How to Learn Chinese Characters
Learning Chinese characters doesn’t have to be difficult. The trick is to take a systematic approach to studying them.
Native Chinese speakers spend their childhood years slowly learning Chinese characters using archaic study methods based on rote learning.
As an adult learner don’t have time to spend hours painstakingly writing out pages of Chinese characters. You need to go with a method that makes efficient use of your time.
We created our Chinese Character Course with people like you in mind. It is based around an optimal learning sequence of the 2000 most common characters.
This video describes the methodology we used to develop the course and we recommend watching it if you are just starting the course.
If you’re just starting out learning Chinese you’re probably a bit freaked out about the idea of learning three and a half thousand Chinese Characters.
It might seem like an impossible task but in this video I’m going to talk about how they were developed and then show you the best way to learn Chinese characters.
The earliest Chinese characters were based on pictures of things that we come across in our day to day lives. Over time these pictures were refined into the characters we see today.
Now, while these pictographic characters may be easy to remember only about 4% of modern Chinese characters have been created this way.
Obviously there’s a limit on the number of characters that can be created from simple pictures.
Initially this limitation was overcome in two ways.
One way was to create ‘indicative characters’ where basic concepts are represented with a small number of simple strokes such as the characters for “one”, “two” and “three”, and “above” and “below”.
The other way was by combining existing characters together to give new meanings. These types of characters are known as “associative characters”.
For example the character … cong … is created by combining one person character behind another person character to convey the meaning of ‘to follow’
Three trees here are combined in the character for … sen … to mean ‘a forest’
Here the person character is placed next to a tree to convey the idea of resting.
And for the character … ‘wen’ … the dish character on the bottom, with the water character on the side, and the sun character on top conveys the idea of warmth. Water, in a dish, left in the sun, will get warm!
As inventive as this method can be it still only covers about 14% of modern Chinese characters.
The great breakthrough in the evolution of Chinese characters came with what is known as the ‘picto-phonetic’ method.
Let’s say we want to create a character for the word … hu … meaning “a lake”.
We start off by taking an existing character that has the same sound – in this case the character … hu … meaning a Mongol, or Tartar – two of the northern tribes of China.
We then add a picture radical to differentiate the character and to convey it’s meaning. In this case, we add the water radical to the left and now we have a new character for the word … hu … meaning “lake”.
Using this method we can also create the character … hu … meaning “paste” by adding the rice radical. Paste in ancient times often being made from rice flour.
And we can add the insect radical to create the character … hu … which means “butterfly”.
This method has been used to create thousands of characters and in fact around 80% of modern Chinese characters have been created this way.
Understanding the picto-phonetic method is key to understanding modern Chinese characters, however, there are a couple of gotchas.
The first is that the radical part of the character is not always easy to find.
Generally they are on the left; top; or outside of the character. But they can also occur on the right; bottom; or inside of the character.
Unfortunately there is no guaranteed way of locating radicals and for a small number of characters, the radical can only be identified by referring to a dictionary.
But for most characters the radical is easy to identify and you will find that with a little experience radicals will be easy enough to pick-out.
Just look at the tree radical in these characters; or the grass radical here; or the hand radical here; or the eye radical here. They are all very easy to identify.
The second gotcha is due to a concept we’ll call “phonetic drift” where the pronunciation of the phonetic component is modified between characters.
Take the simple character … ban …
Using this character as the phonetic component we can create a new character by adding the ‘person’ radical giving us the character … ban … meaning “a companion”.
So far so good.
However in this character … pan … we can see that the pronunciation has changed from the original ‘b’ sound to to aspirated ‘p’ sound.
This is also the case for this character … pan … meaning “to rebel”.
In this character … pang … we can see that the sound has drifted further from the original nasal ‘n’ sound to the nasal ‘ng’ sound.
This phonetic drift has come about because characters have been developed over thousands of years by Chinese people speaking varying dialects.
Phonetic drift mostly occurs between similarly sounding initials,
– for example the ‘z’ & ‘c’ sounds here in … zu … and … cu …
– the ‘zh’ and ‘ch’ sounds here in … zhao … and … chao …
– and the ‘q’ and ‘j’ sounds here in … qi … and … ji …
You’ll probably recognise these as the sounds you had most difficulty distinguishing when you first started to learn Chinese.
Because of this phonetic drift we can’t work out the pronunciation of a new character just by looking at it. However, understanding the picto-phonetic method is still useful because it allows us to make sense of characters.
We can kind of say that it works backwards, not forwards.
Let’s see how it would help us remember this character … pang …
The first step is to locate the radical. Here it is the meat radical on the left.
We can also see the phonetic component is made up of the character … ban …
However there is no way of knowing that the pronunciation of this character is … pang … and not in fact … ban …
Likewise there is no way of knowing that the meaning of this character is ‘fat’.
But, once we know the pronuncation and meaning, the picto-phonetic method helps us understand how this character was created and that makes it easier to remember.
Ok, so now we have a good understanding of how Chinese characters were created, let’s look at the best way to learn them.
There are three keys to learning Chinese characters efficiently.
First, you should start with the simplest characters. Although characters are written as a series of strokes, they are more logically thought of as consisting of one or more basic components.
So before studying complex characters you should familiarize yourself with the basic components.
For example beginner students might not realise that the characters …mu… and …er… here are actually two different characters, not the same character written differently.
The same with … ru … and … ren …
These characters are also easily confused so it helps to see them all together and study them at the same time.
Same with these.
Once you are comfortable with the basic components you can start looking at characters that share a common phonetic root. That way you can leverage the picto-phonetic method to quickly learn series of related characters.
Sometimes the picto-phonetic method works really well, like in these characters that are all based on the character …fang…
Other times it works well but there is some phonetic drift.
There are also times when it works well for some characters but not for others. Even so, it makes sense to study these characters together so you know where the exceptions are.
Finally, you should study easily confused characters together. For example, these characters have no real relationship to each other but are easily confused. Studying them together helps you learn how to differentiate them so they’re easier to remember.
If you are systematic and approach learning Chinese characters the right way you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can learn them.
At “remember it”, we’ve organized over 2000 characters into an optimized learning sequence based on the ideas covered in this video.
For each character we’ve included audio, radical info and sample words so you can see how it is commonly used.
Our online course includes lesson drills that make it easy to gradually memorize 20 to 30 characters in a single lesson.
After you complete a lesson, the characters are automatically scheduled for follow-up testing to make sure you don’t forget them.
Click on the link below to sign-up for your free trial today and start learning today.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your studies.