Learning Chinese characters – Attitude

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolote. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This article is the first part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – Attitude
Learning to read and write Chinese takes exceptionally long time compared to other languages, the reason being that there is little or no relationship between how a character is written and how it is pronounced (see this article for further details about this). Learning English or French, it is possible to guess how a word is spelt, and even though the guess is perhaps not perfectly accurate, most of the time communication is possible nevertheless. Not so with Chinese. One has to learn to write every character separately and there are few shortcuts. Still, there are different methods to learn the characters, and some work better than others. I feel that I have developed a fairly good way of learning large amounts of Chinese characters, and this way of studying I intend to share with the world in these three relatively short articles. In this first one, the focus will be on the importance of attitude when studying Chinese (or any language, really).

If one wants to study Chinese characters, the first thing one has to consider is why. This is not a simple question, because it requires one to think about the future, in what situations one will use Chinese and why it is important to learn it. For instance, is it enough to only be able to read Chinese, but not write it by hand? This might be the case, because in the modern world of computers, it is not strictly necessary to be able to write by hand (in fact, many young people’s handwriting skill deteriorates today because they use the computer rather than write by hand). Still, living in a Chinese-speaking environment will be very difficult if one cannot write, especially if one intend to use Chinese for study or work. Taking some time to ponder questions like this is important; the student should make sure to have a clear idea of goals and motivations for studying Chinese. Without determination failure is the most likely outcome.

Studying languages is very different from studying most other subjects, especially at beginner levels. The main problem here is that every new section is based on all those that go before. If one fails to understand the first section, the second will be even harder, and so forth. This is a vicious circle that can kill anyone who is not careful. The only real solution is not to start spinning in the first place. Hang in there, never let go. Being left behind not only means that one does not know what one in supposed to know, it also means that it will be much more difficult to learn new things. If I for some reason fall behind, I will try to catch up as soon as possible, because the longer I wait, the less chance I will be able to pull myself up. Try not to live in an imaginary world where it is easy to catch up if one is left behind, because it never is. Not only will there be the old chapters to study properly, there will also be new chapters coming at a steady pace.

Another problem I have encountered is that my goals and the requirements for my courses do not match perfectly. Most of the time, they agree on some points, but there are essential discrepancies. When I say “the requirements for my courses”, I do not mean the official goals or what is theoretically implied there, I mean what the teachers actually require of the students. Be aware that these are seldom the same. For instance, the teacher might say that the students have to know all characters they have studied, but then fails to enforce this by means of examinations. A good teacher will be able to design exams so that there is no difference between the actual requirements and the stated goals of the course, but no teacher is perfect.

Knowing my own agenda as well as what is required of me, it is time to compare these two and find the key differences. It is important to realise that one studies Chinese for one’s own gain, not to complete a specific course, although the latter might of course be a short-term goal that is important in its own right. Let me give an example of a major difference I have found between my own goals and the two courses I have taken so far (one in Sweden, one in Taiwan). The tests on these two courses only require the students to know how to write the new words from a chapter once. This means that it is not a requirement of these courses to be able to write Chinese characters, because writing them once is almost the same as not at all. If the goal is to learn to write Chinese characters, one has to set up a system of one’s own devising that will allow truly learning the characters. Diligent revising is necessary even if it is not a requirement of the current language course!

It is time to say something about the goal for studying characters. The relationship between time spent studying and the percentage of characters known is not linear, but rather exponential. It means that increasing from 85 % to 90 % requires much, much less time than adding the five percent required to reach 95 %. Aiming for 100 % seems not only wasteful, but possibly also stupid. I have considered this goal carefully and decided that I think 95 % is necessary for the characters that are covered in my class (because I need to be able to write them on exams), but for other characters I decide to learn for some reason, 90 % is good enough for now. By no means does this mean that similar number are suitable for other students in other situations; perhaps much lower percentages are suitable for writing, although I believe that fairly high results should be the aim for reading and pronunciation.

Bear in mind that the requirements may change. To illustrate my point, I will give an example. If one studies Chinese full-time for one year, one might perhaps learn around 1500 characters if one studies diligently. Let us assume that after each chapter, there is a small test for writing the characters. On the more important exams, the students can use some phonetic system or handwriting is simply not on the menu (the focus might be on reading, translation, multiple-choice questions and so forth). This means that one will be able to read 1500 characters after one year.

However, provided students not endowed with an exceptional memory, studying in this manner also means that one can only write a couple of hundred of these (admittedly, some characters are fairly simple and very common, so one will be able to write them even though without revision). This will be a great shock if the requirements for next semester changes, and one is suddenly required to write characters by hand (this is bound to happen sooner or later). Basically, it means that one has to learn to write more than a thousand characters really quickly, because the students are assumed to know them already. Of course, it will be easier because the characters have been learn once already, but learning to write them again will not be a walk in the park. I am going to stress the key point here again; knowing to read Chinese is not the same as knowing to write.

This is of course only one example; there are probably many more that might be relevant to a specific situation. It is essential not to focus simply on the minimum requirements of the course, but instead aim for the goals one has set. Hopefully, each student studies Chinese for his or her own good. This also means that planning has to reach much further into the future than the specific courses currently running. The primary goal is to learn Chinese, not to pass the exams (hopefully, though, these will mean the same thing). I think it is of paramount importance to have at least a rough idea of what one’s goals are and how to achieve them. Sometimes, it will be tempting to go for the minimum requirements, but such complacency will bite back and cause great trouble in the future.

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  1. thark’s avatar

    For comparison (and while they are different languages, there is enough overlap for the comparison to be worthwhile): I can read japanese perfectly well (well enough to read a novel or a newspaper, anyway).

    Without computer aid, however, I cannot write worth shite, as this is a skill that, in my circumstances, I have never had need to practice or employ at all since leaving the classroom–and one I have not made a conscious effort to retain.

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  2. Snigel’s avatar

    Yes, perhaps I should have stressed this more clearly. If one does not plan to either live in the country or study the language for a long time, perhaps it is not necessary to learn how to write by hand. If one plans to work here, though, it would be very inconvenient not knowing how to read. For educational purposes it is of course necesseray to know how tto write, because that is the way of exams and tests.

    The computers influence on learning Chinese/Japanese is very interesting, because the impact is different from that in any Western country. Just becasue you and I type more on a computer than we write by hand in Swedish, it does not mean that we loose the ability to write by hand. Sure, we will write slower, but we will still be able to write. Not so with Chinese/Kanji. I wonder where this lead in, say, fifty years. The gap between educated people knowing how to write and those who do not will probably increase a lot. Perhaps the handwriting will go away sooner or late and only be used by a small cultural elite.

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  3. Caroline’s avatar

    The Japanese already have a word for this: wapurobaka, or “word-processor idiot”. (Meaning people who can only write properly with the help of a computer.)

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