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Learning Characters

I am a newbie am a little bit confused should I first learn the characters or learn to speak the language despite living in China for a year now and can’t speak well mandarin

I can tell you that for me - learning to read was very helpful for learning how to speak.
Because learning the words (and this is important - not only characters, but WORDS) helped me to expand my vocabulary, and this is really important for speaking and understanding the language.
I can recommand you about a flashcard App I use - it’s called ZEN CHINESE, it’s free (but it’s only for iPhone). I’m using it every day, and it proved itself really helpful.
good luck!

Learn both at the same time. Speaking is more important

I use memrise, started with the HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 3 etc courses.

I agree with Che and Jumsao, but also differ in perspective a bit.

Learning to read will definitely advance your spoken language.

Yes, learn both at the same time.

I would even argue that LISTENING is more important than speaking, because if you say something to someone and don’t understand what they say back, whats the point?

Speaking is only more important if thats your goal, but speaking is a 2 way street.

My goal is to be able to read at a pace that is close to where my english is. So speaking is secondary… For me.

Also write. Write the damn characters if you want to know them well. Make them your friends.


My personal perspective as someone who went from knowing zero Chinese to ~HSK 4 in less than two years while staying part-time in China and working full-time. I’m no expert, but here was my approach:

  1. Learn the principles of tones and pinyin. Memorize and practice making all the sounds until you can intuitive pronounce based on the pinyin (for example, knowing that ZH is like a soft G, not a Z sound takes a bit of getting used to, assuming your mother tongue is English). This stage shouldn’t take more than a few weeks if you do it daily.
  2. Do flashcards of vocab based on HSK level. (In other words, do HSK level 1 first.) Take cards in batches of 50 or 100 until you can score 90%+ in the batch. Pay attention to each characters makeup and sound. Soon you will begin to recognize patterns because (as a general rule) radicals carry some abstract meaning and the other part gives clues to the pinyin sound (though not the tone). I used Pleco for flashcards, some people like Memrise more.
  3. As you progress through the flashcard list, start looking for examples of words you know used in sentences (or, since you’re living in China, on signs, ads, etc.). This will start to help you see the pattern of grammar. (I didn’t really study grammar rules until my vocab was 1000+ words, not sure if this was a good approach.)
  4. As you encounter a new word or character you don’t know, first break it down into parts and try to understand each. With simplified characters this is a little harder. I used Xiaoma Hanzi app because it’s got a quick radical-based interface and always shows the simplified and traditional next to each other, so you can see what got “simplified out”.

I tried to study 60-90 minutes each day (during commute) but was always looking or listening for words I didn’t know. Curiosity and repetition are your friends. Those, and bubble tea :slight_smile:

Good luck!

I would recommend that you start learning characters as soon as you start learning mandarin. For the first 2-3 years of my study I only focused on speaking and and I feel like it was a mistake. I feel like my Chinese is at the point where it requires that I know more characters so this year I have committed to learning Chinese characters so I use Memrise to review HSK characters. I listen to the CPod lesson multiple times every day.Anki to make flashcards based off my CPod vocabulary.

Listening is probably the most important skill of all because like @KnowledgeAllah says, if you can’t understand what people are saying then what is the point.

There was some research into this and basically those who studied only spoken Chinese intensively achieved a higher level of competency than those who studied both speaking and writing - however, this was only in the short term and those who studied both achieved a much higher level of competency in the long term.

It depends largely on your goal.

For me, the enjoyment of learning a language is in communicating with people in that language and I would recommend that you focus mostly on that in the beginning.

Using a book like, Learning Chinese Characters by Mathews, is a fun way to get you started with characters.

It does boil down to personal learning preference though, so you should just do what you enjoy most - good luck!

I agree with the above, both are important.

Approaches to learning characters are varied, but as has been said, if you intend on learning Chinese for the long term, then characters are essential.

I’ve used two approaches, Pleco and written. I used to write characters on blank name cards with the pinyin, English and an example sentence on the reverse. Now, I only use Pleco.

Pleco may be more convenient, but there is something about writing the characters by hand that does help remember them better than electronical characters. It’s an enjoyable, even therapeutic experience writing characters, (if you get the strokes order correct).

A good middle ground would be to use Pleco or a similar app but also write each new character out 10 or more times in a note book.

Learning the radicals and breaking each character down is interesting, I’ve done it, but it’s hard work and takes a long time.

My friend didn’t bother, fair enough his speaking was better than mine at first, but now I can read books to learn whereas his Chinese has just came to a stand still. Learning them at the same time means not having to waste time back tracking, also, they aren’t as hard as they seem, the more you know the easier they get, especially if you learn to write them. They motivate you to want to keep learning Chinese as well, especially since the spoken language hasnt got many sounds, they really make the language much richer.

I would also say that knowing them becomes almost essential by the time you reach hsk 5/upper intermediate as one of the most efficient ways of increasing vocabulary is through books. Furthermore, say you want to watch Chinese TV, ten times easier when you can read the subs in Chinese. Not sure what level you want to reach in Chinese, but if you are like me and want to be as fluent as possible, get started now.

Hi All,

I’ve happily raised my level of Chinese over the last 2 years with the help of ChinesePod:slight_smile:: , Pleco and Memrise but feel I’ve hit a plateau recently because I’m having more and more trouble retaining new vocabulary. I live in Paris, have only 30 minutes of conversation a week with a Chinese language buddy but must admit I haven’t been reading lately, and don’t really write that much in Chinese.

Memrise has been great for the numerous “stories” created by its community around characters that help greatly in getting them into long term memory but as I approach 1200 characters plus their components, it’s getting really difficult to remember all the stories. I’ve just started going to HSK 5 classes, with the exam end May 2017, and thinking I’m never going to be able to master the 1200 new words in time.:sweat: I know I need to do more regular reading and writing, so what I’m after is any suggestions for memory techniques.

I watched the really interesting video interview with the German memory champion about memory palaces but was frustrated it didn’t go into the practical details of how it’s done with thousands of characters. Does anyone have sources for Chinese character learning techniques with memory palaces? Any other memory techniques?

Any help gratefully accepted!