How to Learn to Write Chinese: The Method
The final article in this series on how to learn to write Chinese covers the actual method I would recommend for learning to write Chinese characters. If you haven’t already, read the other two articles first.
Whilst the first two articles in this ‘learn to write Chinese’ series are aimed at beginners who have no experience with the Chinese language, this final post might also be useful for more experienced learners. I’m going to explain here what I think is the best method to learn Chinese characters, which may be different from how you currently do it.
So, let’s look at what I think is the most effective way to learn to write Chinese. In summary, it has five points:
Learn character components and what they mean.
Use radicals to make mnemonics.
Look for patterns in Chinese characters.
Use SRS to consolidate your knowledge.
Learn a little every day.
I’ve highlighted point #2 there because I think it’s the most important one. To learn to write Chinese characters, use mnemonics. If I had to reduce all the posts in this series to one sentence, that would be it. Mnemonics are so powerful and so effective that they really blow any other method out of the water.
To use mnemonics to learn to write Chinese, though, you’ve got to be able to make them! This post explains how you can learn to do that as part of a wider method.
My method for learning to write Chinese
1. Character components
You saw in the previous article how Chinese characters are composed of components. These component parts can actually be characters themselves. For example, have a look at the traditional character for ‘food’:
飯 (fàn) food
This character has two components:
食 (shí) eat
反 (fǎn) opposite
So we’ve got our pronunciation hint from 反 (fǎn), and our meaning hint from 食 (shí). The cool thing is that these are both characters on their own as well. For example, they appear in these words:
食堂 (shítáng) canteen
反对 (fǎnduì) to oppose
We could also go and break down all of those characters and see what they contain, but I just want to illustrate the point here. You’ll do plenty of character breakdowns yourself when you’re studying. You may be starting to see the power of doing character breakdowns and word breakdowns in Chinese. By learning what each individual bit means and what it’s doing, you can make it much easier to remember.
You should be aware, though, that character breakdowns don’t always “make sense”. By that I mean that sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any phonetic relation or any meaning relation. Let’s take the 食 (shí) character we just looked at as an example:
人 (rén) person
良 (liáng) good
This one doesn’t “make sense”. The reason is that this character didn’t begin life as a phonetic-meaning combination. It’s actually supposed to be a picture of a serving dish with a lid! There are many, many characters like this in Chinese: the writing system has been formed in many different ways. However, it doesn’t stop you from learning the components and using them to remember how to write the character! Read on to find out why.
The reason I keep emphasising character breakdowns and the meaning of components is that knowing how to do this lets you make mnemonics. If you don’t know already, a mnemonic is a memory device that helps you remember information. You’ve probably come across mnemonics before, such as ‘Roy G Biv’ or the sentence “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” for the colours of a rainbow. Read a bit more about mnemonics and how to make them if you’re still not clear.
Mnemonics should be the main way you remember things when learning a language, and especially when learning to write Chinese characters. By breaking down characters into their components as shown above, you’ve got a very obvious way to make mnemonics for them. Let’s have a look at an example. Remember that the character for ‘food’, 飯 (fàn), had these two components:
食 (shí) eat
反 (fǎn) opposite
Knowing that the character has these two components and what they mean, you make up a story or sentence involving them and the meaning of the whole character. Personally for this one I would use “I only eat the opposite of food”. It’s a weird sentence, right? That’s the idea! By creating this weird sentence that involves the meanings of the components and of the whole character, it suddenly becomes very easy to remember how the character is composed.
“But I don’t know how to write the components!” you cry. Well, what you do is you break the components down into smaller bits, and look up what those mean (I’ll tell you where to look all this up in a minute). Then you make up stories and sentences for those. For anything that you can’t remember, you make a mnemonic. You’ll get better and better at this process, until your brain is teeming with mnemonics for all sorts of characters and components. Whenever you learn a new character, it just falls neatly into this system.
This is what I like to call “mnemonics lego”. Because written Chinese is made up of all these smaller parts that you can build up into a whole, it really lends itself to mnemonics. It will be hard at first, because you’ll feel a bit lost amongst all the new information, and you’ll feel a bit silly making up these crazy sentences. But it works, and you’ll find it’s very worthwhile in the end.
3. Look for patterns
The next important thing you should do while you learn to write Chinese is to continually look for patterns in the Chinese writing system. Pay attention to what components are used in what characters. Make lists of characters that share a component and look for a theme. Make lists of characters that have the same phonetic component and see the themes in how they’re pronounced. Find out the meaning and pronunciation of a character you haven’t seen, and try to guess which components go into it.
Doing this will tie in very nicely with making mnemonics for all the characters and components you learn. The idea is to get very familiar with how Chinese characters work, how they’re put together, and to actively think about Chinese characters. Always try to actively engage with what you’re learning, and try to just passively absorb it. One minute of active thought is more effective than ten minutes of passive ‘absorbing’. Looking for patterns is a good way to keep yourself thinking actively.
