Best Ways to Learn Chinese Characters



So it is that time of year again when we students at CSA have to dust off the text books, head down to the stationary shop to stock up on supplies and get down to the nitty-gritty aspects of learning Mandarin, which is of course character memorisation.
I often get asked the question by both new and reoccurring students, “what is the best way to learn (hàn zì– Chinese Characters)?” Well, let me make it very clear by telling you there is no ‘best’ solo method in my humble opinion, its down to the individual, their educational study techniques as well as their educational background. What I can answer though is “what is you’re personal preferred method of learning 汉字?” That one is simple enough so let me provide you all with some suggestions:
Character Repetition

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Character repetition does exactly what it says on the tin. You just write out the character over and over again until you remember it, just like spelling a word in English over and over again until you just remember it. It can be frustrating and time consuming, but it generally does the trick. Below you can me writing my name (in Chinese) out over and over again, I wont go forgetting that any time soon!

 Remember the Stroke Order

What else could you choose to do though if writing out endless characters isn’t really your thing? A quicker method would be to learn the stroke order of a said character. I have fond memories of my first ever-Chinese teacher abjectly stating that unless a Chinese character was drawn in the correct order, it was wrong, even if the outcome was the same. She even went so far as to say anyone who didn’t use the correct stroke order may as well go and join an ‘art class’ instead as you were essentially drawing picture instead of writing out a word.

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Learning the stroke order method is essentially just a lighter and less time consuming method of 汉字 repetition, the difference is that you are remembering the method behind writing a specific character rather than the finished outcome itself. This will help you a lot when it comes to your writing skills, it just wont help so much with your reading skills. Below you can see me demonstrating the stroke order for writing my Chinese name.


Learn the Radicals

New students often make the mistake in assuming that every Chinese character is different. Now, they are right in saying 99.9% of Chinese characters are different in terms of appearance, but not in the way that they are constructed. The truth is, Chinese Characters are kind of like a jigsaw puzzle in many respects. You have basic characters known as radicals, most of these have their own meaning, but you can also combine these simple characters (or radicals) to form for complicated ones.

Many of my Japanese or Korean 同学 (tóng xué men – class mates) often have little issue with learning news characters, even if they don’t appear in their native languages. The reason for this is that they can break down a character’s separate radicals and deduce a ‘ball park guess’ at the meaning of said character. Once they know this, being able to remember what the character looks like comes very easily to them as you can simply categorise whole swathes of characters by meaning. 

Screen Shot 2015 09 28 at 15.24.55You might be questioning, “why can’t I do this?”  The reason is because it takes time. Many students in East Asian countries are forced have the option of learning characters when they are in school (particularly Korean and Japanese students). It is therefore as second fiddle to them as the Latin alphabet is to us in the West. Now, before you despair, it is possible for Westerners to pick up this method of learning characters, it just takes months (if not years) of practice. Besides, this learning method isn’t full proof either. Just because you can remember the radicals that form a character doesn’t always mean you would know which order to put them in, putting you back to square one.

So, if I were to give you any piece of advice from my 20 months of learning Chinese, it would be to not focus on a specific method, but combine the three mentioned above plus any of your own methods and do and works best for you.


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Written By Andrew Cole - CSA Student Liaison Officer
Andrew finds listen to music very therapeutic while he writes out characters for his weekly in class test. He recommends Mumford & Son's latest album.







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