Recently, several people have asked me about learning Simplified Chinese vs Traditional Chinese characters. Particularly, which system is better to learn?
Unfortunately, there is no straight-forward answer on which character set is better, but by considering the following, it should be easier for you to decide which one is better for you.
( Photo by *maindo007, on Flickr )
Regional differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese Characters
If you’re set on traveling to, doing business in, or studying in one of these countries, then you should probably choose accordingly.
That is, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in Mainland China, it’s going to make most sense to at least start by learning Simplified Chinese. Likewise, if you’re going to spend time in Taiwan, start with Traditional.
If you’re not set on where to study Chinese or where you’ll be putting it to use, it probably makes sense to next consider the applicability of each character set.
A great deal of modern, online materials are written in Simplified Chinese. Also, a great deal of modern research and technical resources, such as those in computer science, are primarily available in only Simplified Chinese.
On the other hand, Traditional Chinese is used for classical materials such as poems and works of art like calligraphy and paintings. This is because during simplification, many characters not only lose some of their beauty, but also lose their visual meaning.
As far as written materials go, anything popular or classic enough has likely been translated into both scripts and can be found/purchased without too much trouble.
If you know you’re going to focus entirely on modern works, Simplified Chinese may make more sense to start. But, if you love Chinese culture and art, you should probably at least have an understanding of Traditional Chinese.
If you plan to move to China but are passionate about calligraphy and art, then for better or worse, you will probably need to learn both. But, start with simplified!
Personally, I prefer reading online and printed material in Traditional Chinese whenever possible. But, knowing Simplified Chinese has been a great help when coming across certain blogs and technical publications.
When I first started learning Chinese, everyone kept telling me to learn Simplified Chinese because it was much easier to learn. What I found later is that this is only partially true.
Simplified Chinese characters are just that, simplified. As a result, they contain less strokes and can be easier to remember for new learners. However, when it comes down to it, the actual effort involved in learning either character set is quite similar.
That is, whether you’re learning Simplified or Traditional Chinese, you will need to learn more or less the same amount of characters. On top of that, many, if not most simplifications have the same character/radical composition as their traditional counterparts.
Also, the process of learning characters is largely based on memorizing radical position, meaning and relationships. This means thats whichever route you take, you’ll need to go through more or less the same process and put in a similar amount of work.
That being said, Traditional Chinese characters can be more daunting when first starting out, do in fact require more strokes/time to write, and are ridiculously hard to read with small font sizes.
Regardless, difficulty is probably the last thing you should consider when deciding which of the two character sets to learn.
How long do you plan to study?
If you’re still not sure which character set to choose or where you’d like to study, ask yourself the following questions: How long do I plan to study? How committed to learning the language am I?
If your answer contains some limited amount of time like 3 months, 9 months, or even as long as 2 years, then pick Simplified Chinese.
If you’re answer is more along the lines of “as long as it takes to be fluent” or “I don’t have a set time, I just enjoy learning the language”, pick Traditional Chinese.
Basically, Simplified Chinese will yield more short term results faster and can theoretically be used to communicate with more people.
Conversely, Traditional Chinese will be a bit slower to start and is more regionally limited. But, will give you a deeper and more thorough understanding of the language.
Learning both Simplified and Traditional Chinese Characters
As I’ve mentioned before, I personally learned both the simplified and traditional scripts. Doing so has been beneficial to myself, and I recommend any serious learner to consider doing so.
However, I highly recommend against doing so too soon.
Trying to learn both scripts simultaneously will no just take two times as long. Instead, it will probably take somewhere in the range of five, or even ten times as long.
This is because as you learn new characters, you will start to recognize certain radicals, relationships and patterns as they occur again and again. This sort of repetition will re-enfoce the characters you previously learned in a way that simply studying the same characters again-and-again cannot compete with. It will also lay a sort of mental foundation for all future characters that you learn.
After you get to a certain point, which for me was somewhere between 600-1200 characters, learning new characters becomes a lot less painful. It still requires work, but often a simple glance or two is enough to remember the character long enough to write it down. Beyond that, it just takes using the character a few more times in context to commit it to memory.
When you try to learn both character sets at the same time, you not only double the amount of materials you learn, but you also disrupt this internalization process.
As such, before taking on the challenge of learning both character sets, I personally recommend first learning at least 1000 characters in a single character set. And, if there is no rush, more is better here.
The good news is that after establishing one’s foundation in either Simplified or Traditional Chinese, picking up the other character set really isn’t all that bad (especially if you’re coming from the traditional side!). Don’t get me wrong, it will still take work, but the second character set will come much, much faster.
What’s your preference?
I hope this helps you decide on which character set to study! And as always, I’d love to hear what you decide on and what you think : )