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Different ways of learning Chinese characters

Learning some characters is the first step of gaining the ability of reading and writing Chinese.

There are a number of ways to start learning characters. Let’s see which one is the best one. 

(Spoiler) This article is going to end with my own books.

Using pictures to learn characters

I’ve seen books that use pictures to teach individual Chinese characters. 

Although Chinese characters are visual, using pictures to teach Chinese characters has serious limitations.

The biggest flaw of this method is that many images are designed with a sole purpose of fitting in with a given character. Such as this one, that a person eats something turns into the character :

Pictures like this are inventive. The drawback is that they have to distort the original meaning of a character to make it work. For example, the component “” is supposed to be a “mouth”, but in this picture, it becomes “food” instead. 

There is a category of Chinese characters that can be matched with pictures wonderfully, because that was how they were invented thousands of years ago. But such characters are very limited. 

To read more about the connection between pictures and Chinese characters, read this article: Pictures and Chinese characters.

Invent a story for each Chinese character

Different from inventing a picture to learn a Chinese character, this method encourages students to invent a story. This method is credited to James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson.

For example the character , that contains (white) and (ladle). To learn this character and to memorise how to write it, you can invent such a story: A large ladle () with a white dot () in the middle hanging from the ceiling. A group of kids is throwing pebbles at the ladle trying to hit their target – the white dot in the ladle’s center.

It is obvious that this method overburdens students with a ton of unnecessary and often irrelevant information. Very often students have to distort characters quite a bit to make things work, such as becomes part of

The worst of all is that, by the end of an unbelievably complicated story, you would have forgotten why you had started.

Learning characters by radicals

There are also books that promote learning Chinese characters by radicals. For example, students learn radical “” first, meaning “person”, then followed by many characters which have this radical, , , , and so on.

This method has huge drawbacks.

First of all, it does not explain the question “What is a radical?”. It gives students a false idea that all Chinese characters have a radical and that all radicals can be as easily recognised as “”. (Read more about radicals here: Chinese radicals - a fact sheet)

Secondly, it does not distinguish radicals from “bushou”. (Find our their differences here: It is not necessary to spend too much time studying radicals)

After all the harm is done, this method can only teach a small number of radicals, usually around 30 of them, and a partial list of Chinese characters related to them.

A huge deck of flash cards

There are so many flash cards available in the market, promising students a path to full Chinese literacy. It could be a box of 1000-2000 loose cards or a book teaching 250 - 800 characters.

The layout of these cards is pretty simple. Each card or page teaches one Chinese character, including stroke orders, the meanings, a few combinations as examples and sometimes one or two sample sentences. 

The biggest drawback of flash cards is that everything is just bits and pieces. Students don’t have any context at all. It’s like learning only the names of the ingredients in a recipe. 

Translation also poses a challenge. In a card you learn that a word means XYZ in English. But XYZ has five meanings in English. Even if you figure out which meaning it is supposed to mean, what you couldn’t figure out is that this XYZ is only of the many meanings of that word. 

Also, every card contains new characters which are to be introduced further down in the deck. That means, students have to know all the characters already to be able to fully utilise these cards.

Finally, the biggest problem is the misconception that functions as the unique selling point, that learning 2000 characters makes one a reader of Chinese. It is simply not true. Read more here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem.

For a more detailed analysis of flash cards, read here: The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese.

Whatever characters taught in textbooks

All methods that I’ve talked about previously have one thing in common. That is, despite having some drawbacks, they all try to alleviate some pain when students start learning Chinese. Use pictures, use stories, or break things down into bits and pieces.

But this method, to learn whatever characters taught in a textbook, is a disastrous approach for beginners if textbooks do not control the amount of new characters presented. 

Unfortunately, most textbooks in the market do not have any control. The result is that there are too many new characters or new words on every page or even on every line. 

Consequently, students are overwhelmed by trying to learn how to read them, how to write them, their meanings and usages, all at once. The majority of the characters are very forgettable because they are not repeated in the subsequent lessons. 

If you want to experience how hard Chinese is, this is the way to go. 

Chinese Reading and Writing series

After teaching Chinese for many years, I find that helping students have early wins early on is the best approach. This is why I wrote the Chinese Reading and Writing series, which:

  • Teaches 320 Chinese characters only;
  • Uses characters that are already taught;
  • Gives lots of examples to illustrate meanings;
  • Has adequate and interesting reading exercises.

The idea is that, after teaching students some characters and combinations, I can tell them, “Hey, here is a story you can read. Enjoy!”

It has worked very well with beginners and given them solid Chinese reading and writing skills to move forward.