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How to study Chinese characters


Perhaps the most challenging part of learning Chinese or Japanese is to learn Chinese characters. For the foreign learner, they are not only numerous but also very difficult. There is about 3,000 must-know characters, some of which consist of more than 15 strokes. Beginners dazzled with the enormous variety and complexity of characters and many learners get discouraged.

Still, the rewards are great. I remember passing by the post office every day on my way to the local store. After about a month I noticed that I can read one of the characters on the sign. Then another. It took about half a year to be able to read the sign that says "Post Office." It felt wonderful to be able to do so.

The question I want to address here is whether there is an efficient way of learning the characters. I think there is.

The way they taught us to learn characters was by going through the textbook and simply memorizing the characters for every new word we learned. The method for memorization consisted of writing the same character down hundreds of times until you got the feeling of it and remembered it. This method, of course, did not prevent you from forgetting them a couple of days later. Then, you had to go back and write them again until you, once again, memorized them.

This system did not work for me. The reason for this is quite simple - I am lazy and find it boring to sit and write hundreds of characters over and over. This felt like a punishment, writing the sentence "I will not be late from school" a few hundred times on the blackboard. So this learning "technique" lacked for me the joy of learning.

I learned characters by preparing for the exams and being under strong pressure. This worked, only I did not get good grades because I could never learn them good enough in time. But at least I saved a lot of time.

The question of efficient learning has always been in the back of my mind, even after I did manage to learn the amount of characters that I needed for what I was doing. One important revelation came when a friend told me how much he benefitted from reading the "little red" Chinese dictionary we all used when we were living in China. He said that although at first it might seem like an odd way of learning characters, but it was usefil to see the words that are pronounced the same next to each other in the dictionary. He began realizing that words that are closed to each other in pronunciation are often written with similar components.

This was an important realization. Of course characters that sound similar are written with the same components: the component is a phonetic component! The problem is that we tend to think of Chinese characters as a system that is based on meaning rather than sound. The reason for this is that every single Chinese character has a meaning. However, the characters also represent a sound and this is commonly reflected in their structure.

Chinese dictionary
You can see how the same few components keep repeating in all of the characters


As part of the evolution of characters, most of them were put together from the combination of a semantic and a phonetic components. Although this is a well-known aspect of characters, it was only mentioned im passim when we learned to write characters. Why not make it a system that aids learning? I believe that it would not only help learning but would also improve retention of the characters.

If you learn characters based on a textbook, learning the words "hello," "name," "good" first, it might be convenient from the point of view of language acquisition but from the point of view of the writing system you will be essentially learning random characters. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to study characters, after the initial six months of learning, as a system. Thus I would teach students the basic semantic and phonetic components and make them memorize those. After that, learning is a matter of combinations. The structure of characters (consisting of the phonetic and semantic parts) will automatically help to link sound with meaning.

The Chinese writing system consists of modules. The 3,000 common characters consist of only a few dozen modules and it is absurd why not learn the modules instead of learning all characters by themselves in isolation. Thus my method of teaching characters consists of breaking down characters into phonetic families and teaching the students how an addition of one or more semantic components to a phonetic one builds up a new character. It is essentially a branching tree of characters based on their structure. Components build up new characters, which in turn act as components in more complex characters.



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