Learning Chinese Characters

Hey guys,

First of all, I’m sorry that I haven’t been keeping you all updated with my challenges.  A lot of stuff is happening in my life — I just found out that I’m going to have surgery to have my gaul bladder removed and I spent all day in the hospital Monday.

However, I am still very active when it comes to studying and I didn’t let life’s incidents get in the way.

After meeting with one of my italki teachers, Yueming, I found that I am a lot more illiterate in Chinese than I thought I was.  I can speak fine, I can understand perfectly, my pronunciation is practically native, but I just. can’t. read.

Although I can read about 2,000 characters, there are so many more that are used in the daily lives of Chinese people that I can’t.  And compared to a native Chinese speaker, my reading vocabulary of 2,000 characters is extremely tiny.

Plus, the new textbook I got is in complete Chinese, hardly any English, and absolutely no Pinyin in the lessons, including the dialogue.  As I went through the lesson I struggled to read sentences fully, and almost always had to stop and ask, “what’s this character?” even if it was a word I had learned to say years ago.

So, Yueming suggested that I go back and learn the characters I should’ve learned a long time ago.  So I purchased a beginner book, New Practical Chinese Reader 2, and have been going through all the lessons and learning the characters of all the vocabulary words.  Although the words aren’t anything new, the characters are.

So, why is being literate in Chinese so important? Why is it so hard? And how can we possibly make it a bit easier?

1. Reading is important because it advances your learning capabilities.

This is the first thing I found out over the course of a week.  I used to go by pinyin solely, and turns out, it really hurt me.  What I discovered when I opened up that new, advanced textbook for the first time and stared at all of those unfamiliar characters was that pinyin will only take you so far.

You eventually need to learn how to read in Chinese, just like in any language.  Although it is extremely difficult since there’s no alphabet, tons of radicals, and characters with twenty something strokes, it is a must when the goal is to become fluent.

2. Reading is important because it allows you to enjoy the Chinese language even more.

Another thing that brought me to this realization this week was when my best friend, Wendy, who is a native Chinese speaker from the small town of Leshan, and I had a conversation about poetry.  She asked me if I liked Chinese poetry, (which I do) and then asked if I preferred ancient or modern.

I, being the history lover and language enthusiast I am, of course replied with ancient.  I then went on to ask her if she had any recommendations of beautiful ancient poetry.  In return, she sent me some poems.

However, they were all written in simplified characters.

I sighed to myself as once again I was extremely frustrated at myself because of my limitations.  There was absolutely no sign of pinyin on the paper, and I shouldn’t have expected there to be.

3. Reading is important because it’s a part of the language.

This is so obvious, yet so many of us easily look over it! Reading is a part of any language, and it is vital that we learn it along with the grammar, vocabulary, and sounds equally.

I realized that I can’t call myself fluent without having knowledge in this important aspect of the language I claim to speak almost natively.  None of us can, and it plays a role in the language we can’t ever erase no matter how hard we try to downgrade it.

So, how can we go about actually learning Chinese characters?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve Google searched how to study Chinese characters effectively.  But the truth is, it’s something we all have to learn ourselves.  No one else’s tricks will work just as good on us as our own.  Learning isn’t a skill that can be studied, it’s a process, and I believe Chinese characters is, too.

Learning characters is a process.

We can’t rush this process, no matter how hard we try.  All we can do is figure out how we learn and then follow through with what suits us best.

I’ve taken several character courses over the past six years, but gave up because I’d skip a day or two and think I wouldn’t be able to remember any of the characters I learned anyways.  But, that’s not true, and we can’t have that kind of mindset when learning a language as difficult as Mandarin.

Make flashcards, hand write them out, use them in sentences, draw them on your hands, arms, or legs, read them out loud as you look at them, use spaced repetition, study in segments, post them on your furniture.

Those are several methods that have worked for various people.  Not all of them will work for you, and not all of them you will prefer.  However, learn the way you learn.

I hope this blog post has been the slightest bit helpful! I know it isn’t much, but it’s just a collection of things I have learned through my personal experiences throughout this week.  Continue learning and have fun!

Jia Li 嘉莉


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