4 Steps to Memorize Chinese Characters for a Long Time  

Around 200 million people around the world are using Chinese as a second language. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably one of them! Those who are learning Chinese as a second language often claim that Chinese characters or Hanzi are their biggest struggle. It’s crystal clear that Chinese characters are nowhere near the same as English words. They’re difficult to read and write. Also, it takes you more time to memorize a Chinese character than an English word.  

But memorizing Chinese characters is not a mission impossible. In this post, we list out 4 steps to help you memorize Chinese characters more effectively.  

Set Goals and Make Learning Plans 

Learning without setting a clear goal is like driving without knowing the destination. You can get lost in a remote area, with a broken down car and an exhausted body. That’s not a vacation anymore, but a nightmare. And you don’t want to suffer the same with your learning. 

In order to be most effective, set goals before you start your learning journey. You want to ask yourself why you want to memorize Chinese characters for a long time. Because you want to have a long vocabulary list to read Chinese books and novels? Or are you moving there in the next few months? These questions are important because they help you create clear goals and make personalized learning plans. 

Identify Short-term and Long-term Goals

You should set long-term goals for where you want to be in the next six months or a year. Realistically think about how much time you can give to learn Chinese characters and how many characters you want to acquire. Use this as a base to build off your short-term goals, which can be monthly goals.

Review your short-term goals every month to track your progress. If you fail to achieve the goals, identify the reasons and find resolutions. A regular check on your learning path will let you know whether or not your learning is going on the right track.

Creating a Specific Plan

A specific plan includes how much time you’re willing to give to your study, what exercises you want to complete, and the number of characters you want to master each day. 

A detailed plan helps you not to struggle with your study on busy days, or on those days you don’t feel like studying. Setting goals and making plans is fruitless if you lack a commitment to your learning. Remember, it’s better to study a bit each day than spend too much time on it just a few days of the week. You can start small with a 15-minute lesson per day in the beginning so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed. Once you form the habit of daily study, you can gradually increase the amount of time.

Understand Chinese Characters

Before a baker learns how to bake a good loaf of bread, he may start with learning such things as the recipe, oven temperature, baking time… And just like him, before you start learning how to memorize Chinese characters, let’s study the Chinese characters themselves, the formation, the character components, and the strokes. First, let’s have a brief about how Chinese characters were created using different methods. 

Formation of Chinese Characters 

Chinese characters represent words using different strategies. There’re pictogram characters which depict a symbol for a word or phrase. Pictograms have been used by Ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations to form their early writing systems. Examples of pictograms include rì “sun”, yue “moon”.

Pretty much like pictogram characters are ideograms. Ideograms are sometimes called simple indicatives because they exemplify the idea of the words clearly. Examples of ideograms include shàng “up” and xià “down”, originally a dot above and below a line.

Other characters are formed by combining a radical with one or more components. A radical is an element that carries a broad category and can add context to a radical compound character. For example, any compound character that has a human element has a specific radical . This radical is located on the left side of the compounds, composed of one down left slant stroke above a long vertical stroke. Examples include nǐ “you” and tā “he”. 

Last but not least, there are characters created by using the rebus principle. The rebus principle lets people create new characters by using existing pictographs for their sound instead of their meaning. Rebus characters are often meant to represent abstract words. An example is the character běi which originally means “the back of the body”. Later, it was used to mean “north”. As a result, a new character was devised for “the back of the body”. 

Break Characters into Components  

Now that you have a grasp of how Chinese characters are formed, let’s take a step further on how to memorize them. There are two types of Chinese characters, one is independent characters, the other is radical-compound characters. Understanding this is the key to help you memorize Chinese characters for a long time. 

Independent Characters 

Independent characters are simple characters that can stand as a single unit without adding any character components. They serve as the foundation of the Chinese character system though they’re limited in number compared to compound characters. A radical, as we mentioned above can be considered a type of independent character.  

