3 Myths About Chinese Characters

Pinyin Vs Hanzi

I don’t need to lean Chinese characters – I can just learn pinyin!

Since everything in Chinese, with the exception of a few books aimed at pre-school kids, is written in Chinese characters (hanzi) you will basically be illiterate in the language if you don’t learn them. It will certainly be a bit more effort to learn Chinese characters but learning Chinese takes a huge amount of effort anyway. You might as well put in that extra effort and be able to chat with your friends on Chinese social networking sites, read everything from Chinese magazines to menus, and be able to list “Chinese language” as a professional skill on your CV. If you’re illiterate in a language you can’t really call it a professional skill, can you?

Recognising characters is more important than being able to write them

This seems like a no-brainer. The average Chinese person, let alone the average expat in China, reads far more hanzi than they write. This is largely thanks to the pinyin input method. Computers and phones allow you to type pinyin and then bring up a list of corresponding characters from which to select. Some software is so good you can type whole sentences out in pinyin and it automatically selects the correct characters. All you need to do is recognise that they’re correct. The fact there is a computer based HSK exam, which lets you do the writing part though pinyin input, further suggests that learning to write characters isn’t important.  However, there is another factor I’d like to introduce; the process of learning to recognise characters. Every time you write a character you’re going to visually analyse it far more, focusing on the direction and number of strokes. The kinaesthetic aspect of physically writing characters out will also help you to memorise and recognise them, even if you subsequently forget how to write them again. The processes of learning to recognise and learning to write characters are not as separate as some lazy language learners would like to believe.


Whether it’s with pen and paper or ink and brush writing out hanzi could help you remember them

Characters are actually easier to read than pinyin

For many people this is true. I know that it’s true because I myself find hanzi easier to read than pinyin. One of the most common reasons given is that Chinese has a huge number of homophones, and so it needs a character based writing system to distinguish words that have the same pronunciation. I’m honestly not convinced by this argument because if the number of homophones really means people can’t understand the meaning of words on the basis of pronunciation then, logically speaking, people shouldn’t be able communicate with each other verbally. Yet over a billion people speak Chinese on a daily basis without the need to constantly write down Chinese characters. Why is it that so many people find hanzi easier to read? A good analogy might be the English phonemic script. It’s a lot easier to spell words in the English phonemic script than using the 26 letters from the Latin alphabet, yet very few English speakers (if any) can write things in phonemic script more easily than with normal spelling, even when they’re quite familiar with both. This isn’t because English spelling is easier, it’s simply because we’ve been exposed to it and used it far more. As mentioned, almost everything in China is written in hanzi. It is this level exposure to Chinese characters that makes it easier to read than pinyin for many Chinese speakers.

What do you think? Comments are welcome:


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