How to Effectively Learn Chinese Characters


How to effectively learn Chinese characters is no easy task and many learners waste TONS of time learning Chinese characters the wrong way. Fortunately, there are resources out there like the Outlier Dictionary that not only allow you to learn Chinese characters effectively but save time and have fun in the process.



Learn from my Mistakes!

First, I’d like to share my own experience learning Chinese characters. For many years, my strategy for learning Chinese characters was based on rote memorization without taking heed to the actual construction of each character. After all, why waste time digging into the minuscule details when you can get by with memorizing based on appearance? Unfortunately, this approach was the WRONG way to go.


Take the character or face for example. On its own, it is not too difficult to remember after studying its shape and appearance. But can you point the same character out from the similar characters below? Are you able to individually recognize or name the other similar looking characters?


验 脸 检 险 签 剑 捡 俭


If you are able to do so, you have me bowing down in respect #orz. If you cannot pick each character apart from the others, hopefully, I have proven my point that Chinese characters cannot be learned through rote memorization.


Another big mistake I made was learning Chinese characters in pairs as they are generally presented in textbooks. This can cause you to pigeonhole characters making it difficult to ascertain meaning in other contexts.


Take the character combination 结婚 for example, which means the verb to marry. When learned solely as a pair and basing the meaning on the English definition, you risk thinking that each character has something to do with marriage. But taking the first character , and seeing it in other combinations like 结果结合结论,or 团结, shows it is specific to tying things together.


So what is the best way to learn Chinese characters?

Learning characters by diving into their functional components and studying the reasoning behind each character’s written form is the most effective way to learn Chinese characters. Luckily, the folks at Outlier-Linguistics have created a Pleco Dictionary add-on that introduces the functional components of characters (both in traditional and simplified) you would like to learn.


Here’s how it works: Almost any character can be broken out into three functional components: form, sound, and meaning. The Outlier Dictionary breaks this down for you for when searching for a single character in Pleco. One of my favorite examples showing how useful the dictionary is detailing the construction of the character 想 / xiang or to think.


The top part of the character gives it its sound, which is pretty easy to understand if you are familiar with the character 相 / xiang. But I always wondered why is there a heart character (心) at the bottom. According to the Outlier Dictionary, many ancient peoples associated the heart instead of the head with thinking thus giving the character its meaning.



Depending on the version you download, many characters also feature an ancient form giving perspective on how each character was originally written.


When learning each of these components within a given character, you can:
  • Quickly and efficiently learn new characters without the pain of rote memorization involved
  • Easily recognize characters you have already learned and remember how to write characters from memory
  • Quickly decipher the difference between characters with similar components (avoid the 验 脸 检 险 签 剑 捡 俭 deciphering nightmare)
  • Free up time for learning new characters or fulfilling other goals in the Chinese language

The best part is the Outlier Dictionary makes learning characters fun. Before, I only opened Pleco out of necessity. Now I open it whenever I am on the subway or enjoying my morning cup of coffee to review and learn new characters.

How much does the Outlier Dictionary Cost and Discount Code

There are several editions of the Outlier Dictionary and each has different features and pricing. I currently use the essentials edition, which gets me by just fine.
  • Mini Edition – $9.99 – Ideal for beginners and those wanting to trial the Outlier Approach. You can always upgrade later and only have to pay the difference in pricing.
  • Essentials Edition – $29.99 – Has double the amount of entries than the mini edition and suitable for students of all levels and backgrounds especially those studying for the HSK, SAT II and AP exams.
  • Expert Edition – $59.99 – Perfect for history buffs wanting to see the ancient forms of each character in the dictionary. Though it is still currently in development and available for pre-order.

Overall, I think you get plenty of value for what you pay with the Outlier Dictionary. The good news is Outlier-Linguistics is offering readers from this website 10% off all dictionaries and PDF posters when you use the discount code Breeze10 during checkout on the Outlier website.

Check out Outlier for Yourself

Final Thoughts 

My only criticisms of the Outlier Dictionary is the pace of development and product updates. The Expert Edition was supposed to be released in 2016, but we are still waiting for it’s unveiling. In the essentials edition, there are also many simple characters you learn as a beginner that lack an Outlier entry.

Yet, the folks at Outlier-Linguistics have said that development has been more streamlined in recent months and the next update will double the number of entries in the Essentials and Mini dictionaries. An “Expert Only” update will also be unveiling soon for those who have pre-ordered the Expert Edition. Overall, the Outlier Dictionary is an incredible resource and has great potential to change how we learn Chinese.

Author: Kevin Peters

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