2014-11-11

Learning Characters to Build a Strong Foundation

When I am being nosy on various Chinese forums, iTalki, and other language learning sites I often come across people typing out pinyin Chinese. Ni hao, wo ai ni! Xie xie lao shi!

I usually wonder something like "Isn't using the character version just as easy?" IMHO characters looks way cooler. 你好,我爱你!谢谢老师!I have asked a few people, and a few teachers why pinyinese is even a thing. From what I gather, most of these students just want to focus on conversation, or they feel reading and writing requires too much effort. They don't wanna be bothered with all that stroke count, radicals, and character composition mumbo jumbo. Fair enough, if you are one of these people and that is what you want to do, then that is what you want to do. Keep on learning, and don't be discouraged. You can always choose to learn them at a later date.

A bold statement

I don't know anyone who started learning Chinese as an adult, who is a fluent* speaker, and cannot also read characters. -Me
Even if there are some, I doubt they make up even 1% of the total. Most adults I know that can speak but not write are ones who moved away from a Chinese speaking country as children. I think that it would be extremely difficult to reach a higher level of spoken Chinese without learning to read characters. Not impossible, but difficult. With that in mind I am not saying you have to learn characters from the get go, but I think if you to want to reach a fluent level you should learn.

If your still reading, please allow me to throw out a few reasons why it might not be such a bad idea to learn the characters along with all these cool new words your learning.

They are not that scary

A lot of people see all those squiggly lines and just think it is gonna be too hard. It is not. Each character is made up of a finite number of radicals. Radicals are basic characters that are the building blocks for all Chinese characters. It is just like any other activity. When I see 妈 I don't think 6 strokes, I think woman ( the meaning hint ) and horse ( the sound hint ). I only had to remember 2 things. Those two radicals are in so many other characters after you get used to writing them you will have trouble forgetting them. 

What about that crazy stroke order? That must be terrible to keep track of for every character! Actually there are just a few simple rules to get your stroke order right. In my opinion the stroke order is more about making the character look right. Don't tell your Chinese teacher I said this, but if you occasionally get your strokes wrong, no one will notice it while reading your short story. 

It can help in so many ways

From the distance this looks like a crappy building. If you can
read the white sign. You know there is a Sichuan style
restaurant there.
The written word can clarify. When I was first starting out with conversations. I got my tones wrong a lot, my accent was much thicker, and my listening skills were weaker. As I was practicing talking with my language exchange partner we always kept a notebook on the table between us. If he had trouble understanding what I was trying to say I could scribble out a character or two to clarify. There was no need for a switch to English. Afterward he would coach me on how to say it better. More recently I have been doing Skype conversations and when I say something that gets misinterpreted more than once I type in the Chinese character to clarify. 

Characters themselves have built in hints. Characters are formed in several different ways, but the largest portion are formed by what is called Phono-semantic compounds. That's a fancy way of saying part of the character refers to the sound and part refers to the meaning. Realizing and understanding this gives you a great advantage when it comes time to remember the sound and meaning of one of these random pictures! 

Using Chinese input can clarify a misinterpreted sound. The initial sounds "ch“ and ”q“ sound very similar to me. If I am typing out one of these in my computer and I type "qumen" instead of "chumen". I get immediate feedback in the form of characters. You don't get this if you just type out the pinyin.  This is especially useful with the southern Chinese accent where sounds like shi and si sound much more similar than in the north.

Two other ways of forming characters attempt to directly translate objects or idea's into a picture form. You might have seen something like this on Chineasy. Sadly this is only a small portion of characters, but even so these characters become extremely easy to recall how to write and what they mean. Not only that, but like most things in life these basic components are used as building blocks for compound versions. An example Wikipedia gives is 好. This is a woman and a child side by side to represent good. So again there is some useful logic to this madness.

Chinese refer to characters in conversation to clarify things. Often times when a Chinese person meets someone with an ambiguous, or unfamiliar last name they will ask them to spell it out using radicals. If you got a cool Chinese name, but you can't explain how to write it people are gonna write it wrong.

Some old people tell me that doing more work upfront makes things easier down the road. They are right. Giving yourself the written form, and understanding it's radicals, and how they make up the character helps you better remember that term later down the road. Learning more upfront gives you more ways to remember that piece of information later. An example: 说, 话, 谈, and 讲, are all about speaking. That left radical makes them easy to identify.

This last time I went back to Taiwan I was amazed at how much I could read. A good 85-90% of the big signs were readable, and for the most part I understand what they were trying to convey. I didn't understand the fine print of their political or real estate advertisements, but honestly I didn't care, I knew they were talking about mayors and renting apartments and that was enough.

As far as computers go, if you already know pinyin then there is no excuse why you shouldn't be trying to type Chinese. You can type in some pinyin and then pick the right character from a list. If you are worried you picked the wrong character, throw your sentence into Pleco or google translate. I get a thrill out of sending FB updates in Chinese, and enjoy language exchange chats via things like We Chat. 

Where to start

First, I would suggest you learn the characters for words you have already learned to speak. You could write out a few sentences, to practice these words. Start small, and work your way up. If your using a flash card system like Anki, just add them to your current cards. Don't write the word over and over 100 times. Write it out a few times to get the feel for it, move on, and then come back later.

One thing I did when I first found out about radicals was to try to find a comprehensive list of every radical, and memorize them all as fast as possible! HE-MAN! I failed hard. So rather than doing that, how about as you are learning new characters, if you see a radical used in three or four of the characters you are learning, pick it out and look it up. Another thought is to look up a list of most common radicals. I know in the Integrated Chinese books they have a list in their character writing book, and I think also somewhere before lesson one in the text book. You could also check out the list that Olle compiled on Hacking Chinese.

If you don't know how to add Chinese character support to your phone or computer Pinyin Joe has howtos for a ton of different setups. Follow his instructions and you will be set up in no time.

Before Pleco figuring out the breakdown of a character could be tricky. Now, you can look up a character, and then click on the CHARS tab and it gives you a break down of the characters composition. You can see what the radicals are, and what each part means. These two screen shots give you a visual of what I am talking about. 


Also, in the beginning, don't worry about grammar. Don't fret too much on which punctuation mark is the right one. Just write the same way you have been talking. The rest will follow in time.

Stroke order is pretty simple, with not too many rules. I am going to link to an Oxford Language Dictionary PDF. It has the rules laid out well and examples of how to implement them. Sometimes your still not sure and that's OK. When in doubt google it! Typing "龍 stroke order" allowed me to find a picture that writes out dragon for you.

Happy hunting

Don't worry if you get things wrong or forget a character or two. Try again, and move on. Notice that I haven't said you have to memorize all characters. We all forget how to write characters. I have several friends from China who every once in a while use their phone's Chinese input to remember what some rarely used character looks like. If a native speaker isn't perfect, there is no reason to put yourself to a higher standard than them.


* Fluent can mean so many different things. When I say fluent I am not talking about sounding just like a native speaker. I am talking about having full conversations with a native speaker at a normal conversation speed with the ability to convey your thoughts clearly, and understand their responses.