Need some inspiration to learn all the characters? Check out these 10 tips to learn Chinese characters the right way!
Maybe you’re feeling intimidated, or perhaps you just can’t wait to start. Whatever you may be feeling, we’ve all been there. Learning Chinese will invariably make you feel many emotions: excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and — every now and then — stress. And that’s completely normal! After all, Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. It’s also fascinatingly unique, and one of the best languages to learn for business as well.
But learning Chinese isn’t an insurmountable task. With close to 200 million non-native speakers, Mandarin is a language as manageable as any. However, since the Chinese writing system is so unique, you will also need to adopt unique learning strategies. You shouldn’t approach learning Chinese as you would French or Spanish.
So, here are 10 indispensable tips on how to learn Chinese characters. These will help you no matter where you are on your learning journey, whether you don’t even know how to say hello in Chinese yet, or you’ve already got a couple of hundred characters under your belt!
How to learn Chinese characters
Okay, now that you’ve made up your mind about learning Chinese, you may be wondering how to even begin learning how to write Chinese characters. While this may feel like a daunting task, learning the Chinese characters isn’t as hard as you may think. After all, well over a billion people can read and write Chinese. You just have to train yourself to think a little differently, and with enough hard work, you’ll be able to master the characters like a native speaker!
Here are some of our top tips for learning Chinese characters:
1. Slow and steady wins the race
Although you may be trying to learn Chinese as quickly as possible, keep in mind that learning Chinese is a marathon — not a sprint. The last thing you want to do is force yourself through too many hours of study and start getting character meanings and grammar structures mixed up.
Learning a new language involves creating new pathways in your brain. This happens naturally as you start making new connections and figuring out how to structure ideas differently using the new language. This process takes time, and as much as you’d like to speed it up, research shows that consistent study is the best way to acquire a new language. So, instead of studying for seven hours once a week, try studying for one hour every day!
2. Spend some time learning about the Chinese writing system
The Chinese writing system is as complex as it is interesting. But its complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can use the information packed into your characters to your advantage and speed up the learning process.
Here’s how to take advantage of three components of Chinese words.
Radicals can be tremendously helpful when trying to decipher a character. They are a basic component of a character, and they often include information about the meaning behind the character. Think of them as “hints” that can help you remember or deduce the meaning of a character you haven’t fully learned yet. If you’re looking for a shortcut to improving your Chinese dramatically, then learning the radicals is it.
Although there are over 200 different Chinese radicals, you don’t need to learn every single one to get the most out of them. Try focusing on the top 50 most common radicals first. That will surely catapult your character recognition ability like nothing else!
Most characters are made up of two or more components. These are known as compound characters, and each component can often give you clues about the meaning or sound (or both!) of the character. For example, 吃 (chī), the character for the verb “to eat,” includes the component 口 (kǒu) to the left, which means mouth. Knowing that the verb “to eat” includes the component for mouth can help you identify this verb more easily!
There are also sound components to characters, which don’t have anything to do with the meaning but tell you what the sound should be. For example, the character for mom 妈 (mā) has the components for woman 女 (nǚ) and for horse 马 (mǎ). Here, of course, the component 女 helps us figure out the meaning, while the component 马 helps us figure out the sound — without any implication on the meaning!
However, not all character components will help you understand meaning or sound. In fact, most of them won’t, so don’t try to find meaning in every single component. What they can do, though, is give you “building blocks” to help you remember characters.
For example, the character 因 (yīn), which means cause or reason, is made up of two components: 大 (dà), which means big, and 囗 (wéi), which means enclosure. As you can tell, those two components don’t help us derive either meaning or sound. Yet, when learning the character 因, you can remember it by thinking of the two components you already know!
Most words in Chinese are made up of two characters, not just one. In fact, over 73% of all Chinese words are disyllabic, so most of the words you’ll be using will be made up of two characters. You should use this as an advantage, as knowing the meaning of just one of the two characters can often give you a pretty good shot at guessing the meaning of the word, even if you’ve never seen it before.
