Do you have to be serious to learn characters?

This morning it dawned on me, after years of learning Chinese, hours spent of searching, trying different ways of learning these characters, it finally hit me, THERE IS NO SHORTCUT. You have to study, I mean really study, and you really have to give it your all.


The net is full of ways how to learn, but it turns-out unless your living in China and fully submerge in the language, you really have to put in 110% to learn it. All this "watching Chinese movies, listening to Chinese music" etc. those serves more as supplementary aid.


I find that,you have to give each character the attention and energy to really makes it your own. One thing about the characters, especially traditional characters, some have a story behind the pictograph. If you understand the story behind the character, that's less you have to memorize.


I love writing Chinese more than anything else. so don't just force it on your brain. There is no joy in forceful memorization, make each character personal, enjoy the learning and meaning each character provides and the brain will takes care of the rest on it's own. I mean think about it, did you had to try to memorize your first kiss?....


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(photo credit: dawnallynnstock)

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Comment by jono1001 on November 18, 2011 at 6:25am

An interesting observation Wood.  I think that if you don't want to learn to read and write in Chinese you shouldn't bother. I know of someone who was only interested in speaking Chinese and that is all the learned. They do speak with fluency. They can read and write in pinyin when necessary. I think to some extent you can pick and choose what you wish to learn.

Comment by Brandon on November 4, 2011 at 7:59am

There's a really interesting article from Science daily about the impact that writing has on memory. I highly recommend everyone learning characters read it.  (try to ignore the atrocious web design & focus on article content).  

The article basically says that physical movement & feedback play a significant role in remembering written symbols.  It's not written for Chinese but obviously could be applicable.  Better Learning Through Handwriting


I've personally seen big improvements in the past week from 30 minutes daily writing, which I didn't do much of before.  Just reading & typing.

(h/t to John Biesnecker at Chinesepod for sharing on his tumblr blog)

Comment by Sara Jaaksola on November 3, 2011 at 10:12am
I think learning characters is a hard work even when studying in China, like I'm doing. It's not hard as in difficult, but takes a lot of time and effort.

Usually I first write new words from my textbooks by hand about ten time. Then I put them to Skritter and review them there. What I should do more is to read Chinese. Luckily my teacher made us all to read a Chines novel this Autumn and it's doing really good for my character recognition.
Comment by LaoXiang on November 2, 2011 at 7:49pm
Like many people, i find studying characters to be incredibly tedious. In fact, for the first year or so of learning chinese, i completely ignored the characters, focusing only on speaking. I eventually stopped being stupid and tried to learn them as well, but it's so hard to stay motivated when it seems to help you do nothing, except read bits and pieces of children's books.

Despite the difficulty in staying motivated, I've come along way. I won't be reading any newspapers just yet, but it's coming. So, how did I get this far? No, it wasn't putting in 110%... had I done that, I'd be reading those newspapers, lol. Really, my motivation and ability came from texting on my phone and chatting online. It's a pretty passive way of studying/practicing, but it gives you a reason to want to learn characters. Every time I don't need to copy and paste into a dictionary, it gives me a huge amount of satisfaction and also allows the conversation to flow at a better rate. Of course it's nice to be able to read signs and menus as well, but I suppose that won't really apply to those studying in their home countries.

Im sure, this wouldn't do for all you serious learners, but for anyone like me, that's just doing it for fun, it's a fine pace to learn at, that focuses your vocab on the things you talk about. Although it should probably be noted that without a computer or phone, etc, I can't write characters to save my life. ;)
Comment by wood on October 25, 2011 at 11:51pm
It can be very frustrating As Brandon said, But that when you have to take a step back and see how far you've come. I was studying from "Practical Chinese reader" book, starting from page one I wrote-out every character from them book. I kept going and going but for some reason I stopped for like a month, and you won't believe how far back I had to review.Nonetheless going through the book also show how much I learned as I was skipping pages because I found them too easy. In the end you have to give yourself a little credit, we studying a language that most people shy away from. We have demystified it, We see pasterns and beauty when others failed too. As Gareth said, we doing this for the love of the culture, if we loose sight of that, then there's no point in doing this.
Comment by Gareth Edwards on October 25, 2011 at 12:56pm

I agree that you have to give it 110% if you aren't in China - I'm in that position and I spend far too much of my time studying Chinese in one way or another.  As far as learning to write characters goes, I use Skritter a lot, at least 20 minutes of study time every day (can equal 30 - 45 minutes of real time) and if I take more than a couple of days off then it can take another 3 or 4 days to get back where I was.


As you say, forcing the learning on your brain doesn't work.  I have seen a few people that are learning Chinese for work or family reasons and they don't have a love of the language / culture. I am learning purely for fun and a love of the culture, so spending an hour or 2 ... or more ... every day isn't a chore, it's fun.  This means it is very easy to improve more than those don't enjoy the language in the same way.


To learn effectively, I think you have to enjoy what you are doing.  If you don't enjoy it, it will always be hard work, you won't be interested in learning and you won't learn - this is true of anything, not just Chinese or languages.  If you have to learn something, first you have to learn to enjoy it.

Comment by Brandon on October 25, 2011 at 6:31am

After taking a 2 week break from daily character practice it felt like I had forgotten a ton of them after returning.  So there is probably something to what you are saying.

I personally get frustrated with...

1) When you recognize a character you've studied but can't remember pinyin/meaning in real life.

2) When you think a character is familiar but then can't remember if the left half is the same thing as the character you're now trying to read.

3) When you can't make sense of a sentence because you didn't realize that two familiar characters mean something different when put together - like 爱好 can mean a hobby.

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