Chinese Characters Intro

Chinese characters everywhere you look

In recent while, I’ve gotten a few emails regarding the best way to study Chinese characters. While I’m sure the answers to this question will vary from person to person, I thought I would use this blog to detail my own personal experiences with learning how to read and write Chinese.

One of the reasons that many find it hard to learn Chinese, even while living in a Chinese community, is due to not being able to read Chinese characters. Most learners of second languages get the majority of their learning from reading. If you’re trying to learn English while living in an English speaking country, you will get a lot of peripheral learning from being able to read.

While out on the street, you may see a bank and recognize it as being so, along with the word “bank” printed on the sign outside. However, looking at a street scene like the one pictured above, it’s hard to get any learning when you don’t understand any of the characters printed.

The majority of my initial learning of characters came from waiting at traffic lights on my scooter. I would look at street signs that were printed with the Pinyin equivalents below and try to match the characters with their equivalent Pinyin. I would pick out characters that were distinct and easy to remember such as 大 and 小 or that I were likely to see such as the characters for road or street and would pick them out from address signs. I learned numbers and tried to pick them out where I could too.

I then tried to extend this into something practical by learning the characters for certain foods. I felt much safer looking at a menu and being able to pick out beef (牛肉) at a glance instead of always having to rely on others. My favorite fruit was mango, so I could soon instantly look at the fruits and beverages section and pick out anything with 芒果 in it.

Without knowing, I was employing an approach of using comprehensible input, to further my knowledge. I would focus on what I already know and look for something slightly above it.

Further posts in this series will go into more detail on how you can use this approach to further your own learning.

No Responses to “Chinese Characters Intro”

  1. Jeremy

    Thanks Adam for sharing your experiences. Your strategy of picking out characters is helpful. You are our teacher so it is inspiring to know what helped you get to this point in your Mandarin skills. Keep the posts coming from time to time as I know us students are in the same shoes you were once in.

  2. parrot

    I find it good to pick one very interesting character from a lesson, and virtually ignore the others. This one gets picked to pieces and put back together, its components traced back in history a little bit, and then look at how the simplified character was formed from it, or not from it. Sometimes among the most fascinating characters can be the strange ones that have no known or logical reason for being formed the way they are, and the simplified characters that bear no relationship to the traditional at all, but have a similar sound are a lot easier to write. For example, look at the character for love (ai4), what are all those pieces, is love such a complex emotion after all, and did you ever notice that the simplified character for love has had the heart taken out of it? After that, it is not necessary to spend any effort learning that character, you just know it forever. Who cares if you don’t learn any others this time round, they’ll appear again, and at some other time they too will be bursting with interest.

  3. parrot

    I started writing on squared paper, which helped to get the proportions right. Then I switched to thin plain paper with a squared sheet underneath, showing through as guide lines until I removed it. That showed me that I was cheating. Although the squares limited the maximum height and width of all characters, I was writing some too skinny. Once I took the guidelines away, the page looked horrible. That’s why I now use plain or lined paper, and strive to make every character square by eye, relative to the characters around it.

    The squares are important to a certain stage, if that paper is available, and then it’s important to pick the right time to get used to working without them. Of course if you only type you have none of these concerns, but I find that my hand has to form the shape before my eyes can really see what’s there. Once or twice is enough.

  4. Parrot – you’re giving all my secrets away! Just kidding (it’s not like I’m J.K. Rowling here). This is great stuff you have mentioned. I will be talking more about such methods in future posts, so I will be looking forward to hearing how these techniques apply to you personally.

  5. It took a very short while for me to fall in love with Chinese characters after I began learning Mandarin at college. The biggest breakthrough for me for learning characters was being acquainted to this software “Wenlin” which is available for both Windows and Mac. It not only tells you everything you’d ever need to know about every character but also fascinating factoids as to their derivation, old pronunciations, what they looked like in Oracle Bone or Seal script, etc. I haven’t gone a single day for a year now without having consulted Wenlin on some 词 or 字.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.