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Heisig vs. Matthews


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Is there anyone who has tried both "Learning Chinese Characters" by Matthews and "Remembering Simplified Hanzi" by Heisig?

I just bought Heisig, but now I'm having buyers remorse and don't quite know if I should invest my time on this, because I really want to learn pronunciation at the same time. Heisig's argument about dropping the pronunciation might be somewhat valid, but then again it's like he's admitting there's no mnemonic system to learn pronunciation...

So if anyone has tried both of the books, which one would you recommend?

And how hard is it to learn pronunciation by yourself using Heisig's method?


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Since the Heisig book has only been out for a little while there are probably close to zero people who actually "graduaded" from RS/TH. Anyhow I did Remembering the Kanji and adapted the method before the RS/TH books came out, so I can comment on it, and at least give an answer to your second question. (I don't know the other book)

Pronounciation is pretty easily learned. At first you look at the characters, then you find out what they mean heisig-style. From there you can often guess what the actual words are. And given that you learned the vocabulary already you can pronounce the word.

During this process you really feel your brain work - you really feel how the characters bind themselves to certain words AND sounds - and (at least for me) it very seldom fails when reviewing.

When having done those steps for a couple of times you of course just read stuff (you don't go through the heisig-keyword decodation). But you can always fall back to it, once you feel uncertain.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi all, you have a nice forum here!

(If you hate long and boring chatter, like I do, skip to the 5th paragraph, where my questions are :)

I've searched the forums and found some Matthews vs. Heisig threads, but they are not quite what I am looking for.

I've been studying Mandarin for 6 months now, and was introduced to "Learning Chinese Characters" by the Matthews about a month ago. Before that, I'd used some visual mnemonics naturally (I guess everybody does :), but my "system" wasn't very systematic. So I bought the Matthews book, and after a few days reading, I must admit I like it a lot.

But recently I got to know Heisig's "Remembering Simplified Hanzi" and I read the excerpt that's available somewhere online. It seems very good too, but as I want to learn pronunciation and tone too, Matthews way seemed better for me now.

BUT then I started thinking about the amount of characters Matthews and Heisig teach you: 800 vs. 1500. And it's not just the amount of characters, but how many characters the system can teach without problems of confusion etc. Heisig has used his system for decades now... thus I reckon he has more knowledge and experience of the characters and how well the characaters' mnemonic rules work together. Also when you think why did Heisig's Hanzi version take so much time to get published, or why is Matthews second book still in the works... the answer: it takes a lot of time to make the system coherent and assure that each mnemonic rule of a character is combatible with other characters.

So what I'm after here is: Which system is more coherent: Matthews or Heisig?

By coherence I mean the way the composite/component characters are deconstructed and given these mnemonic-meanings and how well the system will work in the future with the characters not presented in the books. I hope you are following me with this one. The main idea why I think my own visual mnemonic system didn't work, was that my own system is limited by my knowledge of the characters. You must know the language already very well if you want to create a coherent mnemonic system. When a novice creates memory rules, he can easily create a mnemonic rule/word/image/story that will overlap with some other character in the future. This is why a well thought out system is great. As Heisig said in the excerpt of his book:

"Finally, note that each key word has been carefully chosen and should not be tampered with in any way if you want to avoid confusion later on."

I didn't notice any warnings like this on the Matthews book.

So my question to Matthews and Heisig graduates: How does the system work after the books when you have to create your own keywords etc. Have you encountered any overlappings or similar learning blocks? (Again I'm assuming Heisig's system works very well, because of the Japanese versions of his books.)

Sorry for the long post ;)

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Be careful about extrapolating the successfulness of "Remembering the Kanji" on Chinese. The book hasn't been out long enough to pass judgement.

The characters in Chinese carry far more phonetic information as compared to Japanese (about 90% of all characters carry some sort of a phonetic marker). This phonetic information also tends to be important, whereas the Japanese readings often take no account of it.

I haven't studied from either book, but I assume that the decision to use mnemonics in a systematic manner will make most of the difference, not which exact system you use.

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I think they are both great books. I have completed RTK and made the transition to simplified hanzi and it works just fine. However I just scratch on the 1000 vocab-items so you can not label me as a "Heisig-Chinese-success" story just yet.

I found however, that the Heisig-stuff does not mess up the phonetic info that is given in the charachters - I recognize and get a feel for it while I learn stuff.

As for what book you will shoot for:

I think Heisig will be done significantly faster, and there should soon be a community who helps out with extra "stories" etc. The creator of the great Reviewing the Kanji page promised to make one, once he sorted some problems out. (Heisig already gave his ok, but the co-author (Richardson) still has to give thumbs up)

Matthews on the other hand will give you pronounciation on the run. (What I am doing now is think out Matthews-style-phonetic stories for hanzi for which I have trouble getting the tone right - but only for those and only for the tones)

So it boils down to what you want. Usability from the very start vs speed. (and I figure you read out of my comment that I am pro-Heisig - but what should I do? Deny where I come from?!)

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Hmmm.. My thread was merged with this one :) I was already wondering why it didn't appear on the forums :)

Anyway my question was more like "which system is more coherent and 'future proof'" than "which book is best"?

So far Heisig has provided a system which is coherent for 3000 characteres and Matthews only for 800.

HerrPetersen, you said you've adapted your own system based on Heisig's RTK? Have you ever encountered overlapping keywords etc?

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I do not have identical keywords for different Hanzi, however it can't be avoided to have some (actually quiet a few) where the meaning is very close together.

