How To Learn Chinese Characters Faster And More Effectively

Learning Chinese Characters

Perhaps the hardest part of learning Chinese is learning the characters. Some people say you need to know at least 3,000 to 4,000 characters to read most Chinese newspapers. Most students in China learn the characters by rote learning. But if you’ve ever tried that, you realize how exasperating it can be. Writing characters many times only to forget them is a frustrating experience. Maybe you’ve even felt it was hopeless trying to learn Chinese. But are you aware that even native Chinese forget how to write certain characters at times? It happens more often than you’d think because of the ease of pinyin input. There’s a much better method for learning characters and a less frustrating one too. This method involves the mnemonic technique and spaced repetition software.

Why Use Mnemonics To Learn Chinese Characters?

Mnemonics can help you remember concepts or a list of random things. For example, ROY G BIV is a mnemonic for the colors of the spectrum. Basically, they’re an aid to help you remember something better. By using mnemonics and spaced repetition, you can remember thousands of characters quickly. For more information on spaced repetition, read my post here.

If you learn ten characters a day for seven months, you’ll be able to learn 2,100 characters. That will give you 95% fluency. If you want to reach 99% fluency, then you can learn 3,000 characters in ten months. What this means is you’ll be able to read most news articles and books in less than a year.

You might think creating mnemonics takes too much effort. But once you see how much easier it is to recall characters, you won’t give it a second thought. And constructing mnemonics will become easier the more you do it.

Wouldn’t you rather be able to start reading more material? With mnemonics, you can learn characters faster and start reading sooner. Some people argue mnemonics are more work than necessary. They say it’s not the “right” way to learn characters. But putting in the effort into a method that works and gives you much better results just makes more sense! You can spend years learning by rote, and it wouldn’t be as effective. As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results.” Mnemonics provides the quickest way to reading fluency.

Where To Start

Start by learning the most frequently used characters first and build your way up. You can find frequency lists published online by Patrick Zein and Jun Da. Or you can use the book, Reading and Writing Chinese Characters by William McNaughton.

Knowing the radicals will help make the task easier for creating mnemonics, but you can learn them as you go. There are generally six types of Chinese character constructions. Learning what they are can also help demystify the way characters are created.

It’s a common misconception that all Chinese characters evolved from pictographs. Actually, the majority of them are sound-meaning compounds. These are characters that comprise sound and meaning components. To learn more about the six characters types, read my post here.

Step One: Assign A Hero To Each Tone

Let’s break down what you need to create an effective mnemonic. To recall a Chinese character, you need to remember four things:

  1. The character’s tone
  2. How it sounds
  3. Its meaning
  4. The components of the character

There are four tones in Mandarin (five if you count the neutral tone). You can devise a system to remember these tones and apply it to all characters you learn. You can think of the mnemonics you’ll be creating as short stories. Every story needs a hero, so you can assign a hero based on the tone of the character. See the following for examples:

  • High tone (¯)—a teacher setting high standards
  • Rising tone (´)—an astronaut rising above the clouds in a rocket
  • Low tone (ˇ)—a monkey swinging from branch to branch
  • Falling tone (`)—a diver descending below the water

Choose whatever heroes make sense to you and apply them to all the characters you learn. In other words, assign the teacher as the hero to all characters with a high tone. Assign the astronaut for all characters with a rising tone, etc.

Step Two: Choose An English Equivalent or Chinese Homophone For The Sound

Next, let’s examine the sound component. There are two ways to approach this. One way is to find an English word that approximates the sound in Chinese. This can be difficult because most sounds in Mandarin differ from English.

Another way is to find another Chinese word you know to help with remembering the sound. This can be easier since many homophones exist in Mandarin. But if you’re just beginning, you may not know enough words to use this method. In that case, stick with choosing English words for sound equivalents.

When finding an English sound equivalent, you must be flexible. Find a word in English that represents the sound as closely as possible. Sometimes you may need to be creative, but use a word you know. You may find this difficult, but don’t skip this step. By thinking about it, you’ll be better able to recall the character’s sound.

Step Three: Analyze The Components That Make Up The Character

Let’s move on to the character’s components or radicals. If you read my post about the six Chinese character types, then you’ll understand why knowing them helps. If the character is not a pictograph or symbol, then you’ll be able to break down the character further. You can incorporate the meanings of these components into the mnemonic you create. For example, let’s take the character 晨, which means morning. You can break this character down further into its components (see figure 1 below.) These components are “sun” and “early.” Now you can incorporate both components into the mnemonic to help remember this character.

