What’s the Best Way to Learn Chinese Characters?

Chinese Characters Are Completely Unlike Other Writing Systems

Chinese characters (hàn zì 汉子) might be unique, but the way to learn them isn’t. There are several ways to approach learning hanzi and they’re pretty much the same options you have for learning other aspects of language, like vocabulary.

How I Learnt Chinese Characters

I took a very Chinese approach to learning the Chinese language; the brute force method. In other words I’d write the characters out dozens of times until I couldn’t forget them. If I forgot them I’d write them out a few dozen more times. Write a character five times and you’ll probably forget it. Write it out five hundred times and you’re much more likely to remember. It’s that simple.

If this approach sounds boring that’s because it is indeed very boring. But it is undoubtedly effective. Anyone questioning the efficacy of this approach just needs to take a look at the hundreds of millions of Chinese people who can read and write. This is they way they tend to do it at school in China.

Are You Saying Brute Force is the Best Way?

Effective is not the same as efficient. Some people just don’t have the time (or the willpower!) to spend hours and hours studying through rote memorisation like a Chinese middle school student with no social life. So is there a better way? There isn’t really a single “way” to learn a language; different people will find different things work for them. With that in mind, below are my personal top five tips for learning Chinese characters.

1.      Don’t learn them in isolation

This is the same advice for learning vocabulary. It’s really much better if you can see an example sentence. Even better is if you can see the characters used in a real situation. So if you’re trying to memorise the characters for different types of meat or vegetables then spending half an hour looking at authentic materials like restaurant menus or price labels from the supermarket will probably be more useful than half an hour of generic flashcards.

2.      Make stronger memories

I’m not a brain expert but apparently there are different types of memory and memories are stored in different places in the brain. It makes sense that looking at a character, saying the pronunciation and then writing it out is probably going to activate different parts of the brain and make a stronger memory that just looking at a character and matching it with an English definition. Meaningful pictures and stories can also create a much stronger memory.

A lot of textbooks will tell you the etymology of the hanzi they teach. Sometimes these stories seem a bit dubious to me, but that’s not the point. The point is I’m more likely to remember a character if I have an etymology story to go with it, rather than just seeing a bunch of random squiggles that the vocab list tells me means “hello”.

01-Firevisualisation with pictures undoubtedly makes hanzi easier to remember

3.      Test yourself

After you’ve learnt some new characters give yourself a 10 minute break and then see if you can still remember how to write them. Even if you can’t, forcing yourself to try and remember (testing yourself) will increase the chances that you subsequently remember that information after some follow up study.

Basically, studying a set of characters for ten minutes, watching TV for ten minutes, testing yourself and then studying the characters for another 10 minutes will be more effective than just studying for a solid 30 minutes. Why? I don’t know, but trust me it works.

If you’re sceptical then try if for yourself. Make two lists of characters you want to memorise, study one list for half an hour and then study the other list using a study-break-test-study format. The next day see which list you can remember the most characters from.

4.      Get away from your quiet desk

Everyday we are subjected to an insane amount of information. Our senses are bombarded with information constantly, but we filter most of it out and our brain doesn’t make long term memories. It automatically gets filtered out.

If you sit down at the exact same quiet desk in the exact same corner of the library every day then you might find your hippocampus decides “there is nothing important going on here, no need to make any permanent memories…”

Studies have shown that people retain more information when they change their study environments. People asked to memorise information whilst listening to music could later recall more of that information than those who weren’t listening to music. Similar results can apparently be achieved from studying in differently decorated rooms.

This means that going to a restaurant, cafe or some outdoor space like a park is probably better than a specific “study space”. Not only that, but if you’re actually in China you can combine it with point one at the top of this list and study the characters around you. The menu, the sign saying “free wifi”…

There are a lot of characters around you every day. Pay attention to them and constantly be on the lookout for characters you already know. Each time you see them in a real-life context you’ll be much less likely to forget that character later on.

5.      Stop reading this blog

It’s important to remember that the best method for you is the one that you can stick with the longest and spend the most time on. 10 minutes a day using a really good study method will be less effective than 10 hours a day using a bad method.

In other words, if you’re spending a large amount of time reading blog posts like this one you should probably turn off your computer, put your phone down and just get on with some studying. Studying makes you better. Reading about studying doesn’t.


Assuming you don’t follow though with the final piece of advice above, the comments section is open below for you to share your thoughts and experiences of studying Chinese characters.



6 thoughts on “What’s the Best Way to Learn Chinese Characters?

  1. Hello, Lewis. I like much of the material you posted regarding Chinese language. I also think you are patently wrong on several issues and some of your advice is wrong and unhelpful. Why? You seem to be advocating an approach based on a model of “how babies learn a language.” Firstly, we do not know how babies learn a language; nobody does. We are adult people who are not forming and developing concepts; our minds are built from cemented blocks – concepts, idea, beliefs, opinions. Practically useful in everyday life this mental structure is also preventing adult, most adults, to learn further, to break the old cemented blocks and form new ones, this time made of, perhaps, a jello instead of concrete. You are completely oblivious to the fact that your brain is filled with Mandarin cemented blocks; you just keep adding them or slightly re-shaping them. We – the beginners – don’t have ANY Mandarin blocks; neither the blocks nor any idea on how to put them together. By not learning words – an arduous, inefficient method I am heavily engaged in – which is what you advocate then how are we going to get anywhere? Read Chinese books, you say! (Yes, I think I have improved my English by reading James Joyce; but that came after some 30 years of speaking and writing in English.) We, alas, cannot even begin to read and understand a title of a book. To put it in a a little more technical terms, Lewis, some of the synaptic joints in your central nervous system (CNS) are heavily pre-conditioned (whatever that means) toward Hanzi characters and toward patterns of Hanyu colloquialisms. Ours are not; nada. Are you aware of this? So please rein in some of your advice on self-studying tips. Cheers!

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