A recent question inspired me to write this post! So I hope it’s helpful!
I’ve been studying Chinese for a couple years in what feels like an uphill battle to keep up. There are thousands of characters to learn and no alphabet to use to help except for Pinyin, but no book is written in Pinyin and no one is writing anything in pinyin. So aside from learning pronunciation, pinyin is worthless. You’re just going to have to straight up memorize of thousands of difficult characters. This is a drastically different system compared to English and is very hard for a learner at any stage to learn and then retain. However, over the years I have come up with a system that has worked absolute wonders for helping me memorize characters and actually retain them. The downside, it takes A LOT more time than simply putting a character down on a flash card. As you’ll learn, Chinese requires a certain level of blood, sweat and tears to learn thoroughly so if you’re new to Chinese, get used to putting in a lot more time learning basic stuff than your peers learning romance languages. Take frequent breaks if you need to, space out your studying, and make sure you give yourself enough time to study. You’ll learn how long it typically takes for you to study as you go. What’s also important about learning characters is your attitude. You must try to have a good attitude about learning and say whatever you have to to yourself to get yourself to be at least somewhat enthusiastic about the prospect of learning around 8000 characters. Otherwise, your negativity will delay your study process and even disincentivize you from studying at all. With that in mind, here is the best way I have found to study Chinese characters laid out from start to finish.
As clarification: Beginners should always use pinyin. Intermediate and up should try their best to remove the pinyin from their studies by not including it in flashcards or notes. If you forget the pronunciation, refer back to your vocab list.
1. Read Whole Vocabulary List
First thing you need to do before you begin memorizing anything is to simply go down the list of vocabulary and read them aloud both the Chinese pronunciation and the English definition. Mark the vocabulary you don’t quite understand the meaning of so that you can do additional research a bit later.
2. Assign Colors to Represent Tones
You will only need to do this once in your Chinese studies, but it’s very very important. It’s important to remove your dependence on pinyin ASAP. It’s very helpful for beginners to help them learn to pronounce things, but as soon as you get comfortable with pronunciation in about the intermediate level you’ll want to remove the pinyin from your studies completely. Pinyin after a while becomes more of a problem than a help if you become over reliant on it. How do you remove pinyin? Well you use colors! For the tones at least. For each tone, assign a different color and then write each character in that color to help you memorize the tone without the pinyin. I personally use blue for the first tone, yellow for the second tone, green for the third and red for the fourth. Now for the actual pinyin, bad news is, you’re just going to have to omit it from your notes and flashcards. The only exception is If you’re a beginner. If you are, please write out the pinyin in your notebook and in your flashcards because you’ll need the pinyin in your early stages. But as you advance in Chinese (starting at the intermediate level), DO NOT study with the pinyin.
3. Take Apart the Characters
Now that you have your colors ready to go, on to the important part. This is a very important part of your memorization process and that’s using radicals. Radicals are your best friend and act as a guide to help you distinguish the meaning of a word. So if you encounter to the animal radical (
犭) in your studies, you’ll know from then on that whatever the word is has something to do with an animal. So yeah, they’re important. With your first vocabulary word, before you write it down, stick your vocab word into The Written Dictionary and take a look at the radicals. This will require you to have a Chinese keyboard either on your phone or on your computer. Go ahead and enable that in your control panel. Then keep the page up because you’re going to write them down write below the vocabulary word in your notes.
4. Write Down the Character and the Radicals Below
Now you can finally write down the vocab word! Get your colored pen out so you can write the vocab words according to their tones. And then right below them, write their radicals. It should look something like this:
1. 顺利 – (both characters in red to mark the fourth tone)
顺 = 川 river + 页 page/leaf
禾 grain +刂 knife
Okay, so you see how this method takes a while, but let me tell you, if you do this, you will remember SO MANY characters.
5. On a Separate Page, Practice Writing Vocab 10 Times Each And Read Aloud (Optional)
This part you can skip if you’re short on time, but I highly recommend making time to do it anyway. In grade school, Chinese students must repeat each character 10-12 times a day. It helps really cement the knowledge into your brain. The key here is that you are only writing the characters and then saying the word. It completely leaves out pinyin, which is GREAT! You want to establish a connection between the character and the word, not the word and the pinyin.
6. Plug Vocab Words into Online Flashcards
I recommend either using Cram or Study Blue to study with but go ahead and plug in all your vocab words into some flash cards with or without the radicals. Whichever is better for you. I put the character on one side and the radicals on the other with no pinyin whatsoever, but I do have colors to help me differentiate the tones like I mentioned above. Again, if you’re a beginner PUT THE PINYIN IN YOUR FLASHCARDS. If you are intermediate or above, take ‘em out!
7. Review Flashcards Every Week or Every Other Week
Make sure to go back to your flashcards in a week or two so that you can review them.
Whew, and that’s it. I know it’s a lot but believe me it will save you time in the long run because you’ll actually memorize characters instead of those who will probably promptly forget them after learning them and then have to go back and re-learn them all over again. That would really suck. So do yourself a favor and learn them really well first and then just review them when needed and you’ll be golden. It isn’t easy at all, but no one said learning Chinese would be easy! I’m sure you’ve got the ambition, no you just need to put it to work! You got this!
Good luck in your studies!! 🙂