Should You Learn Traditional or Simplified Characters?

Simplified or traditional? This is a choice that can appear almost identity defining for Chinese learners. There are a couple reasons why someone might consider studying traditional characters instead of simplified and I will certainly list them in this article. However, I believe for almost all learners it is best to start with simplified characters, and to later incorporate traditional into your study routine if desired. The reasons why you would want to do this are as follows…

  1. More beginners learning material is in simplified
  2. You’ll be more efficient when using a character study method like the one I outline here
  3. If you plan on studying Chinese for a long period, you’ll learn traditional eventually anyways, but build up a base with simplified first.

Why there are two writing systems

In an effort to increase literacy, China embarked on a character simplification project. By making characters easier to read and write, it was thought that the general population would experience a boost in literacy. This theory has an effect on the mind of the Chinese learner as well, thereby making simplified characters seem “easier” to learn than traditional. In reality, no character set is truly easier to learn than the other because of the way our mind processes the character. It’s not stroke by stroke, but by looking at the entire character as a whole. The Chinese reading process is the exact same as English. You don’t read these words letter by letter, but complete word by complete word.

Simplified characters are used in mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, with significant use in Malaysia as well. The Chinese diaspora tends to use traditional characters more often than simplified. You can see this for yourself by walking through your local Chinatown where the majority of signs will, more often than not, be written in traditional Chinese characters.

Which one you should learn first

If you are studying Chinese because you live in either Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau you should learn traditional characters. If you are only studying Chinese because you plan on visiting one of those places you should also learn traditional. Everyone else should start with simplified.

Many students taking Chinese classes actually don’t have a choice. I was not given the option to choose simplified or traditional when I first started studying Chinese. I studied simplified because my teacher was from mainland China, and she taught with a simplified version of the textbook. Could I have bought the traditional version and studied that instead? Yes, I could have, but it would have been an extra headache to worry about that most beginners don’t want to deal with. As you know, I eventually went to study in Taiwan where I had to use traditional characters, but would I have studied traditional characters first had I known I was going to study in Taiwan eventually? No, I still would have chose to learn simplified characters.

The first reason why is because the tools I was using at the start were only available in simplified, and using them gave me a valuable boost in the beginning. Had I started with traditional, I most likely would have made slower progress because I wouldn’t have been able to use the apps I did as efficiently.

The second reason why is because the method I used to remember characters was based on writing. If I was writing traditional characters instead of simplified, there is a possibility that I might get frustrated more easily as a beginner. This aspect, of course, will not affect everyone, but I can be an impatient learner myself. It is a simple fact that traditional characters take longer to write, and if you aren’t used to stroke order they could get annoying. Because stroke order follows the same rules for simplified and traditional, you might as well learn it by writing characters with fewer strokes.

The third reason why is because learning traditional is a very logical next step in ones Chinese learning journey. If you are in for the long haul, you’ll eventually learn both character sets. Most Chinese people I’ve met can read both, but can write one better than the other. You should plan on learning to read both because it’s actually easier to do than you might think.

The differences between simplified and traditional

Take the following examples from a Chinese news article:

The simplified version…

我们一致认为,未来十年将是国际形势深刻演变、世界经济新旧动能转换、科技革命与产业变革迅速发展的十年。各国利益和命运前所未有地紧密相连、深度交融。作为对亚洲和平与稳定负有重要责任的国家,中日韩应加强合作,与其他国家一道,为地区和国际社会面对的广泛问题作出积极和应有的贡献。

And the traditional version…

我們一致認為,未來十年將是國際形勢深刻演變、世界經濟新舊動能轉換、科技革命與產業變革迅速發展的十年。各國利益和命運前所未有地緊密相連、深度交融。作為對亞洲和平與穩定負有重要責任的國家,中日韓應加強合作,與其他國家一道,為地區和國際社會面對的廣泛問題作出積極和應有的貢獻。

At a glance the differences can seem drastic, but if you compare individual characters the changes seem to follow patterns. While there are a few arbitrary simplifications, the majority of simplified characters just have different radicals. You might also notice that the ten most common characters; 的, 一, 是, 不, 了, 人, 我, 在, 有, 他 are unchanged. In fact, you can probably see that a lot of characters are the same in both simplified and traditional, so learning both is not that much of a hassle.

How to learn traditional after simplified

As I stated earlier, I learned simplified first, and then moved to traditional. If I read something in Chinese right now, I prefer to read it in traditional because I’ve become more used to those characters over time. The way I prepared myself to make the switch was by watching Chinese TV shows with traditional subtitles. What I was doing, essentially, was relying on my listening ability to make connections to the new characters. I heard a sentence I understood without needing to look at the subtitles, but when I saw the traditional character in the subtitles instead of the simplified one I expected, I then looked up the character on Pleco to make sure, and made a mental note of the character being a traditional one.

I never sat down and actively studied traditional characters, I only used the subtitle method to learn them. The reason why it worked was because I already had around 1,500 simplified characters I knew, and I could understand more than half of spoken Chinese in TV shows. Learning this way was successful for me, so I recommend you at least try it. However, this method does require you to learn Chinese to a decent level first, but I think you can achieve it fastest if you study simplified as I’ve stated. Let this also be another reason why you should be paying close attention to the radicals when you start learning Chinese characters. It’ll save you time in the long run.

In conclusion

Do I think traditional Chinese is a better writing system? Yes, I do. The reason why is because traditional omits several ambiguities that simplified characters have, it also preserves the lineage of language development. That doesn’t mean you should just learn traditional first, however, because there are benefits to starting with simplified, and if you are inspired to take the language far enough, practically every Chinese learner knows both eventually anyway. If you need help starting to learn Chinese characters, read this.

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