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From The Trenches: More Than One Month into Heisig

Posted May 4th, 2012 by Enrico in Learning Japanese

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a review of Remembering the Kanji: Volume 1 by Dr. James Heisig. At that time, I had gotten only a bit over 200 characters into the book. Now, I’ve reached almost 700 characters, which is getting to the boundary of the number of characters I used to know how to write when I was taking Japanese classes in university. This week, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned from applying Heisig’s method over a longer period of time. You may have seen bits and pieces of this if you follow myself and/or The Japanese Learner on Google+ (which sometimes gets cross-posted to Facebook), but in this post I’m going to stitch it all together and flesh it out some more.

Here’s where I stand right now:

  • Number of characters studied: 695
  • Lessons completed: 23/56
  • Number of reviews per day: roughly 30-40 characters, up to 20 of which are new cards.
  • Time spent reviewing per day: 30 minutes on average
  • Number of characters scheduled for review in one month or longer: 165 (and many more cards scheduled for review in 20-30 days)
  • Percentage of mature cards answered with ease 4: ~80%
  • Percentage of young cards answered with ease 4: ~50%

I missed a few days when I was travelling for business last weekend, but otherwise I’ve been doing reviews with Anki every day. While writing notes from the first lessons of the book and ripping out pages to use for practicing and reviewing, I’ve consumed almost an entire small notebook. Adding it all up, I’ve made a significant amount of progress up to this point. I feel a bit proud. As you can see from the last two stats, my retention of the material is pretty decent too.

But okay, enough bragging. Here’s how I currently study the lessons:

For each lesson, I consider the primitive elements that make it up and come up with a story, which I enter into Reviewing the Kanji. While thinking about that story, I write the character down in my notebook, trying to anchor the story to the character (including relative position of elements) in my memory. When I have difficulty coming up with a story, I look through some of the top stories and might either copy or adapt one of them for my own use.

All reviews are by Anki. I don’t currently sync to a mobile device, though I’ve considered it. I have my session limit set to 30 minutes and the new cards limit set to 20, which I’ve found to be a pretty good number even though some lessons are longer than others. The deck I’m using is a shared deck (File > Download > Shared Deck…). On the front is the keyword, which is a link to that character on Reviewing the Kanji, and on the back is the character as well as some other metadata (frame no., number of strokes).

I review every day and I try to set aside time to study each day as well, but that sometimes doesn’t work out since studying the characters takes much longer than the 30 minute session limit on my reviews. By default, Anki has four ease levels (four buttons that show up when you click the button to show the answer for your card). This is how I use them:

  • Ease 1: I could not produce the character (I gave up on recalling it) or I produced it incorrectly. I am incredibly mean to myself on this one. Even a single stroke off and I mark it 1, no matter how mature the card was. This is important because sometimes characters differ by very little and you need to train your mind to sweat those very small differences.
  • Ease 2: I struggled quite a bit but I was eventually able to produce the character correctly. I usually mark a card as ease 2 if I had to play and replay the story to recall the elements and write the character and this took me about a minute or longer.
  • Ease 3: I was able to produce the character correctly but it took a bit of time to recall it.
  • Ease 4: I produced the correct character (almost) instantly.

Here are some of the observations I’ve made as I’ve stumbled along:

  • Before, forgetting a character was pretty much the end. Only by miracle might I be able to recall the sequence of strokes to write it again. But since starting to study via the Heisig method, I have surprised myself quite a few times by recalling how to write a character when, at first, my mind drew a complete blank. The story plays out in my head and the elements pop out, which triggers my visual memory to write them in the correct places relative to each other.
  • As characters “mature” in my reviews, I use the story less and less. Sometimes all I need is to recall the plot (skeleton of the story which includes the elements). Sometimes, I don’t even need that and I just start writing the correct character almost immediately (I mark those as ease 4 when I answer them).
  • Leaning too much on the stories that other students share on Reviewing the Kanji has hampered my study a bit. Apart from the stories that Heisig supplies in the early lessons, I tend to remember stories I come up with more strongly than stories I copy from others. My current fix for this problem is to switch to the kanji on the website and then look at the book, read the block of text (including elements and hints/tips) and close my eyes immediately afterward to form the story.
  • Effort spent on coming up with a good story has definitely translated into a much more solid grip on the character. While Anki makes it very easy to do reviews, spacing repeats days and then weeks apart until you finally master the cards, spending a couple of minutes or more on each character to form a strong story can save you from repeating the same characters a lot.
  • My strongest stories are outright absurd and a few are even offensive (I won’t share any here, but check Reviewing the Kanji and you can find quite a few). I think this means that something way out there tends to make a much more lasting impression on my memory.
  • As I wrote before, this method gives absolutely no treatment of how to write characters neatly. I am currently looking at resources for learning to write characters more neatly and if I find something I like I’ll definitely be posting about it.
  • Even though I can’t use it well, a brush pen (like this) makes reviews a bit more fun, though I spend longer on each character when I use it.

I hope this has been really informative to all of you who are also studying from the Remembering the Kanji series books. If you’ve got any questions or would like to share some tips of your own, e-mail us@thejapaneselearner.com or share it on Google+ with the tags #heisig and #rtk (or #rtk1 through #rtk3 if you want to be specific).

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