Friday, October 23, 2009

Pinyin proves that Heisig is right

Before reading this post, just consider for a moment whether you're a supporter of the Heisig method of learning to read Chinese, or not. Then read on ...

There has been some criticism levied at the Heisig method - because it teaches you the character and the English keyword, but it doesn't teach you the pinyin pronunciation of the word.

So imagine the irony ...

This morning I was working through some Anki flashcards, and the word for 'pinyin' came up. The characters are: 拼音 - both of which I have learned through Heisig, where the corresponding keywords are 'piece together' & 'sound'.

I had not previously learned that 拼=pīn and 音=yīn, but it didn't take much effort to remember that pinyin is a collection of tones. In other words: 'piecing together sounds'. So, because I knew the word pinyin (pīnyīn, actually) and through Heisig I learned 拼 & 音, I didn't have to memorise the pinyin at the time - it just came naturally at a later stage.

I'm finding that more and more, as I'm learning more words, the two methods of studying are merging like this - very efficiently. Of course, this works because I'm studying Mandarin words in addition to the Hanzi. Learning Heisig-style by itself is not the solution.

As an aside, there is a great site about pinyin called The webmaster also keeps an enjoyable blog, so check it out.


  1. Hi Greg,

    I agree that approaching learning the language using a multiple path approach is best. I haven't checked out the Heisig method, but I'm hearing good things about it.

    If you want to add a pinyin and general pronounciation resource you can also have a look at out pinyin course. You can find it in the Demo section of the Medlock Method website ( It's free.

    I won't be offended if you delete the website address, I realise you are not here to promote our services :).

  2. Hi there - thanks for your input, and for the link. I will take a look this weekend.

    Yes, pinyin still confuses me sometimes - it's really not obvious. I recently had a native speaker trying to help me improve the difference between my "sh" and "x", my "zh" and "j", my "q" and "ch", etc. I'm sure the sound differences will become more obvious over time.

    And why "a" behaves soooo differently between "yan" & "yuan", I have no idea! :-)

  3. COMMENT from XY ...

    (XY is having problems commenting from China, so she has asked me to post this ...)

    The crabs in China rock in this season!!!

    Hi Greg,

    Glad to see you have added something new onto this lovely blog.

    A quick glance at the "remember the simplified hanzi" has made me think that it is quite a good method. More importantly, I have witnessed the great leap made by you after your starting using this book.

    Remember the long, inspiring, amazing conversation carried out between the two of us in Chinese the day we went to China Town for celebration?

    I must say, the accumulation of vocabulary via using Heisig method (great respect to the other author too) to build vivid images of individual characters, your automatic/intentional association and combination of the single characters into compound words, and the urges to use the words to voice the sentences/conversations have contributed a lot in bringing you to where you are now.

    Maybe you don't have to keep Heisig method accurate in mind after you are on even more advanced levels, because remembering the characters is just the first, most fundamental step(that is what "remembering simplified hanzi" meant to do). When you are so familiar with all the characters and words and sentences that you spontaneously recall what they mean when you come across them, probably by that time you might not need the Heisig method anymore.

    I learned English in a somewhat similar way-I memorized the words in whatever means I could think of, and then if I didn't need the means anymore, I just ditched them.

    Bravo, and I look forward to your next post in China.


  4. I've been studying Chinese for two years at University now and to be honest, I just can't how the Heisig method would be good. For reading I guess it would be good, but it totally leaves other parts of Chinese, like listening and speaking. Because Chinese is so homophonous, I would bet that learning the pinyin from the start would make things much more easier in the long run.

    It might, be seem easier at first, as a quick way to increase reading vocabulary, but the way I learn Chinese, which in my opinion is better, is to learn the character, then recognize the pinyin, then translate to English. It puts you in Chinese mode of thinking. You're still trying to fit English in there if you use Heisig. Again, I can see how this is easier, but in the long run, you'll stumble on some problems.

