The Best way to Memorize Chinese Characters: Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi”


The method used in Remembering the Hanzi, by Heisig and Richardson to learn characters is the best I’ve ever seen.  I use it myself and have seen the results.  A friend of mine was able to learn to write 2000 Japanese characters in 5 weeks.  I myself am able to easily memorize the writing of 10 characters a day and do all my reviews in less than 20 minutes.  Here’s what it is and why it works.

The method is two-fold.  First Heisig breaks the characters down into components which are learned individually and then combined to form more and more complicated characters.   Each component is learned with an English keyword.  For instance, in the first lesson the learner is introduced to the character for moon: 月.  In the second lesson the learner is first introduced to the character for ancient, ‘古’, and then the character for recklessly, ‘胡’.  As each new component is introduced, the new characters that it makes possible are also introduced.

Arranging the characters like this means that the learner knows all of the components before a new character is introduced.  This allows for the second part of the method, visual story telling.  Each character is given a story made up of its components keywords.  Rather than writing characters dozens of times, the learner visualizes the story and writes the character once or twice.  It may sound strange, but I’ve found that for more than 85% of characters this is enough.  For the remaining 15%, you simply visualize the story one more time, and that generally does it.

With this method, it’s possible to learn dozens of characters a day, or  (if you’re lazy like me) 10 a day in a space of 10-15 minutes.  By taking a minute or so to visualize the story for each character you save a lot of time usually spent copying and then forgetting and then copying again.

So where do the stories come from?

Heisig gives you stories for the first 500 characters and for select characters after that.  After the first 500, he just gives you the keywords.  Additional stories are available for download.  I’ll explain more about that later.

What about pronunciation?

This is the part a lot of people have a difficult time swallowing.  Using Heisig, you’re asked to completely ignore pronunciation.  This is done on purpose.  The pronunciations are listed in the back, but you’re not meant to memorize them.  It’s only by ignoring the pronunciation that one is able to use this system quickly and easily.  I’ve seen a lot of people object to this, but I urge everyone to consider what they gain if they’re willing to put aside pronunciation at least while memorizing characters.  With this method you can learn to write 1500 characters in 20-30 minutes a day for 6 months.  As I mentioned in the introduction, a motivated learner can do it much faster.

As a long-term learner of Chinese, I tell you that this is nothing short of miraculous.  Many learners aren’t able to read or write 1500 characters after years of study.  With this method you can have the characters largely handled in your first 6 months.  This takes care of the hardest part of Chinese, the writing system, and frees you up for more important tasks (like enjoying the language).

In addition, learning how to pronounce the characters will come with time as you learn Chinese words and phrases.  You’ll learn words more quickly when you already know the writing and keyword for the characters, and you’ll find that adding the pronunciation later comes much more easily than for those who study both together.  It’s kind of like learning the alphabet first and then using it to make words later (though without the pronunciation in this case).

You also have the option of going back through the 1500 characters and memorizing the pronunciation after you’ve finished if you wish.  The bottom line is that breaking things down produces a significant benefit in terms of efficiency and mental performance.

Great, I’m sold.  How do I review?

This is where it gets really interesting.  Heisig recommends making flashcards for each character so that you can review.  This can time-consuming (but still much better than anything that came before).  Fortunately, there are flashcard programs available online that take care of this for you.  Anki, is the hands down best choice, because of the decks of flashcards that are available for free download.  In fact, there’s a pre-made deck of the flashcards already available for Remembering the Hanzi.  You just download it and off you go.

Anki uses a system called spaced repetition, which is one of the best methods for memorization and review currently available.  To learn more about Anki and spaced repetition, read this article on Anki.

  1. #1 by Каталог статей on 01/28/2010 - 02:37

    )))))))))) I to you cannot believe :)

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