Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters

How to learn Chinese charactersLearning Chinese characters can be difficult if you use the wrong method. Even with the right method, it’s a task that requires time, preferably spread out for long-term learning. In this article, I summarise the best advice I have on how to learn Chinese characters.

My best advice on how to learn Chinese characters

I have already written about many of these topics before, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Phonetic components in Chinese charactersPhonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters I wrote this article for About.com, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • da2Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • Chinese character for beginnersHow to learn Chinese characters as a beginner If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

Learning to write Chinese characters

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Learn Chinese characters with SkritterSpaced repetition software and why you should use it Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters.Different ways of how to learn Chinese characters
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:

Conclusion

This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese translations? Check out my Patreon page!

Sign up for my free crash course in how to learn Mandarin:

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4 comments

  1. Patricia Zulueta says:

    Very good article!! In my classes, I try to use some of the techniques explained above and I also add semantic mapping as a way to review the characters meaning and learn new ones.

  2. 陆卡思 says:

    This is an awesome article! Now I have a list of every article about learning Chinese I could ever hope for. 谢谢您!

  3. Josh says:

    Hey Olle, this is a great article and I think the only thing I’d want to change here is that there is a big difference between learning to recognize characters and knowing how to write characters. Currently in China, the latter is becoming less and less common.

    Don’t get me wrong, learning to write characters is a valuable skill, but I think that for many students, just learning to recognize characters is enough if your primary objective is to become fluent orally. Learning to write takes learning Chinese to a whole new level of dedication!

    I’ve put together my own list of great tools for learning Chinese, many of which you’ve listed here as well but quite a few that you haven’t. I’m a huge fan of graded readers, which help with character recognition.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Ah, but I mainly recommend learning to write characters to beginners, not because they will write tons of Chinese by hand, but because I believe it’s very difficult to understand how characters work without actually writing them. If you’re not after handwriting itself, you don’t need to learn to write thousands of characters by hand, but as a beginner, I stil strongly suggest writing by hand, even if you stop focusing on that later.

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