8 Strategies for Learning Chinese Characters

on Jan 31, 2015

We’ve all been there, staring at a flashcard and confidently proclaiming “jǐ” when the character in question was actually “yǐ”. As simple as both of those characters may be, the difference between them is subtle:

Is that example too easy? What about these characters:

kàn chūn zhe

These aren’t just frustrating, they’re downright discouraging, and these rather similar looking characters are just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond the challenges of similar looking characters, there are those characters that you just can’t seem to keep in your mind. As a visual learner, Chinese characters and flashcards are right up my alley, but I’ve probably seen 起床 100 times in the last 2 weeks, and I still get it wrong.

Though they may not be perfect, I have developed some strategies to address the challenges of studying Chinese characters.

Strategy #1: Learn to Write

Handwriting is not currently one of my goals, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that learning to write characters correctly will help you remember the characters. If you do want to learn how to write correctly with the proper stroke order, head on over to Skritter. There are a variety of handwriting apps and sites out there, but I have yet to see one as good or as thorough as Skritter.

Strategy #2: Use Spaced Repetition

I may keep saying this until I’m blue in the face. Running a list of 2,000 flashcards is impractical. Let technology help you by dividing and conquering your list by those you know better and those you’re still learning. Do you need to see 我 or 是 each time you run your flashcard list? Doubtful. Let Spaced Repetition software like Skritter, Anki, FluentU, or DianHua Dictionary do the heavy lifting for you.

Strategy #3: Study Similar Characters Side-by-Side

Imagine you’re running through your flashcards and stumble upon 着/zhe, but instead of “zhe,” you say “kàn.” Obviously the first thing you want to do is note in your software that you answered the flashcard incorrectly. Before you do, though, pull up the character for “kàn” and look at the two characters side-by-side. Zoom in on the character if it’s especially complex so that the differences between the characters become obvious.

Strategy #4: You Didn’t Just Get One Flashcard Wrong

Continuing in the vein of similar looking characters, when you answered 看/kàn for 着/zhe, you didn’t just get the “zhe” flashcard wrong, you also got the “kàn” flashcard wrong. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any software currently available that will allow you to jump out of sequence and mark another flashcard wrong, but that’s exactly what you need to do. The next time you see “kàn” (hmmm…was that a multilingual pun?), mark it as incorrect even if you get it right. Since you’re using Spaced Repetition to accelerate your studies, this will move it to a more frequently reviewed time interval to help you lock in the difference between it and “zhe.”

Strategy #5: Imagine a Picture or Story in the Character

I’m usually all for rote memorization, but sometimes a stubborn character just won’t stick. In those cases, try to pull a picture or story out of the character(s). 起床/qǐchuáng has been giving me fits because of the second character meaning bed. I now look at that character and imagine it’s a person laying in a bed. It may not be the classical derivation of the character, but it is sufficient to help me commit the character to memory.

Chineasy has taken this idea to an extreme and created a variety of learning products designed around the idea of learning characters as pictures. Here’s an introductory video from the founder:

I’m in no way associated with Chineasy. I just find their approach an interesting formalization of how I’ve approached some characters in my studies.

Strategy #6: Learn the Radicals

I’m sure you’ve noticed that many characters contain complete or partial components of other, simpler characters. These simpler characters are most often radicals. Sometimes knowing the radicals may help you memorize a more complex character or give you an idea of the meaning of a character you’ve forgotten.

For example, 女/nǚ is a radical. You can find 女 in mother, sister, grandmother, and many other characters. You might even see it in characters you wouldn’t associate with gender like 好/haǒ where you have mother on the left and child on the right. From there, you remember that mother and child together is good so 好 means “good.”

You can use radicals to augment your stories and pictures from Strategy #5 above. Maybe there isn’t a picture in the character, but if you can break that character down into components you already know, you can then create a story from those character components.

Strategy #7: Experience the Word

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to tell you find some reading material that includes characters you are learning. You are 100% correct. There is no better strategy to learning characters than to reinforce your learning with reading.

With that out of the way, let me also recommend that you use the word in conversation or try to find a movie or television show where the word is used. Maybe you forgot how the word came to be in your word list. Maybe it’s an infrequently used technical term but one you need to know. Whatever the case may be, if you’re having trouble remembering it, experience it.

For whatever reason, I was struggling to learn 见面/jiàn miàn. Most of the time I would get the flashcard right, but every so often, I would lose track of it. That was until I happened to catch a video of 习近平/Xí Jìnpíng speaking during a press conference, and he kept talking about meeting someone. Since then, I haven’t had any trouble with the characters.

What’s curious is you’ll notice I didn’t encounter the characters in that learning context.  I can’t explain it scientifically or academically, but for some reason, experiencing words in context will help with learning characters.

All that said, go read a book.

Strategy #8: Add Sentences to Your Flashcards

Much like Experiencing the Word in Strategy #7, adding sentences to your flashcards allows you to interact with the word on a different level. It also gives you a memory advantage by presenting easy characters to kickstart your memory for the newer or more complicated characters. I frequently fail my flashcard for 软件/ruǎnjiàn (embarrassing given my profession, I know), but I have no problem remembering, “我开发中英字典软件.” Use sentences in your flashcards to help lock in new vocabulary, and at the same time, speak those sentences each time you see them to help train the muscles in your mouth to speak the words more fluently.

So there you have it…all of my tips and tricks for learning Chinese characters. Do you have any other strategies? If so, track me down on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ and tell me about them.