Saturday, November 1, 2014

Full interview with Timothy Richardson - the man who brought the Heisig method to Chinese characters

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have been really lucky to get some time with Timothy Richardson, the co-author of the Remembering Hanzi book series. Although it is known as the “Heisig method”, it was through the initiative and effort of Tim that this approach was brought from the original Japanese application, to Chinese characters. Although I gave you a teaser to some really interesting facts about Tim and about the process of writing the books with Heisig, below you will find the full interview. Thanks again to Tim for this time, sharing so much about the books.

Tim, let’s start off with two quick questions, one about you in the big world, and about you in the context of the Heisig method:

• How would you describe yourself now, so that the reader can 'place' you?

I've been interested in language learning for a long time, but I also have broad interests in a number of other fields (philosophy, religion, science, etc.) and spend time reading about all that when I have a chance.

I'm a family man. I'm fortunate to have a capable, talented, dedicated wife and nine irreplaceable children. Each is a treasure.

• How did you first come across the Heisig method?

I was teaching English as a Second Language at Snow College, a community college in central Utah, when a Japanese-speaking colleague showed me a copy of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1. I had taken three undergraduate courses in Chinese before that time, and this colleague thought I might be interested in Heisig's approach to the characters. He was right. Within minutes, I knew that (for me) this approach to character learning was better than anything I'd ever seen. Within a very short time, I was looking at and writing down correspondences between the Japanese elements and kanji in Heisig's book and what I knew of Chinese characters.

OK, great start. We’ll get back to the book in a moment, but I’d like to know more about you, Timothy Richardson:

• You live in Hawaii, but weren't born there? How did you end up in Hawaii?

You're right that I didn't start out in Hawaii. I was born in Mesa, Arizona, a place that has many wonderful people, but one that's way too hot for me. I have a definite preference for cooler climates. In fact, my biggest complaint about Hawaii is its lack of cold and snow from time to time. I'm aware that anyone who complains about the weather in Hawaii is likely to be seen as a crackpot, and for good reason. It's lovely here year around. I only have a preference for the cold because I absorbed so much heat in Arizona while growing up. I suppose I ended up here in Hawaii mostly because the University (Brigham Young University–Hawaii) needed someone who could teach both Chinese and Spanish.

• When we started chatting last year, you were actually working outside Hawaii - do you do a fair amount of travel like that?

I was on a sabbatical leave in Utah when you contacted me last year. I do travel some in my current position (it's been mostly to Japan to work with Jim Heisig in recent years), but I used to travel more. Before I decided to work full time in the field of language learning, I worked in several administrative positions in which international travel (or residence) was an important part of the job description. The time I've spent in various countries has definitely helped me as a language teacher.

• What are your current areas of activity?

For 13 years now, I've been part of the International Cultural Studies and World Languages Department at Brigham Young University–Hawaii (BYU-Hawaii), where I teach both Chinese and Spanish, and on occasion, Portuguese. I'm also involved in coordinating the teaching of world languages on campus.

In addition to ongoing work on the learning of Chinese characters, there are non-language topics that I hope to get to in the future (philosophy, religion, science, etc., as mentioned above). But I suppose I'll hold off on commenting about them at this point.

• How would you summarise your language skills?

I'm a native American-English speaker from Arizona.

I do speak Chinese. My wife and I lived in Mainland China for two years, where we taught English at the Xi'an International Studies University. I studied Chinese in much of my free time (unfortunately, without knowing anything of Heisig's approach at the time). I later studied Chinese at the graduate level and currently teach BYU-Hawaii's first three Chinese courses. I'm very fluent in some areas of the language and less skilled in areas that I haven't spent much time in.

Spanish was the first foreign language I learned, while serving as a missionary in Chile for two years. I later lived for six months in Spain and a number of months in Mexico while teaching Spanish on study-abroad programs for Brigham Young University (Utah) and finishing up a Masters degree in Spanish linguistics. I also lived in Brazil for over a year while working for a petroleum company headquartered in Texas, and became very interested in and involved with Portuguese. (Before the M.A. in Spanish, I had completed a Masters degree in public administration [MPA]. Then, after working at the Agency for International Development for a short time in Washington, D.C., I decided that I might prefer the private sector, and ended up working in it for several years before going back to school for the M.A. in Spanish.) While completing the Ph.D. at the University of Texas, I taught both Spanish and Portuguese (mostly Portuguese) and mostly studied Chinese and linguistics.

