Different ways of learning Chinese characters

Nobody can ever make learning Chinese writing system easy.

There is a popular statistic-based belief trying to downplay this difficulty. Several studies have been conducted on the most frequently used characters. The results all point to the same direction even though the exact numbers are slightly different.

Researchers typically identify 4000 - 5000 characters in prints or web, including both simplified and traditional characters. The finding is that most frequently used 1000 characters account for 86–91% of the characters occurring, and the most frequently used 2000 for 95–98%. Therefore, people believe that students really only need 2000 characters to read newspapers, and a frequency list shines on the right path to full Chinese literacy. As a result, we see publishers publish, teachers teach, and students learn, flash-card-style books. These books introduce 250, 800 or 2000 characters with one character per page/card, containing the stroke order of this character, the meaning, a few combinations as examples, and sometimes a couple of sentences. However, these examples garner scarce attention because they almost always contain new characters which are further down on the frequency list.

STOP! Hard work will never pay off this way!

The problem is that, without sufficient training, it is difficult to decipher a sentence made up with familiar characters. There are two factors. Firstly, different combinations of characters create new meanings. Secondly, the word boundaries are not clear in Chinese texts. These two factors are often intertwined and work together to make learning Chinese reading and writing hard. That means, even if students accumulate 1000 most frequently used characters, they still could not make much sense of Chinese texts. To compound the problem, with a focus on accumulating characters, students miss the opportunities to practice and comprehend characters in different combinations and contexts. For example, the combination of "小" and "說" does not mean "small talk" (For people who don't know, it means "novel"). Therefore, without knowing the meaning of "小說", students can wrongly interpret a sentence like "她喜歡小說". Moreover, they will overlook the usages of some highly useful characters. For example "就". It is very hard to talk about the exact meaning of "就" without a context. The flash card often gives a meaning of "then", which is highly inadequate. "就" embodies different meanings in different contexts, such as: "就是他", "他甚麼都好,就是沒有錢", "就有這一本書", and "如果他來,我就走".

We also see students learn characters with pictorial origins, xiang xing zi (象形字), first. It is fun to learn characters through pictures. But learning a whole book of 250 disconnected characters is not worth the time or the money. After the initial novelty wears off, students are left with a handful isolated characters that they don't have slightest hope of ever lacing them together into a meaningful paragraph. If the learning objective is to recognize a dozen of isolated Chinese characters here and there and brag about what objects associate with these characters, this will do the trick. For any students who actually want to do something with their learning, they must not stay in this rut.

We also see students learn characters grouped by their radicals. If students learn all radicals (about 200 of them) and related characters, at least they will get a whole picture. However, this approach always features the same old 25-30 radicals which are directly related to familiar objects, such as "イ" and "口". The rest of radicals are ignored because they either do not resemble objects or are too complicated. This approach has huge drawbacks. Apart from learning isolated characters students have no hope to use, they get the false idea that all characters have radicals that correlate to objects, and all radicals can explain the meanings of characters. Therefore, they got stuck when they realize that many radicals do not correlate to objects, and many characters cannot be explained through radicals.

We of course acknowledge the historical role radicals have played in learning Chinese. Learning radicals and related characters used to make total sense. Radicals give an index to all characters and make looking up a word in dictionaries possible. Fortunately for current students, a mobile app can solve almost all the problems.

So, taking in all these problems and difficulties, what way is the best to learn Chinese reading and writing? At MSL Master, students start with a modified and reduced frequency list of basic characters, supplemented with lots of examples and exercises on how to use these Chinese characters. Once the foundation is built (with 320 characters), students can proceed to expand their character count rapidly through learning Chinese texts. And we have found this way is pretty effective.


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