Tips on learning – Chinese characters

Since it is a language that does not have a strict phonetic alphabet, Chinese scares many students due to its particularly challenging writing system. Chinese characters (汉字hanzi or “Han characters”) are more properly known as logograms, where each symbol represents a morpheme (or a meaningful language unit), and are mainly used to write Chinese, and partly Japanese, and other languages. It is one of the longest writing systems known. The number of Chinese characters in the famous Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Zìdiǎn Kangxi, whose compilation was ordered by Emperor Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty), is approximately 47,035. So, what makes Chinese characters so difficult?

First of all, we need to clarify what knowing a Chinese character means:

1) recognizing its meaning from its shape

2) knowing tone and pronunciation depending on context (the same character may have different  pronunciations)

3) knowing how to write it (stoke order)

In the case of the character 爱, for example, you need to recognize its meaning, i.e. “love”; know that  its pronunciation is ài with the 4th tone (descending tone), and finally, also know that this character consists of 9 strokes which should be written from top to bottom and from left to right.

The first barrier of Chinese is the total absence of any point of reference. A beginner student may come across the following sentence:

我是意大利人 (I’m Italian)

He wouldn’t be able to pronounce it, unless he has it in digital form or he uses a software to pinpoint how each character is pronounced, or he has a text with pinyin, a system for the phonetic notation and transliteration of Chinese into Latin characters (see here to also hear the sounds).

The classic question speakers or students of Chinese are asked is: “How many characters do you know?”

This is an issue that reflects a common idea – most often wrong – about Chinese learning, namely that the number of characters you know is representative of your actual knowledge of the language. Well, this is a false myth that must be debunked.

In any case, before talking about the writing system and analyzing its difficulties, we should first talk about the nature of the Chinese language. Chinese is considered an isolating language, i.e. a language that does not have neither inflections or declensions, with an almost nonexistent morphology. If we think about the morpheme as being the smallest unit that defines meaning, it is defined  in isolating languages that words cannot be broken down into smaller morphological units. More often than not, these languages are not expressed through word modifications (suffixes, endings, etc.), but according to the position words occupy in a sentence. Clearly, the fundamental brick of a language such as Chinese is actually represented by its single Chinese characters. This aspect is even more evident in classical Chinese, where every idea corresponds to a single syllable and, thus, to a single character, whereas modern Chinese tends to form compound words of two or three syllables.

A traditional way of approaching the study of Chinese characters hinges on the fact that they are considered stand-alone entities: one learns and memorizes them by repeatedly writing one after another. This rote-memorization is based on lists that order them by difficulty and/or frequency. This is the way various language courses and universities deal with Chinese characters. They are often considered separate from one another and out of context. This approaches misses the main goal of learning how to use a given language as a tool of communication. Thus, learning in this aforementioned way is not only of little use, but will also slow down the acquisition of the language itself.

I should also point out that deciding to learn how to write Chinese Characters by hand  through sheer rote-memorization is rather demanding and tiring, especially in the early stages of learning. In fact, this type of “kinaesthetic” activity might be useful for the retention of Characters (the brain connects the movement one makes to write them in order, tract by tract, with the overall form of the Character), but this systematic effort entails a huge load for our memory. One should, in fact, not only remember how to write each character (number of constituents, stroke order, etc..) but also its meaning, pronunciation, and tone.

 

A new proposal

What I propose here is a dynamic study of Chinese characters, which has turned out to be much more effective and much less pedantic than the academic approach. The study is articulated in (according to) the following phases:

 

Phase 1 – Text Analysis

In the so called Analysis phase one reads a text in the target language (L2), analyzes each part of it in detail (words, structures, etc), and then transfers it into their native language (L1). The key point, especially in the case of Chinese, is to always equip yourself with text that includes characters, pinyin and audio.  The main goal is to find yourself in the best conditions to understand what you are learning. In this regard, the advent of the Internet has completely revolutionized the study of languages. It is still, a “silent” revolution, in that the majority of the people haven’t figured out yet how to take advantage (make use) of this huge resource.

I’ll try to show you a part of this resource. If you find a text in Chinese characters on-line, there are very useful and valid tools  to not only convert the whole text into Latin letters (Pinyin) , but also show the meaning of every character or pair or trio of characters (if the word has 2 or even 3 syllables) through pop-ups. The whole text can be printed and accompanied by a glossary at the end! (Mandarinspot).

