10 crucial tips on how to learn Chinese characters


In this post Piero Costa shares 10 tips to learn Chinese characters effectively. Piero is Linguese co-founder and director of studies. He has more then 15 years of experience in learning and teaching Mandarin.

In my years spent teaching Chinese in universities and high schools, one of the most frequent questions asked by beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them.

Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarize my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!

Here are 10 crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters:

  1. Study the characters closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, observe the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? What is its structure? This good habit will result very helpful when you will face complex characters.
  2. Look at characters as images, it will help to memorize them. Visual association is a powerful tool for memorization. Chineasy is a good example of how to associate characters with image
  3. Write it until you get the feel for the character – Once you know how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This will help to familiarize yourself with the hand motions involved and will help improve your handwriting in general. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
  4. Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke – is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. If you cannot remember the whole character at once, break it down into its component parts.
  5. Use the right notebook – regardless the number of strokes, characters have to be written in the same physical space in order to be esthetically pleasant. write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimeters). If you don’t know were to find such notebooks, I recommend my student to use notebooks from SeventeenTwentyfour.
    Quaderni per scrivere in cinese
  6. Write characters, pinyin, tones and translation always together – it will help you store these information together in your long term memory, so that you won’t find yourself in the frustrating situation where you recognize a character but you don’t remember how to read it or the meaning.
  7. Use space repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over.
  8. If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up, it’s probably a radical – It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. 90% of characters are semantic and phonetic compounds. Radicals often give us suggestions on the meaning of the character. Beside these, we also need to know radicals to look up for a word in the dictionary.Radicals are indeed important, but rather then memorize all 214 radiclas in a chart, discover them step by step every time you learn new characters.
  9. Use Flashcards to diversify your character learning – You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, buying a flashcard set, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters.
  10. Let Technology help you – nowadays there are a lots of app for Mandarin learning. Once you have downloaded them in your smartphones or tablet you are set to learn on the go and take advantage of every minute of your time to learn new characters. Skritter is a good one to create your own powerful toolkit to learn characters.Overall curiosity and passion are the engines that will get you going on your learning Chinese path.


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