There are different approaches to learning Chinese. Some choose to only focus on listening and speaking. Others add reading to the mix. The truly adventurous however attempt to add being able to write in Chinese to their portfolio. On the surface, this looks like an impossible task. The Chinese language has thousands of characters – a lot of them quite complicated looking. How on earth is anyone expected to memorize them? Today’s post will detail one of the secrets behind why the process isn’t as difficult as it seems on the outside!
A person with no English background may look at the written English language and think “how can anyone memorize how to write so many words?” A closer look however will reveal that it’s not the words you are memorizing, but the letters they are composed of. Once you have the letters down pat, all you are doing is rearranging existing letters in new combinations to form new words. Well, unbeknownst to many, Chinese characters work in a similar fashion! If you were to actually study characters in detail, you will notice that many share common features, known as radicals. Once you learn how to write the common radicals, you will find new characters are just different combinations or variations of existing radicals. Since many of the characters tend to be pictorial representations of certain concepts, you can even try to learn why certain radicals are combined and what the meaning is behind the combination. Take a look at the following example.
The first character represents a woman (it somewhat represents a person sitting down cross legged). The character next to it represents a child. Put these two together and you get:
which is the character meaning “good.” The pictorial representations and meanings can be quite abstract as you can see, but it does add to the enjoyment and ease of learning the language if you are able to think in these forms. Now once you have learned how to write the radical for woman, you will notice it cropping up in lots of other characters.
媽， 按，要， 妞，妹，如，妥，姓，婪，姚，姆
Notice how the same radical shows up on the side (a squeezed version) in some characters and at the bottom in others. This particular radical takes three strokes to write, so once you have mastered it, that is three less strokes for you to memorize each time you write one of these new characters using it. In total, there are 214 radicals, although some are a lot more commonly used than others. If you have ever wondered how Chinese dictionaries are used – here’s your answer. The thousands of characters out there are neatly sorted into dictionaries by radicals, so there’s another good reason to learn them. In future posts, I will go over which radicals and characters you should start learning first and how to go about actually “learning” them.