At what point did you start having trouble learning new characters? What did you do?

May 24, 2011, 01:01 PM posted in General Discussion

I have found as I hit the 1.5k"ish" character mark it is becoming increasingly difficult to remember words.  In the beginning they all looked different - now I need to train myself to catch subtle differences, an extra stroke or change in radical.  Who knows maybe I am just dumb but it seems somewhere near 2,000 characters learning new characters is increasingly difficult.  Would be glad to know if this is common and what are some ways to overcome this!


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May 24, 2011, 02:17 PM

I don't think I ever didn't have trouble learning new characters!  Hats off to you my friend for making it to 1500 before the trouble kicked in!  Having said that, I know exactly what you mean. I'm at about the 1000 mark and there are plenty of characters which I think i recognise, only to be bamboozled because it was one tiny extra stroke on the radical...Just keep at it and use those SRS flashcards, they've been a godsend.

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May 25, 2011, 03:05 AM

I guess it is up to us on our desired level of proficiency . As for me , I might be able to type the character, but might not be able to pronounce the character with the proper tones...My desire is to able to say/write what is on my mind and understand people's written/spoken words.

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May 24, 2011, 06:10 PM

I think it only becomes easier to learn as you acumulate more - You notice more new patterns for both meaning and sound, and every new charecter is going to have enough similarity to already learned ones that you can usually associate it to some group of simiarly pronounced charecters that tell you its sound.  When I encounter a new charecter, I'm usually 80% to guess its sound and tone right, and even if wrong I'm usually only off slightly (ie I knew 衢, so when I ran into 瞿 the other day my mind put 2 and 2 together and knew it was going to be qu2.  Some older dictionaries also say it has a second pronounciation of ju4, but I got the main one ;) )

The exception might be if you were learning charecters in a vague way, by sort of memorizing a blurry sense of their structure - in that case, you are going to start to get similar looking charecters and have trouble.  But the problem lies in your method, and it was present from the begining - only the problems took awhile to show up.  The best solution is to go back and learn charecters from their structure - carefully note what radicals are present, form an account in your mind of how particular elements contribute sound and meaning.  You might try getting the book - Reading and Writing Chinese by William McNaughton - it has a few errors, but very good nonethless. And its organization is great, as it presents a bunch of charecters with similar pronounciation component in a row, helping you to distinguish between similar looking charecters.  It also has great explanations of how to analyze charecters, that will get you going in that direction.

One other note - it is a HUGE mistake to view flashcards, or any kind of formal review, as the way you maintain your knowledge of the charecters you already know.  It works fine when there are a couple hundred, but later the problem is it takes too long.  Consider the amount of time it takes to review a single charecter with a flashcard or reading it in a book, 5-10 seconds maybe?  Ok, now if you are reading something, how many charecters would you have read in the same period of time?  I'd say you if you are familar with the charecters and reading something on your level, you are probably getting several charecters per second, even reading at a slow rate.  And each time you read a charecter, that is reviewing it.  The speed difference is because it is so much smoother and more natural to read - rather than looking at charecter, stopping to ask yourself what its pronounciation and meaning is, coming up with an english translation, confirming against answer, flipping to next...Sure, in reading you review the common charecters alot, but if you are picking good reading material for your level you are also hitting the less common ones often enough.  And you are also training your general understanding of the language, and improving your skills in grammer, word usage, etc.

When you have very few charecters, formal study, flashcards are your only options - at 1500, its time for your review to switch to reading simple stories.  Find stuff aimed at very small children for now, and slowly increase from there.  Leave formal study or cards for learning new charecters, and turn review over to natural reading.



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Great advice mate, particularly re the flashcards. This is definitely the issue I'm now hitting. I couldn't believe the progress I made with formal SRS flashcards over the last couple of months, but now I dread each day's alert that I have "20 new cards to learn and 563 to review"! Will start to move onto children's books I think.

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I always get so much out of your posts so thanks again mate. I'm not sure I realised that you could also guess at tone by looking at the characters [the phonetic obviously]. This book Reading and Writing Chinese by William McNaughton sounds interesting. I take it that in your opinion it is the best on the subject?

I feel a lot better about your advice re flashcards as I've been too lazy to ever bother with them much. Yeah, I've tried occas bit it's a little tedious. But what about if you got SRS working well? I can't help but think it might still be a good method for rarer words. But your point about reading is a good one. I'm thinking that it might be different when it comes to writing though.

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Could you let me (us) know of any reading suggestions you have?