Finally, it’s worth noting that I don't have any expertise in Japanese. Our whole family lived in Japan for four months while Heisig and I were hard at work on the Book 1s, and I have accumulated more time than that there during other trips, but I have not tried to learn Japanese at all (even though I do find it appealing).

• What was the original trigger for becoming interested in the Chinese language?

I was working on the previously-mentioned Masters in Spanish linguistics at the time. I began to feel a strong interest in Chinese right in the middle of that program, so I started taking beginning classes. This meant that I was teaching undergraduate Spanish courses, taking graduate Spanish courses, and studying Chinese, all at the same time. My Spanish professors wondered about this 'irrelevant' interest I had developed, but they were good enough to tolerate it.

Now back to the work on the books you co-authored with James Heisig:

• I read that there was a 10-year period between seeing the method and writing your thesis - what happened during those years?

I don't know if it was 10 years or not. I could reconstruct this if I could spend time with my boxed-up journals from that time period, but right now that's not possible. It may have been about 10 years between my first seeing Heisig's approach and my finishing my thesis. During the intervening time I was teaching at Snow College, and then studying as a doctoral student at The University of Texas, at Austin.

• How did you get in touch with Heisig originally? Did you just drop him an email? You called? You met him at a university event?

I'm not sure if I wrote him a letter, wrote him an email, or phoned him, but I believe it was probably back in 1992 that I first contacted him, at the beginning of my doctoral studies. I might have something on an old floppy disk somewhere, but that will have to wait to be resurrected, if ever.

If I recall correctly, I asked him if anyone had ever done anything for Chinese along the lines of what he had done for Japanese. My recollection is that he responded that a number of people had asked him that question over the years, and that some had actually begun on the Chinese project. He said something to the effect that none of them had any idea about how much work would be involved. But he also gave me the name of a person who, with his native-Chinese-speaking wife, had actually made some progress toward producing materials for Chinese and suggested that I get in touch with him. I did so, and it's true that this person had done quite a bit of work on the project. Still, my feeling was that he had taken it in directions for Chinese that weren't as appealing as what Heisig had done for Japanese, so I was lukewarm about any sort of collaboration with him.

What contact with Jim Heisig and the other fellow did, though, was convince me that little enough had been done that I could focus on the project as part of my doctoral work. I did have to deal with the fact that I was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, less fluent in Chinese, and that the sensible, practical thing to do would be to focus on the two Latin American languages. But my persistent inclination wasn't toward the sensible or practical, so I taught Spanish and Portuguese while focusing my studies on Chinese.

• So what happened in the 10 years after your thesis but before publishing the book?

I don't think I had too much contact with Heisig while working on the thesis (a few communications, I suppose, but not a lot). Immediately following completion of the thesis and graduation, I returned to Snow College, where I taught both Chinese and Spanish (and occasionally Portuguese) and served as the Foreign Language Department chair for three years. I remember that I did have occasional email contact with Heisig, and with the fellow who had been working on a Chinese adaptation, during that time.

Then, in 2001, I came to BYU-Hawaii, where I again began to teach Spanish, Chinese, and, on occasion, Portuguese. During the first number of years here, I continued examining a number of Chinese-character frequency lists (four or five) to come up with a unique list of most frequently used characters for Chinese. I also did a bit more of the relevant theoretical research that had been part of the dissertation.

• How much convincing did you have to do before Heisig agreed to 'coauthor' with you? Was it easy or hard?

At some point, I sent a hard copy of my doctoral thesis to Heisig. From what I remember, he took a couple of evenings to read/skim it and seemed pleased. Then, in 2003, I contacted him about making a short trip to Japan to meet him and show him the frequency list I'd been working on. We met and discussed things, and he was very generous in his encouragement for me to go ahead with the project. I told him that my thought, all along, had been that we might work on the project together, and that he would be the lead author.

