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 for students to approach learning characters. Let’s take a look at them and find out the best method to learn Chinese characters.

A huge deck of flash cards

Researchers typically identify 4000 - 5000 characters in prints or web, including both simplified and traditional characters. The significance of the researches is that the most frequently used 1000 characters account for 86–91% of the characters occurring, and the most frequently used 2000 for 95–98%. These numbers lead to a belief that learning 2000 Chinese characters could allow students to read Chinese newspapers, and a list of frequently used Chinese characters shines on the right path to full Chinese literacy. 

This is the reason that there are many flash cards available in the market. Some are 1000 - 2000 loose cards in boxes, some are books introduce 250 or 800 most frequently used characters. The format of these cards are quite similar. 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 problem of these cards is that, all most on every card there are new characters which are to be introduced further down in the deck. These new characters either appear in the combinations or in the sentences. That is to say, one has to know all the characters already to be able to fully utilise these flash cards.

Also, there are some very useful Chinese characters that do not have a fixed meaning. The meaning of such characters can only be understood in contexts. That makes presenting meanings of these characters tricky. Due to the limited space in each card, explanations have to be reduced. That will leave a negative impact on students’ understanding of the character and its usage. For example “”. It is very hard to talk about the exact meaning of “” without a context. The flash card often gives a meaning of “then”, which is one of the many meanings of this often overlooked Chinese character. Read more here: The often overlooked Chinese character - 就 (jiù).

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

The biggest problem of flash cards is actually the fundamental belief behind the cards, that learning 2000 characters makes one a reader of Chinese. It is not true. Read more here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem.

Pictographic characters 象形字 (Xiang Xing Zi)

There are also books teaching Chinese characters using tons of pictures. Characters that can be tied with pictures nicely are usually pictographic characters. 

Such books are always beautiful to look at. Chinese characters are art themselves, and they are always accompanied with beautiful illustration. 

I think these books are definitely enjoyable. Looking at these books is like looking at nice photo albums.  

However, using these books for learning Chinese characters is not the best option. 

The number of pictographic characters is very limited, and using pictures to explain characters has its limitations. Read more here: Pictures and Chinese characters.

After the initial novelty wears off, students are left with a handful isolated characters that they don't know how to use.

Learning characters by radicals

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

These books tend to teach a small number of radicals, usually around 30 of them. The selected radicals are the ones that can be illustrated clearly, such as “” for person and “ for mouth. Radicals that are not included are usually not so easy to explain.

This approach has huge drawbacks. 

Chiefly, it gives students a false idea that learning radicals is a must, that they should spend time on them. It also make students to believe that all characters have an easily recognisable radical, such as “”.

Read more about radicals here Chinese radicals - a fact sheet, and find out why students can learn Chinese without the knowledge of radicals. Indeed, it is not necessary to spend too much time studying radicals.

Whatever characters taught in textbooks

This approach is to learn each, every and all new Chinese characters presented in students’ textbooks.

For higher level students, this is a good way since there are not that many new characters on each page.

For lower level student, this is a very difficult way since there are too many new characters on each page and in every line. Learning how to read them, how to write them, their meanings and usages is a difficult task. And it is easy for them to forget quickly many of those characters that are not frequently used. 

It is not recommended for beginner students.

A re-invented flash card method

After teaching Chinese for many years, I find that helping students have early wins early on is the best way of learning Chinese characters. 

The result is the Chinese Reading and Writing series, which is kind of re-invention of the flash cards system. 

The similarity is that both teach the most frequently used Chinese characters. 

Different from a huge deck of flash cards, the Chinese Reading and Writing series:

  • Teaches 320 Chinese characters only;
  • Uses characters that are already presented in examples;
  • Gives lots of examples to illustrate meanings;
  • Makes exercises fun to read.

Basically what the series does is to teach some characters and their combinations, then it tells students, “Hey, here is a story you can read. Enjoy!”

The latest development is that flash cards of the series have been created on SuperMemo (a Spaced Repetition Software) for students to practice character recognition. Find out more about these cards here.

This method works very well with beginner students. 

Once the fundamentals are there, it’ll be easier for students to learn more Chinese characters more rapidly. Learning characters as textbooks present them becomes an easier and achievable task for even busy students. At MSL Master, this starts at Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A Student's Book.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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