Learning how to Read and Write Chinese Characters

First Writing Experience

Some may be scared off to learn that at one point there were as many as 50 000 different Chinese characters (by some estimates). Fortunately, this number has been whittled down to about 6500 for simplified computer fonts (double that for traditional fonts). That is still a big number for anyone to tackle, so the question becomes how many characters should a Chinese learner learn and how do you know which characters to learn?

The common standard to answer this question is to use a typical newspaper in Mainland China. Studies are regularly conducted to note which characters are most commonly used in printed media. To achieve 100% recognition of the characters used in a newspaper, you would need to know about 3000 characters (4000 for traditional characters in Taiwan). It is common to find dictionaries that only focus on these 3000 characters. So now that you know what the goal is, the question becomes how do you go about learning them? Do you just turn to page one of the dictionary and start learning a few characters per day? You could, but there is a much easier (and more efficient) way.

You only need to learn the 400 most commonly used characters to get to the level of 67% recognition. So it makes sense to study these 400 characters first, before moving on to the lesser used ones. Each time you see a character you know again, you are reinforcing that recognition pattern in your mind. Additionally, the process becomes easier, since in the process of learning, you will also be learning the radicals involved, so new characters will just involve modifying characters you already know, rather than having to learn them from scratch. Once you get to this magic 400 mark, you can then work on learning the next 600 characters, which will get you all the way to 88% recognition level.

As easy as this sounds, many study materials out there DON’T use this concept. A quick glance at a couple of textbooks teaching how to write characters showed one teaching the character for dragon (the 659th most common character), another teaching the character for fire (427th most common) and another teaching the character for busy (672nd most common). And this was the first lesson! It is easy to see why many students may give up learning how to read and write, when having to use methods like this.

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Chinese Valentine's Day

Today is August 19, 2007 which also happens to be the 7th day of the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is dedicated to love and is the Chinese equivalent to Valentine’s day.

The legend behind this day dates back more than 2000 years and has been recounted by poets and in Chinese operas for generations since then. It resembles those found in Greek mythology, as it also goes on to explain some of the natural phenomena we encounter in our world.

The story begins with the seven fairy daughters of the Emperor of Heaven coming down to earth to bathe in a river one evening. An orphaned cowherd came across them and was memorized by the beauty of the youngest daughter, so he proceeded to steal her clothes that were lying on the riverside. The fairies finished their bath and flew back to heaven, leaving behind their youngest sister who had no clothes. The cowherd asked her to stay on earth and marry him, which she agreed to do.

They lived a happy life for several years, before the Queen demanded the return of her daughter back to Heaven. The cowherd chased after her into the sky. On seeing him, the Queen used a hairpin to create a line in the sky, separating the two. That line turned into the Milky Way. From then on, the two lived on different stars – Altair and Vega. Taking pity on them, the Queen allowed them to visit each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon.

Legend has it that on this day, magpies fly into the sky to create a bridge for the two to meet. Five color ropes are made by girls wanting to celebrate this occasion, and thrown on rooftops for the magpies to use. Additionally star gazing and praying for love and marriage at local temples is also popular on this day.

The traditions for this day contrast with those of Valentine’s Day (which is also celebrated as a Western custom in larger cities), which involve more gift giving between lovers.

Best Strategy for Learning Chinese

Picking and choosing what to learn

So you have made the decision to learn Chinese. Excellent! Now what? What’s the best method to learn Chinese?

Obviously if you could just pack up your things and move to China, that might be a good start, but even that alone isn’t enough (as I found out the hard way). So what should you do when you get there? Or what can you do to prepare first?

Well, fortunately you have lots of choices (which may or may not be a good thing). Should you join a class? Find a one on one teacher? Look for a language exchange partner? Invest in books, CDs or other self study courses?

Well the truth is, no single method is good enough on its own (which is why this post is titled “best strategy” and not “best method”). You could invest in the Pimsleur series and master it completely. But even that will only get you familiar with a limited aspect of the language.

classroom approach might be great for some. However you may be shocked to find the outside world not following the rules and structure taught in class. So maybe “learning by doing” is the answer.

Forget about formal training and learn by making mistakes – get out there and learn what people are saying in the real world! Unfortunately that too doesn’t work for most personalities, plus this approach lacks the structure and system required to explain what it is the people out there are saying.

The solution then is a combination of all of the above.

For my first few years in Taiwan and up till now, all my Chinese was self taught using a combination of self study courses and books out there. I was able to pick and choose the areas I wanted to focus on, in a manner that worked best for me and my personality.

In the last month, I have enrolled in a university course, which is my first formal study of Chinese. This has opened my eyes to new methods of learning that I wasn’t exposed to previously.

While my listening and speaking skills are good for my level, my reading and writing skills are much lower than my classmates. This indicates to me that while this particular course I’m in is great at teaching reading and writing, it can improve in teaching listening and speaking.

You will see some of the ideas and concepts I have been experiencing added to the CLO course over the next little while. The idea is to provide a smorgasbord of learning methods, allowing listeners to choose which methods work best for them, and which areas they want to focus on.