I don't remember exactly when we decided to actually collaborate on the books, but an outside financial donor who had used Heisig's Japanese books, and who was at that point interested in some similar Chinese books, played an important role early on. I went back to Japan for part of the summer of 2006 to begin work on the books. Heisig, the outside donor, and I took care of a lot of details so that I could return with my family for the first four months of 2007 to continue the process. I returned later that summer and again in subsequent summers.

• What can you share about the time you have shared with Heisig?

I have worked side by side with him on this project for days and days on many, many occasions. He works hard and at a fast pace. He's good humoured and extremely knowledgeable. In his approach to the work of the books, he uniquely combines, it seems to me, 1) a real bent toward systematicity and 2) an impressive ability to find non-systematic solutions when problems require them. I have enjoyed many good meals with him and lots of good conversation. I've even had occasion to have my entire family visit with him. He's remarkably good with children and has a large store of jokes and magic tricks at the ready to keep them entertained. Much, much more could be said.

• Did you co-author the book mainly through emails and document sharing? Would you meet regularly over lunch and Chinese rice wine, arguing about which 1500 characters should be in book 1?

We have exchanged many, many emails and done plenty of document sharing, as well as my spending about nine months in Japan and him spending a few days here in Hawaii working on the project.

When it came to character selection he basically trusted the approach I was taking and left that to me – although we did collaborate on some character decisions with both books. With the Book 1s, we wanted the top 1,000 characters by frequency plus 500 other top-3,000 characters that would allow us to use Heisig's method for ordering them. This is detailed to some degree in the introduction of the Book 1s. We also collaborated on decisions about some of the last characters in the Book 2s when we were having to consider how many frequently-used surnames we should include in the top 3,000.

• Are you still in contact with him?

I am still frequently in contact with him, as the project still has many ongoing aspects to it. Spanish translations of the Book 2s have recently been published in Barcelona, Spain, and German translations are in progress. (Heisig is, by the way, fluent in both Spanish and German. I teach upper-division Spanish courses at BYU-Hawaii, and I can tell you that Heisig's Spanish is excellent.) Our translators, in both cases, are exceptional, but Heisig and I have been quite involved as well. I've helped quite a bit with the Spanish key words, and Heisig oversees the layout and typesetting in both languages. We occasionally have Hanzi-book errata to communicate about. We've also been considering the increasing demand for review apps and a set of books on character pronunciations, but the project that is absorbing our energies at present is an eBook that combines the two simplified books. We hope to have it out soon.

• On a more technical basis, were there any particular challenges that you two faced when doing the hanzi book, that perhaps were not an issue for the kanji ones? (For example, the issue of Simplified/Traditional is one that comes to mind, but maybe you can think of others?)

Yes, the simplified/traditional divide always had to be dealt with, and it had significant impact on almost innumerable details in the books. Initially, Heisig thought we should have just two books, one for the first 1,500 simplified and traditional characters, and another for the last 1,500. In other words, he thought we should introduce the simplified and traditional characters together in the same volumes, and he had figured out a promising way to do this. I was a bit hesitant that going this route would introduce too much complexity, but the deciding voice in the matter came from the outside donor. He expressed a preference for separate simplified and traditional volumes, and that's the direction we ended up taking.

• Can you tell us a bit about the fonts? They match the stories perfectly - but I’ve seen other fonts where the ‘make-up’ of the different characters is actually slightly different.

There were many details that had to be dealt with in terms of the Chinese fonts we used. No one font we looked at, whether simplified or traditional, showed all of the elements we wanted in the way we wanted them. With full-form fonts, especially, there were lots of variants to deal with. We ended up using proprietary fonts, with Heisig doing most of the heavy lifting here. His ability with the software needed to modify characters to suit our purposes was critically important.

• Uhm, Book 2 took a while! (For people like me who had done book 1 and were eagerly awaiting book 2, it seemed to take forever. And given that even official comment from the publishers seemed to use deadlines that were seriously exceeded several times, we all came to the conclusion that book 2 had some interesting challenges in wrapping up.)