Independent characters are easy to memorize because they often have basic writing structure and few strokes. Learning independent characters doesn’t take much time, still, it has a great impact on your future learning. Once you can build a solid base memory of independent characters, it’ll help memorize complex characters easier. Examples of independent characters are yī “one”, èr “two”, rén “human”, tóu “head”. 

Radical-Compound Characters 

Radical-compound characters are made of a radical and one or more character components. In modern Chinese, radical compound characters outnumbered independent characters. 

Radical-compound characters are not easy to memorize because they tend to have a much more complex structure and numerous strokes. It can be overwhelming when you encounter a radical compound and don’t know where to start with it. In this case, I suggest you break the characters into components and learn one piece after another. You’ll start to realize there are radicals that you’re familiar with or components that you’ve seen somewhere before. Breaking down the character components allows you to digest the character rapidly, less stressfully, and more effectively. Examples of radical compounds are dào “walk” (radical chuò “walk”), yuán “park” (radical wéi “border”). 

Understand the Stroke Orders 

The stroke orders play an important role in letting you memorize Chinese characters for a long time. Whoever overlooks this may end up scratching one stroke after another with no direction. As a result, memorizing characters can be a tough challenge. 

If you know stroke order, it can hugely affect your learning, and I bet you’ll never overlook it. The rules are simple and logical, top to bottom, left to right, inside then outside. Examples of top to bottom characters include yán “word”, fāng “square”; left to right characters include wèi “bit”, lín “forest”; inside then outside characters huí “back to”, tián “field”. 

Visualize the Characters 

Simple Chinese characters are very digestible such as numbers, days, weeks, months… It takes you just a bit of time to pin them into your long-term memory. Complex Chinese characters are another story, even after spending effort to learn the radicals, components, and stroke orders, you still struggle to implant them into your mind. No worries, even native Chinese suffer from this. 

This is when visualization comes in. Early Chinese characters were pictograms and ideograms. The writing evolved through time to align with human civilization and became the characters that we know today. Knowing the original shapes of characters and their connections with the subject they describe will help jog your memory in the long run. All you have to do is research Chinese character evolution. 

Use Mnemonics 

Mnemonics, also known as memory device, is a learning technique that helps people to improve their memory ability. Mnemonics use elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery to connect something you already know to something you’re trying to learn. This allows you to be more engaged in a new context, thus imparting a new piece of information more easily and more efficiently.

You may think mnemonics is something you’re unfamiliar with but it actually is used around you all the time whether or not you are aware of it. Remember the time you had to study coordinating conjunctions and couldn’t get the seven words in your head? Your teacher may have advised you to think of a crowd of boys at a rock concert, also known as “FANBOYS”. The initialism gives a hint at the first letter of each coordinating conjunction. Or another time, in history class when you studied about the great Columbus and his voyage to America in 1492. This short poem and its rhythm could help you survive the test “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.

And just like that, mnemonics prove they can help language students to improve their memory. Many Chinese students have applied this method in their study and showed great improvement. Let’s have a look at how mnemonics works in this example. The character 自在 zìzài “comfortable” is composed of zì “self” and zài “exist”. You can remember the meaning of 自在 with this easy mnemonic “A trainer told me that one should be happy and comfortable with one’s self () and body. People exist () in their unique ways.”

Final Thought 

Learning and memorizing Chinese characters can be challenging. Indeed, Chinese isn’t a language for everyone so don’t expect you can master it overnight. You need to be persistent and put in enough time and effort to see the progress. With the 4 steps listed above, we believe you will get the most out of your learning effort. 

Traditional learning is good, but with the aid of technology, you can do better. Incorporating different learning methods and tools, you can leverage your learning and memorize many more Chinese characters.  Pandanese is an online app that uses a mnemonic device to teach Chinese vocabulary. Mnemonics is recommended by many linguists and language learners as it helps to memorize information for longer periods of time and much more effectively. Start your trial with Pandanese now!

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