Many language learners are daunted by the prospect of learning Chinese characters or Japanese kanji. However, with the right approach and understanding, reading characters can become a much less intimidating task. Mostly, it is based on a misunderstanding how we learn to read English or other latin-based writing systems.
“You don’t read strokes or letters, you recognize words!” Kungfucius
In this article, let’s explore the challenges of learning characters and how to overcome them by learning the right strategies and techniques.
Is it difficult to learn Chinese characters?
No! It is not easy, but also not complicated and has more similarities with learning how to read English as you think.
I. Yes, It Is a Challenge to Read Chinese Characters / Kanji
There’s no denying that learning Chinese characters or Japanese kanji can be challenging. With thousands of characters to learn and no clear alphabet system to fall back on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, it’s important to remember that learning characters is a manageable task with the right mindset and techniques and especially with the right understanding about how we read other languages.
Actually, there are millions of adult illiterates in the EU and USA. On the other hand, this problem is not necessarily very widely spread in Japan or China. Hence, purely from an empirical, statistical view, there is no clear evidence that it is somewhat impossible to learn Kanji or Chinese characters.
II. This is What Students Learn in Chinese and Japanese Elementary and Middle Schools
Chinese and Japanese students spend years learning characters in school, starting from a young age. They begin with the most basic and frequently used characters, gradually building up their repertoire over time. Mostly, the basic literacy skills of being able to read and write is gradually build from grade 1 to grade 7-9.
“Most of the literacy teaching is done in elementary school. At around age 14/15, that training is complete and there is no specific reading or writing training any more.” Aoi, a Japanese university student
This gradual approach is essential for foreign language learners as well, as it allows you to progressively build your understanding of characters without becoming overwhelmed. However, it is important to see the parallels in the western system, even though there are no characters.
III. We Do Not Read Letters in Latin Scripts, We Read Words That Are Formed by Letters
When learning Chinese characters or Japanese kanji, it’s essential to remember that, just like with Latin scripts, we read words rather than individual letters and also in Latin-based writing style education systems, much of the literacy groundwork is done in elementary school.
Dictation exercises and tests are mainly done in elementary schools in Europe and later this is stopped. Reading also completely transforms from reading single letters and pronouncing word phonetics letter by letter in order to understand the word, to reading words as abstract combinations of letters and having a concrete understanding without the necessity of pronouncing the individual letters.
Advanced readers can even read incorrect chinese characters or incorrect words as these are only small deviations from the abstract concept. Ok, let’s check an example:
Thiis sntence si os wrng, yoo shdn’t b abl to reed nuthing.
More likely than not, you read that above sentence perfectly fine. The reason for that is that we do not read letters, but word contexts. This happens usually sometimes not in the initial 1-2 years of learning how to read and write, but right after that with the help of comics and simple reading material. In the end, it was probably Superman and Tintin that helped millions of people progress from reading letters to reading words quickly in context. Let’s call it the “Tintin phase”. Usually, in fifth grade, this is already achieved, but you might still make plenty of mistakes writing. This will then slowly get ironed out through many repetitions and most importantly through consumption of a lot of reading material. It is comprehensible input again and overall we are getting close to the Kungfucius Method of language acquisition.
The same dynamic is at play when you learn Chinese and Japanese, at some point, you might not check each character, but you can very quickly recognize characters like:
The real kick comes, when you start your Tintin-phase. Just maybe go for some other material. I.e. some of the leading manga of today to learn Japanese.
IV. Learn Chinese characters and learn Japanese Kanji efficiently and effectively
In Chinese and Japanese, characters represent syllables and concepts, which come together to form words and sentences. By focusing on learning characters in the context of words and phrases, you can develop a more intuitive understanding of how characters function within the language. Ok, that was a bit too abstract. Let’s break it down in several steps:
Start with the most common characters. No. Don’t start with the most common characters. Start with building a foundation in understanding spoken Chinese. So that you have already listened to many simple conversations and learnt what these words mean. Then in a second step, you can look at characters. Maybe some weeks later!
