Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

My first semester at the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese a Second Language here at NTNU in Taipei, Taiwan is coming to a close. For the past two years, my long-term goal for learning Chinese has been to survive a program like this, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Entering the program, some question marks remained, and even though this post won’t be about my first semester here (I will write about that later), I will talk about one of those question marks: Writing Chinese characters (by hand).

Although this program is report and paper heavy, it still has several in-class exams which require handwriting skills good enough to put down in writing whatever I’ve learnt throughout the semester. This means that I’ve spent some serious time learning to write characters and that I have re-examined the entire process of learning to write by hand. The conclusion I present here is the result of around five years of learning characters:

You can’t learn to write Chinese characters by rote

Note: If you want to skip the background, click here to scroll down.

This needs some clarifications. First, when I say “you”, I mean an adult who is learning Chinese as a second language. I can already hear people say “but how do native speakers do it, they don’t use fancy mnemonics?” I’m going to reply to this with another question: Do you know how long it takes for native speakers to learn how to write Chinese? We’re talking about at least a dozen years, filled with more writing-heavy homework than most Westerners can imagine. It should also be mentioned that it’s not uncommon even for educated native speakers to forget how to write some characters they really should know how to write.

Therefore, looking at what native speakers do to learn Chinese characters is completely irrelevant for us. It’s simply not on the menu unless you want to spend the rest of your life acquiring what is actually possible to achieve in a few years if you do it correctly. So, in future, anytime you see a comparison between native speaking children and adult foreigners, you should be very, very cautious, because the upcoming conclusion is probably useless. We are neither children nor native speakers. Our study methods should reflect this fact.

Handwriting from the adult foreigners point of view

As some of you might know, I wrote an article about the importance of handwriting in November and concluded that it is important up to a point, but usually not a goal in itself. Regardless of why we want to be able to write by hand (everybody should learn at least the most common one thousand characters or so), it’s essential that we use methods that actually yield long-term results. What I see most students do is short-term oriented studying which might get you past the next exam, but it will not enable you to actually learn the characters. Some people aim for the medium term using SRS. This is good, but it’s not good enough. This is what this article is about.

Using SRS is essential, but it’s far from enough

I’m usually very positive about using spaced repetition software to learn languages, even though I did write an article earlier this month about the dangers of relying too much on SRS. Learning to write characters is perhaps one of the best examples of how good SRS is. Let me explain why before I move on to the really important bit, i.e. why this isn’t enough.

Spaced repetition software allows us to review things in a structured manner, making sure that we remember what we have learnt (or at least 90% of it). However, if we review these things in our daily lives, we don’t really need SRS to achieve that. For instance, if you live in China, you don’t need SRS to learn everyday words, because you hear them all the time. This is natural spaced repetition and it works very well. The same is true if you rely on very high volumes of listening and reading. In short, this is why massive input can mostly replace SRS.

Handwriting requires special attention

Handwriting is unique because even living in an immersion environment typically doesn’t require us to write anywhere near the amounts we need to acquire handwriting by rote. Since we aren’t actually required to write enough (your occasional tests and exams aren’t enough unless they are very broad indeed), SRS is the best way to solve this problem. It helps us space the reviews in an efficient manner and we keep the actual writing to a minimum while still retaining most characters. However…

Just relying on SRS to learn to write characters isn’t enough either

This is what I have fully realised this semester. I have seen the light. Using SRS to learn characters is very good in the medium term (let’s say a week up to a year), but it’s completely useless in the long term. Learning to recognise characters is one thing, but learning to produce them is another kettle of fish altogether. I’ve said before that SRS shouldn’t be rote learning, but I realise now that that article was naive.

This is how most  people use SRS (including myself sometimes):

  1. Use a program to review characters
  2. When failing a character, hit “again”, “next” or “didn’t know”
  3. Repeat the failed character until it sticks

This is what most people do.
This is rote learning.
This is madness in a long-term perspective.

Trying to brute force characters into your long-term memory this way is not going to work. When the intervals get longer than a year and you don’t write the character by hand in other situations (which you’re unlikely to do), you will forget it again. And again. And again.

