For most foreigners about to learn Chinese characters after being used to learning a 26 letter alphabet, it can be a challenge. Still, it can be a pleasurable and rewarding challenge provided that a measure of realism is adopted.
How Many Characters Do I Need to Learn?
Depending upon who you talk to, the consensus view seems to be that you need to eventually understand about 2,000 to approach a good level of literacy, but all depending on what and how deeply you wish to read. Most foreigners aim to learn about 1,000 characters but its more essential that you use methods that actually yield long-term results.
So How Do I Actually Learn The Characters?
To use clever memory techniques (mnemonics) to learn characters
Using mnemonics in not something new, and has been in widespread use for some considerable time. However, the understanding of why and how mnemonics work has improved immensely over the last few years.
You also need to make what you are trying to learn meaningful and consider:
- Character components
- Individual characters
- Characters and words
- Combining the above three items
To decide early on which characters you are going learn
If you are going to learn Mandarin Chinese, early on you need to decide whether to learn either traditional or simplified characters and stay with that choice of one set until you know them relatively well.
You can actually use both sets but choosing one or the other on a character-by-character basis because one might be easier to recognise than the other is not a good idea.
Not to learn by rote learning if you can avoid it
It always helps, no matter what you are studying, to try to make learning meaningful. Some people have been brought up to learn by rote but that tends to make the process longer and less helpful when you are dealing with and trying to memorise words and sentence structures.
To start with something simple
Starting with something simple usually makes the task ahead seem that much easier if you feel you have started well. Now you’ve decided to go ahead and learn Mandarin Chinese characters, as with many languages, there’s no better place to get started than with the numbers 1-10. Numbers in Chinese are quite simple to write, useful to know, and are exactly the same in both the traditional and simplified writing systems.
As a starter, try to write the characters shown below with proper stroke order and then try to memorise and write them again without looking at the text!
One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten
一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九 十
After a while you’ll get into the swing of learning and reading Mandarin Chinese and will begin to more easily spot characters you recognise in day to day usage.
Good advice: persevere, it’s well worth it!