After thousands of hours of studying Chinese, I can finally say with confidence:
Let me tell ya - getting there was NOT easy.
Along the way I made one huge mistake that almost made me GIVE UP studying Chinese entirely. That mistake was using Remembering the Hanzi, by James Heisig.
You see, Chinese has thousands of characters that you have to memorize. Each character has their own meaning and pronunciation, which combine to form words. The recommended way to memorize them is to use that book. My mistake was following that advice.
After spending hundreds of hours I made very little real progress.
I thought the issue was me. That I was simply too dumb to learn Chinese.. I later realized that the real deficiencies were with this method. Now I’m going to tell you what those are, so you don’t make the same mistake.
I’ll begin by giving you an overview of how the Heisig method works. Afterwards, I’ll go into all of the reasons why it is a terrible method for anyone learning Chinese. I’ll finish up by telling you the method that actually allowed me to learn over 3,000 characters and achieve Chinese literacy.
The Heisig method is surprisingly simple.
In it, each character is given a unique English key word. Then the character is broken down into groups of strokes called components. Each of these components is given a name based on their appearance. Finally, the character key word and the component names are woven together into a mnemonic story. That story helps you remember the writing and meaning of each character.
To illustrate, Heisig assigns the character 好 hǎo the meaning “good”. That character is broken down into two separate components, 女 woman and 子 child. He then provides a story that combines the key word “good” with the component names “woman” and “child”.
Once you learn a character, you make a flashcard to help you review it. On the front is the keyword associated with the character. On the back is the mnemonic story along with the character itself.
When you review each flashcard, you first look at the key word at the front of the card. You then try to recall the mnemonic story associated with that keyword. If you remember the story, you will be able to remember the component names contained within it. Those component names give you clues on how to write the character. Once you write down the character, you look at the back of the card to make sure you got it right.
That’s it. That’s the Heisig method.
This idea of using mnemonics and character components to help you better remember each character is pretty genius. However, the rest of the method is deeply flawed. Let’s go over why.
The first issue with the Heisig method is that he does not teach you the pronunciation of any of the characters.
One of his stated reasons for doing so is the misconception that Chinese characters have no phonetic basis. This misconception is known as The Ideographic Myth, and is completely false. In reality, over 80% of Chinese characters have phonetic components within them, which hint at the pronunciation of the character. Thus learning the pronunciation of a character helps us better understand the character and the components within it.
He also states that pronunciation should be skipped because there are many characters that are homophones and share the same pronunciation. For example, the pronunciation shì could correspond to at least ten fairly common characters. However, the only way to know that is by actually LEARNING THE PRONUNCIATION. If you skip learning pronunciation, you are just kicking that can down the road.
Lastly, he always states that learning the pronunciation can be done later. However, he gives absolutely no guidance on how this would be done. When you reach that point, you are completely on your own.
The second issue with the Heisig method is the emphasis on writing.
Of the four language skills - listening, speaking, reading, and writing - writing is by far the least useful. After all, I’ve lived in Taiwan for two years and have only needed to handwrite precisely eleven characters in total. In the modern age the majority of “written” communication is done by keyboard, not by hand.
Some may argue that writing out characters helps you better remember them, which I won’t dispute. The more we learn about anything, the better we remember it. In that same spirit, I have found that learning the pronunciation of the character, or the words that character can form, also helps improve my memory of it. While helping me better understand how the character is ACTUALLY used within the language.
His strangest claim is that writing should be learned first because it is difficult. Uh, no thanks. That is in fact precisely the reason to save it for later. Trust me, Chinese is already difficult enough as is. The only way to make it to the end is to keep the process enjoyable.
All of that being said, if you are a firm believer in the importance of writing the character, go for it! Just don’t fall into the trap of believing that the writing of a character is more important than its other aspects. It isn’t. My main issue here isn’t with character writing - which I myself actually enjoy - but rather the prioritization of writing above all else.
The focus on writing leads to my third issue with the Heisig method, which is the requirement for each character to have a unique English key word.
Recall that Heisig wants you to review by first looking at an English keyword. Afterwards, you write down the associated Chinese character.
This approach requires each keyword to be unique. However, the English meaning of many Chinese characters overlap.
For example, the Chinese characters 房 fáng 家 jiā 宅 zhái 屋 wū - all roughly correspond to the English meaning “house”. Heisig instead assigns unique synonyms as the keywords for these characters, like “domicile”, “dwelling”, or “habitation”. However, these arbitrary key words do not show up in any Chinese-to-English dictionary entry for those characters. In other words, they don’t accurately describe the true meaning of the character. Yet another thing you will have to “learn later”.
My fourth issue with the Heisig method is that the characters are taught in a poor order. They are arranged primarily according to the components within them. And only secondarily by their usefulness or frequency.
For example, one of the most common characters in Chinese is 不 bù , which means no. It will be taught in the first chapter of the first book of nearly every Chinese textbook series. In Remembering the Hanzi, by contrast, it is the 924th character you will learn.
You must spend months going through the book before you can learn rudimentary characters like this one. And when you finally do learn it… you still won’t know how to pronounce it.
Heisig sees no problem with this. His opinion is that you should cover ALL, or MOST, of the 3,000 characters in his series before you actually start engaging with the ACTUAL language itself. In my view, this is the VERY definition of putting the cart before the horse.
There you have it.
Those are the issues with the Heisig method.
Now let me cover a far better method for learning Chinese characters.
It’s a web application called HanziHero. The very website you are on.
It was built by my brother and I to help me learn Chinese. HanziHero addresses all of the aforementioned issues that I had with Heisig’s method. By using it I was finally able to memorize the meaning and pronunciation of over 3,000 Chinese characters. It was the only method that worked for me.
Let’s go over how HanziHero fixes each of the four main issues the Heisig method has.
HanziHero teaches the pronunciation of each character. Every character has a hand-crafted mnemonic that includes pronunciation information within it, allowing you to easily recall both the pronunciation and meaning of the character. Additionally, our built-in review system will test you on the character pronunciation you learn, ensuring that you remember it. This way when you come across a character in Chinese media or real life, you will be able to actually read it aloud correctly!
HanziHero requires no character writing knowledge to use. It’s review system works by showing you the character on screen, and asking you to type out its pronunciation or meaning. It’ll also teach and review you on some words that contain those characters. This way you can improve both your memory of characters and your knowledge of Chinese.
HanziHero always teaches accurate definitions. These definitions are all sourced from the best Chinese-English dictionaries. This ensures that you learn the correct meaning of each character.
HanziHero teaches characters in an optimal order. We’ve developed a custom ordering algorithm based on the HSK Chinese proficiency standards published by the Chinese government. You’ll learn the most essential characters quickly, instead of needing to wait months.
Our app has these four key improvements over Heisig’s method in addition to many additional features. You can try it out for free whenever you want.
Let’s wrap things up!
The core of Heisig’s approach, which is using components and mnemonics to help remember Chinese characters, is great. However, the other aspects of it have some pretty large flaws:
If you are studying Chinese characters using the Heisig method or something similar, I recommend you modify it to work around these issues. If you are looking for a web app that fixes all of the issues with Heisig and more, I recommend you give us a try.