If you want to become proficient in Chinese, you must learn how to memorize Chinese words.
In this article, Daniel Nalesnik, founder of Hack Chinese will share his personal conclusions, based on his experience moving to China as a complete beginner, and then passing the highest levels of the official proficiency exams several years later.
Learning Chinese characters as a native English speaker? Buckle up. You’re in for a wild ride.
Even if you’ve learned other foreign languages before, Chinese has a number of properties that take the challenge up a notch (or two, or three).
For example, you may already know that Chinese words are represented with characters. And with thousands of words to learn, it is a huge challenge to memorize them.
But most people don’t consider that this also implies that there is no alphabet.
If you think not having an alphabet is not a big deal, think again.
- How do you look up words in a dictionary? You can’t do it alphabetically, because you can’t sort Chinese vocabulary alphabetically. (In fact, you can’t use Chinese to sort anything alphabetically, not even an index at the end of a book or a list of names on a list).
- How do you type Chinese words? Answer: since you can’t have a keyboard with 50,000 unique buttons, the typing methods (of which there are several, since no one agrees which is best) are convoluted and rely on building up each character stroke by stroke. Or, thank goodness for modern artificial intelligence, swiping your hand into a touchscreen to “draw” the character — even those with dozens or more strokes. It’s slow.
- How do you say a word out loud if you don’t already know it? Answer: you don’t, because you can’t!
- Chinese has no spaces in between words. Whichmakesreadingquitedifficult, especiallyforbeginners!
If you’re brave enough, this article on learning Chinese for English speakers goes into excruciating detail on how hard Chinese is to learn.
Two “character sets”: traditional and simplified
You may have heard about “traditional” and “simplified” Chinese characters. What is this all about?
In the 1950s, Chinese linguists decided they needed to do something to make Chinese easier to learn. So they reviewed every character in the language and made some big changes.
In some cases, they just removed a few strokes. In others, they changed the character completely.
Let’s look at a few examples:
The simplification of the Chinese character set was (and still is today) a highly controversial decision. After all, thousands of years of Chinese history and thinking are reflected in the “traditional” characters, and the simplification removed a staggering amount of that in one fell swoop.
But did it accomplish the goal of helping people learn Chinese and communicate more easily?
Yes. But it’s complicated.
Yes, because it is indeed easier to learn simpler characters with fewer strokes.
It’s complicated because now there are two character sets in use: Mainland China uses simplified characters, whereas Taiwan and Hong Kong still hold on to the traditional character sets.
Before simplification, literate Chinese people could read the same material (even if their spoken dialects were completely different). Now, people from mainland Chinese need to first learn traditional Chinese characters before they can pick up a Hong Kong newspaper or read a book printed in Taiwan.
Likewise, people from Hong Kong or Taiwan need to learn simplified characters before they can enjoy written content from the mainland.
These days, most students learn simplified characters, because it’s easier and gives them access to written Chinese from anywhere in Mainland China, while students who live in Hong Kong or Taiwan specifically may choose to learn the traditional character sets instead.
Is there a “best” way to memorize Chinese words?
Two common questions many beginners have are, “How to remember Chinese characters?” or “how to learn Chinese words”.
It’s easy to be confused as to what the difference is between a Chinese character and a Chinese word, so let’s clear it up: a Chinese word is just one or more Chinese characters.
你 is a Chinese character, and it is also a word. 好 is also both a character and a word.
Some words, like 你好, are made up of two or more characters, but they represent only one word. Simple!
As someone studying Chinese as a foreign language, there are two paradigms for memorizing Chinese words: associative learning methods, and rote learning methods.
Associative learning methods essentially ask you to take each word and “associate” it with something else that’s easier to remember, like a story, an artistic embellishment (of the characters themselves), or a deeper understanding of the individual components that make up the character.
Rote methods are essentially memorization by repetition.
So what’s the best way to learn Chinese characters? It depends on your goals.
If you’re looking to learn the characters deeply, by understanding their history or their components, associative learning strategies are the way to go.
If you’re looking to learn as many characters as possible (as quickly as possible), you should probably skip associative learning strategies, and look instead to rote memorization strategies that use spaced repetition.
Rote memorization turns some people off, but with tools like Hack Chinese, you can learn thousands of words in only a few months. You can then use your large vocabulary to approach more learning materials a lot sooner: more textbooks, more graded readers, more television shows, etc.
For most learners, learning words isn’t the point: it’s being able to actually communicate with the language as much as possible. For this reason, I recommend learning as many characters as quickly as you can with a tool like Hack Chinese, and move more quickly to more exciting things like reading, listening, and speaking.
You probably shouldn’t spend time hand-writing characters
Does hand-writing help you remember Chinese characters? Yes, it does.
But most students shouldn’t do it.
It is true that if you learn to handwrite a Chinese character, you’re unlikely to ever forget it.
But before you spend time learning to handwrite enough words to be reasonably literate, consider two very important points:
- Hand-writing takes a very long time to both learn and practice (our calculations suggest 700 hours).
- Handwriting Chinese characters won’t make you a better communicator, a better speaker, a better listener, or a better writer.
So while it’s true that you are less likely to forget how to recognize a character if you at one point learned how to write it, the opportunity cost is substantial. Would you rather learn to handwrite 100 words, or recognize 1,000?
After assessing the substantial time cost and marginal benefit of learning to handwrite Chinese characters, many students choose to just learn to read Chinese characters.
And while we won’t attempt to answer, “how long does it take to learn Chinese?” in this article, we will say: if you decide to learn how to handwrite Chinese characters at the same time, the answer will be several extra years. That is if you don’t give up on it all in the meantime.
Tools to help you learn Chinese words
Fortunately, there are many high-quality resources available to students that weren’t available even just a few years ago. They can make a seemingly insurmountable task seem almost trivial; provided you put in the effort.
Spaced repetition apps
Spaced repetition is the most efficient way to learn Chinese words quickly. By scheduling reviews of everything you learn in increasingly longer intervals, you can learn the greatest amount of words in the shortest amount of time.
Anki is a popular spaced repetition app that will do the trick if you’re on a budget. You can make individual flashcards for every word you learn, or download decks that other students have made.
If you’re looking to go as fast as possible, Hack Chinese is designed specifically for learners of Mandarin, with pre-made lists from popular Chinese language exams and textbooks. You get a personal dashboard that shows you your learning velocity and identifies which words are giving you trouble (so you can focus on them with a tutor).
If you’re not a beginner, Hack Chinese even helps you calibrate your account by telling it what you already know – so it can focus on teaching you new material as quickly as possible.
Textbooks offer systematic vocabulary growth alongside reading practice, listening practice, and exercises. Although they’re starting to feel old-fashioned in 2020, these are still invaluable to today’s students.
The most reputable Chinese language textbook series in the world are: Integrated Chinese, New Practical Chinese Reader, Boya Chinese, Developing Chinese, and the HSK Standard Course. If you choose one of these textbooks to guide your Chinese studies, you can’t go wrong.
Chinese language podcasts help you solidify your understanding, by giving you more exposure to the words you learned via spaced repetition or textbooks. Learners can never get enough listening practice, so I can’t recommend these more!
ChinesePod has been around the longest, but there are new ones popping up every few months that are worth checking out as well.
Memorizing Chinese words is hard, but absolutely essential if you’re looking to reach proficiency in Chinese.
Chinese is fast becoming a global language, offering those who do reach proficiency more career prospects, more friendship opportunities, more exciting vacation experiences in China, etc.
And with spaced-repetition based tools like Hack Chinese, learning quickly has never been easier.
Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese
Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.