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Tips for learning the building blocks of Chinese characters

Chinese building blocks, Chinese components, Chinese characters

While learning to speak Chinese at a basic level isn't that much harder than learning other languages, learning to write is definitely and without a doubt much more demanding.

Learning to read and write Chinese is not easy…

There are many reasons for this. First, it's because the link between the written and spoken language is very weak. While in Spanish you can mostly read what you can understand when spoken and you can write what you can say, in Chinese the two are more or less separate.

Second, the way Chinese characters represent sounds is complicated and requires much more than learning an alphabet. If you know how to say something, writing is not just a matter of checking how its spelt, you have to learn the individual characters, how they are written and how they are combined to form words.

To become literate, you need between 2500 and 4500 characters, depending on what you mean by the term "literate". You need many times more that number of words. If you're not sure what the difference between a character and a word is, this article will help.

However, the process of learning to read and write can be made a lot simpler than it first seems. Learning 3500 characters is not impossible and with proper reviewing and active usage, you can also avoid mixing them up. Still, 3500 is a massive number. It would mean almost 10 characters per day for a year. Added to that, you would also need to learn words, which are combinations of characters that sometimes have non-obvious meanings.

…but it needn't be impossible either!

Looks difficult, right? Yes, but if you break these 3500 characters down into smaller components, you will find that the number of parts you need to learn is very far from 3500. In fact, with just a few hundred components, you can build most of those 3500 characters.

Learning the building blocks of Chinese characters

So, by learning the components of characters, you create a repository of building blocks that you can then use to understand, learn and remember characters. This is not very efficient in the short term because each time you learn a character, you need to learn not only that character, but also the smaller components its made of.

However, this investment will be repaid handsomely later. It might not be a good idea to learn all components of all characters directly, but focus on the most important ones first. We will introduce some resources to help you both with breaking characters down into their component parts and where you can find more information about which components to learn first.

Functional components

It's important to understand that each component has a function in the character; it's not there by chance. Sometimes the real reason the character looks like it does is lost in the mists of time, but often it's known or even directly apparent from studying the character. At other times, an explanation might present itself that is very convincing, and even though it might not be etymologically correct, it can still help you to learn and remember that character.

In general, components are included in characters for two reasons: first because of the way they sound, and second because of what they mean. We call these phonetic or sound components and semantic or meaning components. This is a very useful way of looking at characters that often yields much more interesting and useful results than looking at the traditional explanation of how characters are formed. It's still worthwhile to have that in the back of your mind when learning, but you don't really need to study it in detail.

An example

Let's look at a character most students learn early on: 妈, which is pronounced mā and means "mother". The left part 女 means "woman" and is clearly related to the meaning of the whole character (your mother is presumably a woman). The right part 马 means "horse" and is clearly not related to the meaning. However, it is pronounced mǎ, which is very close to the pronunciation of the whole character (only the tone is different). This is the way most Chinese characters work, albeit not all.

Build a house

All this leaves us with hundreds of characters to remember. Apart from that, we also have the additional task of combining the components we have learnt into compound characters. This is what we're going to look at now.

Combining characters is actually not that hard, at least not if you use the right method This is because if you know what the components mean, the character composition itself means something to you and that makes it a lot easier to remember. There is a huge difference between learning a random jumble of strokes and combining known components.

Improve your memory

Combining things is one of the main areas of memory training and something that people have been interested in for thousands of years. There are many, many methods out there that work really well and that teach you how to remember that A, B and C belong to each other.

Remembering Chinese characters

The best way of combining components is to create a picture or scene that includes all the components in a memorable way. This should be absurd, funny or exaggerated in some way. Exactly what makes you remember something is something you need to figure out by trial and error, but going for the absurd and exaggerated often works well for most people.

You can of course draw or use real pictures rather than just imaginary ones, but if you do, you need to be really careful that you don't break the structure of the character. Simply put, the pictures you use to learn Chinese characters should preserve the building blocks that that character consists of.

The reason for this should be apparent at this point. If you just use a picture that is suitable for that character, but which doesn't preserve the structure of the character, it will only be useful for learning that very character. If you follow the structure of the character, you can use the pictures for the individual components to learn tens or hundreds of other characters. In short, if you use bad pictures, you lose the benefit of building blocks discussed in this article.


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