How to Learn Chinese Characters

Guest Post by Daniel Lal

The success of any undertaking begins with getting out of your own way. Three common self-imposed challenges to learning Chinese characters (hànzi –汉字)are their complexity, the seemingly endless number of them, and the lack of an alphabet. None of those road blocks are valid.

The abundance of left and right diagonal strokes, horizontal strokes, hooks, tall and short posts, curves, dots, crossbars, circles, and dips can seem overwhelming, but hey, that’s English, and you’re reading it right now. There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but English uses upper and lower cases as well as cursive versions of all of those characters, meaning handwritten English can use up to 104 characters. We don’t recognize the challenges of learning to write our own language because we have always known it. Familiarity with Chinese characters will make learning to write and recognize them easier, just like with any other language.

The vast number of characters is another common mental block. English currently uses approximately 171,000 words, but most of them are not necessary for fluency. Depending on how you count them, Chinese can have anywhere between 85,000-100,000 characters, some historical and some still in use. Only about 3,000 are actually necessary for reading the newspaper, and even less for a general conversation. Reading and writing Chinese doesn’t imply knowing and understanding every single character, just like reading and writing English – or any other language for that matter – doesn’t imply knowing every word in the dictionary. If you learn what you need to know, you’ll see that the work of learning characters is less demanding than it seems.

The lack of an alphabet can make remembering the useful characters seem like a daunting task. Languages with alphabets use letters to spell words, but the often overlooked – and more important – aspect of language is that words spell thoughts. For example, think of the word “sobbing.” The mental image of the seven-letter word may have flashed through your mind, but you also have a scene in mind. Describing the essence of that scene requires more than just the ability to spell s-o-b-b-i-n-g. More important than focusing on the lack of an alphabet is focusing on the ability to still be able to convey ideas and paint pictures with words. The lack of an alphabet in Chinese should not prevent you from using characters to spell out what you want to communicate.

Here are some ways to learn characters:

Practice is how you learned the characters of your mother tongue. Wide-ruled paper and a pencil with a healthy side of eraser were your implements for tackling the skill of handwriting. It probably took a few weeks before you remembered how to draw all of them properly, and for some of us, our handwriting still looks like the flight path of a moth. The same will be true of Chinese characters, so draw the new character repeatedly. Buy some Chinese poetry or literature and look for that character in the book. The more you see it and use it, the sooner you will remember it.

Creativity and emotional involvement helps memory. Draw the character repeatedly while thinking of something or someone with personal significance– a family member, someone you remember from high school, a childhood friend, a favorite toy growing up, the smell of grandma’s cooking, etc. Decide if the character is happy or sad, bored or having fun, relaxed or stressed, and so forth. Be creative with the length of each stroke, making them reflect those feelings. Personalities are much easier to remember than names or faces, so give the character some character.

Look up the meaning of the individual components of a character. For example, the character for peace (ān – 安) has two components: 宀 is “roof” and 女 is “woman.” My classmate asked his Chinese friend if he thought 安is a sexist character since ‘a woman under a roof means peace.’ Even if the components don’t have a direct relation to the meaning, they can help you remember how to read and write them. I’m sure you won’t forget the components of 安now.

Learning any language is a challenge, especially one that has a foundation completely different from your mother tongue, but it can be done. Following these general ideas, I am able to learn about 400 characters in my 14 weeks when I learn Chinese in China at Keats Chinese School. I did all of my homework in characters, which also helped me remember them. I plan on using these strategies to continue learning characters, and hopefully they will work for you too.

Learn a Chinese Character a Day