Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

da2This is a guest article written by John Renfroe over at Outlier Linguistics. They’re working on a dictionary meant to teach us about functional components of Chinese characters and in this article, John describes why we should think about functional components instead of obsessing over radicals.

I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this: radicals are of little use for learning how characters work. Their purpose is indexing characters in a dictionary.

There’s a huge misconception about how characters work. You see this sort of advice all the time: Characters are made up of radicals, so you should learn the radicals first, or Make sure you learn the radicals, they’re the building blocks of characters

This is not true. People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the Chinese writing system. The word radical is best understood as a character component that sometimes plays the role of radical and NOT a character component that has the nature of being a radical.

For example, 大 dà “big” is a component that is on the list of radicals, but it is not the case that 大 always plays the role of radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single radical, no matter how many character components it has. And which of its components plays the role of radical may be different in different dictionaries.

And yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in Chinese characters and therefore should be learned, but they should be learned as being part of a system of functional components – components which express sound and meaning.

The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字], at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years, and the vast majority of characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén. Read that again and let it sink in. If that’s the case, then there’s no way that radicals were what people had in mind when they were creating characters. There must be something else going on.

So what are radicals, really?

That’s an interesting question. The word radical is really a poor translation of 部首 bùshǒu in the first place. 部首 literally means section head. Following the model of the 說文, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components.

These sections are called 部 bù in Chinese. The first character in that section is the 部首, the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one 部首. Note that I didn’t say the character has one 部首. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部, or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters.

Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the 部首 gives a hint about meaning and the sound component (聲符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. That’s not always the case.

Sometimes, the 部首 is the sound component. For example 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到, but it is not the meaning component – 至 zhì is (it means to arrive, just like 到).

Intuitively, one would think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be very haphazard, even for characters that share the same structure:

Character Radical
彎 wān “curve” 弓 gōng “bow for shooting arrows”
戀 liàn “love” 心 xīn “heart”
蠻 mán “barbaric” 虫 huǐ “type of poisonous snake; early form of 虺 huǐ”
變 biàn “change” 言 yán “speech”

For the first three characters, the radical and meaning components are same. 變 is inconsistent with the others in that it’s filed under 言 (part of luán, the sound component which the other characters all share #1).

So again, characters are filed into a given section. This is a choice made by a human being, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters, and it’s a flawed but workable system.

So hopefully, you can see that radicals (remember: section headings, not necessarily meaning components!) are useful for organising and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.

But there’s a better way

You should look at characters in terms of their functional components. Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions rather than lump them all under one category called radicals.

da1There are three attributes that all characters have (using 大 as an example):

  • Form: What is it a picture of? 大 is a picture of a person (specifically, an adult).
  • Meaning: What does it mean? 大 means big, because adults are big in
    comparison to children.
  • Sound: What is its pronunciation? (Or, if it’s a sound component, what is the range of sounds it can represent?) 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin.

The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes.

There are three primary functions:

  • A component can express meaning by way of form. Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in characters like 美 měi beautiful (which is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a person wearing a headdress). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.mei1
    Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:
  • A component can express meaning by way of meaning. Example: 大 means big, and it expresses the meaning big in characters like 尖. This is how most people explain all meaning components, but in reality this function is very uncommon!sharp
  • A component can express sound. Example: 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin, and it serves as a sound component in the simplified character 达 (#2) dá “to arrive” (traditional: 達).

Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way Chinese characters evolved in form over time. A component can also:

  • Serve as a placeholder for an earlier form that has now been corrupted.

This one is difficult to ascertain without training in palaeography, but our dictionary will explain which components have been corrupted and how. Continuing with 大 as an example, there are 1) instances in which a component was originally 大 but has now changed to something else, and 2) instances in which a component started as something else but has corrupted to look like 大 today (post forthcoming on how you can t trust your eyes).

