How Do You Actually Learn Chinese Characters?

There are two questions new Chinese learners often ask when they start their journey into mastering Chinese characters. These questions are as follows…

  1. What characters should I learn?
  2. How do I learn them?

The first question is relatively simple to answer. I recommend learners consult the HSK vocabulary lists to start learning the most common characters first.

The second question is much more difficult to answer and deserves a deeper explanation which this article will provide.

If you are debating whether to study simplified or traditional characters, just study simplified for now. The exception to this rule would be if you only plan on learning the basics of Chinese for a trip to Taiwan. Learning traditional after simplified is an easier transition than you might think, so don’t feel locked in! I only studied simplified characters for years in school before coming to Taiwan, and I figured out traditional myself in only a couple weeks without any serious study. For more on what character set you should learn, read the article here.

Connect the characters to something

The reason why learning characters is so difficult in the beginning is because the information exists in a vacuum. At the start, there is simply nothing to associate the characters with in your mind. For this reason, it helps to be at least a bit familiar with the spoken language first. That means learning the sounds of the language, getting a feel for what a Chinese word is, and knowing what the language is like in a sentence. You can achieve this be starting with a beginner’s language course, like the first few lessons of Duolingo or Memrise.

Know it’s possible

Characters seem like an impossible mountain to climb when you first see them as enigmatic combinations of random lines. This initial reaction, coupled with the realization that there are more than 80,000 possible characters, makes the task appear almost futile! When I first started learning I found it helpful to remind myself how many millions of kids in China had already learned these characters in school. As an educated adult, I can surely conquer the task as well! In the end, languages are designed to be learned so don’t get discouraged.

Although Chinese characters may appear randomly composed, they are actually constructed from a very learnable and limited set of components. Learn the components that make up Chinese characters and they’ll start to look a lot more systematic and easier to remember.

Being familiar with the components

The first step to achieving this is to stop approaching characters as something you draw, like a picture. Characters are something that is written, not unlike the English language. Because the characters are made from a set of components, the process is in many ways similar to using the English alphabet to craft words.

The main component of Chinese characters are radicals. The radicals and the rest of the character are written with strokes in a set order. I recommend learning how to break down Chinese characters with something like HanziCraft.

While analyzing the components of characters in useful for memorization, it is not useful to simply memorize every radical in Chinese. There’s simply too many, and your time would be much better spent memorizing the one hundred most common characters instead the one hundred most common radicals. This is because many of the most common Chinese characters are used as components for other characters.

The goal is to just be familiar with recognizing the different components you encounter to make sense of the characters in your mind. If you want to get started learning what radicals appear in the characters you’re studying, use the ‘chars’ tab included in Pleco when you look up a character. When you are looking at the radicals, pay attention to the left part of the character. For example, notice that 说 and 语 both have the same radical, 讠, which means “speech”, or “words”. It makes a lot of sense why both of those characters would have that radical because 说 means ‘to say’, and 语 is a character found in many language related words. With this information, the characters make much more logical sense so you’ll have a better chance at memorizing them.

Remember the stroke order

Always pay attention to stroke order in the beginning. You’ll most likely find the system quite intuitive, and after awhile you’ll even be able to write new characters accurately without ever looking at the stroke order. The reason why stroke order is so important is because the consistency will help you remember the character more easily.

If you learn the stroke order for the most basic characters well, then you’ll already be prepared to write more complicated ones in the future because they use the basic ones as components! Likewise, you’ll remember the more complicated characters better as well by having all the parts solidified in your memory. Arch Chinese has a good guide on stroke order.

Use spaced repetition

On the topic of writing characters by hand — I highly recommend doing this to practice them. You can use free, gridded practice sheets specifically designed for practicing characters from Hanzi Grids.

The way I learned to write characters in school could be described as rote memorization. I was assigned a set of characters I had to learn, and used the practice sheets to write the characters at least ten times each. Rote memorization by itself, however, is ineffective. What you should be doing to remember all these characters is the same as what you should be doing to review vocabulary — spaced repetition. That is to say, practice the characters regularly in short sessions over a long period of time.

Practice the other parts too

As I said in the introduction, having something to link the character to in your mind is very important. You do not want to just learn Chinese characters by themselves, take it as an opportunity to practice pronunciation and meaning simultaneously. However, don’t set yourself up for failure by not learning how to read pinyin properly first. You can learn pronunciation and pinyin from videos like these. When you learn a word, you should be relying on audio for pronunciation of the characters instead of just reading the pinyin yourself. The audio in Pleco is perfectly acceptable for this.

Use different methods

When practicing characters, use different devices. Practice them on your phone by writing with your finger, write them on paper, draw them with your mouse. This will better reinforce the characters so you can quickly recognize them in a variety of situations. 

My advice

As with anything in language learning, perfectionism is an obstacle to progress. Don’t get obsessed trying to make your characters look exactly like the ones you see. Focus instead on learning the stroke order system and your characters will look beautiful naturally. 

Learning Chinese takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as you may think. Learning 1,000 characters in a few months is very possible, and with that you’ll be able to read some native material. Language learning growth is exponential when you first start, so learning the next 1,000 will be even easier. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will point you in the right direction for your journey.

How did you start learning Chinese characters? What do you think about my suggestions? Please share all in the comments!

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