Memorizing Chinese characters is one of the hardest aspects of learning the language. Literacy requires consistent effort to remember Chinese characters long-term.
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Memorizing Chinese characters: then and now
Over 20 years ago, I learned to read Chinese during middle school. After quitting Friday Night Chinese School, I forgot everything quickly.
For the past few years, I have been re-learning Chinese with my daughter and had to start from scratch.
Sometime last summer, she surpassed the 1000 Chinese characters milestone while I am gradually catching up and weaning from a Pinyin dependency.
This time around, learning has been much more productive and meaningful.
Despite the many challenges, I believe that people young and old can enjoy reading and memorizing Chinese characters.
Here are 5 basic tips that have helped my family remember Chinese characters! You won’t want to miss the video examples in this post!
5 Best Ways to Remember Chinese Characters
1. Know that interest is power
Interest, the curiosity emotion, is the feeling of wanting to know or learn something.
It helps us pay attention, focus, process information efficiently, and work harder and longer.
While adults can be self-motivated to learn, children rely on parents and teachers to model passion and to provide encouragement, engaging dialogue, catchy music, interesting books, and fun activities.
Without interest, learning the first Chinese character of many thousands will be an uphill battle.
In addition, research shows that emotional state of an individual can impact how an item is remembered. From Psychology Today:
Emotion acts like a highlighter pen that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable.
2. Remember Chinese characters by diversifying exposure
In order to memorize Chinese characters, words must be visualized over and over again.
Exposure to Chinese characters can be provided in a variety of ways:
- Environmental print, such as Chinese characters in everyday life (Chinese labels, logos, signs)
- Chinese books, magazines, song lyrics
- Literacy activities
- Chinese flashcards (eg, Leitner box system)
- Spaced repetition software (eg, Anki)
Environmental print and media are the most natural ways to review and remember Chinese characters.
People in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan see Chinese characters everywhere and use the language all the time. Those in other countries have to make a conscious effort to support the Chinese learning at home.
Flashcards and spaced repetition software can be effective memorization tools, but rote-learning alone is not enough. From Hacking Chinese:
The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful.
We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak.
Literacy activities are fun and memorable, but planning can be intimidating for those unaccustomed to hands-on learning strategies.
Here are tips on how to implement Chinese activities at home.
3. Look for context clues
When facing unfamiliar Chinese characters, the surrounding sentence and accompanying images may provide clues for decoding the character.
Interpreting images and a big picture perspective of a full sentence are important skills that support reading and memory formation.
For example, my daughter recently saw the bigram 礼物 / 禮物 (lǐwù / gift) in traditional Chinese for the first time, but she was only familiar with 物 (wù).
Despite the marked differences between simplified 礼 and traditional 禮 (lǐ), she was able to figure out the word from knowing 物 and seeing an image of a gift.
Of course, knowledge of the spoken word is the prerequisite for using context clues for reading.
On the other hand, context can become a crutch if Chinese characters are reviewed only in the same setting (eg, reading the same few books).
Instead, learners need to see Chinese characters in various books and contexts.
4. Break down Chinese characters into radical components
Chinese radical characters are stand alone words as well as building blocks for other Chinese characters.
If characters can be deconstructed into their radical components, new characters will seem less daunting and more welcomed into memory.
Chinese radicals are clues
In addition, radicals shed light on each Chinese characters’ meaning.
For example, 恩 can be remembered by the mneumonic “heart (心) causes (因) grace (恩).”
Here is a video of my son who realized that he recognized 心 (xīn / heart), 口 (kǒu / mouth), 大 (dà / big) in the character 恩 (ēn / grace).
Remember that Chinese radicals are building blocks for each Chinese character
Identifying character components also helps my 5-year-old daughter write Chinese characters.
Rather than thinking of characters as countless individual strokes, each character can be broken down into smaller, digestible parts.
In this video from a few years ago, my daughter’s teacher explains radicals as building blocks.
In addition, I often cover parts of a complex Chinese character to show them how to isolate recognizable radicals.
Memorize patterns of Chinese radicals
Radicals can also be reviewed in groups, which can help with pattern recognition.
For example, 氵is called 三点水 (sān diǎn shuǐ / 3 drops of water) and generally refers to something wet:
- 河 (hé / river)
- 湖 (hú / lake)
- 池 (chí / pond)
- 海 (hǎi / sea)
- 浪 (làng / wave)
- 流 (liú / flow)
- 汗 (hàn / sweat)
- 液 (yè / liquid)
Here are examples of hands-on ways to teach Chinese radicals!
5. Memorize phonetic components of Chinese characters
Most Chinese characters are phonetic-semantic compounds.
After learning a few hundred Chinese characters, a budding reader may be able to recognize phonetic patterns and hypothesize the pronunciation of similar-appearing characters.
When my daughter encounters an unfamiliar character in a book, I encourage her to cover up part of the character to deduce the pronunciation and meaning.
Do you need Pinyin and Zhuyin to remember Chinese characters?
In the aforementioned 5 tips, did you notice the absence of Pinyin and Zhuyin?
While Zhuyin and Pinyin can support independent reading of unfamiliar Chinese characters, they can interfere with attention and memorization.
Extra text can distract the reader from focusing on radical semantic-phonetic components and other contextual cues.
How these tips can help your family remember Chinese characters
The first question that must be addressed is: How do you get kids interested in learning Chinese?
Parents, caregivers, and teachers can establish a positive foundation of Chinese learning by:
- Consistently speaking Chinese with their child(ren);
- Using Chinese language as a means of love and bonding;
- Providing resources and experiences that are in tune with the child’s interests, and;
- Cultivating relationships with Chinese-speaking friends and relatives.
If motivated parents can create a learning environment at home, the rest of the steps will follow with time, practice, and patience.
Gradually, collect books, music, and other resources that your child can relate to.
Create healthy daily reading habits, and point out familiar parts of various Chinese characters.
However, forced reading and memorization can quickly squash interest.
Sometimes, a child might benefit from a break from reading out loud. Parents may need to take a step back and focus on listening and speaking skills.
If current methods are not working, consider different strategies to excite your child about learning Chinese!
“世上无难事，只怕有心人。(Shìshàng wú nánshì，zhǐ pà yǒuxīn rén.)
Nothing is impossible to a willing mind.” – Chinese Proverb
What other strategies help you remember Chinese characters?
Please share any other tips that have helped you with learning to read Chinese! If you’re looking for more tips, I hope the following articles can be helpful!
Tips on creating a Chinese learning environment at home
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- How to Find a Language Teacher for Your Child
- 5 Reasons Books are the Best Gifts for Multilingual Kids