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How to learn and approach learning Chinese Characters

How to learn and approach learning Chinese Characters


It is unfair to say learning the first 2000 characters is easier or harder than learning the next 4000 characters.  The most important point is HOW you approach learning Chinese characters.  The one-by-one memorization method is the worst way, however many Chinese teachers and children learn it this way.  This is still successful for multiple reasons:  a child has more years to learn Chinese than a grown-up foreigner, and the child lives in the language, thus easier to learn.  


The second worst way to learn Chinese characters is to be afraid of them and consider them too hard to learn, thus you end up never learning it.  This situation often occurs with heritage learners (students with an advantage in listening/speaking).


The best way to learn Chinese is realize (from this book and other sources) that learning Chinese characters starting with its sound, then its meaning, to learning how to write them are shortcuts and more efficient than one-by-one memorization.  A student should only have to memorize the “essential” characters to Chinese, and build up on them.  This is what I will teach you: not Chinese the traditional way, but rather Chinese from a “grand” perspective, from a top-down approach, from someone who has been in your shoes before, but is not at the top of the mountain and looking down at the hard trail of character learning.  What I realized from my years of learning is not everyone has to take the same trail as me to get to the top.  There are more direct and easier ways to do it.  So let’s start.


Set your goal for how many characters you want to learn..2000?3000?4000?5000?

The importance of the radical.


Like I said, a native speaker knows 4000-5000 characters, so this could be a possible goal.  Setting your goal is important because it will affect your possible learning method.  If you decide you only want to know 500-1000 Chinese characters, maybe memorizing one-by-one may be the most effective way.  However, if you want real fluency (above 3000 character vocabulary), listen to what I have to say.  I once made this recommendation to a beginner level student, but he complained to me saying he had enough characters to memorize…well he had a point, but so did I.  His point was why should I learn these 200+ characters that I don’t think I’ll use much when I can learn “important” characters like “me” “you” “dog” “fun”.  Good point, but my point was you will always have too many characters to memorize, so the secret is learning characters in the RIGHT ORDER.  And thus, I give you the first most important 200+ characters.  You can learn them first or alongside your memorization of “me” “you” “dog” “fun” but don’t put these “essential” 200+ characters on the back-burner.  These 200+ plus characters are the radicals of the Chinese characters.  Disagree?  Think again, the radical system is so important traditional dictionaries (esp. in HK and Taiwan) are organized based on a character’s radical.  If you don’t know the character’s radical you can’t look up the character.  


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