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:
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.
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.
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:
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 while you are learning 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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
Watch contemporary videos (graded according to learners’ levels) and learn Chinese with FluentU
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.
We wish you all the best with your Chinese studies.
Lukas from Zizzle
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