December 04, 2005

My review of "Remembering the Kanji" by James W. Heisig

I reviewed the three books in James Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" series on (Maybe you've read the reviews before). Here is the first of those three, focusing on the first book (Keep in mind, you are not meant to learn the readings in this book)

"I'm 18 years old, and I've graduated slightly earlier due to homeschooling. This evening I finished this book, the first in a series of three books designed to make me literate in the 2,000+ symbols used everyday in Japanese society. After seeing the results of the first book, I truly feel that I am on my way to Japanese literacy.

If you've read one of the many reviews, you probably understand that this book doesn't teach you a single pronunciation of a Japanese character, but rather you tag an English keyword on to all of the Japanese symbols treated in this book, leaving the pronunciation for later.

Why do this? If you aren't noticing quick results in your Japanese abilities, what's the point in learning it? It's true that every single word I've learned will be of no immediate benefit to me if I try to pick up a Japanese newspaper, article, etc. and try to read it. Many have the misconception that in order to "master" the Japanese written language, one must study and "master" the characters individually, and over a period of time, accumulate lots of characters in one's lexicon, therefore allowing the student to read lots of stuff (Makes sense, right?). But our minds don't think like that. (Assuming everybody reading this review is a native to a Roman character based alphabet, or something pretty close to this) We are not used to recognizing little squiggly lines, let alone understanding a concept and multiple pronunciations simply by looking at them. Yet each and every Japanese textbook you'll find on the market supports the idea of mastering each character individually, a method that might seem to be the ONLY method to bring immediate benefits, but requires lots of work and constant drilling of a character. This method is deemed (By the author) to be ineffective and a waste of time.

So what does this book do for our situation? Rather than assuming that we can make the connection between a jumble of lines and the meaning of a character (Which every text book somehow assumes we can do), the kanji are broken down into smaller fragments, and each are tagged with a word that represents an idea, concept, thing, etc., that we are familiar with, such as a hill, the sun, or a baseball bat. Adding these various building blocks together, you form new concepts, and in turn, new characters. True, most these "building blocks" probably don't have a relationship whatsoever with any sort of root meaning, but this isn't the point. The point is to take something you aren't familiar with (Lots of lines), and to make them familiar to you (An image, a picture in your mind). Using these familiar images, you guide yourself from the tagged English word to the Kanji (Or the other way around). No, you will not be able to pronounce any of them when you're finished with this book. But you will be able to identify and tell the difference between even the smallest of nuances. You will look at kanji in a completely different way.

I can't speak for others, but progressing through this course to it's completion was perhaps one of the toughest tests of self-discipline and concentration that I've done in my life. You don't simply "hop along for the ride" to understanding kanji. You will tread through this sea of characters until you've used up every bit of strength your imagination can muster. The only people I've talked to in real life (Not via e-mail) that have attempted this course have either not yet completed it, or have given up with it altogether. This isn't a "learn Japanese kanji in 4 minutes a day" sort-of course. This is a massive undertaking, and must be treated as such, lest the student fizzle out, like so many seem to have done. This is not a book for someone that wants to "get their feet wet" in the sea of kanji. Rather, it is for the serious student, one that is willing to make a commitment (And a big one, at that) towards literacy in Japanese. If this isn't your goal, then I suggest you find another book.

Before you stands a course that requires great stamina, determination and willpower to accomplish. The benefits might not sound like much, but by the time you've finished this course, you'll be on a new plateau of kanji understanding, one that can lead you to literacy. If you "Google" the words "James Heisig Kanji," you'll be able to find a "demo" of the first couple hundred kanji covered in the book. Give it a try. And depending on how much you're willing to work at it, you've either found for yourself a precious gem or another useless rock."

Comments? Questions? Feel free to ask :)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How long did it take you to get through the entire book?

11:41 AM  

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