have to take a year, just a few months whatever path you choose.


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
This entry was posted in learning Japanese and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to One Step before the other?

  1. John says:

    I think that is a good way to describe Heisig. Everyone is getting to the same place in the end, the “Heisig-first” approach is just more assembly-line like, in that you focus on one aspect at a time.

    Although I’ve never seen anyone talk about it, I don’t see why it would not also work to learn each kanji’s reading at the same time as using Heisig’s “Primitive + Imaginative Memory” technique to learn writing and recognition. One may have trouble finding good vocabulary for some of the Kanji. Perhaps using the RTK-Lite list would be better if someone tried that.

    Personally, I’m still only working through Heisig slowly (1300), while also working on Vocabulary from Core2k (1600) as well as working on Readings in the KO2001 Order (~50).

    This means that I sometimes end up learning readings before reaching the Kanji in Heisig, but it hasn’t seemed to cause much of a problem yet, really. It also means I often hit the same Word/Kanji from multiple sources, which is a huge help for me.

  2. Great post!

    I think about Heisig this way: Most people won’t argue with you if you say literate Chinese speakers have an advantage over others when learning Japanese. What advantage do they have? They can already recognise and write (most of the) Kanji characters. Heisig offers this same advantage to the rest of us.

  3. marcusbird says:

    I think because the Heisig method is older, back then the general idea of “learning japanese” quickly was really up there with leprechauns and unicorns. I think at that time, one would think logically in the way Heisig proposed, which was to just do the first book then the second. I used to think that it would have been better to learn the readings at the same time I’m learning the Kanji, but it “technically” doesn’t matter I feel. Like you said, there are some extremely common Kanji words that have the various meanings, which become obvious after a few hundred exposures through SRS. I noticed this with “段階”(dankai) which is “stage” and “階段”(kaidan) which means “stairs”. When I saw the second word for the first time, there was no confusing it with the first word (partly because I created an image-association with the word meaning) but it was because I had seen it so often, that though the words look similar, they weren’t confusing. But i’m really seeing that the desire to learn readings and writing at the same time comes mostly down to taste based on how you feel about learning. This was probably the biggest hurdle for me, I was so worried about how long it would take to relearn readings and so on, I was always stopping and starting. Little did I know, is that all you need is just a system of frequent exposure (SRS, Manga, extensive reading) and the reinforcement will occur naturally. So i feel whatever you do, as long as you feel satisfied, it will work for you John.

    Oh but I realized that going faster with Heisig isn’t a big deal because the programs you are using will naturally compliment and give you a sort of active SRS of the newer Kanji you might feel you haven’t 100% reinforced yet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s