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Mandarin Chinese Handbook: 9 Essential Chinese Character Tips

Zizzle CEO Lukas Lohove shares his Chinese character insights

· Chinese characters,Mandarin Chinese,Learning Tips

Imagine you just booked your flight to China. Sure enough, to be prepared, you have spent some hours learning Mandarin Chinese, working through Chinese pronunciation and memorizing basic Chinese words and phrases using Chinese apps. You never really bothered with learning the Chinese alphabet, consisting of hundreds of Chinese characters. But when you arrive, you look at this bus timetable to get to your hotel:

Bus time tables in China can be hard to read

Suddenly, you regret having skipped Chinese characters. They are useful even if you do not want to learn how to write Chinese. But any foreigner knows that Chinese characters are a real challenge to serious learners of Mandarin Chinese. According to Zhonghua Zidian, a popular Chinese dictionary, there are over 80.000 Chinese characters.

Zhonghua Zidian contains 80,000 Chinese characters - that's a lot

But how many characters do you really need? As a beginner, you want to read the menu in your favorite Chinese restaurant, recognize street signs, chat with Chinese people online, and find the right bus in China. To do all that, about 500 characters are already enough. If you are already more advanced, you might want to study for an official Chinese exam, like the HSK. For the highest level, the HSK 6, you need about 2,600 characters.

Learning 500-2,600 Chinese characters sounds much better

If you want to really advance to the level of a native speaker, your goal would be to know 4,500 characters. Well-educated native speakers typically know around 8,000 characters. Here is a quick overview of your Chinese character milestones:

Your Milestones to Mastery of Chinese characters: Chinese characters required for HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 3, HSK 4, HSK 5, HSK 6 as well as Chinese character levels of native speakers of Mandarin Chinese

In order to get there, we give you 9 Essential Chinese Characters Tips that will help you master all the Chinese characters you need in a fast and efficient way.

Essential Tips before you start learning Chinese Characters

Essential Tips after you learn Chinese characters

Essential Chinese Character Tip #1: Which Chinese Characters to Learn

One mistake when starting out learning Chinese is that people tend to learn everything they encounter. But instead of just learning everything, you should stay focussed on those characters that really matter. The trick is to pay attention to frequency and relevancy. Out of all the characters required for the HSK 6 exam, some characters like 的 make up 4% of an average Chinese text, others less than 0.01%. It makes sense to focus on those that are used more frequently. Take a look at this:

Comparison of most frequently used Chinese characters to less frequently used Chinese characters

Learning 10 useful characters allows you to read 13.90% of modern Chinese texts! (frequency data comes from Jun Da). Some learning tools, like Zizzle, help you by focussing specifically on those characters that are used in the most frequently used words and phrases.

In addition, it makes sense to learn characters that are relevant to you. Most learners find it very effective to learn characters that are grouped around a topic that they am interested in.

Smartphone app Zizzle offer learners interesting topics to focus on when learning Chinese characters

It is much easier to stay motivated, if you learn from vocabulary decks based on your interests such as business, travel, food or simply exam preparation or textbooks.

Essential Chinese Character Tip #2: How to Learn Chinese Characters

When learning Chinese characters, understanding how to use them in context is really important. Characters form words and words form sentences. Therefore, it is useful to contextualize new characters in words that show combinations of this new character with other characters that one already knows.

Combinations of Chinese characters form new words in Mandarin Chinese

By providing context to each new Chinese character you study, some Chinese learning apps like Zizzle allow you to immediately connect new information to known characters.

In addition, long lists of Chinese characters can seem both intimidating and boring. If you learn in bite-sized portions of about 5 characters at a time, it helps you break down long lists. It also helps to keep you motivated because it is possible to complete one unit in under 10 minutes, while you might be waiting for a bus or riding a subway to work or school.

If you have 10 minutes, you can try your first bite-sized lesson here.

Essential Chinese Character Tip #3: Understand the Building Blocks of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are made up of smaller building blocks, a little bit like lego pieces.

The Building Blocks of Chinese characters: Most characters in Mandarin Chinese consist of several components

Some of these building blocks are called radicals. In fact, most of the 2,600 characters needed for passing the highest Chinese exam can be puzzled together from just 200 components.

The Building Block 讠is used in a great number of HSK 6 characters

The word radical for example is used in a wide range of characters in the 2,600 characters required for the HSK 6 exam. It saves you a lot of time to understand the composition of Chinese characters.

