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I’ve been responsible for teaching the introduction part of the Chinese course at Linköping university for several years now and one of the most frequent questions asked by absolute beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them. If you need to learn X number of characters by tomorrow, how do you do it?

Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarise my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!

From drawing to writing

Before I go through the advice I have to offer one by one, I want to say a few words of encouragement. Learning Chinese characters is really hard in the beginning, simply because you have nothing to link the new information to.

After a while, your web of Chinese knowledge will expand and adding further to it will become easier and easier. Thus, if you feel that it’s difficult and frustrating at the moment, don’t worry, it will become easier soon. It might feel like you’re drawing pictures, but as your understanding of Chinese characters increases, you will be writing soon enough.

Learning Chinese characters as a beginner

Here are eight crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters, gained both through learning to write Chinese myself and through teaching beginners:

  • Study the character closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, study the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? If your textbook or teacher didn’t provide you with information about stroke order,  you can check this website. If you haven’t installed Chinese input on your computer yet, you can write the character here, but it will be hard if you have no idea about how to write it.
  • Write it until you get the feel for the character – Once you know(in theory) how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This is just to familiarise yourself with the hand motions involved and will help  improve your handwriting in general. This is very good for beginners, but not strictly speaking necessary for intermediate students. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
  • Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke - Whenever you write characters, don’t copy them stroke by stroke. If you can remember the whole character at once, that’s very good, but if you can’t, break it down into its component parts and peek at the stroke order only between writing each component. Copying stroke by stroke is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. Also, write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimetres). You can generate your own practice sheets with Hanzi Grids.
  • Once you know the character, don’t mass your repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over. There are programs called spaced repetition software that help you space the reviews optimally and you can read more about them here. You don’t need to use a computer program, though, simply avoiding massing your repetitions is a good first step.
  • Practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time - If you’re writing characters, you might as well throw pronunciation and meaning in there as well. Write the pronunciation and meaning of the character next to it. If you’re sure how it’s supposed to be read, say it aloud. Otherwise, mimic the pronunciation here. Do not guess the pronunciation based on the letters used to spell it. Pinyin has several traps and pitfalls you need to be aware of as a beginner!
  • If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up - It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. You can use HanziCraft to break down characters for you. If you don’t know which components are important to learn, you can check this article: Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals. A general rule of thumb is that if you see a component three times in different contexts, you should probably learn what it means.
  • Diversify your character learning - You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters. Read more here: Diversified learning is smart learning.
  • Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here.

Further advice

The above advice should get you pretty far. If you want more resources for looking up characters (or anything else related to Chinese), I suggest that you read my article about suggested dictionaries (most of them online and free). However, don’t obsess about details and don’t try to look everything up. You will enter into a maze with no exit except the one you came in through. Realise that perfectionism can be an obstacle to progress.

Learning to write and read in Chinese takes quite a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will make the journey a bit easier. Good luck!


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22 Responses to How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner

  1. nommoc says:

    A topic near and dear to me.

    I really like the image you chose for this article.

  2. Nuria says:

    thanks, I find your advises very helpful, also the resources linked. I’ll definitely have a lot on them!

  3. george says:

    For the beginner, overview is often ignored and makes the learning process more intimidating.

    Just about everyone can look in a Traditional Chinese character dictionary and see that the most complete radicals are 17 brush stokes, but has anyone every shown you how many total brush strokes there are are in the longest of Traditional Chinese characters?

    The answer is 33 brushstrokes. And for some beginners, it is comforting to know there is a limit. It also makes them aware of the dictionary index that lists characters by total brushstokes.

    If you just start out at the low end of the brushstroke count and think you can work eventually to the top end, you might never arrive.

    Use the whole dictionary and ALL the indices provided. Spend an afternoon exploring and writting those 33 stroke characters, just to get an idea of the look and feel of the densest of the Chinese characters.

    You may someday come across one and not be daunted by the high brushstroke count end of the dictionary.

    • Olle Linge says:

      If you just start out at the low end of the brushstroke count and think you can work eventually to the top end, you might never arrive.

      i have actually never heard about anyone doing that. As far as I know, all courses and all textbooks are based on the frequency of the words and/or characters (and, of course, their practical usage to beginner learners), not the number of strokes they contain. A number of fairly complicated characters typically appear very early, especially if one is learning traditional Chinese (聽、國、會、學、還、樣、etc. come to mind).

      • george says:

        High frequency approach is quite common teaching 2nd language lexicon in any language. But the problem with such an approach in Chinese is that it completely avoids the written lexicon for names or more fancy characters used in advertising.

