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Master your Chinese Lessons with our tips for learning Mandarin Characters

By Joy, published on 23/11/2017 Blog > Languages > Chinese > Learning Chinese Characters: Tips and Tricks

It has escaped no one, and it’s an understatement to say that the Mandarin alphabet is the antithesis of the latin alphabet.

In addition to having to learn a new grammar and vocabulary, you’re going to have to look very seriously at writing the language.

In this respect, along with other languages like Korean, Russian or Japanese, learning Chinese and Chinese writing is an additional difficulty.

The Chinese Kangxi Dictionary reported the existence of more than 47 000 different characters when an educated student will only get between 5,000 and 6 000 characters.

Please note that in order to read a Chinese newspaper or understand almost all of the documents of daily life, a knowledge of only 2000 characters is necessary.

Although alternative means such as pinyin exist, we will try to give you some tools to learn to master writing and understanding of Chinese characters.

A prerequisite: learning the radicals

A little courage! With 2000 characters under your belt, you’ll be able to read the newspaper!

Before launching headlong into learning the characters, it seems indispensable to master what is commonly called the radicals.

In Chinese writing, the characters are written with strokes. There are 8 fundamental strokes which can have several variants (29 variants) that are so-called complex strokes. It is thanks to the basic strokes and complex strokes that it is possible to develop radicals.

In mandarin Chinese, there are 214 different keys that will be the basis to write famous Chinese characters. Indeed, it is thanks to the almost infinite combination of these keys it is possible to form one or more characters, speaking a word, a sentence, a thought or an idea.

Thus, for the beginner student, starting by learning written Mandarin by focusing on the key is a good idea or even a vital one.

This will allow to have a solid foundation to recognize and memorize the keys that are used in any particular character. Starting to learn the characters directly is so much more complex without mastery of the keys at first.

Here are the different “keys” that you’ll need to write Chinese.

Also, discover how to learn to read Chinese!

Mnemonics to learn Chinese characters

The learning manual of Chinese characters “Stick” offers mnemonics for memorization for not less than 1,600 different characters.

The seriousness of the method is foolproof, this book has the interesting distinction of being jointly written by native Chinese and Chinese students, sometimes even beginners.

It is particularly sensible to have integrated novice learners to the method in the sense that they often created mnemonics that can be used by others.

An example of a mnemonic expression to remember the characters!

As a result, the fun and practical method has nothing more to prove. This book is available in digital or physical version for a price fluctuating between 20 and 25 pounds.

But because the mnemonics are not always an exact science, and do not represent the same truth for everyone, why not creating yourself a notebook or a glossary of keys or Chinese characters?

Indeed, the most effective mnemonics are those that we create ourselves, because they are related to our emotions and/or things that we know.

The basic rules to learn characters

The importance of breaking them down to learn

As we said earlier, in order to master the characters it is essential to cut them up into smaller units, strokes or keys.

Controlling keys allows you to find the idea associated with a character that will sometimes be an assemblage of several keys.

For example, for someone that has never seen the pictogram Chinese 药 pour “medicine” and knowing his keys, it will be possible to recognize:

  • The key of the grass at the top, symbol of Chinese medicine 艹,
  • The key of the silk on the left 纟to wrap it all,
  • As well as the symbol of the spoon 勺 for medicinal powders.

In other words, someone having never seen the character associated with drugs will still be able to determine the overall idea of this character (and that it is linked in some way to medicine) thanks to the mastery of the keys.

The rules of writing of Chinese characters

To write Chinese properly, it is extremely important to follow the rules.

  • First, you have to start writing a character from the left to the right but also from the top to the bottom,
  • Then, for characters within a square, it is important to write the contents of the square before closing it,
  • Characters with intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, you’ll always have to represent the horizontal strokes before the vertical ones,
  • For the writing of several successive characters, also remember to make them one after the other starting with the rightmost,
  • Finally, always keep in mind that a character must be written in an ‘imaginary square’ and that a character composed of multiple keys, if it is too broad, can not be understood by the other party.

For example,

Be careful when you write a Chinese sign to leave a gap when there is one!

When do you consider that a character is mastered?

To consider that a given character is perfectly controlled, you must be able:

  • To recognize it by its shape,
  • To know its pronunciation which includes different tones or intonations according to the given context,
  • But you will also have to know how to write it by controlling the order of strokes that may be different for each character.

Before you can make art with Chinese writing, practice!

Learn Chinese online with Superprof Learning Mandarin is about recognizing shapes and patterns. Photo: Kevin Niu via Upsplash

 The most effective tools to learn the characters

Chineasy

In learning Chinese, “Chineasy” teaching approach is extremely innovative and interesting. The approach to the process initiated by Shaoran Hsueh is to “bridge the gap between East and West” in terms of language.

But then what is the process?

The idea is very simple and involves pictograms and the learner’s visual memory.

Some examples of drawings to remember characters!

For example, for the learning of the Chinese character for people 人, the associated pictogram is to put a head at the intersection of the two lines and a shoe at the end of each of the two strokes to make a snowman. Similarly, the idea associated with following someone or something is done by the combination of two “people”.

This approach totally based on the visual is what constitutes originality, the genius for some or a weakness for critics of the method which highlight that it is possibly difficult to put the characters in their contexts when they are not associated with the visual elements that we all know anymore. Each will make his own opinion on the issue.

Cash in on these tips to learn Chinese characters quickly!

HSK preparation

Other fun tools are extremely effective in the learning of Chinese characters.

This is particularly the case for many platforms found on the Internet and seeking to prepare the HSK test evaluation in Chinese. This test formalizes oral but also written skills of characters of a non-native audience for whom Mandarin is not a mother tongue.

Depending on the level (from 1 to 6), the characters it takes to master are different and are available on the website of the China Institute in the United Kingdom: chineseinstitute.fr.

Chine.in

Other websites like “Chine.in” offer a comprehensive approach to the basic characters to study and master with a break down of the writing of each character, the pronunciation, phonetics, translation and more globally the different ideas which can be associated.

Even for those not wishing to pass the HSK test, reviewing the requested characters is something useful because these are the most frequently used.

Finally, it is also possible to take private lessons or online courses to improve or perfect your knowledge of Chinese characters (Mandarin classes London).

Learn Chinese online with Superprof You don’t have to travel around the world to learn Chinese. Photo: Eduardo Santos via Upsplash

In synthesis:

  • Say that learning English, German or Spanish is radically different from the Chinese language would push a door open. Indeed, in addition with having to familiarize yourself with a Chinese vocabulary and a new grammar you have to start from scratch for the writing.
  • However, learning to write or read Chinese characters is not as complex as what it seems at first glance. By cleverly using all faculties of memory and the brain or by using techniques that proved their worth in the learning of languages in general, it is possible to make the learning easier and even to enjoy it! Look for mnemonics, regardless of their meaning, as long as they are meaningful to you.
  • Soon, you will see that there is some form of logic in the writing of Chinese characters. Once this logic is acquired, it will be a lot easier to manage, learn and progress quickly.
  • Finally, the key word in the learning of Chinese traditional writing seems to be discipline. Always try to write each character in the right order, know the order of the strokes based on the characters, master each of its aspects (recognition of its calligraphy, its sense, its pronunciation, its different intonations) seem to be the only way to master them little by little.

Discover also our complete guide to learning Mandarin

Find your own personal Chinese tutor in the UK on Superprof:

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