  1. The sound component in 達 is da3 (dá). The top part today looks like 土 tǔ earth, but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today (#3).da2
    The form above is written in small seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn]. This is what 大
    and 土 looked like in small seal, for comparison:tu1
  2. In the character 莫 mò (do not, but originally represented the word sunset, which is now written 暮 mù), what today looks like 大 on the bottom was originally 艸 cǎo “grass” (there was 艸 on both the top and bottom, and the character depicted the sun setting behind the grass), which then corrupted over time to look like 大.

mo1

So now you’ve seen how the same component can serve completely different functions in different characters, and how components can become corrupted over time, obscuring their original purpose. Here’s the interesting thing: out of the characters I’ve just discussed, 大 is only the radical in 天 and 夫. In the others, it’s not, no matter which function it’s serving. The radical in the other characters is:

尖: 小
美: 羊
吳: 口
达/達: 辶
莫: 艹

Summary

Again, all this is not to say that you should completely throw radicals out the window. They’re good to know, but you should keep in mind what they’re used for: looking up characters in traditionally-arranged dictionaries. That’s it. They’re not the building blocks of Chinese characters (that’s functional components!). They’re an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. The concept of 部首 didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created

But sound and meaning components did exist. Sound and meaning components are the building blocks of Chinese characters. Sound and meaning components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new Chinese character. When you’re learning a new character, thinking in terms of these functional components rather than radicals will clarify a lot of confusing things about Chinese characters. Anything that tells you otherwise is inaccurate and (unintentionally) leading you astray.

Thanks to John for sharing his insights in this article! I would like to point out that this is close to what I advocate myself, I avoid using the word radical and say character component instead. I have also written two articles about phonetic components (part 1, part 2). I like this article by John because it explains why we shouldn’t obsess about radicals. Naturally, some of the most commonly used character components will also be found in a radical list, but confusing radicals with functional components will lead to confusion.

Footnotes

1 – How can luán be the sound component for 變 biàn? This most certainly looks impossible judging from the Mandarin pronunciation, but what’s important is the phonology of the language when the characters were invented. If we look a reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology (i.e., a reconstruction of the sounds of the language that was in use when these Chinese characters were invented thousands of years ago), we can get a glimpse at what the language probably looked like.

In a future post, we’ll do an introduction to Old Chinese reconstruction and why it’s important for doing research in Chinese paleography, but for now we’ll just take a look at some reconstructions. Keep in mind, it’s not important that you understand what all of these symbols mean exactly. What is important, is noticing the similarities and differences (the symbol * just means that you are looking at a reconstruction):

䜌 *mə.rʕon (ballpark approximation “muh RON”)
變 *pron-s  (ballpark approximation “prons” or “prawns”)
蠻 *mʕron (ballpark approximation “mron” or “mrawn”)
戀 *ron-s (ballpark approximation “rons” or “Ron’s”)

The main thing to take away here, is that each of these words share the root *ron. Three of these words have prefixes: *məә, *p-, *m- and two have suffixes *-s. It is similar to how root words work in English. Take the root “get”: get, forget, beget, got, gotten. Imagine that Chinese characters had been used in Old English and the same sound component was used for each of these words.Even though the sounds aren’t exactly the same, they do share a root and the reader would have been able to figure out which was meant by context and by the addition of a meaning component.

Keep in mind, I’m merely trying to make an analogy between two languages with very different histories, so be kind. The reconstructions above are from Baxter-Sagart OC v1. Check out their new book here.

2 – 达 is not a recent invention. It’s a variant of 達 attested as early as the oracle bone script [甲骨文jiǎgǔwén].

3 – da3 is also a meaning component. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point a to b.

Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

Language learning can be divided into two major “directions”: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up learning means that you focus on the parts, then learn to combine these parts to access larger units. Top-down is the opposite, where you look at the whole first and then break it down into smaller pieces in order to understand it.

Bottom-up vs. top-down learning

If we adopt the first approach, we learn each component of a character or each part of a sentence before we combine these into larger, meaningful wholes. If we adopt the second approach, we go for the meaning of the sentence or the character first and only try to see how the different parts contribute to this meaning later.