You probably know, but so far Heisig only provided 1500. Judging from the time it took the first book to go from "almost done"- to the "in the shelf"-state took a lot of time.

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  • 2 months later...

I have worked through both. I'm inclined to say, go with Heisig&R, and then follow it up with a straight character text such as Mcnaughton. Matthews2 do have some ideas about mnemonics for the pronunciation, but these could fit on a page. Generally, Heisig&R has better keywords, though Matthews2 'number of...' keywords are arguably better for the measure words. It seems to be better to have 1500 hanzi, than 800 with the pronunciations. The lists of characters do not quite overlap; see my recent comment on the Heisig thread for some data.

Edited by m.ellison
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  • 1 year later...

I gave up on Heisig; somehow Matthews suited me more.

That said, there are two or three places in Matthews where I suspect typos. Specifically:

514. zong3shi4, always. 总是 instead of 总适 ?

535. 九级风 jiu3ji2feng1. force 9 wind instead of 10% discount?

746. chuan2chang3, shipyard. 船厂 instead of 船场 ?

What do you people think?

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  • 1 year later...

Hi, I'd like to bump this thread based on some new developments.

What has changed? Firstly, Heisig's RSH book 2 with characters 1500-3000 has now been released. And secondly, there will be no Volume 2 to the Matthews & Matthews Learning Chinese Characters in the near future (I contacted Tuttle, the publisher, and they told me this week that there are no plans for a Volume 2. Volume 1 was published in 2007).

So what to do if you are halfway through your journey with the Matthews & Matthews book in preparation for your HSK exam? Since it does not look like there will be a volume 2 you will be on your own after the first 800 characters. From previous posts I see two approaches.

(1) After the first 800 characters from the M&M book just continue using the same approach and make your own stories. McNaughton's Reading and writing Chinese can be of help to look up characters and components.

(2) Switch to Heisig system entirely and learn the pronunciation (pinyin) and tones on your own. How to learn the pronunciation and tones? I guess if you're familiar with M&M approach you can add your own tone and soundword stories per character.

I was wondering if anyone who had worked with both M&M and Heisig approach can share their experience on the pros and cons of (1) and (2). Thanks!

Note: I could not get my hands on the Heisig book here in Beijing. And once I found M&M I liked their stories and having pronunciation and tones included in the mnemonics. I will need to get a friend/Amazon to send me Heisig from outside of China in case I choose to go for that.

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  • 1 month later...

I can vouch for #2 as that's what I did. I love the Matthews approach, including their expansion of the Heisig system to include pronunciation, the influence of frequency on the order of character introduction, and inclusion of vocabulary. However, after reaching 300 characters, realizing that no Volume 2 was forthcoming, and learning that Heisig was working on his 2nd book, I restarted in Heisig.

One beef I had with Heisig is the aversion to learning pronunciation. However, it's not too bad, as an appendix is included that clearly shows the pronunciation for all characters. I just keep a bookmark there and flip back and forth as I study. I still make extensive use of Matthews method of memorizing/internalizing pronunciation (if you don't have Matthews, check out the introduction in the Google Books preview for a primer on their pronunciation method).

Another things with Heisig is that, while all the high-frequency characters are in Volume 1, they're not sorted by frequency, so it's more of a challenge to start graded reading as soon as you could with Matthews. Conversely, this has also lit a fire under my motivation to finish Heisig's Volume 1 as soon as possible so I can start reading.

Heisig also doesn't address vocabulary acquisition, so my plan is to start learning the HSK vocabulary separately after finishing Volume 1 (and continuing with Volume 2 in parallel).

Although I like Matthews better in almost every way (except for those darn 'wheel' stories), the fact that Heisig provides a clear path to 3000 characters (vs. Matthew's 800) was the clear signal to switch. I didn't want to finish the Matthew's and then have to re-learn new keywords to associate with characters (as both books are heavily dependant on remembering a single keyword per character and NOT mixing them up). For example, 运 has the keyword 'transport' in Matthews, and 'carry' in Heisig. 'transport' is associated with a different character in Heisig.

As for McNaughton, I gave my copy away to a friend (who loves it by the way). If you like the Matthews approach (which is an extension of Heisig's approach), Heisig is the clear continuation. If you don't like the 'stories method' (which a number of people on amazon.com seem not to), then McNaughton may be a better 'traditional' choice.

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I came to both of these books late, so I use them more as reference, to dip into, rather than a systematic plan of study. At the same time, I found Alan Hoenig's Chinese Characters, which is similar to Heisig, but a)covers 2178 characters, b) offers stories for all of them, c) gives the pronunciation right there on the page, though it doesn't make it part of the story. It's also better organised, for instance the building blocks of each character are numbered, so when you look up, for instance, 培, you're given the locations for 土,立,and 口so you don't have to be looking in an index. There are indexes by English and pinyin, and there's an index of non-character components.

I find Hoenig easier to use, and generally more worth dipping into. Someone stole my Matthews book, but I had already decided it wasn't my cup of tea and will not be buying another copy.

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One thing I really liked about Tuttle was the introduction of vocabulary using the characters you've learned.

So, I wrote a program that sorts the New HSK1-6 vocabulary and groups it according to Heisig Chapters (Both Volume 1 and 2). Each group only contains characters learned in that and/or previous chapters. That way you can start learning HSK Vocab in parallel with studying Heisig Characters. The list assumes that you finish Volume 1 first, and then proceed into Volume 2 (vs. studying them in parallel).

I posted the list here in Pleco Flashcard format here: http://www.plecoforu....php?f=7&t=3185

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