Learn Hanzi

How to Learn Hanzi: Quick-Start Guide for Beginners

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, 27 letters in Spanish, and 74 letters in Khmer used in Cambodia— the world’s largest alphabet. 

Unlike these languages, Chinese does not have an alphabet! However, it does have a unique writing system that consists of roughly 50,000 characters (Hanzi). Each character represents one syllable of spoken Chinese, and words are composed of one or more of these characters. That means in order to understand and communicate in Chinese, you have no other option but to learn Hanzi!

Don’t worry. You don’t need to learn all Chinese Hanzi — just know around 3,000 of these characters and you’d be recognized as fluent. Still, the honest truth is that learning Hanzi will be really hard in the beginning, especially if your native language has zero connection to Chinese. But as long as you remain persistent, Chinese will become easier and easier over time. Plus, we’re here to help you! 

Read on to understand more about Hanzi and learn the most practical tips and advice to help start your Chinese-language journey successfully. 

What exactly is Hanzi? 

Hanzi (汉字; Hànzì), Chinese characters, are one of the world’s oldest forms of writing, dating back over 5,000 years. The Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典; Kāngxī Zìdiǎn), a standard national dictionary established in the 18th and 19th centuries, contains 47,035 Chinese characters, but the exact number of Chinese characters remains unknown even today. 

While Chinese characters may look like random abstract drawings to most non-Chinese speakers, Hanzi are actually made in a systematic manner using a very small number of strokes — there are thousands of thousands of Chinese characters, but only eight basic strokes!   

You might have heard the common myth that every Chinese character represents a picture. This is only true to some extent. Some hanzi evolved from pictures, including many of the earliest characters discovered on oracle bones, yet pictographic characters account for just around 4% of all characters. 

You might also be interested in: 3 Things You Wish You Knew about Hanzi.

How to learn Hanzi as a beginner? 

Below are the four most useful Hanzi-study tips for beginners. Check them out! 

1. Start with smaller component units 

A Chinese character can be broken down into smaller building blocks like strokes, radicals, and components. Strokes are the dots and lines that make up the characters. Basically, they are the appearance of a character. When writing Chinese, a slight change in strokes can often result in a completely different character.

Visualization of the 8 strokes in writing Chinese characters

Source: Cerigraphic 

Meanwhile, radicals and components are small parts of every Hanzi that usually can give you a hint of the characters’ meanings and sounds. You can think of them as the basic foundation of every hanzi. For example, when you see a character containing the hand radical 手(shǒu), the character will probably refer to an action using hands. 

Generally speaking, learning strokes helps you structure your writing better, and mastering radicals and components allows you to get familiar with Hanzi quickly and memorize new characters more effectively.

2. Get your pronunciation correct 

It’s important that you try to pronounce the characters correctly right from the start. By doing this, you start forming a good habit of checking the pronunciation of every new word you learn. 

Plus, Chinese is a tonal language which means just a small change in your tone can lead to a totally different word. Paying great attention to your tones and pronunciation will help you avoid unnecessary confusion in communication and save you a lot of time and difficulty fixing it later.  

You might also be interested in: A Guide To The Four Basic Mandarin Tones 

3. Space your repetitions 

To many Chinese-language learners, the traditional “rote” method of memorizing a new character is to repeatedly say or write it down right after you learn it, hoping this new knowledge will stick in your brain.

However, a lot of research says otherwise. Scientists have proven that spacing your reviews at intervals is more effective and helps you remember the new information longer. So, instead of trying to memorize all new characters at once, you should create a review schedule over time to go back and learn.  

4. Apply mnemonic techniques 

A mnemonic device is a learning strategy that boosts your memory and helps you recall information more effectively. Mnemonics may come in a wide range of forms, such as a song, rhyme, acronym, keyword, phrase, or sentence. This method has proven to be extremely effective for learning the new vocabulary of a foreign language.

For example, the mnemonic for the character TV below uses a story narrative to link this new word to things you already knew. This allows your brain to react and absorb the new character more quickly. 

You can get more mnemonics like this at Pandanese. Pandanese is a web-based application exclusively designed to help Chinese-language learners memorize Chinese characters quicker and more effectively. Apart from mnemonics, Pandanese also uses a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to build optimally spaced reviews for users, helping you learn 6000+ Hanzi and vocabulary in just a year! 

Kickstart your Hanzi learning with the 20 most common radicals 

There are a total of 214 radicals which can help you guess what the character means and sounds like. Radicals appear in almost every Hanzi. However, some are more common than others — that’s why we’ve created this list so that you can make the most out of learning Chinese radicals! 

No.Radi­calPīnyīnEng­lish meaning 
1rénperson
2kǒumouth
3big
4woman
5child
6foot
7shǒuhand
8shuǐwater
9horse
10huǒfire
11earth
12sun
13yuèmoon
14wood
15yánspeech
16xīnheart
17zǒuwalk
18huǒfire
19eye
20gōnglabor;work

Final thoughts 

Chinese is not an easy language to learn. Yet, once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be amazed at the beauty and rich history of this world’s ancient language. 

Learning Hanzi is an essential aspect of learning Chinese that decides most of your language learning results. Following our tips above will help you on your journey and save you a lot of time, stress, headaches, and money!

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