I’m a big fan of top-down learning because it’s very hard to learn things that have no context, so by focusing on the bigger picture first, we create a framework that we can then use to fix new information in our minds.

At some point, though, you need to understand the smaller units as well. You can just learn chunks when you’re a beginner, but in order to really understand grammar, tone changes and learn thousands of characters, you have to start looking at building blocks.

In other words, we need a mix of top-down and bottom-up learning. The question is how to mix the two.

Is it good to learn character components from a list?

What I said above might sound contradictory to what I have published here on Hacking Chinese before, such as a list with the 100 most common radicals, but I think there is no contradiction, it’s all a matter of proportion. Learning the 100 most common radicals is never a bad idea because they are so common that you will see them everywhere.

Also, the amount is limited, I’m not asking you to learn 1000 building blocks before you can do anything useful, I’m asking you to learn 100 simple characters that you have probably already seen numerous times if you’ve made it through a few chapters in a beginner textbook. However,  you should never feel that you have to learn more components to learn characters or more words to read or create sentences in Chinese.

Not seeing the building for all the building blocks

If you’re an ambitious student who want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, there is definitely a real risk of focusing too much on building blocks. The problem with this is that you risk losing site of the real goal: Learning Chinese.

Learning 3000 characters will not make you literate in Chinese. Knowing all character components won’t enable you to read 3000 characters either, for that matter. Sure, knowing that many characters will mean that it’s a lot easier to become literate and knowing components will make it smoother to learn characters, but making a process easier is not the same thing as completing it.

The most important carriers of information in Chinese are words and these typically contain two characters, combined in a way that is seldom obvious. If we return to the house metaphor again, you want to live in a house, not a brick yard. If you want to build a house, you need lots of bricks, but the bricks themselves aren’t the point, they only become useful when you incorporate them into a larger structure.

Advantages with focusing on building blocks

Image credit:  christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/
Image credit:
christian-ferrari.blogspot.com/

The most obvious advantage with focusing on building blocks is that it gives you access to meaning later. It means that with some important building blocks, you stand a better chance of being able to make sense of larger units of Chinese without being told what they mean by your textbook or teacher. Learning a bunch of random strokes is very hard, but once they acquire meaning in the shape of character components, it isn’t all that bad.

Furthermore, learning the building blocks helps you understand the way Chinese is structured. The most obvious example of this would be phonetic components. If you have no clue what the parts of a character mean and how they are pronounced, the hidden information about how the character is pronounced would be completely lost on you.

Which building blocks do you need?

It seems obvious from the above reasoning that you should avoid the extremes of either neglecting building blocks at all or breaking everything down to the smallest component. The first means that you’re just copying without understanding, the second means that you’re not really learning anything useful. Something in between works well.

This generates the next question: How do you know which building blocks you should focus on?

Here are two suggestions:

  • The rule of three: Whenever you see a building block you don’t know appear in three different situations (a character component in three different characters, a character in three different words), it’s high time to look it up and study that building block. It’s likely to be quite important and there will surely be many, many other cases where it will come in handy.

  • Trust your teacher: When you have reached an advanced level, you will have a good intuitive grasp of which building blocks are necessary to focus on and which can be safely ignored. The problem is that you don’t have that intuition as a beginner, so one reasonable way of doing it is simply to trust your teacher. In the case of the 100 common radicals list, you can trust me when I say that you need to learn those radicals. If your textbook highlight important components of some kind, you probably need to learn them.

Conclusion

In essence, my way of learning Chinese is mainly top-down, meaning that almost everything I learn is based on an attempt to understand something bigger. The words and characters I learn typically come from a specific context and I have added them because the seem to be important in that context.

Naturally, I also do bottom-up learning, such as focusing on learning individual characters because I think this helps me in the long run, making it easier to learn words or guess the meaning of words I have never seen. However, I’m fully aware that learning individual characters will do little to improve my Chinese in the short run.