I'm at around the 2,800 character range. I'm currently reading Chinese books, but they are focused at foreigners. For example the book I'm reading has a lot of short stories and is focused at students who are studying for the HSK Level 6-8 (old HSK levels). The problem with these books is they are boring and I have to force myself to read them. I've been wanting to pick up real Chinese books for young adults that will keep me more interested, but yet not be so far out of my Level that I can't enjoyable read. Looking forward to your response.


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McNaughton’s book is great – I can’t say ‘best’ as I lack knowledge of what alternatives are out there. Though, regardless it would be worth going through, it will probably provide some unique insight.

You’re probably right about rare characters – but still, given how much faster reading is for review over flashcards, I’d say you are better off saying ‘ok, maybe I will end up forgetting this rare character for now.’ If you aren’t encountering it regularly in your reading, then best to focus on reviewing others – and then continually increase the level of your reading material as your skill increases. Eventually, you’ll increase to the point where your common reading incorporates characters that were very rare before, and then that is the time to really learn it. Trying to carry a vocab bank around of rare characters learned prematurely isn’t cost effective – you are going to constantly be spending valuable time maintaining it, that could be spent advancing your knowledge in areas that is easy to maintain through your reading. Though, I still think flashcards and the like can be really useful for initially learning a character (including review during the initial week or two). Reading only becomes a fast review once you know it well enough that when you see it you know its meaning and sound without needing to check for confirmation.

Hi Ouyang,

What sort of things do you like? I think its really easy to find a lot of interesting reading stuff by searching on Baidu – I ran a search for child’s stories just now, and came up with this website filled with them: (or search for 儿童故事 on baidu). But you might found those boring also. You might try going to Baidu encyclopedia, you can just search for whatever topic interests you and then transfer the article to pleco reader or print it or whatever. Here’s a link to the article on your name, 欧阳 -

Personally I really like video game RPG dialogue transcripts – feels like I’ve returned to my childhood, and they tend not to be the most complicated thing. Here’s a clip of dialogue from the beginning of one of the most famous RPGs in China, 仙剑三 (which was also made into a movie), a conversation between the characters 景天 and 雪见 .

1.1 初识














Anyway obviously it’s a long story with lots of more exciting scenes than that one, but the above should give you an idea of the kind of language in it. If you like this sort of thing, you can send me a pm with your email and I’m happy to share some ones I found – though my main point is I think creative use of internet searching, aimed at whatever kind of writing most interests you, is a really great idea - you can find blog posts, transcripts, books...


I agree in general – though I think its ok to let yourself forget how to write rare characters that you would never need to handwrite (ie you’d be typing anytime you used a word like that). I remember I was chatting possible baby names with a very well educated Chinese friend, a name came up that involved 睿rui4 (wisdom), and neither of us could remember how to write it. With characters like that, as long as you recognize it and would not get it confused with anything else, I’d say you know it. Though the later part is important – you might not need to know how to hand-write 祟sui4, but you need to have your mind clear on its difference with 崇chong2.


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If you really are reviewing over 500 cards each day, it's probably because you're inputting too much into your srs at one time. If you add cards slowly, you'll find that the review times aren't so much. Right now I'm at about 2000 cards (which I have built up to over the last 3 or so years) and I probably get an average of 50 reviews each day that I can get through in about 10-20 minutes. I would feel much too discouraged If I had 500 reviews to work through each day.

Although I don't think it's good to get rid of my SRS altogether, I do feel it's better to spend less time reviewing in my SRS and more time "reviewing" in a natural environment. And by that I mean spending time watching TV, reading books, or listening to music. I find that after I SRS a new phrase or vocabulary word, it's amazing how often I notice it popping up in daily life. Of course the phrase was always there before, rather I just didn't notice it. For me at least, this natural reinforcement helps me even more than my SRS.

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I know you addressed your question to Tim, but I thought I would also throw in my suggestion. The first novel I read in Chinese was 1988 by 韩寒. 韩寒 is super famous and has been talk about on Chinesepod before, but if you don't know him, his story is definitely worth a google. I am at a similar level with you character-wise so I guess that this level would be appropriate for you. Although 1988 is no literary masterpiece, I found it to be an interesting, fun read. It's a little over the top at times, but I thought that made it a bit more exciting.

