Chinese characters: the best way to learn vocabulary

Chinese Characters Learn New Vocabulary

Chinese characters are simpler than they look. Learning them will help you learn Chinese even faster. Plus, reading and writing in Chinese is just awesome.

This is part three in my series on how to learn Mandarin Chinese. Check out my previous posts to get started.

At this point in your studies you might be starting to notice that, even with some basic sentence structures, you lack the vocabulary to really understand what people are saying. At least, this is what I experienced almost every time I tried to put my Chinese to use. Even simple variations on basic greetings would throw me off if the speaker used words I had never heard before.

It was clear that I needed to expand my vocabulary to progress further. It was also clear that focusing on a few subjects would be more helpful that trying to learn a little bit about every subject. I knew that if I could do that, I would be able to have conversational exchanges longer more than 2 sentences. Even three or four sentences would be a good opportunity to practice the structures I was learning. What wasn’t clear was how to best do this. I lacked structure and wasn’t sure how to proceed.

Unfortunately, I ended up doing what most people who start learning Chinese and never finish do. I decided to take Chinese classes.

The sad truth: (Most) Chinese classes are rubbish

At the time, I could ask for basic directions, tell people I was vegetarian, describe my family members, and knew the double meaning behind the question “你喜歡吃豆腐嗎?” (你喜欢吃豆腐吗 / nǐ xǐhuān chī doùfu mā). But, I still couldn’t hold any sort of conversation. I thought Chinese classes would be the answer.

I went to a friend that was majoring in Mandarin Chinese at the university and she told me how useless the classes were if you actually care about properly learning and speaking the language. I didn’t buy it. Learning random bits here and there was working, and I couldn’t see any alternatives outside of taking classes.

So, when I heard that another one of my friends was taking her university classes online and had to fill an elective credit, I proposed that she sign up for Mandarin and that I do the homework for her. This is probably highly illegal and I probably shouldn’t be mentioning this to the world, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Apparently, she felt the same.

It was an introductory class that ended up covering less conversational material than I had learned in my first week of self study. The pacing and material covered in the class was painful at best. It was just as scattered as the material I previously learned, but instead of being scattered over 2 weeks, it was scattered over 3 months. Needless to say, I didn’t waste my time going by their schedule. Instead, I continued my own studies for some 30-60 minutes a day and completed the coursework in 15m or so as it was assigned.

Chinese characters are simpler than they look

One thing the course did cover that I hadn’t encountered yet was how to break Chinese characters into radicals. Before this, I had no interest in learning the written component of Chinese and any attempts I had made to remember characters failed miserably.

Chinese Character Radicals

You can basically think of radicals as a type of alphabet that make up Chinese characters. But, instead of learning the full list of radicals, all you have to do is be aware that they exist and start learning characters. You will start to recognize them as they re-occur throughout the characters you learn. Then as you progress, new characters will become easier and easier to remember as they are built out of familiar pieces.

Why learning characters is important

Some people will disagree with me and I’m sure there are several views on this topic, but in my opinion learning characters is essential to learning the language beyond the basics. In fact, I feel that aside from pinyin and good pronunciation, learning to read/write is the next most significant step to boost your rate of learning.

Of course, there will be a bit of a learning curve when you start, but before long, reading/writing will be a huge supplement. You will be able to read signs, menus, books, movie/tv subtitles, and textbooks. Perhaps most importantly though, you will be able to use Chinese websites and social networking services. All of this will help you quickly expand your vocabulary and zoom in on areas that are of real interest to you.

Learning Chinese characters fast, the easy way

I was lucky enough to have started studying Mandarin Chinese shortly after Skritter was launched.

I think of Skritter as an interactive flashcard system on steroids. They use retention-based learning algorithms to make sure you practice what you need to, when you need to. It works like this: input the vocabulary you’d like to study or select one or more of their hundreds of vocabulary lists, then start studying. That’s really it. They will prompt you to either “write” a word/character, recall a definition, or choose the tone for a word/character.

By, practicing for as little as 10-20 minutes a day I learned (and retained) several hundred characters in under a month.

What you should do now

1. Start practicing with something like Skritter 10-20 minutes a day. Every day.

2. Focus your new vocabulary in only a couple subject areas that you can bring up easily in a conversation. Food is a great subject.

3. Include some generic, high-frequency vocabulary in your studies. HSK 1 is a great list for this (it was designed for the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì).

4. Once you’ve established your character-studying schedule, it’s time to add some more structure to your learning.

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