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Is it necessary to learn Chinese characters?

As we all know, Chinese uses characters as the basis of its written system. This aspect makes it quite different from most other languages. This characteristic has also become a barrier for westerners to learn Chinese. Some individuals decide not to learn the language at all because they think they could never master it. Others are brave enough to get started but decide to learn only to speak. Every year I get students who ask me the same question: "Should I learn characters?" So today we will talk about learning characters. Hopefully, it will help you to decide on a strategy!


Should I learn characters?


To answer this question, first ask yourself what your goal is.


1. If your goal is short term, i.e. a trip or greeting to your Chinese business partner, the answer is "NO". Obviously you only need some survival phrases. It just isn't worth it.


2. For a long term purpose, i.e. mastering the language or passing the HSK test, the answer is "YES". You might think you don't need to master the language 100% if you just plan to spend 1-2 years in China, so do you really need to learn characters? The answer is still "yes". Despite what you might think, it will make your Chinese learning easier and not the other way around. A few reasons here:


1). You can't survive in China without reading characters. Although we all learn pinyin, you seldom see anything written in pinyin in China. You can't even recognize a sign without knowing characters.


2). The spoken language is more confusing if you don't know characters. 致癌 (zhì'ái) and 治癌 (zhì'ái) are exactly the same in pinyin, but one means "to cause cancer" and the other means "to treat cancer". The more words you learn, the more trouble you will have.

如果你不懂汉字,更容易造成口语中的混淆。致癌(zhì'ái) and 治癌(zhì'ái)的拼音完全相同,但是前者的意思是"导致癌症",而后者的意思则是"治疗癌症"。你学的词语越多,麻烦就会越多。

3). Understanding new words will be easier if you've studied the writing. If you know characters, you can guess the meaning of new words. For example, if you know "车chē" (vehicle, A1 level) and "马 mǎ" (horse, A1 level), you can probably get "马车 (mǎchē)" is "carriage". If you only know pinyin, there are six characters marked as "mǎ"; it will be hard for you to figure out which one is relevant. As you see, you will be able to make out Chinese words when you are able to recognize the characters. So I suggest you learn characters from the very beginning!

学习汉字书写让你更容易理解新词语。如果你认识一些汉字,你就可以据此猜测新词语的意思。比如,如果你认识"车"(chē, vehicle)和"马"(mǎ,horse),你很可能就会猜出"马车"的意思是一种运输工具。而如果你只认识拼音,因为汉语里念"mǎ"的汉字有6个,你会觉得很难确定哪一个才是正确的。由此可见,如果能够辨认汉字,你就能够理解汉语词语的意思,因此我建议你从一开始就学习汉字。

How should I learn characters?


Now you make your decision. Writing characters is a bit like drawing a picture. Even Chinese kids need to learn for several years before they master it. You may be wondering, "How can I do it?" Don't worry—we have tips here!


1. Learn rules and strokes for handwriting first. Although there are thousands of characters, there are only 4 main types of Chinese characters and only 8-40 (depending on how you count) strokes used to write these characters, and the order is rule based. For example: always write from left to right, from top to bottom, and from outside to inside.


2. Learn radicals and components second. Along with strokes, radicals and components are also very helpful. For example: the radical "氵" (three drops of water) is always on the left side of a character and it usually implies the character is somehow related to water. If you learn a new character with it, you can memorize it as "the left part is three drops of water".


3. Recognizing characters is much easier and more important than handwriting. Two reasons here:


1) Before you can write, you need to know how to read. That's the same principle in language learning.


2) You can type characters if you can recognize them. Like this:


You only need to choose which one you want. Even Chinese people type characters more than they handwrite nowadays. This can save you a lot of time and energy.


Of course handwriting is still useful for memorizing what characters look like, so having a piece of paper and a pencil around is still a good idea. 


The article is translated and editted by Chinlingo. Please indicate the source for any use, reproduction or transfer. 



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