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Chinese Characters – How do they work?

Any student of Mandarin Chinese can agree that at the start of your learning, memorizing characters is a daunting task! Modern dictionaries will have in excess of 50,000 characters where approximately 21,000 of those characters are in contemporary usage. As native speakers of a language where we only need to know 26 letters, this seems unachievable.

But don’t be afraid! You can read around 99.48% of modern, everyday Chinese if you know approximately 3,500 characters. Obviously, reading complex writings like science textbooks or literature requires a more in-depth knowledge of Chinese characters, but you can cross that bridge when you get to it!

Where to Start

Comparatively with Chinese, English speakers are afforded a shortcut when it comes to learning new words and phrases with the usage of letters and phonetic rules to guide our pronunciation. For instance, a native speaker being well-versed, perhaps unintentionally, in the art of English pronunciation, can pronounce these following made-up words:

Googlet     Barkjump   Champlotterfloogel

Despite having likely never seen either of these words before, you are still able to at least pronounce them and perhaps intuit something about the meaning based on the word roots. Once armed with our knowledge of letters and their pronunciation rules, we can attack texts with confidence and employ strategies to decipher any fresh words we come across.

Differences Learning Chinese and English Words

Chinese presents a new challenge for us: how do we undo the complicated, centuries-old maze of Chinese characters 汉字 (py Hànzì; literally Han characters) and wade through the seemingly never-ending waves of intricate symbols?

The answer is (brace yourself) that it just takes effort to learn and memorize these characters; there is no way around it. Many scholars have attributed the unapproachability of Chinese to foreign learners directly to these characters. We must remember, however, that complaining that a language is more difficult because it is not like our misses the whole point as to why we choose to learn that new language. Yes, these characters present a significant challenge for students, but putting in the time to learn characters as well as strategies to memorizing them will be nothing but an enormous benefit to your Chinese career! While some folks are content learning only the phonetic system of Chinese that uses Latin characters to guide pronunciation (pinyin), this can only get you so far. Once you leave the safety of your classroom and step foot in Shenzhen or the magnificent school campus of Beida surrounded by student’s posters alight with beautifully scribed Hanzi, pinyin will not be your closest ally.

While it may still seem daunting, there are many strategies to learning characters rapidly and effectively! Many fellow students of subjects other than Chinese have commented that the characters don’t seem to have anything linking them, they are all random, or even that there is nothing one can do except to memorize them character by character grudgingly. But they were wrong! If you are willing to take the time to learn about the Kangxi radical system, you will quickly be able to break down and interpret new characters with a large degree of accuracy! Much in the way you can determine that Barkjump has something to do with a dog barking and something jumping (my own term for when a dog startles me by barking loudly), this same idea can be applied to Chinese characters!

The Plan of Attack

My recommendation to start on your journey of learning the Kangxi radical system and familiarizing yourself with the structure of Chinese characters would be to start with the essential radicals that you will come across. Memorizing these radicals and their meanings will enable you to interpret new characters you come across. Learn them and learn them well! While this may seem like a pointless task, spending the time to learn these radicals will give you a deeper understanding of the Chinese language beyond simple character memorization!

A helpful learning strategy is to learn and group the radicals of characters you already know! For instance, when learning the radical 女,you could group it with the characters 好 and 她. Remember when we said the radicals could help you glean the meaning of the character? In this case, 女 (this radical means “woman”) is in the character她, which means “she.” Here we can see that there is an excellent logic to Chinese Hanzi!

Where Do We Go From Here?

As always in the course of learning a new language, there are constant challenges and brain gaps we must bridge; not only are we learning to speak and read a different way, but also to construct ideas and images differently in our head so that we can approach the language in the way it is meant to be approached. I will never forget a fellow student asking Ms. Lu what the Mandarin translation of “dude” was, the disappointment when he realized there wasn’t one, and his determination and semester-long struggle to find a suitable replacement. In his words, “If I can’t use dude, I don’t really know how I will be able to speak properly.”

The delicate art of Hanzi cannot be learned overnight! There are many resources across the internet with sharp, pertinent insights that can start to guide you on this mission, such as those found at chinesegrammerwiki or various articles at DigMandarin, which offer a far better explanation to the nature of radicals than I could ever hope to achieve. The important thing is to review the list of Kangxi radicals and their respective meanings, and then apply them to characters that you already know!

Learning this particular system takes patience, hard work, and time. The more you cut away at it, the closer to its heart you get! Happy studying!

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Steven Schmitz

At 25 years old, Steven holds a double B.A. from UC Davis in Chinese Language andLinguistics. He is currently preparing for a Master's degree in China Culturaland Language studies. Steven has spent several years as a language tutor, Sino-hobbyist, and language researcher. He currently lives in California and is watching 蜗居 for the fourth time.

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