It’s incredibly hard to learn something meaningless

The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful. We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak. In short, we need:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Combining the above three

Learning by rote is possible if we repeat things often enough. I have no mnemonic for 你 or 是, because I’ve written those characters more than a thousand times and I’m not likely to forget them. This is only true for the most common characters, though, the rest you will forget sooner or later if you don’t make learning active and meaningful. It’s a harsh lesson, but I think it’s true. Let me repeat that:

If you, when failing a review don’t spend time to actively study the card you just failed and instead merely rely on repetition to learn what you have forgotten, you will forget again. Actively processing characters and making them meaningful is not just a good method, it’s the only method.

Towards more sensible character writing

Next week, which is also next year, I’m going to launch a challenge. I’m going to try to start a revolution in character writing for adult students. It’s going to mean big changes for some people, but I really think this is essential and I hope people are willing to join.

In short, I will do everything in my power to convert as many of you as possible to a way of learning characters that actually makes sense, that will enable you to learn Chinese, not just for the test next month, but for life.

These articles have subsequently been published about sensible character learning:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote (this article)
  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

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

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  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Good points on that whole (love all of your articles by the way) but while I agree with your theory that SRS is not enough, I think that the problem you see in SRS not being useful in the long-term, ie. that as the intervals become years you will forget them, is a pretty rare problem, unless the only thing you are doing is studying characters by SRS in isolation. It also seems that it is a problem that an SRS is designed to solve automatically, if you are using it right.
    I would assume that if you are using an SRS for years, as many of us have/are, then you are also doing it while speaking/reading/writing the same language. So if after all of that you still forget how to write a character, then it stands to reason that that character might not be worth knowing how to write.
    When discussing leeches, for example, you write that if you keep getting a word wrong maybe the effort needed to memorize would be better spent learning something else.
    We are always going to forget words, even very simple ones, not only in our L2/3s (I was hand writing a note the other day and I suddenly couldn’t for the life of me remember how to write 它, which was quite distressing, haha) but also in our native languages. I don’t really see this as a major problem – we’re never going to remember everything.
    Also, if your intervals are set right, shouldn’t it mean that the SRS should produce the word for you to review again at about the time you are due to forget it, meaning that forgetting it is actually a good thing? I deliberately rate cards conservatively, and fail cards when I think the “hard” interval is too long, another thing you mentioned in a different article.
    I also use different intervals for words and 成语, because I found that I forget 成语 much much faster than single characters or two-character words.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you’re perfectly right, but slightly rephrasing what I said makes it relevant again. For instance, I should have said “SRS as most people use it”, which includes the algorithms used in most programs. An overwhelming majority of users aren’t about to start fiddling with intervals on their own. So, in theory, you’re right, being more conservative with the intervals would make it work better. So, this is a problem with the software, not with the principle.

      I think I’ve already said what I want to say about who should learn handwriting and why, this article sort of assumes that you’re going to learn to write by hand. If that’s the case, forgetting 10% of the characters is simply not okay. It might be okay for words, but not for the building blocks of the language. If you put emphasis on handwriting, that is.

      Lastly, I think active processing deepens our knowledge about the language. It’s not merely about efficiency for learning a certain character. Having deep understanding of different character components and how they fit together makes it very easy to learn more characters. I don’t say this because I think you disagree, I’m just taking the opportunity to point this out. 🙂

      So, in essence, this post more about the way people actually use SRS rather than what it could theoretically be used for. Thanks for highlighting this!

      1. Sam Duncan says:

        I totally agree about the building blocks and components, and I think this series about the limitations of SRS is awesome.
        I also find that for me personally, reviewing words in Anki is so routine and comfortable for me that it makes reviews a lot easier than they are when I come across the same words/characters in real-life, and can give me a false sense of security about my actual level. A character/word that I can either write or know the meaning and pinyin instantly on Anki might take me a lot longer to produce in a real-life situation, something which is magnified even more for chengyu. So for me even though my stats might say I know 90% of my deck at any certain time, I know my actual working knowledge is quite a bit lower.

