How do I learn written Chinese?
April 1, 2011 3:36 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to learn written Chinese?

I've been playing russian roulette when ordering food in China. So any recommendations for a good book and/or methodology to learn enough written Chinese become literate enough to survive in the country?
posted by pakoothefakoo to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Rote memorization, unfortunately. Get a pack of English/Chinese flash cards (or buy blank ones and make your own) and practice, practice, practice. No other method has ever worked as well for me.
posted by Xany at 4:04 AM on April 1, 2011

Rote, as Xany says, and I'd recommend learning them by writing as well as reading. I've found that learning reading alone is slower and seems not to engage the writing part of my brain at all, so that learning to write them later takes just as long as it would have if I'd started out that way. Focussing on getting the stroke order right seems to help as well.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:26 AM on April 1, 2011

Seconding Xany. You can also do flashcards with a program like Pleco. There are also a ton of games out there to help you with reading and recognizing characters. Learn the radicals as well, and understand how characters work. For instance, in many characters the radical influences the meaning of the character, and the other part of the character will give a clue to the pronunciation.

You also need to write the characters to really memorize them.

How do native Chinese speakers learn to read and write? They write the characters--in correct stroke order--over and over again. It's not something that just comes naturally to them. I'm doing a master's program in teaching Chinese. Recently, I taught a group of very young native Chinese speakers--ages four to five--who were all fluent speakers, of course, and even they struggled with writing simple characters for numbers.

On preview, everything that has been said before.
posted by so much modern time at 4:34 AM on April 1, 2011

Best answer: As you are already aware, written Chinese is incredibly complicated. So no matter what method you use, it's going to take a lot a lot of time.

With that in mind, I would say start by focusing on the terminology that you will be using most often / want to know most. If one of your primary reasons for wanting to learn hànzì is knowing what you're eating, then start with the characters on menus. If another goal is to be able to read, say, signs at bus stops that list destinations in the city, or something like that, then include these characters in your initial set to learn.

But how to actually learn them?

(1) Get a Chinese person to read the characters that you see to you. (Even better, get their opinions about which characters among the ones you see are most common / worth learning early, versus more uncommon / better to put off till later.) Write them down in a notebook or on flashcards (with Pinyin/definition). Review them a lot. Learn both names of dishes (especially ones you like) as well as commonly occurring characters. Start with the most common, and most simple!, characters -- maybe things like 肉,牛肉,水,水果,果汁,汽水,咖啡,面,面条,面粉,拉面,茄子,豆,豆腐,羊肉,猪肉,鸡肉,鸡蛋,米,米饭,炒饭,蛋炒饭,炒面,凉皮,汤,or whatever you encounter most often / eat most often / most like to eat. (If you just learn how to recognize a couple of your favorite foods, you can then look for those on the page instead of having to understand the entire page of text.) (Btw the characters above I'm going to let you copy and paste into Google translate yourself -- if you translate "to Chinese" it'll give you the pinyin, or if you translate "to English" it'll give you the meanings. Consider it your first homework assignment on the road to learning characters.

(2) Get an electronic dictionary where you can hand-write characters into it, to look up the ones you don't know. (There are some really good ones available an iPhone apps, e.g.). Having something small and portable like this with you all the time is so helpful -- whenever you see a character you don't know and want to know -- whether it's on a menu or on a road sign or over the entry to a building or wherever -- you can "draw" it into the dictionary and find out what it is. (Obviously, the dictionary will also work the other way, where you can look up how to write any character you know the pinyin/meaning of too, which is also helpful even if your main goal is comprehension rather than production.)

(3) Get a book on reading and writing characters (and I agree with earlier posters that writing helps you be able to read them, because it makes you more familiar with them -- but writing is not strictly necessary. There are definitely lots of characters that I can recognize and read but never remember how to write, and I know some people who have learned how to read characters pretty well without ever handwriting anything; more on that below.) As for books, there are lots of them and they might all be fairly similar. One example is this, which I own, and can recommend, but I don't know if it's any better than anything else out there. You want a book that (a) teaches stroke orders, which can be important even for writing characters into electronic dictionaries (b) breaks down complex characters into their simpler components for you. they might be "meaning" components like 氵(which means water, and is found on the left side of a lot of characters that have something to do with water) or 忄(which is a heart radical and often occurs on the left side characters for emotions, for example). or they might be "sound" components (often found on the right side of characters) -- for example 包,抱,饱,鲍,胞,苞,跑,泡,炮,袍,咆,etc., all have the "包" part in common (increase the text size if it's hard for you to see), and are all pronounced either "bao" or "pao". (And in addition, the radical on the left often gives you some guess as to the meaning -- 扌comes from the character 手 and is probably something you do with your hands, the 鱼 means fish and so you know 鲍 is probably a kind of fish, etc.) These kinds of mnemonics and patterns work for some characters, not all, but the more you learn to recognize them, the easier remembering characters becomes. If you have friends who know characters (whether Chinese or foreign), ask them about these kinds of things whenever you are learning a new character.

(4) Chat online using QQ (or do other stuff on the computer) using Chinese characters combined with Google translate. Stuff that other people write you can use Google translate (either for translation to English, or just for giving you the Pinyin if you already feel comfortable with the spoken language). For stuff you write, use an IME such as Sogou or QQ to input your characters. They are really good at guessing (based on both relative frequency and context) which characters you want when you type pinyin. The more you chat, which uses normal, everyday language, the more you will come to recognize the most common characters, even if you aren't really trying. For text messages, you can also use Fetion (飞信), which will send texts to your computer, all the better for you to put them into Google translate. Even if you don't use Fetion or anything like it, still try to communicate by text message in 汉字 (=hànzì). If you're in China, you're surrounded by people who can help you read and write messages, and it's a pain at first, but people you're messaging will probably on the most part know to "dumb down" their texts to you, and as far as you writing characters, you don't actually have to know how to write them as long as you can write the pinyin and then pick the correct character from a list. (Again, you will quickly and automatically begin to learn the most common characters, such as 你,你好,我,我们,几点,见面,再见,在,在哪,etc., just from seeing them a lot and picking them from a list.)