Smartphone app Zizzle breaks down Chinese characters like 谢 into their components (讠 and 射)

Professional Chinese apps like Pleco help you by decomposing every Chinese character and showing you all components and their meanings. In the example above, the character 谢 (xiè) can be decomposed into:

  • the word radical 讠
  • and the character 射 (shè).

The word radical suggests that 谢 has something to do with speaking (saying “thanks”) and the character 射 is a phonetic component. That means that the pronunciation of 谢 (xiè) can be derived in part from the pronunciaton of 射.

If you want to learn more about Chinese characters and their components, you can take a look at this blogpost from our friends over at Lingholic.

Essential Chinese Character Tip #4: Use Visual Cues

A good number of Chinese characters used to be pictures that have become more and more abstract over the course of history. A good learning approach makes use of these visual cues to learning the most basic Chinese characters.

Visual Cues in Zizzle app help remember Chinese characters more effectively

Visual cues make it easier to link the abstract shape of the character to the meaning. Integrating visualizations into your learning process also activates a different part of your brain that allows you to better remember the meaning. When you quiz yourself after learning a new character, thinking back to the picture can help you recover the meaning when you would otherwise just stare at a weird pile of strokes. Suggestions to think of visualizations have been made by numerous Chinese learning methods, see for example here or here.

Visualizations make learning Chinese characters in Mandarin Chinese more effective

Visualizations have been scientifically proven to improve the performance of students learning Chinese by over 79%, as a study by the University of Munich has shown.

You can be part of this success story by learning Chinese online with our FREE lesson.

Visualizations in Zizzle App increase student performance by over 79%, as shown by an independent study by the University of Munich

Essential Chinese Character Tip #5: Take Advantage of Linkwords

Have you ever thought that a word in a foreign language sounded a bit like a word that you already knew in another language?

Linkwords like RIVER or SHOW can help you remember the Chinese pronunciation (pinyin) of Chinese characters

Using linkwords to remember the pronunciation of Chinese characters is a really smart approach because it enables you to make a weird new sound a bit more familiar to your ear. Moreover, linkwords offer a memory aid that can help you better remember the pronunciation as you progress with you studies.

Of course, there is a risk as well. You might end up pronouncing Chinese words incorrectly if you say them EXACTLY like your linkwords in your native language. Bear in mind that linkwords are only hints about what the correct pronunciation is. They are not precise guidelines about how to learn the perfect pronunciation. That’s what audio files are used for.

Audio recording of native Chinese speakers help learn the correct pronunciation and linkwords help remember which pronunciation goes with which Chinese character

The Chinese app Pleco contains some good audio while this tool here even offers both audio and linkwords. Make sure to listen closely to the pronunciation of native speakers or recordings to learn it well.

Linkwords in Action: CHE sounds like voucher.

You can also come up with your own linkwords. Which English word sounds like:

  • KAN = ?
  • SHU = ?
  • MEI = ?

Here are some of our suggestions!

Essential Chinese Character Tip #6: Invent Mnemonics for Tones in Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese has five tones. (1) High-pitched, (2) rising, (3) down-up, (4) falling, and (5) light.

The Five Tones in Mandarin Chinese: High-Pitched, Rising, Down-Up, Falling, Light

Learning to hear and reproduce these tones is a tough challenge and takes a lot of practice. There are great tools that allow you to practice your tone listening and speaking skills (Don’t let the weird design of Laokang Tone Trainer put you off). However, the toughest challenge is to remember which tone goes with which character. Even very advanced learners often make mistakes.

A great way to solve this problem is doing what memory experts do, using mnemonics. This means that you spend a bit of time associating something more concrete with each tone and making it more memorable. One way is to use colors, as Nathan Dummit has done (for example green for the first tone, orange for the second etc.). You can then mark your vocabulary list respectively.

But colors don’t really solve the problem. They are not concrete either. We at Zizzle have taken association one step further by combining colors and memorable heroes. Here is how it works:

1st Tone in Mandarin Chinese: In Zizzle a MAGICAL TURTLE represents the high-pitched tone
2nd Tone in Mandarin Chinese: In Zizzle an EVIL FOX represents the rising tone
3rd Tone in Mandarin Chinese: In Zizzle a FUNNY DRAGON represents the down-up tone
4th Tone in Mandarin Chinese: In Zizzle an AGGRESSIVE BULLDOG represents the falling tone
Light Tone in Mandarin Chinese: In Zizzle a PASSIVE BAMBOO STICK represents the light tone

It is both effective and fun to remember tones when the five heroes are tied into a memorable story.

The best way to learn the tones in Mandarin Chinese is to start out with Lao Kang’s Tone Trainer, then work with a language partner to have them correct your pronunciation (find language partners through italki or HelloTalk). Finally, use Zizzle to remember which tone goes with which character.