And there is more! If no audio is provided, you can also copy and paste the text and put it into the appropriate boxes for a speech synthesizer to read it for you. An example can be found here. And last, but not least, Google Translate  provides a rough translation of the text. The software works particularly well with languages that have a rather simple syntax such as Chinese

If you don’t have the text in its digital format, and you are working with a simple textbook which provides a translation into your native language, the procedure is pretty much the same: one has to read the text in Chinese (L2) and understand and analyze the overall meaning and its single parts by comparing the two languages.

It is very important to point out again that the ability to translate text, accompanied by explanations of words and grammar rules, is revolutionary, in that it allows the student to avoid the use of dictionaries. Looking up a word in a Chinese dictionary can be quite a long and painful experience. One should be able to extract the so-called “radical” from a character and then look it up on the basis of the number of its strokes.

Phase 2 – The Synthesis Phase

In the synthesis phase, you read the text in your native tongue L1 and translate it back into the target language (L2). In the case of Chinese, it is recommended to work on the computer using a typing software. For Chinese, the easiest and most intuitive tool is undoubtedly Google Pinyin Google Pinyin ( http://www.google.com/intl/zh-CN/ime/pinyin/). You could alternatively add the Chinese language bar in Windows (Control Panel> Regional Options language> tab “Languages”> “Details”> “add”).

This technology allows you to write directly in Chinese on a Word file by typing in Latin letters, that is, in pinyin. If you know how to pronounce characters, you can easily write Chinese text in a word processor. Carrying out this operation is very useful.  By doing so you not only continue to assimilate the pronunciation of characters (through numerous sessions of reading and listening) but it also helps you discern and recognize the right characters among the many that correspond to the homophones. The repletion of this effort allows the brain to form the link between the sounds (Pinyin) and forms associated to it (hanzi) in a less stressful and much more effective and natural way, than the out of context rote memorization done in more) traditional studies .

Once you have gotten hold of  these tools, you only need to set up a practice routine, a cyclic and dynamic way that allows you to address, session after session, a text in many ways . The steps (steps) in how to deal with a given text can be done as follows:

Session 1 – listening and reading (comparing with the translation sentence by sentence in L1)

Session 2 – Analysis (phrase by phrase, showing unknown structures and terms)

Session 3 – repeating (listening and reading, only pinyin)

Session 4 – L1 translation (sentence by sentence, without looking at the translation available)

Session 5 – Repeating (listening and reading)

Session 6 – L2 synthesis (translation, sentence by sentence pinyin and final verification of errors)

I strongly advise to ignore Chinese characters during the first 3-4 months of study, focusing exclusively on phonetic writing (pinyin). The primary objective in the beginning, is to first learn the sound of a word (and also its meaning), and only later the character, or characters associated with it.

Thus, in the first months, you will only write back the translation in pinyin, without using Google pinyin. You can simply indicate the tones with a number (ex: 我是意大利人: wo3 shi4 yi4da4li4 ren2).. Once you become familiar with pinyin, you can make the next step and use Google pinyin and write the real characters. At this point, you can look back and check out the old texts by looking at characters this time, and translating them with Google Pinyin.

On a final note, if  you need to perfect your handwriting in Chinese (for exams at university or other reasons), you can add two more steps to the above schedule:

Session 1 – listening and reading (comparing with the translation sentence by sentence in L1)

Session 2 – Analysis (phrase by phrase, showing unknown structures and terms)

Session 3 – repeating (listening and reading, only pinyin)

Session 4 – L1 translation (sentence by sentence, without looking at the translation available)

Session 5 – Repeating (listening and reading)

Session 6 – L2 synthesis (translation, sentence by sentence pinyin and final verification of errors)

+

Session 7 – copy the text into characters by hand

Session 8 – write the text characters from a version in pinyin

Finally, if you need to know the stroke order of a certain character, you can use Arch Solo Travel , which provides stunning animations on how to write it, as well as inform you on a variety of information about it (compound words, phrases containing it, etc..).

The number of characters to remember remains high, but the Chinese writing system is quite rational, and once  you have figured out the way the single components are assembled together, the acquisition of characters becomes easier and faster. It is just a matter of practice, having the right tools,  and motivation..and the rest will come.