(5) I don't know what you're in China for or how long you plan on staying, but I'd say consider checking out taking classes at a local university. Many universities have exchange-student programs or other teaching-Chinese-to-foreigners programs, and the tuition is cheap by Western standards. Immersing yourself in it, forcing yourself to actually be in class and study characters, is surely the best way. And programs like that are also really fun, you get to meet a lot of people from everywhere in the world, etc.

(6) Again, if you're in China, you're surrounded by people who understand 汉字. (If you don't remember what those characters mean, start to notice the pieces of them -- there's a 氵[water radical] and a 又; there's a 宀 [roof] and a 子 [pronounced "zi"].) In other words, your surrounded by experts. Take advantage of this! Don't just learn when you're "studying," but all the time. Randomly ask your friends and acquaintances about this stuff. Especially if you feel like there are certain character(s) that you see a lot and want to know what they are, or certain words that you feel like you should be able to recognize but can't yet, then just ask out of the blue "how do you write XXX?" or "what does that character mean?" You're surrounded by Chinese characters, so whether it's through asking a friend or scrawling it into your new iPhone app or whatever, what that means is you're surrounded by opportunities to learn.
posted by jef at 5:01 AM on April 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

As a stopgap before you truly learn written Chinese, to make your life easier with ordering food, you could buy The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters. It's not perfect (he has a unique, non-standard way of stroke counting), but you should be able to figure out your meal.
posted by Fortran at 6:42 AM on April 1, 2011

Basically two to three hours a night of practice, spoken Mandarin is pretty straightforward, and to me was easy, Hanzi was just lots and lots of work.

So, nthing practice practice practice practice.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:56 AM on April 1, 2011

Fortran beat me to it -- The Eater's Guide is a great resource for the gastronomically oriented student of Chinese.

As others have said, Chinese characters are all about rote. The first 100 or so characters you learn will come through brute force of memory; after you get those under your belt, you should be able to start abstracting characters into their common parts, as jef said above.
If you're in China, one of the best resources for character learning is the tracing workbooks (字帖) that elementary school students use. Get one of these and trace out your characters while you're doing other things -- watching TV or whatever. Learning characters is as much a mechanical process as it is a mental one.
posted by bokane at 7:06 AM on April 1, 2011

I'm learning the kanji with the highly effective combination of James Heisig's Remembering The Kanji; Anki and Reviewing the Kanji.

There's a Hanzi book by Heisig out (the first part) [Traditional | Simplified] at any rate. I highly recommend this - he teaches the characters via the individual components, which helps remembering them well. Anki has Mandarin decks itself - it's pretty much the go-to program when you need to get things memorised, and yeah, there's no two ways about it, you need to memorise those characters.

Finally, while the team behind Reviewing the Kanji are working on a Hanzi site right now, it likely won't be out for a while, so you'll have to rely on your own imagination to build your stories.
posted by Senza Volto at 7:18 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

What I do is get a stack of index cards and cut them into quarters.
Write the character on one side.
Write the pinyin on top of and the English meaning on the bottom of the other side.
Drill the character/English meaning.
Drill the character/pinyin - focusing on tones and saying it aloud!!!
Once you have that done, flip the cards and using the English meaning, drill writing the characters.

This will take lots of patience, and possibly the rest of your life.

*Bonus tip - Chinese characters are really cool, and one thing that has helped me as well is a dictionary that focuses on how the radicals interact to form the meeting, ex. a roof over a woman is peace, etc. There is a dictionary with an orange cover (sorry lacking spec's) which is in a lot of bookstores.

Good luck!!!
posted by ashtabula to opelika at 7:30 AM on April 1, 2011

I took a year of Chinese and, although I can't read anything, I can recognize characters pretty well. Well enough that I can see a street sign in China and remember it when I run across it again.

I think that you need to learn how to write characters. The big trick (which you will discover) is that each character is not a monolithic thing. It's actually made up of a lot of pieces that repeat over and over again and you recognize characters by recognizing the pieces in a character. Not doing this is like learning how to read English without understanding the concept of letters.

Note that Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese look different and memorizing one does not automatically give you knowledge of the other.

(Oh, I see you are in China. Simplified it is!)
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:02 AM on April 1, 2011

I'm teaching myself Chinese. One optimization is that I'm not even trying to learn how to write the characters by hand; I'm just learning to type them using a pinyin input method.

Spaced repetition programs like Supermemo and Anki give you a system for "intelligent" flashcard study.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:51 AM on April 1, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers, brick by brick it is then!
posted by pakoothefakoo at 9:02 AM on April 2, 2011

Sorry I'm a bit late but, I learned chinese in high school and I have to say that was my best friend. it has thousands of characters that you can look up either by how its pronounced, how many strokes, the radical, or the english. if there was a part of a word that I recognized belonging to another word but wasn't the radical, i would look up that word and search for the new on in the "tree" to the right side. they also have the frequency list so you can make sure you have all in each section to check up on yourself. This website is so good that I could read and write fluently well before I could speak or listen.
posted by rubberkey at 4:03 PM on August 29, 2011

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