Chinese people read traditional Chinese characters

Learn Chinese characters

Often you only know them from old films or have seen a book somewhere with Chinese characters on it ... or you just took a closer look at the label of your new sports pants out of boredom.

However you came across Chinese characters, you always associate something mysterious, mysterious or just something totally alien with it. It is hard to imagine that there are more than a billion people in the world who communicate in this way. But if you take a closer look at several individual characters, you will notice a logic ...

You can do that without a sign! Spa

When I first considered learning Chinese, the characters frightened me off so much that I left them aside and only learned Chinese through pinyin (phonetic spelling).

But after a while it was difficult for me to remember more words because every twentieth word sounded the same. After some back and forth, I finally decided to give the characters a try. With today's technology, it is actually sufficient that one can only recognize / read characters.

The pinyin input on the computer or mobile phone does the drawing for you. But I was and still am of the opinion that it is easier to remember characters if you can also write them by hand.

Where is the logic in the sign ?!

The evolution of the Chinese character for elephant 象

At first I tried to memorize some signs without a system, but I immediately noticed that it was so impossible (assuming you don't have too much time or a photographic memory), which put a damper on my already weakened motivation. At the beginning of my studies they tried to show me that you can still sometimes see that, for example, the symbol for woman / female 女 should really represent a woman in primeval times. With some signs you can still imagine that today, but certainly not with every single one.

To be honest, I thought I was being kidnapped when a teacher asked us if we could see the elephant from the Chinese character 象. But slowly I got on the right track.

The characters can be subdivided into individual components, once the radical and usually several individual components.

Now you can learn the meaning of the individual building blocks and recognize them in other characters, which makes writing much easier. (For example, the character Zeichen often occurs as a radical or a building block.)

In addition, you can quickly see which building blocks and radicals occur more often than others.

I even enjoyed the sign of learning because I found the known radicals and building blocks again and again and was then able to write them.


And how do I remember the whole sign?

Part of a list of Chinese radicals in the LTL Beijing School

That still seems like a difficult task.

The best way for me, especially at the beginning, was to use the individual parts to invent a story for the characters, no matter how silly, illogical, inappropriate ... the main thing was that I could remember it.

To be honest, the crazier the better. Here is a simple example: Let's take the symbol 安, security, safe. In the sign we have a woman who is under something like one roof. If the woman is under the roof, then she is safe. So easy. And I never forgot the sign again.

If I have seen a sign in the future that also has a “roof”, the best thing to do is to come up with a story with a roof. For example 宝, honey, jewel. Here we have a roof and that under the roof is the symbol of jade. Jade hidden under one roof, that's a treasure. Noted again.

So easy. These are simple characters, but the system worked with complicated characters too, so the story just needs to be longer.

Of course, a lot of writing is also important and also the repetition of characters, but I saw many of my fellow students who sat next to me and wrote the characters hundreds of times, no matter how beautiful they were, and which they still couldn't remember. "I'll just copy it off," they told me. “They'll get stuck at some point”. But without a system, I noticed that all the writing was of no use.

Will it get easier someday?

There are many ways to remember Chinese characters

After two years of learning signs, I noticed one more thing that would motivate me if I had to start over.

After the first approx. 1000 characters, it was no longer necessary for me to come up with a story for all of them and to look for methods to be able to remember new words better.

Now I look at a sign three to five times and then I can already remember it.

In the case of complicated characters or signs that I just can't remember, it still happens that I make up a story.

How was that the same? First left, then right?

The stroke order of the character 美 - “beautiful”.

One last important tip for me when learning to write was the following: In any case, remember ONE stroke order.

There are enough books, apps and information online about the "correct" stroke order. At the beginning it seemed unnecessary for me to learn a certain stroke order, the main thing is that I can write the character, right? Yes, actually yes, even if every advanced sinologist can easily recognize if the stroke order is wrong. My teacher said one thing that convinced me. If I memorize more than one stroke order and write a radical or character in five different ways, my brain also memorizes five different stroke orders for it.

If I only learn one, my brain will memorize this one order. Often I only miss the first line for a character.

If I remember the first line, the hand feels like it continues to write automatically.

Now I can write the symbol, but how do I pronounce it again?

Triangular relationship between chinese character, pronunciation and meaning.

At some point I noticed that there are words whose pronunciation can be recognized by a part in the sign.

For example, several characters that have this building block are all pronounced “qing” 请 , 清 , 情 (albeit in different tones).

The left side (the radical) then indicates the meaning. For example, the first 请 has the radical for speaking on the left, which tells me that the sign must have something to do with speaking. In this case it is a question of asking / asking / inviting.

I recognize the pronunciation by the right part (this is actually the case with many words).

However, you still have to learn the pronunciation of the individual characters with diligence, as the above is not always the case and even if you do, you would not yet know the tone. So unfortunately you always have to learn the triangular relationship between sign - meaning - pronunciation, which sometimes feels like you are learning a third language.

One final thought

When I started - okay I'll be honest when I tried - reading books in Chinese, I noticed a huge difference between western languages ​​and languages ​​like Chinese, Japanese ...

When reading, I always tried to pronounce each character in my head instead of thinking directly about the meaning of the character.

When I asked a Chinese man whether he was pronouncing the characters in his head, he said “No”. But when he speaks normally, he doesn't have the signs in his head either.

In our western languages, pronunciation, writing and meaning are linked very differently and while we write, read, speak or listen, we also think very differently. I think that's why we have such a hard time learning Chinese.

* In this text I am mainly talking about the abbreviations that are used in mainland China. Long characters are the traditional form of these characters, are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong today and can be found in ancient scripts. Many characters have not been simplified, which is why short and long characters are often the same (for example: 是 , 我 , 你 , 他…). The learning methods work for both types.

Written by

Noah Nugel

Noah came to LTL in 2018 to Intern in Marketing. He soon fell in love with Beijing and already plans to return as soon as possible. In his free time he enjoys traveling the world, eating vegan food and learning new languages.