Learning how to memorize Chinese characters may look like a daunting task for Chinese learners. But it doesn’t have to be. This article will demonstrate five fast and effective methods that can improve your memorization and recall of characters.
1. Break Down Chinese Characters
Focus on the radicals and components
When learning Chinese, you may already know that Chinese characters are built up of radicals and components. Radicals are components that indicate a broad category. For instance, any word related to plants or grass has a specific radical. This radical locates at the top of a character, composing one horizontal stroke and two small vertical strokes. Hence, knowing the radicals and their meaning will give you an element when trying to memorize them.
Let’s take an example with a group of characters with the radical 口 (kǒu), which means “mouth”. Suppose characters contain this radical (normally on the left side). In that case, you can tell that the given characters are somehow related to the mouth, either in terms of activities like eating or part of speech, such as an exclamation.
Let’s take some examples with 口 (kǒu):
- 吃 (chī) – to eat
- 叫 (jiào) – to call
- 哈哈 (hā hā) – haha
Components are the other parts of characters. Two types of components are phonetic components and semantic components. Since the complete list of components is extensive, most people only focus on studying the radicals instead. However, if you are curious and keen on researching, the list is worth checking out as you will see phonetic or semantic similarities within the character groups. Additionally, recognizing components is useful for reading Chinese texts and identifying new words.
The Logic Behind Stroke Order
Writing out characters can be challenging when you don’t understand the reason behind the stroke order. Of course, you can mindlessly follow the order indicated in your writing books and apps, but it would be much easier to remember the rules of strokes instead. Keeping the following rules in mind makes it easier when tackling new characters:
Chinese’s basic strokes:
- Horizontal stroke: horizontal line, drag from left to right.
- Straight stroke: vertical stroke, drag from top to bottom.
- Dotted stroke: a dot from top to bottom.
- Upturned stroke: curved line, going up from left to right.
- Comma: curved stroke, drag down from right to left.
- Marking stroke: straight line, pulled down from left to right.
- Folded stroke: there is a fold in the middle of the stroke.
- Hook stroke: the stroke that hooks up at the end of the other strokes.
Chinese’s eight writing rules:
- Draw horizontally first, then vertically.
- Draw the line down in order: to the left and then to the right.
- Draw characters downward.
- Write from left to right.
- Finish the external strokes before interior strokes.
- Always close the frame after filling it.
- If it comes to asymmetrical character, draw the lines in the middle first
Test yourself with flashcards
You need to visualize words over and over again to fully understand how to memorize Chinese characters. You can find it in various ways, from environmental print (Chinese labels, logos, signs), in Chinese books, magazines, song lyrics, literacy activities, and flashcards. Flashcards are fantastic tools for reinforcing words and concepts in an easy and effective way. You can either use digital flashcards on Chinese-learning websites or create your very own flashcards by jotting down the English and Pinyin on one side and the Mandarin characters on the other. You can also add a fun fact or something related to the meaning to help you remember each word better. Don’t forget to make sentences with them, try to use them in daily conversations as much as possible, and revise them frequently. This is called spaced repetition learning method – SRS – and has been scientifically proven to help language learning. With a little effort and a lot of repetition, you will be able to recognize Mandarin characters in no time.
- SRS – Spaced Repetition Systems: How it Works and Why it is Effective
- Learn Chinese Characters Efficiently With The Spaced Repetition Learning System
Pandanese is an SRS Mandarin-learning platform that helps users on how to memorize Chinese characters by the spaced repetition learning method. Each lesson, you will get to learn from five to ten new Chinese words at a time with the radicals, characters, or vocabularies with their meanings, some fun facts that help you remember better. After each lesson, there will be a small quiz to see how much you understand the new words. And if you can’t remember what you learned yet, no worries, these words will be repeated a couple of times so that you can learn them gradually.
2. Understand the history of Chinese characters
The Chinese character is among the oldest writing systems in the world. To make the proverbial picture clearer, you can research how the language evolved from pictograms to the characters they are now. This action also gives insight into everyday objects’ historical and cultural depictions, like the sun and rain.
For example, the radical 木 (Mù) means “tree”. Look closely at the radical, you can say that it really looks like a tree! Another example is 丿(Piě). This radical means “slash” because it looks like a sword. And what does a sword do? It slashes.
