How To Rapidly And Efficiently Learn Chinese Characters

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Practicing Chinese Characters Effectively and Efficiently

This is going to be my first article in a series covering my efforts to learn Chinese quickly, effectively and efficiently. My hope is to create a new set of strategies which will make the learning process easier for everyone because most of the available teaching materials seem incomplete or deficient in one way or another.

I am specifically emphasizing speed and effectiveness because, if you are like me, you have very little time and energy to practice Chinese and you must make that limited time useful. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking and reading about how to practice and what works and what doesn’t work. What follows are a few of the results of what I have learned and some suggestions about how everyone can learn Chinese much faster. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practicing effectively makes perfect.

Forget Rote Memorization

First things first: Completely forget trying to use rote memorization when it comes to learning Chinese characters.

One of my first attempts to get Chinese characters into my brain was to use the familiar techniques of flash cards and rote repetition (writing and rewriting the same characters). What I found was that this simply didn’t work. I would spend hours attempting to memorize the characters only to find that effort wasted. All the characters I had “learned” simply evaporated by the next day or week despite my efforts. It was frustrating and the very definition of “ineffective.”

Why Rote Memorization Won’t Work With Chinese

I have a theory about why these classic “rote” techniques are so ineffective with Chinese. While rote memorization and flash cards may be (questionably) effective for memorizing things in English (and other Romance languages), the “alien nature” of Chinese characters makes this approach a non-starter.

If you approach Spanish, many of the words sound vaguely familiar and the writing system is the same as English. An English speaker reading the Spanish phrase “Yo no comprendo?” can  guess that these words sound like “I don’t comprehend.” Your brain has English-language “hooks” into Spanish to make rote memorization a viable learning strategy.

In Chinese your brain has no such hooks, there is no familiar bridge for your brain to walk across. The Hanzi characters are completely unfamiliar to anything you have seen before. Your brain has nothing to stick to and your attempts to memorize will fail. Therefore, before we English speakers can “acquire” the Hanzi characters, we must focus our efforts first on erecting a language bridge to solve this problem.

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Chineasy and Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters

The technique we are going to explore is derived from the technique taught in the Chineasy and Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters book with some changes. The way this technique works is that you take a set of basic characters and learn to associate them with meaningful visual clues and stories. You then use those stories as building blocks to create new stories for the more complex characters which contain these sub-characters.

Using the basic technique of attaching a story to each character is very valuable with some important exceptions. Take the example of my first name in Chinese: 雷克肵. The first character “雷” consists of a thundercloud over a rice field. You can even see the little drops of rain pouring out of the cloud down onto the field. This character easily lends itself to a visual story which assists recall. Unfortunately, a significant number of the Hanzi characters are not as helpful.

Many of the Chinese characters do not look like…well…anything. Many characters look confusingly similar. Many Hanzi are composed of numerous such confusing characters. This makes our lives difficult and can “break” the technique taught in Tuttle and Chineasy. Good luck telling cute stories about characters such as these: 帮, 器, 斯, 链, 蜘. Overcoming this problem requires aggressive creativity.

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The Skill Of Becoming Familiar

In trying to find an efficient strategy for remembering characters, the initial breakthrough for me began by focusing on the problem of “feeling familiar” the characters. When I use the word “familiar” I have a very specific meaning here. I do not mean “understanding” the characters or their meanings. I also do not mean the ability to pronounce the characters properly or reproduce their tones. Instead, I mean that you can look at a character and remember it’s “metastory” in English and easily reproduce the character in writing at will. In my mind, this is the first step you must cover before proceeding to the next step which is fully remembering the meaning and pronunciations of these characters. This test below will show you what I am talking about when it comes to “familiarity.”