For example, let’s look at the character 高 (gāo), which means high or tall. As an elementary character, you’ll likely learn this within the first couple of months of studying Chinese. This is one of the most common characters used in compound words, so you’ll know it has something to do with something high. That clue, along with the context, may help you figure out what that new word means.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
|Character 2 meaning
|College entrance examination
3. Spaced repetition
They say learning a new language is like riding a bicycle — once you learn it well, you won’t forget it. But let’s face it, you won’t be able to keep up with your vocabulary words unless you review them frequently. That’s where spaced repetition comes in.
Spaced repetition consists of reviewing your vocabulary at different frequency intervals in order to ensure strong recall. You’d review the hardest words more frequently than the easy ones to make sure that they all remain fresh in your mind.
Several studies have found that this is one of the best ways to improve foreign language vocabulary recall, so make sure to include some spaced repetition into your regular study schedule! You can use good old flashcards or find an online spaced repetition software to make things easier.
4. Read more
You might not be surprised to learn that reading is one of the best ways to reinforce Chinese characters in your memory, but what you may not know is that you can read Chinese even as a beginner. That’s right! You can find Chinese graded readers that use as few as 100 unique characters, which will get you reading Chinese even if you’ve been studying for less than six months.
The best thing about graded readers is that they will help you get comfortable with reading characters. The more you read, the easier it will become for you to recognize each character!
5. Take Chinese classes
Chinese characters are far too diverse to be generalized. While there are several tools and tips that can help you across the board, the best way to learn them is with an instructor who can go into the details of each of them. Most characters have their own unique stories that can help you learn them more easily — but you’ll need someone to help you go over them.
Whether you take group classes online or find an online private language tutor, make sure you enlist the help of a certified professional to guide you on your Chinese journey! Spending the time to work with a professor or tutor can shave off many hours of solo study. Remember to work smarter, not harder!
6. Don’t worry about handwriting
This might be a bit of an odd tip, but the overwhelming majority of Chinese language learners do not need to worry too much about writing characters by hand. Most everyday interactions are either verbal or digital, meaning that you can almost always rely on using pinyin to enter the characters in your phone or computer.
Think about it, when was the last time you had to write something down on a piece of paper in a language other than your own?
It was probably either for a test in one of your classes or when filling out a form. If you’re in a Chinese class that requires you to take paper tests without any character aid, then there’s really no way around it — you’ll just have to learn how to handwrite. But when it comes to filling out paper forms — like visa applications and school enrollment forms — you can just use your phone to look up the characters and copy them. And even then, many of these bureaucratic processes that used to require tons of paperwork are also going digital these days!
With that said, handwriting Chinese characters is a beautiful part of this stunning language and may be part of the reason why you decided to pick it up in the first place. If this sounds like you, then, by all means, keep learning how to handwrite! But if you’re not particularly invested in being able to write characters by hand from memory, then you’ll save a tremendous amount of hours by bypassing that. The truth is, just being able to type will suffice for 99% of interactions in Chinese.
7. Find the right study plan for you
There are over 100,000 characters and over 500,000 words in the Chinese language. But do you have to learn them all? No! In fact, you only have to learn a fraction of that. While it is estimated that native Chinese speakers know around 8,000 characters, you can get a lot done with just around 2,500 characters, like reading books, understanding most of a regular newspaper, and watching virtually any TV show or movie with subtitles.
However, the big question is which 2,500 characters can get you there. While you could go off of the HSK levels as a reference, you should also think about your goals with Chinese in order to create your own study plan. After all, you’ll need a very different vocabulary if you’re just looking to communicate with your in-laws or if you’re thinking about going to graduate school in China.
Here are some questions that can help you figure out your ideal study plan:
- Who are you trying to communicate with?
- What are your hobbies and interests?
- Do you need to read, speak, listen, and write? Are any of these areas more important than the rest?
- Do you hope to be able to pick up any book and be able to read it?
- Will you be using Chinese for business?
Once you’ve identified what you need to know, start getting comfortable with not becoming fluent in every aspect of Chinese. After all, most of us wouldn’t be able to pick up a journal in Economics, a medical report, a commercial airliner flight path, and a computer science manual and be able to understand every single one of them. Point is, none of us are really fluent in everything, even in our native language — we just decide what we do want to be fluent in.
8. Watch Chinese media with Chinese subtitles
Studying Chinese characters doesn’t ever have to be painful. Okay, it might squeeze every last bit of willpower out of us sometimes, but it should generally be a pleasant experience! This tip proves exactly that.