There you have it! Knowing the origins of characters will encourage you to start looking at Chinese characters as pictures. If you are a creative person, having those images in your head will help jog your memory during the writing practice or writing exams.
Obviously, you will not have enough time to research every single character you come across. However, looking up common radicals and components frequently will give you a well-rounded understanding of meanings. This will help you remember Chinese characters in the long run, as well as you keep practicing repeatedly.
3. Write as much as you can
Writing Chinese characters is an effective way to feel the flow of a written character. The more you write, the more natural it becomes. As each Chinese character is written in an imaginary square, you need a cross-section notebook to write as neatly as possible. If you don’t have a cross-section notebook, we recommend using Hanzi Grids. Hanzi Grids is a great online source to create custom Chinese character worksheets and grid templates. You can create your own grid templates with various template layouts and sizes, download and print out for handwriting practice… within a few steps.
On the other hand, consider downloading mobile apps such as Chinese Writer if you want to practice writing in your free time with a smartphone. By incorporating games into your writing practice, this app helps track your progress and helps resolve your common mistakes in the next level or activity. This way, you can both have fun and enhance your Mandarin vocabulary and writing skill.
Though writing practice is absolutely necessary for character memorization, it can get dull and tedious sometimes. How about adding a little fun to overcome the boredom? We suggest signing up for a calligraphy class! Using a paintbrush, you will get to see the strokes in action, understand more of the order, and gain a new recognition of character structure. Joining a calligraphy class is an awesome way to be creative with a repetitive study technique. You can even incorporate different colors in your paintings. Imagine your finished products will make beautiful wall hangings in your apartment!
4. Watch Chinese TV shows, movies, videos and listen to music
Chinese language movies and TV shows are not only a fantastic way to practice listening, but they also offer a variety of approaches to choose from, depending on your preferred methodology. How to memorize Chinese characters with movies and TV shows? Reading subtitles is a passive way to recall the Chinese characters you have studied, are currently studying, or will study in the future.
Chinese videos are also a great source to memorize Chinese characters because they are conveniently organized into lessons. You can easily focus on a particular objective, topic, or skill. Memorizing Chinese characters through videos is also suitable for those who don’t have much time to study since the lesson duration is diverse. You can choose a 5-minute lesson or a one-hour lesson, or pause and replay anytime that works for you.
There is one more thing that makes everything easier to memorize, it is music. Music works wonders on people, whether to teach kids about manners or teach language students about grammar. Not to mention, music is the perfect way to help Chinese learners with character memorization and pronunciation. Think about how easy it is to remember your favorite song and repeat it again and again in your head!
You can look up popular Chinese songs in the music charts or on Chinese music channels on YouTube, full of modern tunes and both Mandarin and Pinyin subtitles. You can also search for the Chinese version of some English songs to practice with a familiar melody. This way, your recall will significantly improve once you attach a tune to Chinese characters because you see the words in the real-life application rather than just in a classroom.
5. Read Chinese literature and texts
One of the best methods for improving your Mandarin language skills is by reading Chinese books. Reading is not only a highly effective language learning way, but it is also enjoyable.
Reading doesn’t necessarily mean that you must read tons of Chinese literature books if that is not your thing. Instead, you can try reading books that are written in dual language. By that, you can compare the English and Chinese translations side by side. You can elevate your Mandarin reading by choosing parallel textbooks, which include Hanzi, Pinyin, and English. Having the translations is super handy because you can read the passage without looking it up in a dictionary or your phone’s translation app. Just do a quick search for parallel texts, and you will see a wide range of literature to choose from, such as collections of short stories and compilations of poems.
Here are some tips to make the reading tasks easier:
- You can start with children’s books for simple characters and clear examples;
- At first, keep a dictionary at hand or an inconvenient translation app on your phone;
- Take notes whenever you come across a new word or phrase;
- Try making Chinese sentences or paragraphs to cover topics that you find interesting;
- Read parallel texts;
- Read while listening to the audiobook;
- Read the same text multiple times;
- Make the most of online tools;
We’d love to hear your opinion about how to memorize Chinese characters. Let us know which method is the best for you by dropping a comment!