The Familiarity Test

Write the following characters on a sheet of paper – 雷克肵. Now turn the paper over and write them again without looking. For maximum effect, wait a minute or two. Chances are, unless you have a really strong memory you might not be able to do this as a beginner. The reason you can’t recall the characters is that, to your brain, they are just meaningless random scribbles – impossible to recall. Your brain has no hooks into them yet. So how do you work around this problem?

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Introducing Metastories and Metapoems

To solve the problem of rapidly becoming familiar with characters, I have given a specific name to the technique of “Building an English-To-Chinese Bridge.” I call this technique “Metastories.” I derive this term from the word “metadata.” Metadata is data which describes data or data that provides context to data. A metastory is a “poem” or story which describes a Chinese character (aka “data”) to help give context and create “connective tissue.” Using this technique, a bridge can be built between Chinese and English to make characters feel familiar and to help your brain remember and recall them.

Using Metastories 

Your brain loves meaning, it loves emotional connection, it loves shock-value, it remembers danger, it loves rhymes, it loves poetry and interesting rhythm. We are going to use these traits to our advantage to make Chinese Hanzi characters feel familiar.

Lets start with my first name: 雷克肵. Here are some meta-poems or meta-stories for these characters:

雷 – Raincloud on rice-field 

克 – Cross-stuck-in-mouth-legs ( I call this one a “Zombie” myself because the cross character represents dirt or a grave and the totality of the figure represents a walking person to me)

肵 – Moon over cave-T or moon-shine on cover-t or moon-rising by hill-T

These metastories turn the otherwise dreadfully boring task of memorizing hundreds of characters into an imagination game. They convert the passive process of rote memorization into an active, creative process. Instead of trying to ram data into your brain, you are able to learn actively. In short, using metastories to talk about characters in English can completely alter the process of learning Chinese and can make it fun.

Demons, Snakes, Robots, Aliens, Crowns, Scepters, Staffs, Baskets, Thorns and Keys

Now that you understand the basic technique and goal (familiarity, not complete comprehension yet), lets introduce the core cast of characters you will encounter over and over again. Finding ways to turn these familiar characters into recognizable “friends” is important. Once I began looking for characters and weird stories, I found them in tremendous abundance.

The below categories are derived from my initial experience in ramping up with Hanzi. I noticed that many common characters and radicals seem to have imaginary creative siimilarities which have nothing to do with their pronunciation or meaning. While these categories aren’t useful for the meanings, they are very useful for building and adding to your memory-bank of familiar Hanzi.

These are my personal metastories, where this technique really takes off is when you begin to produce your own. The more action oriented, dramatic and poetic you make your stories, the easier they will be to recall.

Demons, Thorns and Aliens

美 – This is the demon king, note the horns and regal stature (he has many arms)
南 – Demon-child in a box. He is just a little demon, the priests have contained him. See his tiny horns?
手 – Mega-thorn or “thorn.” Thorn is a very common item, it comes in many varieties.
于 – Regular thorn
说 – An alien with a walking stick, see his antennae and legs?
拼 – Square-demon (see the horns) with his thorn-staff

Odd Humans

传 – Snowboarder, he is racing down hill, see his ski pole?
片 – Waiter, can’t you see him holding a tray with a glass on it?
开 – Square dancer. He is a square and he is dancing on two legs, get it?
方 – Gymnast / vaulter. Just…look at it. Its a running guy. Unmistakeable.
要 – Potion floats over a woman. The “potion” is a common symbol.
车 – Man jumping hurdle, man jumping into tree, man stuck in a tree.
市 – Cowboy scarecrow / sombrero scarecrow
式 – Juggler shading a child. See the ball the juggler throws? I use the “I” as a child character.
元 – Blank-man / the invisible man
你 – Warrior standing guard
成 – Warrior leaning on his axe, tossing a coin
气 – Long jumper

Crows, Bats and Eagles Flying Over Things

布 – Crow flies over scarecrow. The “flying-t thing” is a common fixture. Can’t you see the scarecrow’s arms drooping?
有 – Crow flies over the moon
在 – Diving over a grave / Crow flies over grave.
希 – Windmill over crow flying over scarecrow

Funny Hats and Crowns

宝 – A jade emperor wearing a square hat!
常 – The demon prince. See his crown with thorns? He is smaller than the demon king.