        When one turns to reading real world Chinese signage and newspapers, the lexicon is a bit too limited. One can enjoy elementry school and middle school texts, but I am rather weary of being set apart from the mainstream.

        If you study geography in Chinese, you soon see a lot of odd and exotic characters in the namespace for locations in China.

        If you can get a copy of the Taiwan Yellowpages, you can get a better idea the namespace for products and services by the headings listings in the index.

        But both are a lot of work and ambitious projects.

        The student doesn’t just need what the linguists calcualte as high frequency and I see a lot of 2nd langauge English learners that hit a plateau with such that they never get beyond.

        It takes some individual initiative and exploring to break through such an artifical pleteau which is often called a creole or pidgin.

        The reality is that we are always learning new lexicon in all the languages we know or try to know. Otherwise, our ability to communicate falls behind.

  4. nommoc says:

    Just now looked up your facebook page and the related comments. Interesting, actually, the naming of the strokes is what I liked most about that post in the first place. I really think learning the names of the different strokes is cool. Funny, as that was the exact opposite of your comment about learning stroke names on facebook… haha. (Different strokes for different folks, aye?! Pun intended… hehe).

    As to the issue at hand, that the original “yong” character photo you used and the names of the strokes, can you send me the original photo or at least a link to it?

    I want to do some additional research on those stroke names… as you mentioned, my guess would also be it wasn’t a mistake, rather perhaps a different way to name those strokes… still, got to research it to be sure and I didn’t save the original photo… ; )

    PS: Also, saw on your facebook page if anyone is interested about advertising on your site to contact you… email me on this, I’m interested… ; )

  5. george says:

    Just another thought.

    Reading and Writing Chinese, revised edition. by McNaughton and Li is one of the older more established texts for study of the written characters, based on the Yale University texts for learning Chinese.

    It is intended to help you associate English words with each as you go along progressively in the first 1020 items and includes the “Official 2000 list”.

    It really helps you have an English name for each component of a character, some are obscure and originate out of history that the text mentions.

    It is very complete and mentions the Simplified character when different. The general concensus is you need to learn these 2000 to read a Chinese newspaper.

    • Olle Linge says:

      The general concensus is you need to learn these 2000 to read a Chinese newspaper.

      I like the rest of your comment, but this is just wrong. There is no such consensus. If you happen to know the two thousand characters in an article, sure, that will be enough, but if you know the 2000 most commonly used ones, no way. This will probably lead some a situation where you can mostly understand the structure of sentences and perhaps some content, but without understanding almost any keywords. Also, the important thing isn’t necessarily how many characters you know, but how many of the words based on those characters you know. Still, 2000 is way too low regardless how you count.

      • R Zhao says:

        I think this is what many beginners don’t realize,”The important thing isn’t necessarily how many characters you know, but how many words based on those characters you know.” I know enough characters that I can recognize almost all (over 95%)of the ones I come across in a newspaper or magazine, but I still can’t understand everything because I don’t know the meaning of some words.

        • Olle Linge says:

          Indeed! In addition to that, I think keywords in articles are usually harder than the rest of the article, which means that you might know 95% of an article, but the 5% you didn’t know turned out to be really crucial. In any case, knowing 95% of the characters does NOT equate to a 95% understanding of the article. 95% of the words comes closer, but is still not accurate.

      • george says:

        ah.. this is a bit awkward. I previously mentioned that the ‘namespace’ of any language is a special set that is set aside from high frequency words. Learning names is important to establishing a topic, a context and discussion in detail.

        So I tend to agree that the 2000 words will not carry you entirely in reading a newspaper.

        Additionally, the issue of learning Chinese words as many characters are bound forms (these only are used with other characters).

        Historically, I believe Yale promoted the idea that the 2000 characters were needed to read newspapers.

        Learning names does demand some special resources. I’ve two dictionaries out of Hong Kong that group lexicon by topic and they are very helpful with vocabulary used in a specific context.

        A Paractical English-Chinese Pronouncing Dictionary b Janey Chen

        Getting Around in Chinese by Marco Liang.

        Nonetheless, if you are just a beginner to writing and recognizing characters, 1000 are going to keep you busy for quite some time… 2000 even more.

        Recognizing characters in real context is very helpful, but these book will get things started.

        • Nuria says:

          I’m a beginner and I didn’t know about this “consensus”. I find it quite similar to the Jooyoo Kanji list, which is an official Japanese hanzi list of the main 2000-something kanji you should know when reading newspapers etc.

          This is why I think 2000 hanzi for Chinese language is not a feasible basic set since, in my opinion, Chinese text requires more hanzi than Japanese text requires kanji. But I could be wrong since I just started learning Chinese recently^^.