Essential Chinese Character Tip #7: Rely on Story-Telling

Do you still remember what happens in your favorite movies? Even after several months since you saw them? Our brains are hard-wired to remember interesting and exciting stories. They are not made to quickly memorize lists of Chinese words. That’s why we can use a memory trick by turning each Chinese character into a memorable story, just like your favorite movie!

Features of Zizzle Mnemonic Stories: Pictures, Linkwords, Heroes, Stories

The elements in each story depend on the composition of the character, the pronunciation and the tone. Remember:

  • The pictures help you remember the basic building blocks (or the story)

  • The linkwords help you remember the pronunciation in pinyin

  • The heroes help you remember the five tones in Mandarin Chinese

  • The story ties it all together.

All these elements can be tied together in short memorable stories. Let’s check out one example:

How to Learn a Chinese character with Zizzle (1): Story and Picture

The mnemonic story goes: The right hand played with his yoyo… and AGAIN… and AGAIN. We can see how the story links the meaning of the character (AGAIN) with the shape shown in the picture (又).

How to Learn a Chinese character with Zizzle (2): Hero and Linkword

The hero in the picture is the aggressive bulldog that represents which tone? Yes, the fourth tone. We can see how he smashes the yoyo on the ground. The yoyo is the linkword because the Chinese character for AGAIN is pronounced yòu which sounds like the beginning of yoyo.

The first few times you want to recall the Chinese character 又 you can now use the elements to make sure you remember. Let’s try it out:

  • Meaning: What does the character 又 look like? Like a right hand. What did the right hand do in the story? Play with the yoyo, AGAIN and AGAIN. Meaning: AGAIN.

  • Pronunciation: What was smashed on the ground in the story? The yoyo. So the pronunciation is you.

  • Tone: Who smashed the yoyo on the ground? The bulldog. So the tone goes downwards. yòu.

World memory team champion Boris Konrad describes Zizzle’s effectiveness as “based on proven memorization techniques like association, visualization and link words, that also leverage the logical structure of the Chinese language.” He’s also currently learning Chinese, that’s why he himself decided to become one of Zizzle’s customers.

Dr Boris Konrad, Neuroscientist and World Memory Champion on Zizzle, "Zizzle's effectiveness iss based on scientifically proven memorization techniques."

Essential Chinese Character Tip #8: Keep a Habit of Regular Practice

It is much more effective to practice in small sessions of about 5 characters at a time than long cram sessions with several hours of work in a row. We recommend 15 minutes per day of study time to see quick advances after only a few days.

Moreover, you should make use of a spaced-repetition system (SRS) to review characters (as well as words and phrases) in regular sessions over time. In this way you will be able to commit these items to long term memory and will not need to review them as often any more.

Spaced Repetition System (SRS): Zizzle is a Spaced Repetition Software that allows users to maximize their long-term learning results

Some learning software helps you by organizing this process for you: Zizzle organizes sessions in 5-character packages and along with your interests. In the next step, Zizzle allows you to review characters with a spaced-repetition algorithm. Other software products that offer spaced-repetition are Anki and Memrise.

Essential Chinese Character Tip #9: Find Exposure that matches your Interests

Every learner needs to realize that they are their own teacher. If you really want to improve your Chinese skills, you have to make sure that you keep yourself motivated. You are much more likely to succeed, if you find Chinese exercises and activities that match your interest. As the common saying suggests:

Interest is the best teacher: 兴趣是最好的老师。

Here are some suggestions about where to start:

  • Learn Chinese vocabulary and useful phrases in the areas of business, food, travel, common Chinese exams, and common textbooks with Zizzle’s memory stories

  • Read interesting graded articles in Chinese on Chairman’s Bao or DecipherChinese.

  • Find a language partner to talk about your interests with HelloTalk or italki

  • Watch contemporary videos (graded according to learners’ levels) and learn Chinese with FluentU

  • Prepare yourself for Chinese karaoke (KTV) by watching all these videos and learning the lyrics with Zizzle.

And that’s it! Now you have all the tools to start deciphering the Chinese alphabet or rather, the Chinese characters! And hopefully the next time you are travelling to China, you will feel much more confident looking at the bus timetable when trying to get to your hotel.

As always, if you have any comments, feedback for us or would like to add another essential tip, please let us know here. Help us spread the word by sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter!

We wish you all the best with your Chinese studies.

Lukas from Zizzle

Want to improve your reading and writing in Chinese? Download Zizzle for Android or iOS!

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