Learning Chinese characters can be a great help in mastering Mandarin Chinese; yet it can also be hard work. If you are still not sure whether to try and learn to read Chinese as well as speaking it fluently, read on and see what one of our experts thinks.
We managed to catch up with Ollie from Chinese Musings who is an expert in learning Chinese characters, and are very pleased that he took the time to speak with us. Ollie is also the author of the book Chinese Characters Etymology.
We asked him the following questions:
1. As most learning techniques these days are to do with digital, or using smartphones, iPads etc. What about learning to actually write Chinese characters, do you feel that’s still worthwhile?
I do still learn how to write Chinese characters, despite technology. That’s not because I need to handwrite lots of letters in Chinese characters, but because knowing how to write Chinese characters helps with lots of other things. For example, the best way to make sure that you can read a Chinese character is by knowing how to write it.
On the other hand, it is probably not necessary to learn how to write every single character: Typing the pinyin and then seeing the character pop up on the screen is a great tool for if the character is too difficult to learn!
2. How do you look up words if you encounter a Chinese word you don’t know?
This is where technology helps a lot! I get out my phone, open up Google Translate or Pleco and then either take a picture of the character or draw it on the screen with my finger. The app then tells me the pinyin and meaning.
(You can get the functionality of drawing with your finger by going to “Settings” then “Keyboard”).
3. Should we learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters?
I actually wrote a post about this on my blog. In the post, I concluded that for most learners, simplified characters are better: They’re easier to learn and are used by the majority of Chinese.
There are some reasons why you might learn traditional, however. If you’re learning Chinese because you’re going to Taiwan, for example, you should definitely learn traditional as Taiwan never switched to simplified.
You might also want to learn traditional characters because they look better. This probably doesn’t matter if you’re just writing emails, but if you want to do calligraphy it can make a big difference.
4. What are some common mistakes you see people make when they learn Chinese characters?
I don’t see enough people write characters to know what their most common mistakes are. So, I’ll tell you about my own frequent errors, instead!
• Having lines stop in the wrong places: Eg. For 余, I sometime have the vertical stroke start from the second not the first horizontal.
• Because my writing is slow, I sometimes forget to write the second character of a word: By the time I’ve written the first character, I’m already thinking about what the next word should be – so I forget to do the second character of the first word! That’s why I have a lot of essays where I’ve written 喜not 喜欢.
5. Any great book or tools you can recommend for learning Chinese characters or Chinese in general?
• “Reading and Writing Chinese” by William McNaughton is a great book to help you understand Chinese characters. It also gives you the stroke order.
• Anki is a free flashcard program that’s really helpful for learning vocabulary (in any language). Each day, Anki shows you the cards which it thinks you’re about to forget. You can then review them so that the memory gets strengthened. This is efficient and gets the vocabulary into you’re long-term memory.
• Skritter is similar to Anki only it lets you write the character with your finger on the screen (and you have to pay).
• The “Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters” is something I’m really excited about. It hasn’t come out yet but you can pay in advance to get a discount – and help fund its creation – on Kickstarter. Outlier Linguistics have done really thorough research as to why each part of a character is there. This is interesting and can be really helpful in remembering how to write the character. You should definitely check this one out!
6. From your experiences so far, what is your best tip for learning Chinese?
This is a cliché but probably with good reason: You have to practice speaking Chinese with a person.
You can do this even if you don’t have a Chinese friend / family member: Various sites online let you pay to talk with a native speaker. Speak up Chinese is a great example. I like Speak up Chinese because their teachers are trained in teaching Chinese, so apart from chatting, they can also explain grammar.
7. Many Chinese learners today can speak but not read Chinese words or characters. Can you give some effective ways on how people can improve their Chinese reading?
I like to practice my reading with “graded readers”. These are books in Chinese that have been written for learners of a specific level. Some even have glossaries of the characters and grammar you need at the back. These are good because they’re readable, but have proper stories (including Sherlock Holmes!).
8. There are so many Chinese characters. What are the best ways to memorise Chinese characters and not forget them?
Anki (the free program I talked about above) is great because it keeps testing your character knowledge so you never have an opportunity to forget characters.
Learning etymology is also really helpful because it gives you a story about each character. This makes it much easier to remember the character as it’s much easier to recall a story than seemingly random strokes. So don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter I mentioned – or my own book, below.
9. Tell us some more about how your book helps people to learn Chinese characters?
The book’s based on the idea that it’s easier to learn a few building blocks (called radicals) and then a story than lots of random strokes.
There’s only around 100 common radicals, so this part isn’t that hard. (Especially when many of them are pictograms).
Once you know these you can get all kind of stories to increase memorability. Here’s an example I often use:
Something I’m really proud of is that I didn’t just make the stories up. All the stories in the book (and in the graphic above) are thought to be the real etymology of the character. So the book doesn’t just help your learning, it also gives you an insight into Chinese culture.
If you’re interested, have a look at the book here.
10. If you had to start again and learn Chinese from scratch, how would you go about it now?
I’d get more speaking practice, even as a complete beginner. There are 2 benefits of doing this. Firstly, you get to put into practice the knowledge you learn in class or from a textbook. Secondly (and this would have helped me a lot!), you get someone to help you with your pronunciation. This is really important when Chinese pronunciation is made harder by tones and sounds that aren’t in the English language.
Some interesting answers, thanks Ollie. It’s good to hear your tips and advice about the best ways to learn Chinese.
We expect that our followers at Learn Mandarin Now will find it all that much easier to study and become natural, fluent speakers of Chinese after hearing your answers!