There are a number of existing systems to help you learn Chinese characters. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. None of them present a complete system for how to learn Chinese characters.
We’re going to mix and match, taking the best components from these existing systems. There’s nothing particularly fancy about the result. It’s a workhorse rather than a miracle-worker.
There are no short cuts with Chinese – it will take time to cut through the characters and learn enough of them for your objectives.
Our system focuses on the day to day work of inputting new characters, processing them so they can be remembered, shifting them into a SRS system for review and making sure we actually use the characters we are spending time learning.
This may sound simple – and it is. What these articles will provide is a sensible, down to earth system that will just work over time. Unlike methods that promise you the earth you’ll actually get results and not quit Chinese in a rage. And unlike traditional methods your learning will be a lot more efficient.
The Four Stages
We need to be certain we are putting the right characters, words and sentences into our memorization system. There’s no use in efficiently learning non-useful material! We’ll look at what we should be putting into our system for the most effective learning.
We also want to make sure that this system is flexible enough so that we can adjust out inputs. Need to memorize last minute vocabulary for an exam? We will use the same system, just change the inputs to reach this more immediate goal. Methods like Heisig don’t allow such detours.
We’re going to decompose each word into its characters, each character into its components and (if necessary) each component into its strokes. Chinese is a very structured language, much more so than English and other European languages. When you understand the structure and how to pull the structure apart you can learn faster.
We’ll know the meaning of all of these smaller “pieces” of characters. With practice new characters will no look so “foreign”- instead we’ll recognize all the “pieces” inside it.
We’re going to use these “pieces” as hooks for mnemonics. Mnemonics is a fancy Greek word for “memory aid”. We’ll use mnemonics to help us remember the components of the character, the pronunciation and tone of the character and how to write it out.We’ll do the same with words to help us remember what characters it is made out of.
We’ll use an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) like Pleco, Anki or Skritter as our secondary memory, inputting all of our newly processed material into the system. After initial reviews to make sure that we actually remember the character using our memory devices the SRS will used to periodically test us on what we have learned and help us to shift the new information from our short term memories to long term memories.
Important detail: we’ll be using SRS as a tool not as a method. This is to stop us from relying on SRS as our complete learning experience. We’ll go through this in detail later.
It’s not enough just to create a memory related to the character or word. We need to use it.
The final step of the system focuses on ways to systematically use our newly acquired vocabulary. We’ll outline methods that can be easily practiced to use vocabulary orally, in listening, in writing or in reading. We’ll do this systematically to ensure the vocabulary becomes useful to us.
These four steps (Input, Processing, Review and Usage) will be constantly rotating during your daily study. As a character or word passes through these steps it’ll become concretized in you mind – this is learning.
This high level view is just to let you know where we are going. Over the series of articles we’ll look into each of these steps in detail. For now keep in mind the structure of Input, Processing, Review, Usage (IPRU).
A note for very early beginner learners: I would recommend first getting to grips with spoken Chinese and beginning to communicate before worrying too much about written Chinese.
The Chinese writing system is a wonderful and beautiful thing but it’s also easy to get caught up in. Because of its complexity (especially at early stages and especially without a system for learning!) it can also be frustrating.
My advice would be to start talking Chinese first. Get some Chinese friends. Get a language exchange partner either in person or via Skype through a website like italki or LiveMocha.
Delaying written Chinese until you can communicate a little will not slow you down. Instead when you come to learning written Chinese you’ll be in a better position to charge ahead. You’ll have less trouble with tones and pinyin pronunciation because you have already learned a good deal of that from focusing on spoken Chinese.
You don’t want to be struggling with pronunciation, tones and Chinese characters at the same time! Make life a little easier for yourself.