Learning characters?

October 13, 2011, 11:27 PM posted in General Discussion

Hi guys,

Ive been learning Chinese for over a year now and I have been living in china for 8 months also. I have only learnt pinyin to date as i wanted to focus on speaking.

Now id like to learn some hanzi and i am looking for some tips and advice on techniques and resources?

Any help appreciated

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December 27, 2011, 04:16 AM

I set aside Chinese for a decade, and when I restarted I spent most of my time learning to read. I'd suggest the following:

1. Use an SRS like Anki. I downloaded the HSK vocabulary, and worked through level 5 words in a month. I then moved on to level 6 at a similarly aggressive pace and am halfway through them, but have decided to slow down and work on some other skills for a while.

2. I recommend trying to learn the system of base components (true phonetics, near phonetics and non-phonetic shared components that aren't radicals). This is a intellectual skill quite different from the vocabulary habits you are developing, I think adults benefit from trying to learn this systematically. The technique I have developed is to gradually compile a list of families (sharing the same base component) that I keep in Wenlin. Instead of writing the character repeatedly the way native speakers learn characters, I find it more productive to cut and paste characters from whatever lessons I am working on and searching if I already have documented its family. I associate a syllable (without tones) with each family, so every time I see a character I don't recognize, I try to pronounce its base component and think its radical(s). This might trigger a memory, or be the start of a new memory.

3. Stewart Paton's A dictionary of Chinese characters Accessed by phonetics identifies the most frequent families, but rather that look them up I usually just compile my own from the wealth of frequency data built in to Wenlin's ABC Dictionary.

4. With characters that I can recognize but tend to forget the details, I put them in a smaller list of characters I am learning to write. I just use a notebook, but Skritter seems good for this.

I find characters quite fascinating in their own right, independent of learning Mandarin speech. I am starting to understand why the Japanese are unwilling to give them up even if they actively use 2 syllabic-writing systems that could allow them to spell all their Sinitic loanwords (and lots of original coinages) phonetically. And for dealing with the flood of near-homophones in Chinese (to my foreign tone deaf ear), it is quite valuable (and fun) for reading. I have tried to read texts only in Pinyin (as advocated by the John De Francis and Victor Mair at pinyin.info), but I find that I want to know what characters are behind the sounds!

I'd love to hear other people's experiences with acquiring and retaining characters.


- Fred