Stay tuned for the next post: tips on how to learn tones the right way from the very beginning

Conceived and written by Luca Lampariello e Luca Toma

 

You can also read this article in italian

  • megyew says:

    Thank you so much for the advice! I just started learning Chinese not too long ago and was stumped on how to go about learning the characters since I prefer understanding to rote memorization. Your method makes more sense and the timeline of learning pinyin for 3-4 months before jumping into the characters also seems more logical. I will definitely continue to check this blog and your youtube account since you have very precise and effective methods. Thanks!

  • Evy says:

    Really a fantastic post.
    I am planning to learn Japanese next.
    These tips may be useful for this language too.
    Thank you.

    • Luca says:

      Muchas gracias Evy 🙂 Donde vives y que idiomas estas aprendendo tu? L (me puedes contestar en chino si quieres, siempre me alegro de leer y contestar en este idioma maravilloso)

  • Evy says:

    我从5年前开始在西班牙VALENCIA生活和学习,现在在读大学。我是中国广东人,呵呵。
    我在用ASSIMIL自学法语,但是大学的学业太繁重了,所以没有太多时间学这门语言。现在看了你的一些帖子和视频后,明白最重要是质量不是数量,我会好好安排时间多点学语言,因为学外语真的很有趣,我也很喜欢。:)

  • Marcin says:

    大家好、
    Thank you for this fantastic post. I am just starting to learn Mandarin and I don’t know what I would do without the info and tools you provided. I could never find them myself.
    From what I have seen, when you write English words in Chinese, you simply write them in Latin script. This is much better from katakana. It took me a year to read it fairly fluently and sometimes I still have to read the word 3 times to figure the corresponding English word.

  • Marcin says:

    Does google translate work for you? I’m starting to get irritated. After I translate from Chinese to English, for the first two seconds I see the correct translation, but then it gets switched with some undecipherable gibber.

    • Luca says:

      Chinese syntax is rather easy and Google translate works just fine (EN>CH). It offers a rather rough translation and sometimes it takes time and effort to decipher what it means. I suggest you use this one instead: http://www.mandarinspot.com/ It is an amazing tool. Click on “annotation”, copy and paste a Chinese text into the box and see what happens. For more details and insight, you can check the posts I dedicated to learning Mandarin (both tones AND Chinese charaters):

      http://www.thepolyglotdream.com/2011/11/19/tips-on-how-to-learn-chinese-tones/

      Luca

      • Marcin says:

        I’m already using the annotation website, it’s a great tool. When I said the translation switches from the correct one to the gibberish, here’s what I meant:

        Low Shi Ying the Juan  paper Wu Ben Yue River Ben, we Shi University Society “Ying Fan the Juan  paper Wen Juan Wenben or Danube For additional Gou Xuan MaHu You can Ben Han Kai Huan Wen.

        I get something like this. Guess that’s some technical problem.

  • S.P Kristofferson says:

    Hi, i have one issue , which resources did you use to learn Chinese ? Was it assimil only?

  • […] tips on learning Chinese characters provided by […]

  • Does google translate work for you? I’m starting to get irritated. After I translate from Chinese to English, for the first two seconds I see the correct translation, but then it gets switched with some undecipherable gibber

  • Hanzi says:

    Unfortunately, learning Chinese using computer translation and playing Pinyin may be the worst mistakes ever.

  • daniella says:

    hi there, i think i am understanding it slowly, however i am seeing soemone that is chinese and feel a bit out when having dinner with them,
    is there a site i can download “how to learn chinese” where i can sit and study via online? any suggestions?

  • Kyle says:

    Why does the Chinese learner need to know stroke oder in oder the read the language?
    How did you do it without writing it out?

    KRV

    • Brittany says:

      Stroke order is more so important to writing the character correctly than reading. When you write the stroke in the correct order not only does it come out neater, but you’ll find that it is a quicker, easier, and more natural to write the character. 🙂

  • Natalia says:

    Thanks for this fantastic article about language learning. I am currently starting to study Japanese, and I was wondering if you spoke it and could give me some tips to learn it. My main goal is being able to read it, although I also enjoy listening and understanding JPop songs. I am Spanish and would someday like to become a polyglot like you. Gracias y sigue sirviendonos de inspiracion!

  • jailyn and mr chen says:

    hello my teacher loves this website!!!

  • Victoria says:

    Good article, small correction though: 爱 consists of 10 strokes, not 9.

  • Brittany says:

    Very good article, I’m very excited to use this method. One suggestion I think people would also benefit from examples of each step just in case they might be unsure how to go about the step.

