Memorizing Chinese characters is one of the hardest aspects of learning the language. Literacy requires consistent effort to retain characters in long-term memory. 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 Chinese. Here are 5 basic tips that have helped my family with memorizing Chinese characters.
5 Basic tips for memorizing 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. Review, review, review
In order to memorize Chinese characters, words must be visualized over and over again. Exposure to Chinese characters can be provided in many ways:
- Environmental print, such as Chinese characters in everyday life (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 provide exposure to 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.
Literacy activities are fun and memorable, but the idea can be intimidating for those unaccustomed to hands-on learning strategies.
Flashcards and spaced repetition software can be effective, 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.”
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, the prerequisite to using context clues for reading is knowledge of the spoken word.
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. In addition, radicals provide clues to the meaning of Chinese characters. 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).
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. Here is a video from a few years ago where her teacher explains radicals as building blocks.
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)
Related: Hands-on ways to teach Chinese radicals!
5. Recognize phonetic components
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.
Phonetic patterns may become obvious by studying similar sounding characters side-by-side, such as in the 四五快读 (Si Wu Kuai Du) book shown below. In addition, tactile literacy activities and writing practice encourage careful attention to Chinese character components.
Are Pinyin and Zhuyin necessary for memorizing Chinese characters?
Notice the absence of Pinyin and Zhuyin in the aforementioned 5 tips. While annotations support independent reading of unfamiliar Chinese characters, they can interfere with attention and memorization. The extra text can distract the reader from focusing on radical semantic-phonetic components and other contextual cues.
How to apply these tips to your family
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 and reading Chinese with their child(ren);
- Using the 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 encourage your child to notice familiar parts of various Chinese characters.
However, forced reading and memorizing can quickly squash interest. Sometimes, a child might benefit from a break from reading out loud. Parents may need to take a step back, focus on listening and speaking skills, and consider different strategies to excite the 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
Feel free to leave a comment with any concerns or thoughts about your family’s language journey, and I’ll try my best to find a solution for you. In the meantime, I hope the following articles can be helpful!
Advice on how to teach kids Chinese
- 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 Learned in 2018
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- Encourage A Child to Love and Speak the Minority Language with 5 Strategies
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 5 Reasons Books are the Best Gifts for Multilingual Kids
- Teaching kids how to read Chinese