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Working for a Chinese language school for foreigners, I hear it over and over again: “I’m not going to learn the characters. I’ll just learn spoken Chinese. That’s enough for me.”
To put it squarely, trying to learn Chinese without learning the characters is generally not a good idea. The good news is, you have no reason to be afraid of learning Chinese characters! In this article, I’ll explain:
- Why you need to learn Chinese characters
- Why learning characters isn’t as difficult as you think
Yes, You Really Do Need to Learn Chinese Characters
You might already know that Chinese has a phonetic system, “Pinyin”, that uses the Latin alphabet to elicit the pronunciation of a word. However, Pinyin is in no way a system used for communication — it’s only used for language learning, and won’t be found anywhere outside of a textbook or dictionary.
Want to order from a Chinese menu? Sorry, no Pinyin there.
Read a map? Nope.
Get off at the right bus stop? Better bring a Chinese friend!
And if you’re chatting with that cute Chinese girl/guy on Wechat, there’s a chance they’ll understand your Pinyin messages, but they’re most likely going to be confused most of the time. You’re probably the only person that’s ever tried to use Pinyin to talk with them. Imagine if someone messaged you in English using the dictionary’s phonology system instead of the actual words!
Characters also play a key role in learning Chinese vocabulary. For example, you’ll learn that jiào shī and jiào shì mean classroom and teacher. But which is which?!
If you were looking at the characters instead of the Pinyin, it would be a lot more obvious.
Not only will characters help you distinguish words, they’ll also help you memorize them. Attaching words to an image is an excellent way to store the memory of that word in your mind. When you see that character used again, you’ll be able to draw that memory back up. That process would be a lot less efficient if all you know is “shi.”
Why Chinese Characters Seem Impossible to Learn
If characters scare you, you might relate to one of the following statements:
- “Each character looks like a small painting, how could I ever memorize thousands of paintings?!”
- “I don’t know how I would look up the meaning of a character in a dictionary, especially if I don’t even know how it’s pronounced.”
- “Even if I learned how to read characters, I would never be able to remember how to write them.”
- “I know more than 30,000 English words, doesn’t that mean I’ll have to learn 30,000 Chinese characters?!”
Don’t jump ship yet. The journey to Chinese fluency isn’t a cake walk, but it’s not nearly as hard as these statements make them seem. This is because:
- Chinese characters are not like paintings
- It’s simple to look up a Chinese character in a dictionary
- You don’t need to remember how to write all the Chinese characters from memory
- There are much fewer Chinese characters than there are English words
Chinese Characters Are Not Like Paintings
A painting can be made with any number of brush strokes, in any direction, in any combination. A simplified Chinese character, on the other hand, is made with only eight different types of strokes.
Moreover, these eight different strokes aren’t just made in random combinations. They’re composed into a limited number of radicals, or character “segments.” Thousands of Chinese characters are all made up of only 214 different radicals. Learning these 214 radicals will allow you to quickly memorize the thousands of Chinese characters. Use the image below for reference:
If you looked at the “character” in the above image, you could view it for two seconds then look away and easily draw it from memory. Why? Because it’s a combination of four shapes that are very familiar to you. You didn’t have to memorize how to draw each shape. You already know how to draw them. You only needed to memorize the order of the shapes.
In the same way, most Chinese characters are made up of a combination of “shapes,” or radicals. The character on the right of the image is made of three radicals. You’ll see these radicals reused throughout many different characters that you learn, simply placed in different orders. Over time, the radicals will become as familiar as the shapes you learned as a child. When you learn a new character, it will become as simple as memorizing “arrow, two triangles, circle, and heart.”
How do I Look Up a Chinese Character in a Dictionary?
If you know how the character is pronounced, simply look it up according to its Pinyin.
If you don’t know how to pronounce it, you have two options:
- Take a picture of it using an app.
- Draw it using an app.
Electronic dictionaries now have features that can automatically detect a character when you take a photo of it, showing you the dictionary profile for the character. Some apps can even show you the live translation as you wave your phone over the character.
There are also apps that allow you to draw the character with your finger. This is known as “stroke input.”
Do I Need to Remember How to Write Every Chinese Character From Memory?
No. For everyday use, this isn’t necessary.
Unless your profession is directly related to handwriting, the only frequent handwriting you’ll do is writing your Chinese name. Otherwise, you’ll likely be communicating through email, text messaging, Wechat, etc.
When typing in Chinese, a Pinyin input system is used. You’ll simply enter the Pinyin of the characters you want and select the corresponding characters.
To say “classroom,” you’ll simply type “jiao shi:”
Then select number 1. This is why reading ability is important. There is more than one “jiao shi” and you’ll need to choose the correct one. Writing from memory, in this case, isn’t as necessary.
However, this isn’t to say writing ability altogether is unneeded. You will occasionally encounter situations such as needing to write your address on a form. For this, you’ll likely be able to look at the address on your phone while copying it down by hand. In this case, you will need to know how to write, just not from memory. Having a foundation in writing radicals and stroke order should be sufficient for this kind of situation.
How Many Chinese Characters Are There?
Although there are over 50,000 characters, modern dictionaries usually list less than 20,000. You’ll only need to know 2,633 characters to achieve fluency.
Fluency in Mandarin is generally measured by passing level 6 of the HSK standardized Mandarin test. The HSK 6 requires a learner to know 2,633 characters and 5,000 words.
Individual characters have their own meanings, and can even act as a word by themselves, but most words are made up of two or more characters. Characters are reused through many different words, so when you learn a new word, it doesn’t always mean you’ll need to learn new characters.
For example, maybe you’ve learned one of the words for teacher: 教师
教 means “teach” and 师 can mean “specialist.” A “teaching specialist” is a teacher. Now that you’ve learned 师，you’ll already recognize it when you learn these words:
- 律师 – “law specialist” – lawyer
- 工程师 – “engineering specialist” – engineer
- 会计师 – “accounting specialist” – accountant
And, since you already learned 教, you’ll also recognize it when learning:
- 教育 – education
- 教案 – lesson plan
- 教材 – teaching material
When an English learner studies a new word, they have to remember a unique spelling for each word. But Chinese learners often only need to remember which characters are used, and the characters may already be familiar to them. This makes learning and memorizing new vocabulary a much more efficient process.
Others Have Mastered Chinese Characters, You Can Too!
Thousands of non-native Mandarin learners pass the HSK 6 each year. When they first began learning, they probably had the same fears about Chinese characters that you do now. If they can do it, there’s no reason that you can’t!
To be fair, Chinese isn’t one of the easiest foreign languages to learn, but in no way is it impossible. If you plan to take on the challenge, don’t skip the characters! They’ll be one of your closest allies in the learning process.