As you now know, being able to read Chinese and speak Chinese are two totally different things. Because the phonetic component of the language is not related to the meaning of the words, a very valuable skill to have is to be able to link characters with sounds. As you move along your Chinese journey, you will inevitably find yourself knowing how to say many words without knowing what their characters look like and vice versa.
Watching native content with Chinese subtitles is a great way to bridge this gap. As long as you can understand enough to know what is going on, you’ll start learning how to say all those characters whose meanings you’ve mastered and yet — somehow — still can’t get around to saying out loud. So, you get to sit back, enjoy some popcorn, and study while watching an awesome show!
And if you feel like your level is nowhere near close to that where you can start watching TV in Chinese, do not worry! There are plenty of shows that are simple enough for even intermediate speakers to follow along. Here are some of our favorite native Chinese shows for learners:
|Home With Kids (家有儿女)
|Ode to Joy I (欢乐颂 1)
|Shards of Her (她和她的她)
|Drama, TV Thrillers
|The Wandering Earth (流浪地球)
And if you still find those a little too hard to follow along, there’s always Peppa Pig! Most of us language enthusiasts are well acquainted with our good friend Peppa, who has become a sort of the quintessential coach to help you get from beginner to intermediate level. Don’t underestimate the power of watching Peppa Pig in Chinese!
9. Find a language partner
Yet another fun way to learn Chinese characters is by making friends! With over 1 billion speakers, Chinese is the second most spoken language in the world, just barely behind English. That means there’s no shortage of potential friends and language study partners!
Studies have found that using fun activities to learn a foreign language can have a positive impact on your study. In other words, you’re more likely to have better results if you’re having fun while you study! Socializing with native speakers can be a great way to work on your Chinese while having fun.
The best part is that you can do this from anywhere in the world. Thanks to social media and messaging apps, it’s easy to find people who share your interests and will be willing to discuss them with you. Keep in mind that most Western social media apps are blocked in China, so try using some of the following Chinese social media apps:
|Mostly a messaging app similar to WhatsApp, with some photos and short videos similar to Instagram.
|Microblogging app similar to Twitter.
|Short video app, the Chinese version of TikTok. Keep in mind that Douyin is a different app, but it looks and works the same as TikTok.
10. Keep a journal in Chinese
Beyond all the mental health benefits of keeping a journal, did you know that this can also be an excellent way to practice your characters? Journaling is a clever way to get the psychological benefits of reflecting on your day while working on your Chinese characters. Studies have found that foreign language learners can benefit from incorporating journaling into their study routines.
The best part about this technique is that it is customizable to any level. If you’re still a beginner, just writing down a couple of simple sentences based on the vocabulary and grammar that you’ve learned should be enough. If you’re more advanced, you can take this as a challenge to describe the most important things that happened to you today and describe your feelings in Chinese.
How many Chinese characters are there?
Chinese is a language so old and so vast that it’s technically impossible to take account of every single Chinese character that has ever existed. Even the top Chinese dictionaries disagree on the total number of characters: the 异体字字典 (yìtǐzì zìdiǎn) lists 106,230 characters while the 中华字海 (zhōnghuá zìhǎi) lists 85,568.
And that’s just characters! Since most Chinese words are made up of combinations of two or more characters, you end up with hundreds of thousands of unique words in Chinese.
How many Chinese characters do you need to learn to be fluent?
Though there are over 100,000 Chinese characters, you do not need to learn them all to be fluent. In fact, most native Chinese speakers don’t even know 1/10 of that!
To have basic fluency in Chinese, you’ll need to know at least 1,200 characters. In order to be able to understand books and movies without problems, you’ll need to learn about 2,500 characters. A well-educated native speaker will know around 8,000 characters.
The HSK is a good point of reference for knowing how many characters you’ll need to know to do certain things in Chinese. The HSK test (hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì) is the official Chinese as a foreign language test administered by Hanban, an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Here are the nine HSK levels along with the fluency expectation of each, as described by Hanban:
|They can understand and use very simple Chinese phrases, meet basic needs for communication and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.
|They have an excellent grasp of basic Chinese and can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
|They can communicate in Chinese at a basic level in their daily, academic, and professional lives. They can manage most communication in Chinese when traveling in China.
|They can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and are able to communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers.
|They can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays and give a full-length speech in Chinese.
|They can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese and can effectively express themselves in Chinese, both orally and on paper.
|They are scholars, Sinologists, or Chinese language and literature students at the university level.