Exactly where you choose to place yourself on the spectrum depends on how long-term your learning is. If you want to be able to use what you know quickly, focus less on building blocks and more on larger chunks. If you want to accelerate your learning in the long run, focus more on building blocks and make long-term investments that will pay off eventually.

How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner

yong
Image source: ow.ly/r2sOf

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!

Don’t use mnemonics for everything

I have written a fair number of articles praising the usefulness of mnemonics, but now it’s time to look at some misuses and limitations. Before we look at that, however, I’d like to mention that this article is part of a series of articles related to the sensible character learning challenged (it’s still open, join if you haven’t already!):

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything (this article)

Even if we only include things actually present in the modern day form, to really learn a Chinese character, we need to store large amounts of information:

  • What the character means
  • Any additional meanings
  • What the components mean
  • How the components are written
  • How they are positioned in relation to each other
  • How it’s pronounced: Initial
  • How it’s pronounced: Final
  • How it’s pronounced: Tone
  • Other pronunciations (initial, final, tone)

Yes, you could design a system to handle all the sounds and tones of Chinese and encode them in a smart way and use mnemonics to learn pronunciation of every character. Yes, you can include every brush stroke into your mnemonics (I don’t actually know how this would be done, but I’m sure it could). Yes, you can include common meanings and usage in the mnemonic, too.

Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit: flickr.com/photos/blueforce4116/
Using mnemonics for everything is overkill. Image credit: flickr.com/photos/blueforce4116/

But you’d be wasting your time. This mnemonic would need a memory palace of its own (it’s not going to be just a single picture/concept). Considering what a monster it would be, it would probably occupy the entire dungeon of that palace. In short, it’s not worth it. It’s too hard and takes too much time. It’s also completely unnecessary.

So, what’s the alternative?

The obvious solution is to use mnemonics on a need-to basis:

  • If you forget the tone, use mnemonics to remember the tone
  • If you forget the components, use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you forget the meaning, use mnemonics to figure that out

I’ve written about how to do this earlier, so I won’t repeat that again. The important thing here is to realise this:

  • If you don’t forget the tone, don’t create a mnemonic for it
  • If you don’t forget the components, don’t use mnemonics to make them stick
  • If you don’t forget the meaning, don’t create a mnemonic to take care of that

When a mnemonic for pronunciation is overkill

For instance, when it comes to pronunciation, three are lots of clues hidden in the character and if you know where to look, you don’t really need mnemonics in many cases. This requires you to be familiar with some common phonetic components but since they are… well… common, this isn’t a problem. I’m planning a separate article about this, but for now, consider these characters: 碟,諜,喋,牒,堞,蝶,蹀,鰈. They all mean completely different things, but they are all pronounced “dié”. All of them. This is because they share the same phonetic component.

Of course, this is a convenient example, but the truth is that more than 80% of all Chinese characters are created this way. Sure, it’s not necessarily exactly the same, it might have a different tone (氧/洋, yǎng/yáng), initial (湯/傷, tāng/shāng) or final (踉/浪, liàng/làng) or any combination of these, but these are still incredibly valuable clues.

When a mnemonic for character components is overkill

Regarding character components, there are many cases where we don’t actually need to be very specific, because our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters rules out most possible combinations. If you’re creating a mnemonic for 洋, you don’t need a mnemonic to know that water goes on the left and the sheep on the right. Three drops of water almost always goes on the left and most phonetic components go on the right. In these cases, mnemonics are just there to help you get started, the rest you can easily figure out.

For instance, my mnemonic for 昏 is based on the real etymology (sun 日 setting into the ground 氐 becomes “dusk”), but note that the modern form lacks the bottom stroke in 氐 , which turns it into 氏. I don’t need a mnemonic for this, because there’s no way I would add that extra stroke by accident. I need the mnemonic to remember the components, not every single stroke and where it should go.