    I might be mistaken in my theory, but please, comment if you've got something to say. I'm always interested in improving my Mandarin!
    Good blog btw, keep it up!

  5. Hi Greg,
    Am taking a little breather from my Heisig related posts a the moment (more in the pipeline though and the next one may surprise you).

    Rather than crediting Heisig with all the improved Chinese skills that your friend mentions I would guess it is more down to an increased interest you have in Chinese and the fact that you are obviously smart enough to be a self-directed learner.

    Having said that I have to admit (coff..) that you convinced me that Heisig method is playing a very useful part in your studies, I wouldn't have expected to have that view a couple of months ago but that is one of the important parts of being a self-directed learner of course (willingness to change your mind ;)).

    Keep it up, I think every method has it's compromises, but if you are aware and able to work it into the your other learning practices that is not a problem.

  6. Niel, nog 'n Suid Afrikaner, ne? Welkom!

    Sorry for the late reply. Was in Singapore and couldn't access Blogger through the hotel connection. Odd. Anyway ...

    Really pleased to have you subscribed to this blog, given that you are studying Chinese at university. Your perspective is interesting to me, since I'm totally self-studying.

    I can imagine, for someone following a formal course, Heisig must appear difficult to swallow. It relies on "mind games", and isn't comprehensive (i.e. no pinyin). And yet, I'm blown away by my progress. In Singapore last week I was reading signs, menus, sentences in newspapers, etc. Sure I didn't get everything, but I got more in 2 months with Heisig that 2 years of previous attempts.

    Nothin breeds motivation like success!

    Do I need to learn pinyin through Heisig? No, and that's kinda what I was saying in this post. When you're using a variety of methods, somehow they all integrate neatly over time.

    Niel, here's a challenge which I hope clarifies my thinking about this. When you read, are the kind of person who mouths (in your mind) every word out? Or do you read quite fast, and the meaning sinks in without 'saying' each word?

    Like most native-speakers, I don't read the words one-at-a-time. And that's my goal with Chinese - to be able to read without saying each word, and just have the meaning of the text be clear to me.

    I'm not saying you should change your method - if yours works then stick with it. I guess what I find most interesting is that the people who are not a fan of Heisig are those who haven't tried it. Sure there is an element of self-selection involved, but I would still recommend it to anyone.

    Thanks again for stopping by - I look forward to more input from you in future.

  7. Hey Chris

    You're absolutely right - I won't give Heisig all the credit. I'd like to reserve some credit for me too :-)

    However, I must say that not being able to read Chinese actually slowed my general progress a bit. For example, clever is 聪明 (cōng​ míng​) - and yet from listening to podcasts, I was *convinced* it was 从明 (cóng​ míng​). "from bright" made sense to me for 'clever'. But only when I saw they were different characters - and indeed had different tones! - it clicked.

    Similarly, now that I know the individual characters, I'm finding it much easier to remember compound words that previously eluded me. I would have to keep 'resetting' them on my flashcards, but now knowing the components the word sticks much better.

    And as I said to Niel above (although this time without the typo :-) ...

    Nothing breeds motivation like success!

    I feel like I'm making progress, so it's easier to want to learn more. I sometimes find myself wishing the train journey to work were longer, so I can squeeze out a few more hanzi.

    But I'll try anything that works, and as I type this (I hope you'll be proud :-) I'm listening to some Mandopop in the background - Ginny Liu (劉虹嬅) that I bought last week.

    Speak soon - looking forward to our meeting in the new year.

  8. Dankie vir die welkoming!

    Ok, so here's the deal. When you asked me to clarify what kind of reader I am, I wasn't actually sure. Now that you say it, you're confusing me. haha.

    However, I've been thinking about this Heisig method. Let's take for instance the four normal domains of a language: reading (yuedu), listening (tingli), speaking (kouyu) and writing (xiezuo) [sorry don't have my Mandarin input thing installed on this pc]. Heisig would really help you with reading and to some extent the writing department (if you practise that as well), however it doesn't account for listening and speaking.

