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How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

There are many articles on this topic. I’ve read almost all of them. Nevertheless, I think I have something to contribute because by and large their advice didn’t work for me.

Let’s get a sense of your task here. If you want to actually learn Chinese as well as an educated Chinese person, you are looking at learning something like 4000 or more Chinese characters. That’s a lot. Characters look something like this BBC headline:

How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

which Google Translate helpfully tells me means

Waterdrop live: monitoring video we see “being live” Why

Mind you, that mess of scribbles above is “simplified” Chinese, which has fewer strokes in each character and was designed to help spread literacy by making Chinese easier to decipher. If you are learning Chinese, you have your work cut out for you.

Nevertheless, it’s as straightforward to learn 4000 characters as it is to learn four. You start with the first and keep going until you get to wherever you are going.

Here, I’ll even give you a head start. Here’s six characters from the book I end up recommending in this post.

How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

Easy? You’re already 0.15% of your way there!

And this is typically how most people’s advice goes. You start with simple, common characters and just keep going until one day you know how to read “While Jake has a pleasant disposition, his friends know him to be an introvert” but you’re reading it in Chinese.

The most popular texts are structured on this idea. Here are three focused on keeping you focused on accumulating characters with the aid of mnemonics.

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I own each of these three books above. I have started plowing through each of them multiple times. Never have I made it halfway through any of them. I lost steam.

Ultimately, it’s really hard to just keep accumulating characters day after day without ever doing anything with them. Even the shortest of these books has 800 characters in it. The conceit of the method is that you learn all the characters in the book and then (and only then) set out and find some reading material. The problem with this approach is that learning a character without any contextual hooks or sentences to practice them in is unrewarding. The reward lies too far away.

And that takes us to my recommendation:

[amazon template=image&asin=0804847266]

What Cornelius Kubler of Williams College did is write a nice thick book that nevertheless covers only 288 characters. The characters are presented only six at a time. Then—and this is the crucial part—he spends a couple pages playing with those six characters.

It takes a while to get going. The first 12 characters are mostly numbers. Nevertheless, you get to practice reading numbers. After 24 characters, you are reading the names of provinces and street names and cities. Only a bit further and you get real sentences and conversations you can follow. They aren’t entertaining, but I am for the first time reading stilted conversations in Chinese, and that’s awesome. I can now read for example

I live near the airport. Therefore, it doesn’t take that long to get to the airport.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much to you, but if you plan on successfully dedicating yourself to learning a language, you must learn to delight in wins like that. Fluent conversations are built on top of stilted conversations. All I have to do is keep going, and I will because I found a method that feels rewarding.

Reading Kubler, I realize what was wrong with those other methods. Reading sentences containing characters is where the actual learning happens. The presentation of the characters is the bare minimum, and those other books don’t bother to do more than that. Knowing how to read isn’t just about knowing what isolated words mean and then hoping they combine into something understandable in the end. You need sentences from the start. Children don’t just learn the word m-o-n-k-e-y. They learn to talk about monkeys eating bananas and climbing trees and making monkey sounds. Without that, they’d just be narwhals.

Hanzi photo

Calligraphy on the ground with water and a brush is a real thing that happens in China. Image by Swiss James How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

Kubler leaves you with a sense of ownership of the characters that other methods haven’t been able to deliver to me. If you’re just starting to learn Chinese characters, this is the way to go.

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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18 thoughts on “How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

  1. Mao was considering replacing characters with pinyin writing in the Roman alphabet during the early days of the PRC but his advisers convinced him to simplify the characters instead. Characters are also why many anime fans end up stumbling when it comes to learning Japanese.

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  2. I’m immersed in a project that goes at this in a totally different way. Not trying for fluency in reading but rather shooting for understanding nuance and possibility in “translating”. A problematic word if there ever was one. Specifically ancient Chnese poetry.

    Fluency in both the translated and tranlatee languages would seem a prerequisite for such an effort, but smarter and way more qualified people than me seem to largely agree this is very much less the case in translating Chinese poetry.

    One of my past efforts is The Emptiness of Wang Wei. I distinguish what I do there from translating to transducing the poem. I’ve much more research working on this post, so it’s been slow going. While not directly relevant to your effort, it might be an interesting diversion from it.

    I’m now working on an (I hope) improved version and auto-commentary.

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  3. A friend of mine’s girlfriend is an acclaimed Japanese writer and journalist, with several prizes under her kasa.

    We once discussed the mental images that were conveyed by writing. We sort of agreed that reading in English essentially created an aural sensation (you hear the words spoken in your mind), while reading kanji created a visual image (you see in your mind the thing described).

    I wonder if this is a conclusion that can be extrapolated.

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  4. Mind you, that mess of scribbles above is “simplified” Chinese, which has fewer strokes in each character and was designed to help spread literacy by making Chinese easier to decipher.

    Was it? I find traditional slightly easier to read; the greater complexity allows for more significant differences between characters. The main advantage of simplified, it seems to me, is that it’s easier to write.

    And, more cynically, that peasants who have only learned simplified Chinese will find it hard to read pre-revolutionary writings.

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    • The *intention* of simplified characters was to increase literacy. People who know both seem to agree with you that it had the opposite effect.

      Brandon Berg: And, more cynically, that peasants who have only learned simplified Chinese will find it hard to read pre-revolutionary writings.

      I feel silly now for never having thought of that! It’s always been explained to me as a literacy thing and I guess I never questioned it

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      • Vikram and J-A
        Thanks so much for the compliments.

        On the issue of simplifies characters, I’d like more info about the alleged negative effects. Before the literacy campaigns, illiteracy was estimated at 80-85%. Now literacy is at least that. Of course it could be in spite of the simplified characters, but I’m not getting why they would be a liability. After all, the illiterate would not have the frame of reference of the traditional characters to adapt from.

        Also Singapore, Malaysia and Japan simplified their characters post WWII and these efforts seem to be successful.

        If the Maoists wanted to make it difficult to read pre-rev writings, going to western script would have been way more successful. My guess is that this was a most a minor consideration.

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        • This reminds me of the changes in Turkish language along the XX century, as loan words from Arab and Persian were dropped, and replaced, fir by words with obsolete Turkish roots, and, then, th3 latter dropped in favor of contemporary western loan words.

          The most famous case is the Seven Day Speech that Atatürk gave in 1927 (the Nutuk) in what was then still Ottoman Turkish, which sounded so alien to later listeners that it had to be “translated” three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and most recently in 1995. even the name Nutuk (The Speech) is now Söylev (again, The Speech)

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        • To be clear, I’m saying that I find traditional characters slightly easier to distinguish because the higher stroke counts allow for more meaningful differences between similar characters. The difference is pretty minor, though, and my main point is that simplified characters do not seem to me to confer any real advantage when it comes to learning to read. I do suspect that they make learning to write a fair bit easier.

          Singapore and Malaysia use the same simplifications as China, right? Japan’s simplifications were less radical (hah!) and as I understand it were mostly just a formalization of colloquial simplifications that were already in use to increase handwriting speed.

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