  2. Scott says:

    I agree completely with your method. I used ANKI to get all the PAVC books from 1-4 plus the first 1,000 characters from reading and writing Chinese. About 1,600 characters all in all. But in the end the writing review was spending eating up too much time that I could have spent doing something interesting that would have raised my ability to understand Chinese or produce Chinese, Which endless reps on ANKI did not. I agree about Mnemonics being a great tool. My problem is that I came up with some great mnemonics for some characters, yet there were some characters that I had trouble with yet could not think of a suitable mnemonic for the life of me. Perhaps something like Remembering the Hanzi would be suitable for someone like me who is challenged by inventing mnemonics.

    Anywho, my ability to write is good enough for my university Chinese course which is all I need it for.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I don’t think using mnemonics will necessarily save you time for that individual character, but it does force you to understand the character better, which gives you a better chance to learn other characters quicker. As you say, the point is to learn to write Chinese according to your goals. As a teacher, I feel that I need a deeper understanding of characters in general. I won’t force students to learn all this, but I don’t really have a choice myself. Also, using mnemonics is much more fun than being frustrated over leeches in Anki. 🙂

  3. Patrick says:

    Olle, thanks for another wonderful article! I’m a long time browser of this site but this is my first post — I wanted to say I agree very strongly with your approach toward character writing and I also agree that it is essential to learn to write at least a few hundred characters by hand. It makes the language more fascinating and accessible, encourages a more well-rounded approach to learning, and makes reading much, much, much easier. (An aside: it’s also VERY useful to know how to write when, besides your best effort, the native speaker you are talking to simply cannot understand what you’re saying… write it down and you earn respect and understanding.)

    I also like your recommendation to use a notebook and actually write the characters. I’ve been studying Chinese for 4 years, including a year living in Hangzhou, and I can now write over 2,00 characters. Have gone through at least a dozen notebooks with frantic Chinese written throughout. I wanted to share the method that has worked so well for me over these past few years: I learn to write 12 characters every week. I try to pick words that are relevant to the time of year, or things I’m doing at that point, etc etc. I write the 12 characters down on Monday and drill them each day. I think about them, I talk to myself while walking and make sentences out of them. It should be whatever is easiest for you. I like your shower wall anecdote and, as silly as it may seem, I am sure it works. I do think, though, that choosing a set number of words and sticking to it each week works wonders. Since tons of Chinese words are made up of one or more characters, I am often learning more than one “word” even though it’s only 1 of 12 I’m learning that week.

    Hope this helps a bit. Thanks for all of your valuable insight. I like how you always reinforce that learning Chinese is a journey and there isn’t any sense in holding yourself to a deadline (i.e. I must learn in 3 years, etc.) I do believe it is much much more difficult than other languages and one ought to enjoy the ride while learning instead of trying to reach a deadline. To decide to learn Chinese in the first place is challenging, to follow through with it one must be truly passionate about China, the Chinese, and the culture. It’s a wonderful place. Thanks again.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for your comment. I think the key is depth, breadth or both. In other words, focusing on a small number of characters and really understanding them is better than learning a lot sloppily. This is because characters are the building blocks of Chinese that can be used to create many, many words later. I usually advocate learning words without spending too much time, but that’s because words are less important as building blocks compared to characters. I hope you’ll join the upcoming challenge (will be posted next Tuesday)!

      1. Patrick says:

        Olle I am really looking forward to the challenge and will surely participate. Thanks! I’ll check back on Tuesday 🙂

  4. Sara K. says:

    I’m very curious if your follow up articles will be relevant for audio-only SRS.

    Recently, I’ve taken up studying Taiwanese. I am during this partially as an experiment – my Taiwanese Anki deck is 100% audio (Taiwanese audio on the front, Mandarin audio on the back – I chose to make it a Taiwanese-Mandarin instead of a Taiwanese-English deck for a variety of reasons). I suspect pure audio might not be the best method, but I want to try it anyway, and I might as well try it on a language that I never intend to be able to read/write. I can already tell you that one disadvantage of pure audio comes from the Mandarin end – without writing or context, I can’t distinguish Mandarin homonyms.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      The upcoming challenge is about sensible character learning, so it won’t be very useful for audio-only. I’m not even sure the principles are the same, because in my opinion, listening is a lot about speed (i.e. mapping sound to meaning fast enough to not fall behind the speaker) which only comes with constant repetition. So no, it will probably not be relevant for what you describe. Good luck anyway and be sure to let me know how it turns out!