Don’t feel compelled to have to use every new feature and tool being introduced. Imagine you are walking through the street scene pictured above. You don’t need to go to visit every shop to find what you need.

However, if enough resources are made available, there should be something for everyone, and you should be able to tailor make a strategy that meets your particular needs.

It’s been very rewarding for me to get to know you listeners as individuals, and what your own personal goals and strategies for learning Chinese are, and what techniques I can implement to help you out.

The CLO course looks very different today than what I envisioned a year ago when I first started. With your help, I expect it to look a lot different a year from now, so keep the feedback coming!

Listening Skills


During my first year in Taiwan, with my Chinese skills at a bare minimum, I found it frustrating to constantly be in situations where I couldn’t understand what people were saying around me, or to me. That’s when I learned a neat trick to get myself more involved – guessing! I began to recognize patterns in what I was hearing around me, and began to build around that.

I first learned how to recognize subjects – “I”, “you”, “he / she” etc. I then learned how to recognize questions – “….ma?” along with the key question words “what”, “which”, “where”, “who” etc. After that, it just became a game of fill in the blanks. I might be in an elevator when someone asks “you… where…?” I would instantly reply “Jiānádà” (Canada). The gleam on their face told me that I had answered their question of where I was from correctly!

Later, as my vocabulary began to increase, I began to recognize key verbs. I would walk into a McDonalds and point at what I wanted to order. The cashier would then ask me a question (you want…?) . In the early stages, this was a pure guessing game. I would quickly rack my brain trying to think what questions I would get asked when ordering fast food in Canada. “What do you want to drink?” –

Got it! I would then point at the drink I wanted (this time it was me who had the gleam, as she poured the drink I wanted). Next question just before payment – “you want… or…?” I was already waiting for her to ask if I was planning to dine in or take out, so I quickly pointed at the ground to indicate wanting to dine in.

This was a great confidence booster for me to be able to function this way. Well, until I ran into a cashier one day who asked “you want…” followed by some new words I hadn’t heard before. My confident demeanor vanished in an instance. Was this a new way of asking if I wanted to eat in? I tried pointing at the ground, but could tell by her confused look that I wasn’t even close. (It turns out that she had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to upsize my fries and drink!)

I realized then that I had to increase my vocabulary to increase my guessing odds. But how could I forecast what questions and what new vocabulary someone was going to throw at me next time? I decided to play the odds again.

Over time, I began to pick out words that I would hear repeated in these different questions. I figured that if I heard a word being used repeatedly, that meant there was a greater chance it would be used again in the future, so it was in my interest to find out what it meant. After finding out that “hē” meant “to drink,” I was a lot more confident answering “you want drink what?” than answering “you want… what?”

This is the same concept used in the CLO course. Certain words get introduced in lessons and are never brought up again, so you are probably less likely to remember them. Other words get introduced, and then are later brought up again in future lessons.

Learning the more frequently used words first allows you to set the context to “guess” the meaning of the remaining words. You may notice this approach in the explanation portion of the lessons too. We first listen to a conversation without translating, then pick out the words we do know to help us figure out what’s remaining.

Developing this technique can be valuable in improving your listening skills.

How I Became a Yankees Fan

Wang Chien Ming

The two most popular sports in Taiwan are basketball and baseball. Every time a school bell rings signaling the start of lunch hour or end of classes, you will see a rush of kids to the basketball court to get in some practice time. Sales of basketball clothing and shoes modeled after top NBA players are hot sellers here. Baseball is also quite established with the local Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), featuring six teams, the winner of which goes on to play in the Asia Series competing against teams from Japan, South Korea and China.

One major difference between many Asian sporting leagues and their Western counterparts, is that in the former, teams are owned and named after corporations, rather than cities. While each team does have a regional market, home teams aren’t always played there. The current 6 teams in the CPBL are the Elephants, Whales, Bears, Cobras, Bulls and Lions. While interest in this league has had its highs and lows (due to a few game fixing scandals that emerged), interest in baseball as a whole has been reignited in the past few years, when the New York Yankees baseball team signed Taiwanese pitcher Chien Ming Wang to be one of their starters.

Since then, Wang hasn’t looked back, turning into one of the premier pitchers in the game. This has caused a huge fan base to develop in Taiwan, not only in Wang, but in the Yankees organization as a whole. Yankees games are televised live and repeated at other times of the day with Chinese commentating. How the Yankees fared in their last match is included as part of the sports wrap up in local news. When Wang is pitching, it isn’t uncommon to see the game on multiple channels as well as televised on big screens in public settings (for games that take place early morning Taiwan time). Wang’s achievements usually make the headlines in all newspapers, recording how he fared in the previous day’s game. Indeed, Wang has become an ambassador for the sport in Taiwan, and his trips back to the island draw a media circus. His image is used in advertising all over the place, selling everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to HP printers.

It can be expected that this kind of excitement shown towards trend setting athletes such as Wang in Taiwan, and Yao Ming in China will prompt scores of new kids to want to follow in the footsteps of their idols. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere here will be like years from now when there are multiple teams with multiple Asian stars leading them!