To each his own

All these things are highly individual and depend on individual strengths and weaknesses, our knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters and many other factors. What I don’t need a mnemonic for, you might; what you don’t need a mnemonic for, I do. And so on. The point is that you don’t do more than is necessary. If you want to kill a chicken, don’t nuke it. It’s unnecessary and you might run out of nukes for when you really need them.

If you want to master Chinese, make long-term investments

When we encounter challenges, both as beginners and as advanced learners, most people tend to make decisions that solve the immediate problems in the short-term. This is a minimum-effort approach which is natural and useful most of the time. If we only need to spend a certain time to overcome a given problem, why invest more than that?

Image credit: www.lumaxart.com

Here are a couple of short-term problems we may encounter when learning Chinese and their minimum-effort solutions:

  • Learning characters: Reviewing many times before a test
  • Learning words: Treating them as indivisible units
  • Difficult texts: Reading them for the first time in class

To understand these problems better, let us use an imagined situation where I’m enrolled at some kind of language school and study Chinese a few hours every day. On Monday, I’m presented with some new vocabulary for that week and I’m supposed to learn around fifty new words each week. There is also a text containing these words (and more).

Intuitive problem solving is mostly short-term

The natural thing to do here (and what I as a teacher see most students do) is to learn the words we have for homework. They diligently practise writing, pronouncing and translating the words. They score pretty well on the test. And they forget most of these words soon after. Most students read the text for the first time in class, meaning they stumble a lot, even on words that aren’t new this week.

The problem here is that this approach focuses on solving problems in the short-term, whereas your goals are long-term (learning Chinese to any decent level is most certainly a long-term goal). Learning a number of characters and/or words is what students need to pass the test, so that’s what they do. Most teachers don’t force their students to review, so they don’t. You can’t just rely on your teacher, you need to take responsibility for your own progress!

Shifting to a more long-term strategy

What I suggest is that we always dig deeper into what we learn and see the underlying logic. If we’re talking about words, you should look at the characters comprising the word and learn what they mean, provided that they are not extremely rare. If we’re talking about characters, you should learn what the parts mean (and not only the radicals, I’m talking about any part of a character here). If we’re talking about texts, you should review before the lesson.

This is a long-term investment because it will take a while before it pays off, but in the end, it will pay off grandly. If I study thirty characters and you study thirty characters plus all the component parts (perhaps another fifty elements to learn), it’s obvious that provided that the time is limited, I will perform better than you do on a test You’ve learnt many things which won’t come on the test, whereas I’ve spent all my time efficiently learning what I’m the teacher has said will come on the test.

This approach doesn’t make sense in the long-term, though, because it overlooks the fact that Chinese is a language that can be easily broken down into more or less logical parts. This is true for any language (think about suffixes and prefixes in English, for instance), but to what extent and how frequent the basic building blocks are differ from language to language.

Making use of building blocks

In Chinese, many building blocks occur frequently. This means that if you spend extra time to learn these, you will regain that time many times over later. Sure, it will take more time in the beginning, but once you have a base of character components and individual characters, you will see that most of the time, learning new things is simply a matter of connecting what you already know in new ways. Using mnemonics, this can be done very efficiently.

Sometimes, the connection between character components and the meaning of the whole character is phonetic, meaningless or lost in time. This isn’t a big problem, because as long as you’re using elements that are actually there, it’s cool (in other words, don’t fall in the “the man with a hat”-trap). The same goes for words. True etymology (the origin of the word) isn’t always necessary, interesting or even desirable. Learn basic parts as they are, but you can make up the connections between them on your own.

Previewing texts is perhaps an even more obvious example of short-term versus long-term thinking. Looking closer at the problem, it’s evident that previewing is very good. We need to study the text thoroughly in order to learn, but if we do part of the work before class, we can benefit much more from what’s going on in  the classroom. This is extremely important if you’re using anything similar to a kamikaze approach, in which case you will often encounter very difficult texts.