Can you learn Chinese without learning the characters?
You sure can! However, learning Chinese without learning the characters means that you won’t be able to read or write. So, if you’re only looking for conversational — rather than proficient — abilities, then you may benefit from bypassing the characters altogether.
Keep in mind that Chinese has plenty of homonyms, and characters help give each of these their own unique meanings. Since Chinese is highly dependent on characters, you will not be able to learn it to the fullest extent if you don’t spend some time with the characters.
What languages use Chinese characters?
Chinese, Korean, and Japanese use Chinese characters. Since the Chinese writing system was developed earlier, both Korean and Japanese borrowed the characters for use in their own writing system.
Chinese characters — known as Kanji in Japanese — are still very common in modern Japanese. That’s why you’ll see that many words are spelled the same in Japanese and Chinese. For example, Japan is written 日本 in both Chinese and Japanese, but it’s pronounced rìběn in Chinese and ni／ppo＼n' in Japanese. Kanji is used alongside Katakana and Hiragana, the other two writing systems in Japanese.
On the other hand, Hanja (as they refer to Chinese characters) is almost completely gone from modern Korean. Since the introduction of Hangul in the 15th century, Koreans have been less and less reliant on the Chinese writing system. Today, you’ll only sporadically spot some Chinese characters here and there if you visit Korea or learn Korean.
Do all Chinese characters resemble their meaning?
No! This is one of the most common misconceptions people have about Chinese. Not all Chinese characters are supposed to resemble their meaning. In fact, an overwhelming majority of them don’t.
Several thousand years ago, when the Chinese writing system was in its infancy, most characters did look like what they were representing. For example, 火 (huǒ) means fire — and it sure looks like it too!
However, as the vocabulary expanded, it got harder and harder to create characters that looked like what they were supposed to represent.
Here are some of our favorite Chinese characters that look the same as their meaning:
|This means — and looks exactly like — a tree!
|What’s five trees put together? A forest!
|You can tell this character was invented before planes were because of the position of the wings!
|This one is more abstract than the others, but we think it perfectly conveys the feeling of mutual.
|Refers to both real webs and the internet! No questions here!
|It’s got a set of eyes and a teardrop — how cool (or sad!) is that!?
|This one doesn’t need much explaining. There are raindrops falling from the sky!
|And what do you need the most when it rains? An umbrella! Luckily, you won’t have any trouble figuring out what this character means.
|Another super literal character. The only thing it’s missing is a handle!
|This beautiful little bird is certainly on the more artistic side of Chinese. Who knew Picasso was around five thousand years ago for the invention of the Chinese characters!
Bonus: If a character could earn the title of the world’s oldest emoji, it would definitely be 囧 (jiǒng). This character means “confused” or “embarrassed,” and doesn’t it look like this guy is going through a lot?
How do Chinese dictionaries work?
Since Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, you may be wondering how Chinese dictionaries work. Most print Chinese dictionaries are ordered by Yinpin or stroke number. These are the easiest ways for someone who doesn’t know a character to look it up in the dictionary.
Modern digital dictionaries are much easier to use. There are many ways to search for a character. You can simply enter the pinyin (if you know it) or use your smartphone to draw it. You could also search by radical or even use your voice!
What is the most difficult Chinese character?
The most difficult Chinese character is biáng from biángbiángmiàn, a noodle dish local to Xi’an. This character has 58 strokes and is any Chinese learner’s nightmare. However, rest assured that it is an extremely uncommon character, and you won’t run into it unless you go to Xi’an looking for it!
Keep up the momentum
Now that you know 10 new ways to learn Chinese characters, don’t lose your momentum! Start by incorporating two or three of your favorite tips above and see how you feel after a couple of days. Once you feel like you’ve formed a study habit with your methods of choice, come back to this article and pick a few more to incorporate into your routine! Before you know it, you will have learned hundreds of new characters!
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