  5. Ben Whately says:

    Brilliant article, thank you!

    I don’t want to be the irritating spammer who hijacks the comments thread with an exhaustive pitch for his own stuff, but it is rare that I see someone else on the internet saying things about learning Chinese that I agree with so much, so I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts on the Chinese courses that we have been building at memrise.

    I have spent much of the last three years building a range of courses to teach recognition of characters using crowd-sourced mnemonics combined with a kind of SRS – basically for exactly the reasons that you mention. I would hugely appreciate any feedback that you could give about what we could do to make the courses better.

    Eg here is an HSK 1 course http://www.memrise.com/course/541/hsk-level-1-introductory-mandarin/1/ where the characters are taught from radicals to more complex characters, and includes audio.

    Or this course http://www.memrise.com/course/749/the-guardian-chinese-challenge/ was one that I put together to get people into learning characters via learning to read a Chinese menu, which doesn’t have any pinyin or audio in it.

    Thank you again for a great article, and my apologies once again for the potentially irritating pitching-in-your-comment-thread.


    1. Olle Linge says:


      Don’t worry about posting links to your own site, as long as they are relevant and contribute something they are more than welcome. I have tried Memrise, but I found it very hard to use. My main problem was that it was mostly useless unless I could find a course which happened to match exactly what I wanted. I also found it extremely hard to just add a bunch of characters and make use of other people’s mnemonics (which was the reason I registered). I gave up after an hour or so. Perhaps Memrpise works best for complete beginners, but it’s difficult for me to say that without becoming a beginner again; at least it didn’t work very well for me, otherwise I would have mentioned it in this article and in the upcoming challenge.

      Best wishes,


      1. Ben Whately says:

        Interesting – I am really sorry to hear that you found it hard to use: you should be able to just paste a list of characters into the course creation tool and it will automatically pull out the items in the central wiki together with their mems that have been added by other people.

        If you send me a link to the course that you tried to create, I will find out what has gone wrong and fix it for you – as you say, that should be exactly what you can do on memrise, so if you can’t then I need to get it sorted out right away!

        Best wishes


  6. Kajsa says:

    Very interesting blog post. I’m glad that my teacher teaches us a lot about character components, without that I don’t think I would do very well at all.

    May I ask you were in Sweden you studied Chinese? I’m currently finishing my first course at the University of Gothenburg.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Teachers must do that. Perhaps the can’t be expected to lead the teacher by the hand the entire time, but teachers must at least make students understand the importance of understanding the characters rather than just mechanically committing them to memory by rote. I’m glad to hear your teacher focuses on this!

      During my first year, I studied in Linköping, then I studied in Taiwan for two years. After that, things get rather complicated. I have 30 hp from Lund, 15 from Dalarna and another 30 in pedagogy, teaching practice and thesis writing from Linköping. I’m currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in Taiwan.

  7. Olle,

    Interesting post. On the whole, I think this series is missing the point, though. Just as we learn to speak to communicate with others, we should learn characters and writing to communicate with others.

    To that end, I think emphasizing writing is also important. If you’re constantly writing a journal or emails in Chinese, you are getting the SRS component for free (and adding context to boot). Writing sentences, paragraphs, and pages needs to be emphasized more. It will teach skills beyond just writing a character here or there.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What you say is true, but not very practical. I mean, most people don’t write by hand to communicate with others for a reason and learning to write characters through doing that might not be very practical, especially if you don’t live in a environment with lots of native speakers. Also, I’d like to point out that I have specifically written about the communication aspect before. So, rather than missing the point, I simply focus on something else. I don’t think anyone wants me to write hundreds of articles about the same just because it happens to be very important, right? 🙂

  8. Sah_mile says:

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    I just wanted to be contrary and say that rote learning can work 🙂

    I learned to write characters by repetitive copying and reviewing of characters. I worked my way through the books Chinese kids use in primary school(字帖)and completed grades 1-6 in about 4 years. It was time consuming but not at all difficult. After that I barely reviewed, yet it has stuck (probably thanks to muscle memory from writing them so many times!) and it allowed me to pick up loads of other characters without realising.

