Many alphabet-based language speakers find learning Chinese characters the most challenging. Although some effective methods assist Mandarin learners in mastering Chinese characters (also known as hanzi), in today’s modern life, when everyone is busy with various daily tasks, those methods are not good enough to learn Chinese characters quickly.
Instead, efficiency should come before anything else. If you want to learn Chinese quickly and effortlessly to save time and energy for other important things, you can check some of our tips and tricks below.
How many Chinese characters should we learn?
Unlike the alphabet system with only 26 characters, there are more than 90,000 characters in the Chinese writing system, which seems intimidating for a Mandarin learner.
However, just like in any other language, nobody expects you to know every single word. An official Chinese dictionary consists of merely 20,000 Chinese characters, but you only need to acquire the most used 3000 characters to understand advanced materials and write academic reports.
What’s wrong with the traditional Chinese learning method?
The traditional Chinese learning method requires Chinese students to practice writing using practice sheets. This copying method is one of the most well-known ways to memorize new words. You need to write a new word on the sheet so many times to finally recognize and use it naturally. Even all Chinese children have adopted this way when learning how to read and write their mother tongue.
How do traditional writing sheets get Chinese characters studying all wrong? That’s because it’s demotivating, often low-efficient, and time-consuming. Spending hours practicing writing the same characters, again and again, can cause you to end up with boredom and exhaustion, demotivating yourself from mastering the language. This approach also takes up a lot of your time and prevents you from doing more enjoyable things. It is also ineffective because there are many strokes in one radical. Without practicing frequently, you tend to forget all about it. Even a Chinese native can’t write simple Chinese words if they haven’t practiced writing them for a long time.
Understanding the Chinese writing system
Did you know that there are different types of Chinese characters? Understanding these types is the first step for any Chinese learner seeking more efficient learning. The reason is that there’s a corresponding approach to memorizing a new Chinese character based on which category it belongs to.
- Pictograph characters
The first type is pictographs. Pictographs are drawings of what you can see in real life. The ancient Chinese people started using them to record their surroundings in the 12th century BC. Over time, pictograms have evolved and become simpler and easier to write. There are around 600 Chinese pictograms.
- Simple ideograph characters
Besides tangible things that can be seen and drawn, human brains can come up with abstract concepts. The Chinese then came up with the second type of writing: simple ideographs. The simple ideographs visualize abstract concepts through an iconic form. For example, 一 (one): this one line represents the number one. As these radicals are visually meaningful, it’s not hard for Chinese learners to memorize them.
- Compound characters:
Compound characters are combinations of two or more pictographic or ideographic characters to convey a word’s specific meaning. This type accounts for 80% of the Chinese characters. One example is 休 (rest). It’s made from 人 “person” (亻) and 木 or “tree.” There are more complex compounds such as 蛋糕 (cake). The compound characters can be the most daunting for all foreigners due to the many components packed in one character.
How to learn Chinese characters quickly
- The Heisig method
As mentioned before, to learn Chinese characters quickly, you need to adopt different learning methods depending on the character’s type. To master pictographs well, you had better pay attention to their appearance and try to trace them back to their original form, discovering what the character reveals. Once you understand the pictorial representation, it’s easier to learn those Chinese characters quickly and easily. Ideographs visualize simple abstract concepts, so you don’t have to make much effort to learn them.
However, the most concerning one is the compound characters. If you try the copying method, after a while, you may miss some strokes, or even worse, forget where the few strokes that you manage to remember should be placed.
There’s a more fun and creative way that helps you maintain your mental energy and learn Chinese characters quickly and successfully. It’s called “The Heisig method.”
The Heisig method is based on the fundamental psychology of learning and memory. These psychological principles state that humans tend to remember longer and more accurately via visual imagery and storytelling rather than facts or figures. The Heisig study method starts with understanding how radicals stack together to make complex Chinese characters, breaking them down into basic building blocks, and then using the pieces to create visually stimulating short mnemonic stories.
- Example of the Heisig method:
冒 means “risk.” It’s a combination of 日(sun) and 目(eye). The 日 is above the 目. Here is a mnemonic story to help you remember the word better:
“Remember when you were young, and your mother told you never to look directly into the sun for fear you might burn out your eyes? Probably you were foolish enough to risk a glance once or twice, but just as probably, you passed that bit of folk wisdom on to someone else as you grew older. Here, too, the word that has a sun above and an eye right below looking up at it has the meaning of risk.”
Source: Remembering Simplified Hanzi by James Heisig
Learning sources based on the Heisig method
If you find the Heisig method intriguing and want to give it a try, you can buy two books titled Remembering Simplified Hanzi and Remembering Traditional Hanzi by James Heisig. They teach the most frequent 3000 Chinese characters to students.
However, one drawback with the Heisig books is that they don’t contain flashcards, are heavy to carry, and have no digital tools to go with them. If you long for a digital learning tool, you can count on Pandanese. This is a modern Mandarin-learning platform that helps users master Chinese mnemonics using the spaced repetition system. Pandanese offers users a variety of study plans depending on different learning purposes (travel, school, business) and helps you remember from almost five to ten new Chinese words at a time.