  • Zvi says:

    You write:
    …a language that does not have neither inflections or declensions…

    But you may wish to put it like so:

    …a language that does not have either inflections or declensions…

    or like so:

    …a language that neither has inflections nor declensions…

    In any case: thank you for your hard work!

  • Nellie says:

    It’s an interesting article. Working at a language school, I always find it interesting to read different people’s approach to learning characters. I agree with you that people should actually concentrate on learning to speak the language and read pinyin initially and introduce characters at a later date so that these characters can be associated with meaning and with pinyin rather than just a sound. However, I also think that when it comes to learning the characters, that different methods suit different people depending on what type of learner they are. I’m a kinesthetic learner and although it’s boring, I find it much easier to remember characters by writing them down over and over again. I use a number of mobile writing apps like Skritter too so that I can learn on the go as I find more than half an hour of writing characters and remembering characters and I’m bored. If you want to read the article I wrote about the different methods of remembering characters for the different learner types, you can read it here: http://www.livethelanguage.cn/chinese-characters-history-remember/

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  • Luca Ma says:

    Ciao Luca, conosci l’app Du Chinese? La sto usando da un po’ e mi ci trovo davvero bene! È compatta e molto pratica! Ti invito a provarla! Spero che gli sviluppatori continuino il progetto!
    https://www.duchinese.net/

  • […] complex aspects, but also some refreshingly easy ones as well. If you know how to tackle tones and Chinese characters the right way, Chinese is, in the long run, not harder than any other language, and the reward of […]

  • […] complex aspects, but also some refreshingly easy ones as well. If you know how to tackle tones and Chinese charactersthe right way, Chinese is, in the long run, not harder than any other language, and the reward of […]

  • […] complex aspects, but also some refreshingly easy ones as well. If you know how to tackle tones and Chinese charactersthe right way, Chinese is, in the long run, not harder than any other language, and the reward of […]

  • Yerkebulan Saparov says:

    I have some comments to add. There is a brilliant app for beginners to learn writing and reading Simplified Chinese characters. I have been using it for about 2 months. You can search for it in google, just type: “Kung-Fu Master Easiest Way”. Best of Luck.

  • […] Tips on learning – Chinese characters – Chinese characters … to translate text, accompanied by explanations of words and grammar rules, is revolutionary, in that it allows the student to avoid the use of dictionaries. Looking up a word in a Chinese dictionary can be quite a long and … […]

  • vecuccio says:

    This article completely destroyed my willingness to learn Chinese. This method seems just as complicated as the ‘traditional’ method. If anything it is more confusing, because it just talks in vagueries.

  • […] complex aspects, but also some refreshingly easy ones as well. If you know how to tackle tones and Chinese charactersthe right way, Chinese is, in the long run, not harder than any other language, and the reward of […]

  • Frank Randal says:

    I find this article very interesting as someone who has gotten to an advanced level in Chinese without using any sort of method to learn the characters. For me, characters are beautiful little pictures with meaning. When I first started learning characters, I would memorize the character by associating words with the character particles. Such as with吃 “to eat”, the first particle 口 means “mouth” and it looks like a little mouth. Then it looks like a roof over a snake. I would think mouth-roof-snake is 吃. I would use this until my brain just recognized the character for what it is: to eat. It actually doesn’t take that long, the more you use the character in association with what it means vs just memorizing it, the quicker its stamped in your mind “吃 to eat.” I am a writer and huge book fan, and I love words. This love has expanded to Chinese characters because they carry so much meaning. Hearing the characters spoken almost loses the meaning that seeing them carries.

  • Frank Randal says:

    I find this article very interesting as someone who has gotten to an advanced level in Chinese without using any sort of method to learn the characters. For me, characters are beautiful little pictures with meaning. When I first started learning characters, I would memorize the character by associating words with the character particles. Such as with吃 “to eat”, the first particle 口 means “mouth” and it looks like a little mouth. Then it looks like a roof over a snake. I would think mouth-roof-snake is 吃. I would use this until my brain just recognized the character for what it is: to eat. It actually doesn’t take that long, the more you use the character in association with what it means vs just memorizing it, the quicker its stamped in your mind “吃 to eat.” I am a writer and huge book fan, and I love words. This love has expanded to Chinese characters because they carry so much meaning. Hearing the characters spoken almost loses the meaning that seeing them carries. If you have any questions about learning Chinese, please feel free to contact me at frank.randal43@gmail.com

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