  6. Oh wow thank you ^_^ I am absolute beginner focusing on characters right now and being self study it’s really hard but these tips are a major help xD

    Thank you – :)

    • george says:

      Some words are linguistically transparent (easy to recognize their meaning), other words are lingusitically opague (specialized, used less often or less widely) and difficult to find out their meaning.

      2nd language teaching generally starts out with the transparent words (the words most often used and most acceptible to general public), the opague lexicon we have to learn more from actually asking people what the words mean.. via social networking.

      But just starting out with character recognition is a bit visually challenging. I strongly suspect English users and Chinese users develop different parts of the brain in recogizing written words. English users can easily recall long strings of letters, Chinese users can recall subtle differences in meaning that the addition or omission of one brush stroke indicate.

      In the beginning, i spent many months just memorizing and writing the list of radicals to help this process along. But there are other bits of characters besides the radicals.

      Reading and Writing Chinese by McNaughton and Li tries to help you by explaining these bits, not just whole characters. Some bits used to be stand alone characters, but no longer are.

      Simplified Chinese takes the whole process one large step forward and futher away from the history. It may be easier to learn, but you can’t easily go to older Chinese literature as you pretty much are tied to Chinese in print only after the 1940s.

  7. Frank says:

    Many thought it is difficult to learn Mandarin Chinese. It is not quite true! In my opinion, Chinese is one of the most interesting languages in the world! Chinese is a picture language, which means ancient Chinese people draw different pictures as Chinese characters out of everything they saw in the environment!

    Therefore, the best way to learn well the language, in my view, is to learn the radical of the characters first, which by itself usually has a hint from the writing (or drawing) and then forms the character.

    Just share a final thought, It takes efforts to learn Mandarin Chinese well, but what doesn’t?

    Editor’s note: I deleted the last part of your message. You have the opportunity to add an URL to your name when you comment (which you have done), which is fine. Advertising which is completely unrelated to the article in question is not okay, though, which is why I have edited your message. I hope you understand and don’t mind!

    • Olle Linge says:

      Actually, very few characters are pictures, but in general, I agree with what you say. I have written about this in many, many articles (including this one) and I don’t really see where our opinions differ? I always stress learning radicals and character components.

  8. […] outlined in the first article seems to work pretty well. I study the characters for the first time (read more about how to do this here) using Pleco and once I have a passive understanding of them, I transfer them to Skritter and write […]

  9. Thanks for tweeting this archived post Olle.

    Do you think memorizing how to write a character (including stroke order) should be a beginner task? I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this.

    If I were to base a recommendation to learn characters from my limited experience it would probably look more like:

    1) Learn to recognize 100 most frequent characters by image alone.
    2) Learn to recognize 100 most frequent radicals by image alone.
    3) Learn to recognize 500 most frequent characters via radicals (and relearn any of the first 100 via the new radicals)
    4) Learn to write the 100 most frequent radicals.
    5) Learn to recognize the 1000 most frequent characters.
    6) Learn to write the 250 most frequent characters.
    etc.

    Practicing handwriting, from my experience, takes perhaps an order of magnitude more time to learn than accurate recognition.

    Order depends on learning goals, of course, but being able to read some beginner graded readers would be an achievable milestone more quickly reached than if you dove straight into memorizing stroke order and the proper formatting of the hanzi.

    Your thoughts?

    • Olle Linge says:

      I can’t back this up with research (although there might be research available), but I think writing characters from the very start is worthwhile. Of course, it might not be necessary to write all characters, but I don’t think it’s necessary to learn how to read characters before you learn to write them. Instead, which characters you learn to write should be based on some kind of logical sequence of what makes sense (based on which radicals are taught and so on). The same is true for reading, but reading is more determined by what you want to read (i.e. normal Chinese), so you can’t avoid learning some really common characters like 我 just because it doesn’t fit in the general sequence. Okay, yes, you actually can do that, but it’s not practical for most people. I usually stress passive knowledge before active, but I do think the process should be parallel when it comes to learning characters as a beginner.

      • Interesting.

        I think it probably makes sense to learn to write basic characters + radicals early on simply because that will give you different mental tools for processing and categorizing any characters you learn to recognize. Definitely a mistake I made, since without having practiced drawing the radicals, I couldn’t mentally categorize them properly.

        -Scott

        • Olle Linge says:

          I also think it’s a matter of processing depth. It’s true that it takes magnitudes longer to learn to write something, but since these characters (radicals and common components) are so common, you really need that. It’s probably wasted effort to learn to write rare names of dishes, people and places, but when it comes to common characters and radicals, I think the time is well spent.

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