    That said, I’m not necessarily advocating rote as a way of learning, but I still think it has value as part of study, at least for some people.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Actually, I’m a bit surprised it took this long before someone wrote a comment saying that rote learning actually does work. Of course it does! 🙂 It’s just that it’s less efficient and takes much more time. The reason I said that it doesn’t work is that it’s not a viable method for most people, both because of the time factor and because it’s too boring for most people to keep up for many years.

      Also, if you only relied or repetition, I think your case is the exception. Not even native speakers do that. They rely heavily on knowledge of character parts and so on. Sure, some of this you pick up through massive exposure, but character learning for natives isn’t pure repetition either. Also, I’m not sure what level you consider yourself to be at, but what I meant in the article was achieving some kind of operational competence for writing Chinese characters. I learnt around 5000 characters passively, but found it very hard to get above 3000 in writing simply because too many characters are so similar. Without some kind of higher mental activity going on, it’s very hard to remember characters that only differ with one dot or the length of a stroke. Doing this relying only on muscle memory is, I dare say, almost impossible. It’s okay for a few characters, but not for thousands.

      Thanks for your comment! I deliberately wrote the article in a slightly exaggerated style and I’m only happy to have other opinions and perspectives represented as well.

      1. Sah_mile says:

        Thanks for your reply. Most people are quite horrified when someone speaks up in favour of rote learning, so it’s good to not get my head bitten off for a change 🙂

        Regarding your point about my case being the exception, I don’t think so. After all we learn a lot of our native language (especially if it’s English with its spelling quirks) in primary school by copying, spelling tests etc. That’s rote learning.

        And just to clarify how I did it, as I was copying I was also looking and trying to think about what I was doing rather than just zoning out. I know about stoke order and recognise all the radicals, even if I don’t know the names of them. Mnemonics seem really popular in language learning, and I have mnemonics for a small number of characters that wouldn’t stick, but on the whole I find mnemonics more forgettable than muscle, or subconscious, memory.

        I doubt rote is good on it’s own – I was using the stuff I memorised by trying to read stuff, writing a journal in Chinese (as soon as I had basic vocab), and chatting a LOT on QQ. Of course I was talking and listening too, and the rote learning fed into those skills.

        The way I see it was if your native language had a non-latin script, when learning English you have to learn the alphabet. 10, 15, 20 letters is not enough, you have to learn all the letters, no excuses. Chinese is the same, it’s just the ‘alphabet’ is a hell of a lot longer (i.e. several thousand characters).

        I’m interested to know, how long did it take you to learn 3000 passively? And how long did it take before you could read everyday materials like books and magazines?

        You referred to my level, I don’t know what my level is. I can say that I have learned to hand write Chinese to the extent that characters aren’t an issue, although the quality of my compositions is by no means native level 😉 I’m taking HSK 6 this year and came to your blog to look for study tips. You should write some 😉

        1. Olle Linge says:

          If you’re paying attention to character components, I would say that you’re no longer in the realm of rote learning. If you understand roughly (albeit not all) of what you’re doing and why, you’re not learning by rote. Still, I understand what you mean. However, learning English is different from learning Chinese in this regard. Chinese is much easier to breakdown because almost everything means something. It’s harder to apply mnemonics to English spelling even it of course can be done.

          Since I write regular reports, I can tell you more or less exactly when I passed 3000 characters, which was after studying Chinese for about two years. I started reading news papers shortly after that, but found it very, very hard. I started reading novels written for adult native speakers after about three years but found it challenging. I started being able to read most things without a dictionary after about four.