4. The importance of SRS
SRS stands for ‘spaced repetition system’. This refers to software that schedules your learning for you in little chunks. If you’ve used flashcards before, you’ll have some idea of how this works. You make flashcards for each thing you want to remember, e.g. a word or a Chinese character, and you keep reviewing the flashcards until you can remember them all. SRS software makes this more effective by intelligently scheduling the reviews so that you only review stuff that you need to review that day.
As you use the SRS software, the stuff you find easy keeps getting scheduled further and further away each time you review it, whilst the stuff you find hard is shown to you more regularly until you can remember it. You can think of SRS as a way to take customised mini-exams every day. I’ll recommend two pieces of SRS software below, a free one and a cheap one.
Before that, though, I want to make it clear that whilst SRS is extremely helpful in learning to write Chinese, it’s not everything. You really do have to make mnemonics and actively engage with what you’re learning. The SRS software is just a way to test that your approach is working. If you keep forgetting how to write a character when doing your SRS flashcards, it means your mnemonic is bad or you haven’t actively engaged with it, or there’s something else you need to change. The point is that SRS just lets you identify these problems. It doesn’t replace a good learning process.
5. A little every day
The final part of this approach to learning to write Chinese is that you must keep at it every day. Learn a few more characters every day, make some more mnemonics every day, actively engage with writing Chinese characters every day, and do some SRS reviews every day. At the very least you need to keep up your SRS reviews every day. That might sound like a lot to do every day, but I’m suggesting that you do half an hour a day, for example. If you can’t do half an hour, do ten minutes. If you can’t do ten minutes, do thirty seconds. Anything is better than getting out of practice.
What you’re trying to avoid is getting out of the routine of learning to write Chinese, then trying to make up for it every other weekend by doing two hours in one day. This is far less effective than just ten minutes a day done consistently. Just try to do something each day, and not let it build up into a mountain that you don’t want to even begin climbing.
Where to go from here
The above actually completes my general advice on how to learn to write Chinese. That’s my method. However, if you’re a beginner, you might still be totally lost at sea! Up to here I just wanted to explain how I think you should go about learning to write Chinese in the long term.
If you’re taking a course or using a textbook, you’ll have a ready source of characters to learn. In that case, you just need to know where to look the characters up and how to put them in some SRS software (see #2 and #3 below). If you’re not taking a course or anything, you also need a source of characters to start learning!
1. Find characters to learn
If you’re learning independently and for free, you might not have any structure to work with or any direction to begin your studies in. Don’t worry, that’s fine! What I would recommend you do is to just pick a website that has *Chinese example sentences *and find the section for beginners. You could try the Chinese Grammar Wiki or Chinese Boost Grammar.
Just find some simple sentences and choose a few characters from them. Don’t worry about picking the ‘right’ ones to start with or what order to study in. You’re playing a long-term game here, so the important thing is just to get started.
2. Lookup the characters
Once you’ve got a couple of characters, you need to look them up to get:
The meaning of the character.
What its components are.
What the components mean.
The stroke order for the character.
There are a few places that will give you this information:
Nciku. Copy and paste the character into the search there and scroll down till you see the components.
Zhongwen.com. Seems tricky to use at first but has masses of detail. Search around for the characters you want and start exploring!
The Pleco app for Android and iOS has character breakdown and stroke-order information.
Wherever you look up the character, just make sure you can get the components and stroke order. Have a go at copying the stroke order you see on paper a few times. Make up a mnemonic based on the components.
3. Put the characters into an SRS program
Once you’ve had a look at a few characters, their stroke orders and their components, it’s time to get going with some SRS software! I would recommend a program called Anki, because it’s free, awesome and you can get it on all sorts of devices. You’ll have to do some reading and play around a bit to get used to how to use Anki, but it’s well worth it.
Once you’ve got a deck of flashcards going, add a few characters along with their mnemonics. Then you can begin the process of reviewing your flashcards, and seeing if you can remember how to write each Chinese character!
Learn to write Chinese with Skritter
If you want an easier option that automatically handles this entire process for you, then I’d strongly recommend trying out Skritter. It’s a website that lets you practice writing Chinese, but with all of these features built in:
Community shared mnemonics
Actual handwriting practice with corrections
You have to pay a monthly subscription to use Skritter, but I think it’s worth it. I should point out that I get paid a commission if you sign up to Skritter through links here, but I’m genuinely recommending it because I think it’s awesome. Have a look at Skritter.
Hopefully I’ve given you a good idea of how to learn to write Chinese by now! Of course, this is only an introduction and you’ll have to get stuck into the process to really learn for yourself how it all works. Keep studying, keep reading about how to study, and keep learning a little bit every day. Before long you’ll have made amazing progress.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please share them in the comments. I’d also love to hear about your experiences of learning to write Chinese!