I probably read half of it using my dictionary and half of it without, but reading without my dictionary didn't have a huge impact on my comprehension of the story. If you want to take a look at it online you can check it out here:

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One other thing I want to add is that you don't necessarily have to focus only on books to improve your reading skills. One tip is to look for things you would normally read in your mother tongue and instead read those things in Chinese. For example, I have always enjoyed participating in forums and reading gossipy type blogs and advice columns (ok, I admitted it). I find some of the stuff on 贴吧 ( and sina blogs ( really interesting. I know most people probably aren't going to find those topics interesting, but my point is that whatever you find interesting and want to read about is out there! And it's in Chinese! So again, my best advice is to think about what you really enjoy reading in your mother tongue and then try and find something similar in Chinese.

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May 24, 2011, 09:48 PM

I would second what Tim said re: study methods.  My old method was to practice new characters daily, then write all the characters I knew out every Sunday.  This worked well enough at the beginning, but after 1,500 characters you wind up spending your entire weekend writing characters... time better spent learning usage and grammar.  

Regarding your original comment, my biggest problem isn't learning new characters; it's remembering old ones; especially how to write them.

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May 24, 2011, 09:57 PM

I agree, writing from a blank page is the absolute hardest thing to do.  Seeing the characters written down brings back memory alot easier.

I also agree with what you are saying regarding radicals and character formulation - when I see a new character I try and figure out if it has a specific "sound radical", but even if I can identify that you can't be sure that is how it sounds.

I used to do the review flashcards method but it is tiring.  I will try to spend more time reading materials.

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May 24, 2011, 03:17 PM

Now I haven't reached 1500 yet, (although I don't know exactly how many I have so far), but I had problems at the beginning. As I began to understand patterns, I found that the learning seemed to go smoother. I may end up with the same problem as you when I reach that point. I don't know.

oh and flashcards do help.

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May 25, 2011, 12:43 AM

I agree that paying attention to the radicals of the characters is important as one learns more and more of them.  I recently posted that I found there are 2000 characters in the entire set of Intermediate (and Elementary) lessons.

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May 25, 2011, 01:58 AM

A number of people here have posted that they are at the 1,500, or 2,500 etc characters point, and I have a couple of questions: how do you know how many characters you know? Second question: what does it mean to 'know a character'? 

I assume that you are working to a textbook (or ChinesePod level) and when you have completed the textbook or completed a certain number of CP lessons you 'know' how many characters you know? Perhaps some people are working towards or have completed their HSK, and this generates an objective count of characters? 

I guess my own definition of 'knowing' a character is if someone says a word to me, I can recognise what was said and write that word accurately, adding pinyin with tones. 

But you might also see something written in the street and be able to read and understand every word - at another (much lower) level this is 'knowing' the character. Chinese being Chinese I may be able to achieve an accurate understanding of a passage of writing without actually 'knowing' some characters - I may recognise some without knowing either pronunciation or meaning, I may know pronunciation but not meaning, or I may confront an entirely new chaaracter. 

So READING is a lower level of knowing than WRITING.

Just a few 'levels of 'knowing' (from low level knowing to high level knnowing):

- copying a character (with or without understanding it or knowing how to say it or use it)

- reading a character (being able to pronounce it but not understand it)

- reading a character (being able to pronounce it and understand it but not necessarily how to use it in a sentence)

- reading a character (being able to use it properly in a sentence)

- writing a character after hearing it said

- writing a character after hearing it said, and understanding what it means in context

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May 25, 2011, 02:16 AM

I agree with Bodawei - I think stating how many characters you 'know' is very subjective depending on what criteria you are using. For example if it was writing the character after hearing it I probably wouldn't be able to write more than 50 but if it was reading, pronouncing and understanding a character it would be more like 1000!

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May 25, 2011, 02:46 AM

you make good points about degrees of competency (or knowing) and for most of us, a character count is just a rough guess, in my case, the highest number card from my flashcard deck ;) but what most people are trying to do is measure progress. Am I getting closer to my goals? Can I read a newspaper? Am I fluent (流利)? So in many ways, a character count is meaningless, but perhaps it does provide an easy yardstick for us beginners.  Until I'm prepared to submit to a standard, repeatable measurement, (HSK anyone?) then counting cards can give a feeling of accomplishment and motivation.  

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May 24, 2011, 10:08 PM

Part of this hit on an issue for me - where you you get level-appropriate reading material? I'm probably 300-500 characters and flash cards are getting tedious. But I can't find any books (in USA) written for the 8 to 10 year olds. Any suggestions? Anyone want to start a ""?

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For that level of characters there is a great series out there called "Chinese Breeze". Here is a link to a store that sells their books

If you live in China, especially Shanghai or Beijing you should be able to find these books in the bookstore. If not check out Amazon or other Chinese forum's, I'm sure there is a way to get them overseas.

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Thanks for the tip! Sounds perfect!