          Regarding test taking, you’ll probably find that the higher the level, the more reading speed will matter. Listening might also be tricky depending on the exam and how you normally consume Chinese, but I still think that reading speed is by far the biggest problem for non-Japanese test takers. Have you taken any mock exams?

          1. Sah_mile says:

            Thanks for your reply. Interesting to see where you draw the line between rote and non-rote learning.

            I admire/envy the speed at which you learned! I didn’t hit 3000 until 3-4 years.

            I haven’t taken any mock tests yet – just have experience of old HSK – but I’ll try them, and focus on increasing reading speed based on your suggestion. Currently also cramming HSK vocab on Memrise.

            Thanks for the advice. Good blog 🙂

  9. Daniel says:

    You plan to launch a revolution?

    Just add a little Heisig RTK to your SRS if you are stuck and all is well for beginners I think…

  10. Baijo says:

    I learned writing, in 3 years, no class. A dictionary and myself about 3 hours a day. 1-3000. I can both read and write now, reading of course is easier but my writing is passable, especially on a computer. If you never learn to write its much harder to memorize. Even if you can’t rewrite a difficult word on command (like many some chinese included) you will recognize it.

    Totally disagree.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      but my writing is passable, especially on a computer

      I hope you noticed that I’m talking only about writing by hand here? If you read the article more carefully, I actually don’t say that it’s impossible to learn by rote, I just say that it takes way more time than most people can afford to spend. If you mean that you spend 3000 hours learning to write, it’s good that it worked for you, but if it took you on average on hour per character, there are methods that work much better than yours. Some people go through Heisig, roughly the same amount of characters, in just a few months. Sure, they probably need more time than that to actually consolidate what they’ve learnt, but certainly not three years. Also, I’m curious what you do to maintain the words you learnt earlier?

      If you never learn to write its much harder to memorize. Even if you can’t rewrite a difficult word on command (like many some chinese included) you will recognize it.

      I agree.

      It seems you wrote a comment which didn’t contradict anything in my article, provided some other information that I generally agree with, then produced a figure which seems to be very high indeed, and then say you don’t agree. Which part don’t you agree with?

  11. Baijo says:

    Uh… I disagree with the title…. How isn’t that clear? and I CAN write by hand it just (of course) takes longer.

    I find it interesting that you would be so certain that you couldn’t learn by writing, especially since its the most proven method.

    Which figure is very high?

    And guess what it’s going to take time…. There’s no way around it…. Your kidding yourself if you think there’s a magical shortcut.

    Oh to maintain the word count I read… And write…If someone learns as fast as you say they do (the one month thing)no wonder they won’t remember it. I remember words now I haven’t seen in years because over those three years I reviewed all the words at least once a week.

    Last thing, Chinese IS memorization, say what you want about mnemonics you need about 3000 words to be confident reading up to 99% of reading material. You can either memorize a mnemonics or you can sit down with pen and paper and do the work that pretty much guarantees you remember it. That in fact IS the fastest way.

    If you think 3 years is a long time to become literate in Chinese well then maybe I’m just slow.

    Oh sorry… Then there is this. Seems to contradict your earlier statement of people not having time and all….

    (It’s from this website)

    Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

    1. Olle Linge says:


      I took the liberty to merge your four separate comments into one, hope you don’t mind! First, I think should make sure we’re talking about the same thing. The reason it wasn’t clear what you meant is that you write one thing and mean something else. For instance:

      Last thing, Chinese IS memorization, say what you want about mnemonics you need about 3000 words to be confident reading up to 99% of reading material.

      I guess you mean characters? You need perhaps ten times as many words to read with anything close to full comprehension. Also, the whole concept of needing a certain amount of characters to read is bunk, because what really matters is how many words you can make out of those characters, the grammar you know to combine those words into sentences and so on. It’s true that 3000 characters cover most of those frequently used, the problem is that that is not the same as saying that you will under stand 99% if you know 3000 characters.

      Regarding your 3000 hours, I got the impression from your first comment that you meant 3000 hours for writing Chinese. If you insist on quoting articles in which I specifically say that the number is arbitrary (you even quoted that bit), well. I don’t think most people are prepared to invest 3000 hours in writing characters, no.