    Some day, I reckon, you'd still have to reconcile all departments to be truly competent. The way I learn brings this all together from the start. We learn the characters, plus how to pronounce them and then we learn their English meanings. I never read pinyin anymore, 'cause I can speak Mandarin by only reading the characters.

    Alas, this does not seem all that good. People seem to forget the importance of Pinyin. I struggle immensely with listening and speaking. Like I said the homophonous nature and those nasty tones are impossible. So learning the pinyin with the characters, makes it possible to connect the two domains.

    That's the way almost the whole of Chinese Television works. They put the character subtitles on almost all the shows to people can get clarity from speech. Thus, the importance of pinyin and characters is something I think is vital.

    However, this is just my opinion. :D I would like to see your progress with the Heisig method! It's a new way and totally different to my studies, and I'm always on the look-out for things to complement my studies.

  9. Niel, thanks for your clarifications.

    You wrote "Heisig would really help you with reading and ... writing, ... however it doesn't account for listening and speaking."

    Exactly. And I'm not using it for listening & speaking, I'm using it for reading & writing. Instead, I use podcasts & flashcards for listening & speaking.

    Perhaps someone at some stage implied that Heisig should be the only thing you do? Well, there's no defending that - and even Heisig says in the intro that it's not the intention. It's just one tool amongst many that a serious student should be using. It should play second fiddle to podcasts for sure, but I've found it an amazingly effective second fiddle!

    In martial arts, for example, a very powerful punch involves so many things happening in alignment - wrist, arm, shoulder, back, waist, leg, etc. But you don't learn that at the beginning, you train each of those separately, and as you progress, it becomes automatic that it all aligns to deliver a powerful punch.

    Heisig, IMHO, is exactly that.

  10. Yes, I guess it depends on what your goals are. We all want to get there in the end, so how you get there doesn't matter. I just find it weird to read Mandarin without sounding the Pinyin in my head. It's like a way more complex picture book then.

    However, I also study linguistics, and we learnt about two different ways of thinking about reading, phonics or whole language. Phonics focuses on sound and phonics to generate meaning, and Whole Language on the words and context as a whole. You can read it up further on the net, somewhere, but basically Phonics teaching claims that reading is not natural and therefore you have to "learn" to read, and Whole Language teaching assumes learning to read is natural.

    I'm generally in the Whole Language camp. People read to get meaning from texts, not focus to sound out words. However, this is based on Roman based alphabets where the pronunciation of a word can be deduced by it's form. Mandarin, however, is pictographic. Thus, you are forced to learn the sounds by rote learning.

    Therefore, since hearing about this Heisig method, I've been in two camps. One is: people read to get meaning from texts. That's the purpose of reading, but with Mandarin it's a bit different.

    But, if you reconcile the Pinyin somewhere down the line I see no objection in getting the character recognition down sooner than later. Ah man, I wish there was more research done into this!

  11. Niel, in terms of reading without saying Mandarin, I guess it doesn't feel bad for me because it's (currently) the only way I know. And when I'm reading some text, I find myself 'thinking' the English word, even if I know the pinyin - all for the sake of trying to understand the text.

    Amusingly, last night on the train I was revising one of the early chapters, and because I was already very comfortable with the characters, I found myself automatically looking up their pinyin in the back. Only realised I was doing this after a dozen look-ups, so I guess it's just that the brain had 'space' to learn pinyin since it had already learned the hanzi. Again, this makes my comfortable that I'm pushing myself in the right manner.

    Each to his (yes, or her) own.

    Thanks also for the liguistics reference - will definitely do some reading on it this weekend.