You're right about the Book 2 delay. We were very aware of it. I think it's safe to say that one reason for it was that around the time of the publication of the Book 1s my university, BYU-Hawaii, made some significant administrative changes. The School took major steps toward emphasizing the teaching mission of the Institution. That meant significantly increased teaching loads and correspondingly less time for research. Heisig and I both wanted to move quickly on the Book 2s, but my situation at BYU-H made that impossible.

Another thing that probably delayed the books by a year is that we decided, when the Book 2s were well on their way, to change the ordering of the characters. We were both a little dissatisfied with the ordering that we had decided on previously (all too complicated to detail here). I was literally on my way to Japan for several weeks of work when the idea occurred to me that we could perhaps use the same ordering we had used for the Book 1s. That is, we could simply arrange the characters from the second 1,500 in Book 2 lessons corresponding to Book 1 lessons in which we could have logically introduced them. This meant that at least one Book 2 lesson would only have one character in it, and that at least one would have more than 100, but there was a 'cleanness' to this organizational idea that was appealing. I approached Heisig about it shortly after I arrived at the scholars residence in which he lives. He immediately saw some advantages to it, but he also saw some disadvantages, not the least of which was that it would mean redoing days and days worth of work from the previous year and delaying the publication of the Book 2s. After more discussion, we decided to take the new direction, and we're both glad that we did. This Book 2 ordering allows learners to choose between the sequential (Book 1, and then Book 2) path we originally intended and a simultaneous (Book 1 and Book 2) path that we had not. Both have their advantages.

• Are there any funny stories that you remember about the time you were writing the book?

We had a lot of fun with many, many of the character frames. The great majority of the creative work was Heisig's, but we often worked on or modified stories together. I feel that one of the best things I did was express reservations if I didn't think a story worked as well it should. This often led Heisig to add a twist or take a different direction altogether, and the frame involved was very often satisfyingly improved. Heisig has a gift for story creation, to say the least. (I suppose you might be aware that he once received a marriage proposal from a woman in India who had enjoyed his stories and approach to kanji learning so much that she had fallen in love.)

Here’s a major tangent. When my entire family was in Japan for those first four months of 2007, Heisig and I would go down to the gym at Nanzan University and play basketball on Thursday afternoons. We always took three of my boys with us (Nathan, then age 15; Seth, 13; and Jacob, 11), as well as another faculty member or two. I was 56 or so at the time, and Heisig was (and is) a few years my senior. I think my boys would all say that Heisig is a 'crafty' basketball player, and all of us could tell that he knew what he was doing on the court. Once, the previously-mentioned donor brought his two teenage boys and joined us for the day. We had lots of fun, and it was a nice change from writing.

That has been fascinating! Thanks. I’d now like to shift back towards you a little, without straying too hard from the Chinese path ...

• Is there somewhere your original PhD can be downloaded, for interested readers?

The dissertation is rather heavily theoretical in places and heavily referenced. The paper we previously discussed [aside: see link below] is easier for most people to handle. In any case, the dissertation can't be downloaded. The most recent information I have on ordering it (and some people have done so) is this:

If in the U.S.:
          The publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.
          Call toll-free: 1 (800) 521-0600 (ext. 7044).
          Or write:
                    Dissertations: Customer Service
                    300 North Zeeb Road
                    Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

If outside the U.S.:
          Again, the publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.
          Write: Dissertations: Customer Service International Department
                    300 North Zeeb Road
                    Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

• What other published material of yours would I be able to find online?

I wrote a paper that I presented at a conference in Germersheim, Germany, in August of 2005. A draft that I had submitted to the conference committee has somehow found its way onto the Internet at

The paper was later officially published as a chapter in a book that saw the light of day in 2007. Here's the reference:

  • Richardson, Timothy W. (2007). Chinese Character Memorization and Literacy: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives on a Sophisticated Version of an Old Strategy. In A. Guder, X. Jiang, and Y. X. Wan (Eds.), 对外汉字的认知与教学 [The Cognition, Learning, and Teaching of Chinese Characters] (pp. 315-353). Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press.