      I find it interesting that you would be so certain that you couldn’t learn by writing, especially since its the most proven method.

      This kind of statement makes me wonder if you actually read the article. This article and the challenge I started the week after are all about writing characters. I tell people that you have to write the characters, but that you have to understand what you’re doing! I have never said that you can’t learn characters by writing them. If you mean “copy them without understanding the components”, I would still argue that it’s possible. Although I’m no expert in this area, I’ve heard that was the way people learnt to write in ancient China (i.e. copying verbatim long passages of text). This is also the way many native speakers learn today (i.e. they learn to write poems they don’t understand and so on). Does it work? Yes, obviously. Does that mean that it’s the best way? No.

      And guess what it’s going to take time…. There’s no way around it…. Your kidding yourself if you think there’s a magical shortcut.

      I keep hearing this all the time. While it’s true that the amount of hours matters most, the way you invest those hours is crucial. This is true for learning everything, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t apply to learning Chinese. Some ways work better than others, even though there are of course individual factors to consider. This isn’t a “magical shortcut”, it’s common sense.

      Also, you don’t need to tell me that it takes time to learn Chinese, I know that. 🙂

      Finally, I should point out that the title was deliberately chosen to be a bit provocative. I don’t actually think it’s impossible to learn by wrote, I just think it’s a very poor way of doing it. If you focus on components and character structure, you will not only learn to write, you will also learn much more about Chinese characters in general, something you won’t learn if you just copy characters all day.

  12. Baijo says:

    I don’t mind. Yes 3000 characters, they are words after all. Bigrams of course you need more. Yes understanding the word and components is helpful and interesting. Repetitive learning is not terribly interesting but absolutely something you CAN do and I would argue need to do.

    Chinese is probably the least systematic of any written language has the most components, there is no unifying phonetic system that works across the board (see ㄅㄆㄇㄈ)it was developed over thousands and thousands of years meaning more disconnect. I find it very hard to believe you can learn it in months. The illiteracy rate has always been high in China… And for good reason. This is why it was simplified on mainland, this is why Korea ditched the system hundreds of years ago and Japan reworked it nearly beyond recognition.

    They did this because its less of a system than it is a compilation, which is why it pretty much has to be repetitively memorized.

    I’m not trolling btw. I did read the article I just fundamentally disagree with its premise. If you want to learn and remember repetition is key and for those of us without photographic memories it will take thousands of hours… No matter what your method… And while arduous learning by rote is efficient.

    You basically said it yourself in your 10,000 hour article there are no short cuts, you have the time etc…. (paraphrasing)I 100% agree with you there.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not trolling btw. I did read the article I just fundamentally disagree with its premise. If you want to learn and remember repetition is key and for those of us without photographic memories it will take thousands of hours… No matter what your method… And while arduous learning by rote is efficient.

      Agree to disagree, then. I think rote learning can be effective (i.e. it can do the job), but it’s not the most efficient method. It works, but I think it’s inferior to other ways of learning. Regarding the number of hours you need to invest, that was about the entire language, not writing characters. I do believe characters is the most “hackable” part of Chinese and there are plenty of shortcuts. There are other areas, listening being the prime example, where you truly have to repeat something because parsing speed is one of the most important factors for understanding (I wrote more about this here). Characters are different, I think there are way better methods than just repetition. Please also note that I have never said you shouldn’t repeat, I’m a big fan of spaced repetition, I’m talking about how we’re reviewing, not if we should review or not.