  12. This is all very interesting. I have no experience wiht Heisig, though I have read the amazon descriptions and reviews of the books. But I do have experience recently with a book that introduced characters with English text and meanings in a story (relating the characters to pictures), "The Pet Dragon" by Niemann... there is actually no pinyin in the book, no indication whatsoever of pronunciation or chinese language, other than the characters. I find it so totally bizarre to think people look at a shaped squiggle on a page and "read" it as an English word; "this shape means "dog", this shape means "person" "... This is like not hearing any French but seeing the shape of the word "chien" and knowing it means dog... you can't understand if someone pronounced it that it is the same thing as indicated by the written word you know as "dog", you wouldn't understand a four footed canine if you heard "chien" spoken, if you see "chien" written, you wouldn't have any idea if it was pronounced shee-en or "poop" (given that russian or greek for instance uses a lot of the same roman characters but are pronounced totally differently).

    Supposedly after reading and digesting this children's book, one is "introduced to" Chinese... but it all seems a bit insane to me, and a wee little bit like your Heisig, and seeing the characters and telling oneself a tale in English, no chinese pronunciation, no pinyin.

    In fact, knowing pinyin pronunciation helps ENORMOUSLY in character recognition. The words "please" "clear" "frog" all have the sound qing, and all have one of the same radicals in their respective characters. Often I can guess at the pronunciation of a character by knowing the radicals and get meaning from the add-ons: san dian sui (three drop water), heart, hand etc beside the pronunciation clue. Looking through the pinyin section of a dictionary really makes this clear: so often for a pinyin spelling, there are 3 or 4 different root radicals... and then each appears in many variations: same pronunciation but one may be a verb (usually with foot or hand or mouth), one may be feelings (heart), bug (chong character in it), etc...

    I do think it is cool to make up stories or images to remember characters too... your "an" (peace) is REALLY simple if you know "nu" (woman)... a woman with a roof over her head is peaceful. Or, alternately a man is at peace if he has a home with a woman in it.... etc.

    So, your books sound helpful esp if one knows pronunciation already, and doesn't need the pinyin, or for characters that are hard to guess or retain from a combo of their pronunciation and meaning parts.

    Oh, I know this is a long comment, but I DO think of sounds when reading, especially since I am learning Chinese characters partly, if not mostly, to be able to read out loud chinese picture books to my preschooler son. I am just up the creek without a paddle, if I can "read" a book from end to end, and "understand" it in English (again, I can argue with that... if one can only read English by pronouncing and understanding French or German meanings and words is it reading English?)... but how can I turn that English understanding into anything but English paraphrasing of the book. No, I want to read that book in Chinese.

  13. Hi Leanne. Yes it is a long comment, but you raise some really interesting points. Thanks for your time.

    As someone important once said, "If you like that kind of thing, you'll find it the kind of thing you like." ---> You're looking to read your book out loud to your son, so you will need the pronunciation. I don't need that. In fact, I find it really interesting to read my texts, getting the meaning as I go, without always knowing the pronunciation. After all, that's how I read English - I don't pronounce the words in my head, my brain just knows what they mean.

    But don't get me wrong. I DO want to know the pronunciation, and I AM learning that. I just don't feel it's necessary to do it while I worked through the book the first time. In fact, now that I'm randomly bouncing between chapters because I finished the book, I am finding myself more & more wanting to know the pronuncation. And it's so much easier now, becase I already know the characters.

    The way I'm thinking about it, I have 1500 characters where I have to know the pronuncation. My last few months of experience with this have shown me:

    - some characters, like 中, are easy and I get them anyway
    - others, like 辅, I have never seen in writing (outside Heisig) and I don't feel the need to know how to pronounce them (although I will eventually :-)
    - then there are some, like 情 and 况, which I think are in the "who cares" category, until I realise that they are the ones that make up the word qíng​kuàng​ (circumstances) which I already know - so I 'learn' the pronunciation without even trying
    - some I can guess at, noting the pronunciation of 青 请 情

    Thanks again for your comments. In closing, I can say that it might not seem like it works from an outsider's perspective, but I can assure you that having done it, not only would I do it this way again if I had to, but I do continue to recommend this approach to others.