日 + 辰 = 晨

Figure 1: “Sun” and “early” radicals that make up the character for “morning.”

Step Four: Incorporate The Character’s Meaning Into The Mnemonic

Finally, don’t forget to incorporate the character’s definition into your mnemonic. You’ll have a hard time remembering what the meaning is if you don’t. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook this step. An effective mnemonic requires hooks that will help trigger your memory.

Step Five: Assembling The Mnemonic

Now, let’s put together steps 1-4 to create a proper mnemonic for the character 晨. This character has a rising tone. Based on the heroes discussed earlier for each tone, the hero for this character is the astronaut. Next, the pinyin for this character is chén. There’s no equivalent word in English, so we must be flexible. The word “churn” may not be exact, but it’s close enough to help trigger the sound for the character.

If using the Chinese homophone approach, we can choose 尘, meaning “dust.”

Next, let’s examine the components of the character. These are the “sun” and “early” radicals as mentioned earlier. The character’s definition is “morning.” Now, let’s tie it all together to make it easier to remember. Here’s the constructed mnemonic:

Option 1 (English sound equivalent):

“The astronaut watches the sunrise early in the morning as he churns butter.”

Option 2 (Chinese homophone):

“Waking early in the morning, the astronaut gazes out the window seeing the sun as a speck of dust.”

The italics highlight the components of the mnemonic, and the blue text is the sound cue. All the hooks for the character’s tone, sound, meaning, and components are there.

You might find creating mnemonics takes time, but as you do it more often, it’ll become easier. Although you may be tempted to skip one or two steps, try not to or you’ll end up with a less effective mnemonic. By incorporating every step, your mnemonic will be more specific and easier to remember. Also, try to visualize the mnemonic and don’t worry if it’s odd. The more peculiar, the more memorable it’ll be. So for 晨, you can visualize the astronaut donning his space suit while churning butter and gazing at the sun.

Add Mnemonics To Anki

Mnemonics are more effective when used with Anki, a spaced repetition program, for review. If you’re not familiar with Anki, you can read my post here. Spaced repetition is a smarter and more efficient method of learning something. It works by testing your memory over increasing time intervals between reviews. Newer review items appear more often and sooner than review items you know well. Try to schedule time everyday to review your Anki flashcards. Initially, you’ll rely on mnemonics to recall characters, but later they won’t be necessary. This is good. You can bypass the mnemonic to recall the character!

Tips On Recalling A Character

Here are a few tips you can try to help remember a character. Start by thinking about the character’s tone. This may lead to the hero you assigned for the character. Then review its components. What do each of the components mean? Now try to recall the link between the hero and the character’s components. These clues can help you remember a character’s meaning and pronunciation. But if you continue to forget the character, then decide if you need to revise the mnemonic.

Action Steps

Now it’s your turn to create mnemonics! Set a goal of the number of characters to learn and a timeframe. Record it and review this goal daily. Add it to your daily to do list. If you plan to learn ten characters per day that’s 1,000 characters in 3.5 months. You can track your progress on this goal daily. Tracking your goals will give you greater success in accomplishing them. Once you’ve reached them, set new goals to challenge yourself. You can always adjust the number of characters to learn and timeline based on your schedule. But remember, a consistent study routine is better than an infrequent one. Even with short sessions, you’ll have greater success. I hope these tips will help you learn Chinese characters with ease. If you found this information helpful, please share with a friend. 加油!

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5 Responses to “How To Learn Chinese Characters Faster And More Effectively

  • Applause!

  • Morgan Ho
    7 years ago

    I learned Chinese a long time ago, but have forgotten much of what I learned. I am trying to pick it up again, and I think I’ll try this technique. I remember before I had a very hard time remembering chaaracters. Perhaps this will help in my second time around! Thanks!

Trackbacks & Pings

  • Where To Start If You Want To Learn Mandarin Chinese • Zhi Chinese :

    […] There are ways to make learning characters a simpler task than writing them over and over. This is the traditional method of learning characters and a time-consuming one as well. A better method is using both Anki and mnemonics, which I’ve already written in a detailed post here. […]

    7 years ago
  • How Knowing The Six Character Types Can Help With Learning Characters • Zhi Chinese :

    […] Can you see how knowing the six character constructions can be helpful? Now you can recognize that not all components in a sound-meaning compound contribute to its meaning. This should clear up any confusion when learning characters. It also helps to study similar characters together that share the same components. By doing so, you’ll be better able to tell them apart. Combined with the mnemonic technique, you can learn characters faster and more effectively. To learn more about using mnemonics to learn characters, read my post here. […]

    7 years ago

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