- Second step: This is about building a strong foundation. In this phase, you already know 300-1000 common Chinese verbs. But you do not know how to read! That’s ok. This is exactly how Chinese or Japanese will learn Chinese characters or Japanese Kanji! So, start with the simple characters and one way is to start with HSK 1, 2, 3 as reference and/or have a look at the characters that are used in the accompanying material to the audio files that you already know and that you can already easily understand.
- Listen to audio files while reading characters and hopefully recognizing more and more characters while doing so! Don’t worry about writing characters! You might not even want to do this at all. But definitely not at this phase. Just listen to interesting little dialogues that you know while looking at the characters.
- Now after a week, you might already associate many characters with words that you know and you might already recognize some of these simple characters. I know, you will not be able to write them but you can recognize more and more. Now, learn the rules of stroke order and what a stroke is. Quick summary: start above and work yourself downwards. And from outside to inside. And only close a box at the very end. Well, there are many more rules but start with this and have a look at some recordings of how characters are written now.
Video about how to write characters.
- Now use your computer and mobile phone and install and play with the systems for characters. In Chinese, you will feel that you can now write perfectly fine. As you know how to spell words correctly (that was step 1) and you can recognize characters (that was step 2 and 3).
- Now start the Tintin phase! In other words, start reading graded readers or start reading along more interesting audio files. When you do the audio file reading, you don’t have to perfectly remember or know each character. Just enjoy this passive way of learning. Don’t stress about vocabulary! You will learn the characters automatically over time. But make sure to prioritize actions-based learning and audio and video learning over reading! That way, you will only have to associate the characters with the words that you already know!
- After some weeks and you recognize most of the characters of HSK1-3 immediately. I know you can’t write these by hand, but don’t worry about it just yet. You can also read along your simple audio and video files that you follow. Again, don’t stress yourself. But now is a good time to put some of the characters that you are consistently failing to recognize in a SRS. And work on this a bit over the next few weeks. But remember, SRS should not be more than maybe 10% of your time spent! And one more thing to remember: Don’t use the SRS primarily to learn new words! Nope! You just want to learn how to associate characters with the pinyin of a word that you already know!
- Practice regularly: Consistent practice is key to mastering Chinese characters or Japanese kanji. Set aside time each day to review and practice your characters, even if it’s just for a few minutes per day for SRS so you really get to associate all these initial 1000 characters with the phonetic and the word that you already know!
- Be patient: Learning characters is a long-term endeavor, and progress may sometimes feel slow. Be patient with yourself and remember that, with consistent effort, you will eventually master the characters.
V. What about hand-writing?
Ok, let’s come to the topic of hand-writing. It is somewhat important and my opinion is a bit controversial.
“Learn the basis of handwriting characters in weeks, then you might stop practicing handwriting or practice only once every month.” Kungfucius
Let’s assume that you can recognize 1000 characters that you learnt in maybe 3-4 months. Maybe even in a few weeks. That is definitely possible as you read characters in sentences and context and not as stand alone characters.
But you can’t really write those characters by hand…
Ok, now it is time to buy yourself a workbook and start writing characters. Write 10 different characters per day and write each of those characters 10 times.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to do that for 100 days to complete the 1000 characters – even though that would the best way to do it. Practice this writing for 20 days and you will learn probably enough about how strokes are handwritten and the correct stroke order. After that, you don’t need it any more and you can directly switch back to computer writing. Again, trigger warning, this is controversial!
Many people in Asia say that they haven’t actually written physical characters since leaving school. Work usually doesn’t require you to handwrite anything and you will be able to slowly handwrite if you use a phone for help.
Attention: For some Chinese tests, you might need handwriting. But in the real world, this is almost completely useless in modern times!
Reading Chinese characters or Japanese kanji may seem like a daunting task, but with the right mindset, strategies, and consistent practice, it is more manageable than you might think.
“Relearn learning now!” Kungfucius
By focusing on acquiring character recognition by reading along audio is a great way to passively improve your ability to recognize characters. Don’t stress if you just recognize maybe 80% after simultaneously listening and reading for some times. It is a perfect start! Without stress it is possible to learn how to read characters. Emphasize on character matching to Chinese or Japanese words that you already know and focus on getting as much comprehensible input as possible!