Learning how to Read and Write Chinese Characters

First Writing Experience

Some may be scared off to learn that at one point there were as many as 50 000 different Chinese characters (by some estimates). Fortunately, this number has been whittled down to about 6500 for simplified computer fonts (double that for traditional fonts). That is still a big number for anyone to tackle, so the question becomes how many characters should a Chinese learner learn and how do you know which characters to learn?

The common standard to answer this question is to use a typical newspaper in Mainland China. Studies are regularly conducted to note which characters are most commonly used in printed media. To achieve 100% recognition of the characters used in a newspaper, you would need to know about 3000 characters (4000 for traditional characters in Taiwan). It is common to find dictionaries that only focus on these 3000 characters. So now that you know what the goal is, the question becomes how do you go about learning them? Do you just turn to page one of the dictionary and start learning a few characters per day? You could, but there is a much easier (and more efficient) way.

You only need to learn the 400 most commonly used characters to get to the level of 67% recognition. So it makes sense to study these 400 characters first, before moving on to the lesser used ones. Each time you see a character you know again, you are reinforcing that recognition pattern in your mind. Additionally, the process becomes easier, since in the process of learning, you will also be learning the radicals involved, so new characters will just involve modifying characters you already know, rather than having to learn them from scratch. Once you get to this magic 400 mark, you can then work on learning the next 600 characters, which will get you all the way to 88% recognition level.

As easy as this sounds, many study materials out there DON’T use this concept. A quick glance at a couple of textbooks teaching how to write characters showed one teaching the character for dragon (the 659th most common character), another teaching the character for fire (427th most common) and another teaching the character for busy (672nd most common). And this was the first lesson! It is easy to see why many students may give up learning how to read and write, when having to use methods like this.

10 Responses to “Learning how to Read and Write Chinese Characters”

  1. Anonymous

    “You only need to learn the 400 most commonly used characters to get to the level of 67% recognition”

    Does that mean you’ll be able to understand 67% of a Newspaper? No! You’ll be lucky if you can understand 3%.

    This is just a little lie teachers and books and the like tell students to get them to study. It not only happens in Chinese, it happens in English and Russian and many other languages. They tell English students that 60% of a typical English Newspaper is made up of less than a hundred words used over and over again. But when you find out that these are function words,( the, or, but, a), you realize that these aren’t enough to gain an understanding of what’s going on.

    With Chinese, it’s not how many characters you know, it’s how many combinations, how many compounds. It took me well over 2000 before I was able to read an article with out having to look something up. Well over 3000 before I was able to read a Newspaper from cover to cover. But just knowing those 3000+ characters wasn’t enough. I had to know the tens of thousands of compounds that they made up.

    If you want to learn to read and write in Chinese, be prepared to work at it for a few years. And I do mean work at it. You can actually learn to recognize 3000 characters in just over a year, if you put your mind to it. Writing takes the longest time.

    Learning to speak, which is really the main purpose of ChineseLearnOnline, can be done in as little as a year, if you’re able to hear it every day. You won’t be able to understand radio news broadcasts; that take another year or so. But you will be able to understand the people around you. Here’s the catch though, the longer you keep you mouth shut and just listen, the better your understanding will be and the better your pronunciation will be.

    I know this goes against what many of these sites say. They say you should practice speaking at every opportunity. I disagree, here’s why. I speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese fluently. I studied Mandarin in the U.S. And China about 15 years ago. I did the usual. Memorized phrases, characters. Practiced speaking whenever and where ever I could. I was a true believer in the “learn a little use it a lot” method. But I still speak with a bit of an accent. And even though I’ve worked as a Mandarin/English translator in China and the U.S., there are still things that fly right by me.

    Cantonese and Shanghainese are two languages that I have never studied. I’ve never cracked open a book in these languages. I have never asked anyone to translate something for me or for any help with these languages. Yet Cantonese and Shanghainese are languages that I speak and understand at Native level. Unlike Mandarin, I have never studied tones for Cantonese. They don’t even come to mind when I’m speaking Cantonese, they just come out right. I’m not Asian, but some people in Shanghai truly believe I was born there.

    Well, why do I have a Native level of Shanghainese and Cantonese and not in the language that I studied? Because for these two languages, I didn’t study, I just listened. The languages grew in me like English did when I was a child. And the cool thing about it is that I absorbed both of them at the same time.

  2. Thanks Jemini. I really appreciate your insights (that is what this blog is all about!). You are right that recognition doesn’t equal understanding, but I still think there is value to being able to recognize characters even if the overall meaning isn’t clear. There are different levels of understanding, and to me getting to this level of recognition is a step up from staring at text and being completely clueless as to what it represents.

    Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of my users on the new Premium Plus plan which has given me further insights on what their strengths and weaknesses are and what can be improved in this course. I really appreciate comments like yours that tell me what has worked and what hasn’t worked for you since that helps me set the direction on what areas this course should focus on in the future.

  3. Anonymous

    I’m lucky enough to go to a school where we get to learn Mandarin, which is something that the local colleges aren’t even provided with. In a month I’ve learned how to properly use and say about 100 characters, and can read around 40 of them. It was starting to feel daunting, but your post really put in to perspective how far I’ve come. I was very pleased to see I could read what your student wrote ^^
    Thank you for your post!

  4. I think the best way to learn characters is naturally. Not by a list. Learn the characters you need to learn based on when they pop up in your life. Then using the radical system or concept of character parts and components, basically breakdown or add parts to a character you already know.

    I’ve done the research and you can basically find any character in the language by adding, subtracting, or swaping one part…you just need to know 1000 characters. Too many?

    I did more research and found out all characters consist of 500 characters…too many?

    I then did more research and found it you combine spatial layout data to your knowledge of a parts sound or meaning or stroke, you only need to know 200-300 characters (they don’t have to be radicals).

    Learn more at sunrisemethod.com or sunrisemethod.wordpress.com

    There’s also an iphone app you can use to use all these different approaches.

    In the end, it helps you search, learn, memorize and recall how to write characters by it’s parts.

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