There's also the short piece (at the link just below) that has some brief comments about the dissertation. I don't know why the owner of the site announced the books as being by Timothy W. Richardson and James W. Heisig, rather than vice-versa. I'll have to write her about that.

• Do you feel left out when - in relation to the Chinese book series - it's called the 'Heisig' method, and not 'Heisig-Richardson' method?

I can honestly say that I don't feel left out at all. You've been very kind in acknowledging my involvement in your blog [aside: see reference to 2009 article below], but I'm content to have Heisig's name most prominently associated with the project. It is, after all, his approach to character learning.

• Your draft paper linked to above spends some time defending the use of mnemonics, and it certainly seems clear that based on research that they are indeed effective tools - yet I see plenty of people who look down on such methods. Does this frustrate you? Defending against such fallacies - is this a strong area of interest for you?

I think it's understandable that people look down on mnemonics. They've frequently been used or peddled by disreputable people for less than noble purposes. Too, as I've said elsewhere, I have personally seen mnemonics that seemed so silly that I have wondered if any advantage in recall could possibly compensate for having to think in the terms they suggested. And there are many other objections, some specific to the use of mnemonics with Chinese. Still, we do now have clear evidence of their potential effectiveness, and they have gained legitimacy as language-learning strategies. I, personally, don't know of a task that seems more appropriate to their use than the memory challenge the Chinese writing system presents for the non-native learner of Chinese.

Defending mnemonics isn't "a strong area of interest for me," except as a justification for the work Heisig and I are doing together. I'm content to leave the general defence of mnemonics in the hands of experts in the field of psychology, and elsewhere.

• And what about other fallacies - such as "you must learn the pronunciation at the same time as you learn the characters”?

We do say something about this in the intro to the Book 1s. Maybe I'll allow that to suffice.

• When I originally approached you about this interview, you told me that you already knew of my MandarinSegments blog - because someone had sent you a copy of the 2009 article I wrote. Is there a story there? Was it a friend who sent you the link, or student, or other?

I wish there were a juicy story here, but I honestly don't remember how it came to my attention anymore. A friend may have sent it to me, or it's possible that I happened onto it myself. I don't remember. What I do remember is that I felt (and feel) appreciative of your kind comments.

You & China, the country:

• Have you ever lived in China?

My wife and I lived in Xi'an, China, for two years, while on a faculty exchange through BYU (Utah). Our first baby was born in Xi'an. We had arranged for everything to take place at the 4th Military Hospital, but when the time came, my wife informed me that there wasn't enough time to get there (maybe 30 minutes away through city traffic). Fortunately, the driver that was going to take us knew where there were a couple of midwives on the university campus. They arrived in the nick of time, helped us welcome our daughter into the world, stayed to help for perhaps 45 minutes, and, when all was under control, left. There had been the two of us in our bedroom, and then, that quickly, there were three. It was a beautiful experience. My wife deserves all the credit, of course.

• What are your favourite Chinese cities?

Xi'an, since that's where we lived for those two years. But I also enjoyed Guilin (for its scenery), Kunming (for its wide-open skies), Sanya (for its wonderful seafood), Urumqi (for its unique combination of Han and non-Han cultures), and Yan'an (for its historical connection to the revolution). There are lots of cities I haven't been to, though, so my selection is limited.

• Do you still return every now and then, if so then where? Do you get opportunities to guest lecture out there?

I was last in China (in Xi'an) in 2004 helping with a study-abroad group. I also took a group in 2002. I haven't been back since I started working with Heisig, but would like to return again in the not-too-distant future.

• Do you ever visit Hong Kong? (this is a selfish question - I'm wondering if I might get a chance to meet you :-)

My wife and I have been to Hong Kong twice and really enjoyed it both times. I don't know when the next opportunity will present itself, but I'll be happy to get to meet you if you're still there when that time comes.

• Do you have any favourite Chinese foods?

Yes, definitely. I really like 酸辣土豆丝 (sour spicy shredded potatoes) and 茄子 (eggplant), in almost any of the ways it's prepared in China.

Here endeth the interview. Thanks again, Tim.

(And as a reminder, the full collection of articles about learning to read & write Chinese using the Heisig system can be found here)