  13. Vitaliy says:

    In fact i don’t think there is something very hard about writing chinese characters.
    Maybe is because i love the characters deeply and it’s very big pleasure for me to learn and write characters. If not the characters i wouldn’t be interested in chinese languge that much.

    i want to improve my skills and knowledges in chinese calligraphy in the future, because the chinese calligraphy is such a beautiful thing

    I don’t think people should care that much about it. Can it be learnt…. Or not… Just write it every day, write it often. And you fill find that is actually not that hard as some people think

    btw i noticed an interesting thing :))

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s not necessarily hard as in “requires skill to achieve”, but it’s definitely hard as in “takes a lot of time to master”. Sure, if you like it, the time will be that much more enjoyable, but it still takes a lot of it. 🙂

  14. Vitaliy says:

    btw i noticed an interesting thing :))
    When japanese people write chinese characters, sometimes they look … look a little like chinese characters written by foriegners who started learning chinese. A lot of square shapes , and just like standard form.
    while the chinese characters written by chinese usually look a little… 草,.. messy.. With not to many square shapes. Like they are written quickly. So it looks like they r better at writing characters in general.

    Maybe be because they write more characters than japanese do (cuz japanese also have another kind of alphabets).. or maybe japanese people have not that much homework as chinese do.. or some another reason?

  15. Kim says:

    I really wish you would explain some of that you use for ‘english’ vocabulary in the article. I read the beginning of the article and got frustrated, because you never explain what rote or SRS is, and it’s unclear. I gave up reading it, because I don’t know what you are even talking about

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hm, is it really that bad? SRS is mentioned the first time in a heading and then discussed further down in that section. The link to the article describing SRS comes in the first sentence in the next paragraph. I have now added the link to the first mention of SRS instead, hope that help! Regarding rote learning, it’s a normal word and you could just use a dictionary if you’re not sure. This is from Longman:

      formal when you learn something by repeating it many times, without thinking about it carefully or without understanding it:

  16. sahraoui says:

    can you add “print button” so we can print your wonderful articles.
    thank you sir

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’ll add that to the list of things to add next time I re-design the website!

  17. Ken Wong says:

    More good discussion coming from your posts, I’m impressed with the detail and practical aspects of your articles. I’ve been teaching Chinese for over 25 years to 2nd language learners at high schools and although much of this is too complex for them to think read and understand, if the teacher re-introduces it in a way to incorporate it into their lessons, it would be beneficial. Well done again.

  18. Felix Hartmann says:

    Whats the best way to only learn to read? I have absolutely zero interest in even writing a single character by hand. I absolutely freak out after writing a character 5 times – so it is not a solution for me. I kinda hate repetition too?

    Do you think it is possible to passively learn characters by watching movies and trying to read the Chinese subtitles? I wonder how good your listening skills need to be do it that way?

    My goal is to speak/listen fluently – but accent/correct tones aren’t too important as long as everyone can understand me. I need to be able to read everyday stuff as well however (so low HSK6 level), and write using Hanyu-Pinyin (which is easier than actually being able to read).

    Right now my listening/talking are about similar level to people who just pass HSK6 but live mostly abroad. But my reading is non existent. Actually half a year ago – I went to the reception of Feng Chia and asked about studying there. They told me it makes no sense as my conversation level is the same as their highest course for chinese as a foreign language, but I could not follow the courses at all with no reading ability – hence advised my 1:1 tutoring (got lazy and still did not take any chinese class). However well that is not enough to understand most movies, I do understand most soap operas without subs. I still watch with English subtitles – as I feel I can learn more new words that way.

    Yeah and I hate learning by stories or whatever. I think rote learning with Anki cards will still be the best solution – even though very boring?

  19. Hi, Olle.
    Just stumbled onto your website. Read a couple of articles. Absolute revelation! I worked as a diplomat for forty years, learning Chinese full-time for the first two years, and using Chinese on an off after that. I could write a book about all the opportunities I missed to improve my Chinese efficiently! (I must get started on my memoirs!) Pity there was no Internet for most of that time! Looking forward to reading more of your work. (I’ve signed up for the newsletter.) I like your emphasis on longterm goals, effort and rewards!
    Best wishes: Sean.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi Sean,

      I’m happy to hear you find the website insightful so far! If you prefer to listen, there’s also a podcast you might want to check out. I started learning Chinese after the internet became a thing, but before it made it radically easier to learn the language. I think the smart phone has made the biggest impact, to be honest, although accessing extra reading/listening was much easier when I started learning than when you did, to be sure. Let me know when your memoirs come out. 🙂

      Best wishes,


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