Snakes

返 – Snake crawls under cave with scythe
這 – Snake crawls unders stack of papers or stack of hats

Crooks

了 – Shepherd’s Crook

The Phoenix, Weird Creatures
家 – Phoenix wearing a square hat
像 – Ski-pole by-fish over phoenix
而 – A squid or octopus or elephant (see it’s nose curling on the right?)
用 – Wafflephant, a cross between a waffle and an elephant
革 – Cow-head stuck-on sun-spike
项 – Giant troll with his club
生 – The King Centaur, see his spear? The centaur character recurs frequently.

Expanded Meta-Story List
Ski-pole next to stacked-hats 信
Clam floats next to ant 联
Snake under corkscrew 还
Cross-stuck in face 支
Mouth-ghost wearing beanie by chipped-sword 就
Gold-crown on (shout-mouth stuck to spider leg), or maybe “demon king” 常
Scythe leaning on corn rows or waffle iron 准
Broken basket plodding on shaky legs 鼠
Tea Cup  on ghost stuck by shade-t 新
Nail-hat over thorn by shining moon 销
Chipped cave water 应
Empty-head with one-eye 间
Cave crow-juggles over T 庞
Xbox by nail-hat man 欧
Thorny sheath-sword dancing on nails 热
Snake under chipped-scythe 这
Thorn-binding kick-leg 我
Tempest 互
Scythe leaning kick-leg / sword-belt 戏
Clam-legs kick-at shady-nail 斯
Centaur kickstand under-grave 特
Thorn next to tea-cup 拉
Treetop by sword wraith 秒
Windmill over ghost 杀
Shady ghost / ghost with hat 乐
Snakestaff next by clam legs 视
Juggles over wedge-head 发
Crow flies over spider legs/scarecrow 布
Roof over flattened cheese-wedge 会
Sheathed sword or sword in sheath 为
Faster Cheese Wedge 么
Skipole christ 什
Standing tree by snail (tree snail) 机
Running shouting-mouth 只
Wetting / Splashing Pagoda stuck in shouting mouth 活
Bullet train leaving tunnel spike 年
Starburst  来
Splashing grave stuck in half-cheese 法
Owl sits-on cross-pole 苹
Birdie with nail hat 每
Splashing on nail-hat running man 买
The house with mouths to feed 器
Ski pole empty head 们
Chicken face 向 (chickens have a comb)
Pine tree on ghost head 系
Pine tree by tall gnome with wedge-head 统
Snake ignores stick wand 让
Skipole crushed-spider 他
Cheese-hat moon two-tees 能
Iron hat 个
Snakes under field hat 更
Field stuck on tree-top 果
Stickman shouts-mouth over-eye 智
Splashing tophat over triangle head 没
Crying or bloody sword 办

Wrapping Up

These metastories are my own and I created them by looking at the characters and asking my brain to come up with something creative to call them. For greatest effect, I highly recommend that you create your own creative stories which make sense to you, don’t try to memorize mine.

One Response

  1. Rob H Rob H

    at |

    Cool idea. In my experience this does not scale well since you would need a story for thousands of characters.

    Learning to write the characters helps them feel less “alien”. Many people think they do not need to practice writing them. Writing can help see the different little parts and ingrain the different parts of characters in your mind even if you never intend to handwrite Chinese.

    I also recommend the zhuyin/bopomofo phonetic system because it gives you whole new characters to learn for new sounds rather than adopting weird combinations of roman letters as in pinyin. Pinyin is more common but zhuyin can be a fun easy early challenge in mastering pronunciation and learning some foreign characters to boost confidence before moving on to full-blown Chinese characters.

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