To learn how to read Chinese is an important step in speaking the language.
Written Mandarin Chinese is known as pinyin or zhongwen or, in Chinese 中文, and comprises Chinese characters 汉字/漢字or literally “Han characters”. They do not constitute an alphabet but, rather, the writing system is roughly monosyllabic. That is, a character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word. The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects, abstract notions or pronunciation.
When students start learning to read Mandarin Chinese there are some key things to remember or consider:
Number of Chinese Characters
Depending upon what you read and believe there may be a total of as many as 20,000 Mandarin Chinese characters or, alternatively, less than 6,000. Most people agree that you need far less than these numbers to read.
How Many Characters Do You Really Need to Know?
Possibly knowing around 2,000 characters is the number to aim for unless you plan to be a scholar of the language, but around 1,000 can get you by. However, in Mandarin Chinese, meaning is conveyed using words and most words consist of two characters and, therefore, knowing a certain amount of characters isn’t directly related to reading ability at all.
In addition, there’s also grammar, word order and a lot of other grammatical things to learn which aren’t related to the number of characters you know either.
Despite many beginner’s belief to the contrary, Chinese characters aren’t pictures. A very small percentage of characters that originally directly represented objects in the real world, such as 日 “sun” and 月 “moon”, but these characters make up a small fraction of characters in use today.
Some Chinese Characters are Confusingly Similar
It’s easy to create mnemonics for each individual character as you start learning and since you have so few visually similar characters, it’s not that hard to keep them separate. As the number of character you study increases, though, you will soon run into a small problem: there are wide series of characters that look almost the same, yet differ only in one or two strokes.
Instead of writing such characters a lot to help memorise them, there is a way you can use to solve many of these problems by paying attention to the phonetic component.
A basic example is as follows: 良 (liang) and 艮 (gen) – When you write characters with these two components, it’s hard to remember if there should be a dot or not. Until, that is, you notice that all characters containing 良 (with the dot) end with -iang and all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -in or -en.
Meaning and Sound
Most Chinese characters are combinations of meaning and sound. Learn how these characters work and you will save yourself a lot of time and trouble going forward; of course, it’s not always easy to learn and memorise so many new characters but this is the most effective way.
As with any new language, learning Mandarin Chinese requires dedication and effort but if you have a good grounding and follow simple rules, then you’ll be reading in no time!