Achieving long-term goals require long-term thinking

So, if we want to achieve long-term goals, we need to make long-term investments. Learn those character parts, learn those individual characters. If you’re not sure how common something is, wait until you see it a second time before you learn it. You can also use dictionaries such as Zhongwen.com to see what other characters a certain component occurs in. Characters are more easy to judge, just use a frequency list and determine if you think it’s worthwhile to learn the character alone or not.

 

Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components

If you plan to learn to read or write Chinese on any kind of decent level, you will need to learn parts of characters (components) and parts of words (characters). There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/thiagofest

Thus, you need to start assembling a toolkit for learning Chinese. The tools might not be useful in themselves (though some are), but they will enable you to learn Chinese much faster. This is a long-term investment that will continue to pay off for as long as you study Chinese.

Your toolkit consists of many different levels, from the detailed to the more general. In this article, we’re going to look at the most basic level, the character components.

Articles in this series

  1. Character components (this article)
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast

Character components and radicals

All Chinese characters can be broken down into components, or are so basic that they themselves are already in the simplest form. The important thing to realise is that even if you want to learn thousands of characters, the commonly used components are much fewer than that, so what you should do is learn components, then learn how to combine these into all the other characters.

I can hear some people mouthing the word “radical” now, so it’s time to explain what’s what. A character component is simply just that, a part of a character. There is no complete list of these and it’s a  vague term. A radical on the other hand, is also a part of a character that is also part of predefined list that is used to index Chinese characters (in dictionaries, for example).

These days, you never have to use a printed dictionary if you don’t want to, so the distinction between character components and radicals is not very important when we’re building our toolkit. However, as we shall see, radicals are useful because some of them are very common parts of characters. In other words, a character component can have several different function in a character.

Different character components

Character component typically have one of two functions:

  1. They indicate the meaning of the whole character (called semantic components)
  2. They indicate the sound of the whole character (called phonetic components)

This article is about the first kind, but the other is perhaps even more important! I have written two separate articles about those components:

Getting started with semantic components

If you just started learning Chinese, I suggest that you look at a list of common radicals and their meaning. Don’t learn how they are pronounced, focus on what they look like, how they are written and what they mean. There are only 214 radicals in all, but of these, the latter half is more rarely used, so learning 100 or so would take you very far.

Learning these shouldn’t be too hard. Many of them are pictographic, meaning that they are actual drawings of objects in the world. You will also see and use these characters so often that you will learn them sooner or later. If you want to practise handwriting characters with feedback, I suggest using Skritter, which combines responsive feedback and spaced repetition, making learning characters a more convenient.

After having learnt the most commonly used radicals, things become fairly straightforward. If you see something weird once or twice, you can safely ignore it because it probably isn’t important, but if you see it more than that, you should look it up. Slowly, you will build up a register of character components you are comfortable with. This is the key to learning new characters with ease.

You don’t need to catch ’em all

As I’ve said earlier, not all character components are radicals, so don’t be too loyal to your list of radicals. The easiest way to break characters down is using one of various websites or computer programs made for this purpose (there are also books, especially for beginners). These are usually interactive, so you can just click on a specific part of a character to see what it means. I’ve used such tools a lot and it saves more and more time the more characters I learn.

  • HanziCraft I used to recommend a lot of other resources, but nowadays I almost only use HanziCraft. If I want more information, I sometimes use Zhongwen.com, but I seldom use other tools to look up character components.

After you have understood the basics of Chinese characters, the matter of learning the most commonly used components is not something you need to study separately, you simply do it when you encounter something you need but can’t find in your toolkit. This ensures that you don’t waste time learning components that only appear in a few characters, perhaps characters that aren’t very useful anyway!

What the tools are for

As I said in the beginning, few of the character components will be useful in themselves, even though some of them are characters on their own. The point is that knowing a lot of components will enable you to learn characters easily. It also enables you to learn to write properly. These benefits, however, aren’t within the scope of this article, so please keep on reading about how to learn characters!