How to Effectively Learn Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese characters – and remembering them! – is no easy task. Many Mandarin language learners waste TONS of time learning Chinese characters the wrong way. Fortunately, there are methods and resources out there that not only allow you to learn Chinese characters effectively but save time and have fun in the process.

Learning Chinese characters and remembering them

As I’ve been studying Mandarin Chinese for many years, I’ve seen both effective and ineffective methods to learn Chinese characters. Knowing what I know now, I think I could have learned my characters so much faster and remembered them for much longer!

What I’d like to share with you here are not only the methods which have been effective for me (which you can copy) but also the mistakes that I’ve made that you can learn from (and not copy).

Learn from my Mistakes!

First, I’d like to share the mistakes I made learning Chinese characters. I’m sharing these because it’s something that I see a lot of people doing. There are two primary mistakes that I made while learning Chinese characters:

1. I Rote Memorized Chinese Characters (WRONG)

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 /Liǎn, which means “face” in Chinese, as an 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. 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.

2. Learning Chinese Characters in Pairs (WRONG)

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.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Take the character combination 结婚/Jiéhūn, 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 结/Jié, and seeing it in other combinations like 结果/Jiéguǒ (result/outcome),结合/Jiéhé (link),结论/Jiélùn (conclusion),or 团结/Tuánjié (unity), shows that the character itself carries mean, but is very specific to the pairing.

Best Method to Learn Chinese Characters?

Based on my experience, it’s better to break down a Chinese character into its basic parts in order to better learn the meaning and remember how to write and recognize it.

Remembering Simplified Hanzi, a book for learning and remembering Chinese characters

This can be done in a number of different ways. For a while, I used the popular Remembering Simplified Hanzi book. It did a great job of presenting each new character in a memorable way with stories and helpful mnemonics.

The only problem with this method is that the stories and mnemonics often didn’t follow the true meaning of the individual parts or even the character as a whole. The point of the book was merely to remember how to write it properly.

But Chinese characters are complex structures. 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 I’ve found. This is a method I first learned from the excellent Outlier Dictionary tool.

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 Chinese 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.

Another way to understand the functional components of a Chinese character can be visualized like this:

A character chart dividing characters into their form, meaning, sound and empty components.

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 the Pleco Dictionary app 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.

Outlier Dictionary & Chinese Characters

If this method of learning Chinese characters interests you, let me share a few more specifics about a tool like the Outlier Dictionary. First, you should know that there are several editions of the dictionary and each has different features and pricing. I currently use the essentials edition, which gets me by just fine.

Outlier discount code for Chinese Breeze
  • 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

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.


Final Thoughts | Learning Chinese Characters

As you do your research, you’ll find that there are plenty of different methods to help you learn Chinese characters faster and remember them better. Heck, I have a whole Chinese language resource section of this website that lists a lot of different options.

What you need to do is test the methods to find what works for you. Avoid the temptation to jump into rote memorization of Chinese characters and focus on understanding the components of Chinese characters.

Good luck and if you need some motivation, check out the 30-day Chinese language learning challenge!


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Author: Josh

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