What is your strategy for learning characters?


Just curious about everyone’s strategies for learning characters? Is there any system you have found particularly useful or effective? Currently, I am using Remembering the Hanzi in conjunction with Skritter. With this method I am very easily remembering character meanings and how to write them. However, this method has been somewhat less effective for character readings, so I am trying to devise some supplements. I’ve started to make a Pleco deck for extra practice on character readings and hope that will help pick up my deficient readings.

What’s your strategy?


Read. Read. Read some more.

Memorization is fine if you have a high-stakes exam coming up, but if you don’t use 'em, you’ll lose 'em.


Question is - are you trying to learn characters to write characters or is reading/recognizing characters good enough?

I took university level Chinese many years ago (we had to learn both traditional and simplified characters) and I practiced writing characters over and over and over. I actually think this is the best way to learn characters but it is time consuming.

In recent years two things have happened: I found recognizing characters is good enough - no need to write them. And because of computers I can actually type Chinese using pinyin as long as I can recognize the character I’m looking for.

So nowadays I just focus on character patterns - analyzing the radicals and staring and repeating the character to myself. Now my reading vocabulary is decent while my writing ability is paltry.


At first I resisted learning the characters because… ew. In the end I decided to meet reality by learning only enough to suss out signs and menus. A few hundred oughta do it, if it’s the right few hundred. I pay extra attention to phonetic components because of the potential payoff.

Writing them? Whatever for?


I agree with pronghorn, rote is the best. I use graph books to practise, the ones with gridlines. I also use 2B pencils with a rubber on the end, one line, one character. I am a visual learner so enjoy writing, and it really helps with reading.


There’s actually no research evidence proving that writing over and over and over by hand helps reading skill.

Most people are being given so-called “challenging” texts, though, which are simply decoding exercises start to finish. That’s not reading. You really should be reading things that are at or slightly below your level of language, and reading extensively at that level, so that the characters don’t need to be memorized by rote.


handwriting characters over and over again didn’t do much for me.
i never really had to handwrite anything, except for my signature and address.

i think what i learned most and fastest from was chatting with my taiwanese friends. i use pinyin, so i used a lot of wrong characters at first because i knew the pinyin typing but wasn’t sure which character but that improved gradually(and all that haha and 快笑死了 was all the more reason to get it right). this helps you a lot for everyday communication. if you want to be able to read newspapers or formal documents, you need to focus on that. it’s slow at the beginning because you can’t just use the latin alphabet to translate. but you’ll get faster as you progress and the characters you’ll have to look up will get lesser.

for the active part such as speaking. i can’t give you any special advice, just speak a lot:p


For any given practical skill there are at least two distinct measures of mastery: being able to pass a test versus being able to use the skill in real time. The second will usually be a bit below the first in level.

If could add a third: being able to use the skill when you’re in a life-threatening emergency. Here’s hoping no one here ever needs that.

The only language with just one measure of mastery is a dead language, like Latin. Unless your name is Brian…


Just out of curiosity, why did you come to Taiwan in the first place?

The only language with just one measure of mastery is a dead language, like Latin.

It takes a lot to kill a language like Latin.




Like the dinosaurs, it’s not dead. It now comes in various feathered, flying forms.

As to methods for learning, I think reading a lot, at or below your level of textual understanding (so that you aren’t distracted by struggling to understand the text contents, characters aside) is key. Writing the characters a little too may not hurt, because you’re reviewing them in another way (and the more ways we approach a piece of information, the more brain connections we form, IMO). Finally, for me it helped a lot to learn to identify the individual components in characters; instead of seeing 蘇 as 20-some strokes, one can see it as just three elements. Knowing the elements and their meanings creates semantic pegs useful for mnemonic tricks. But the bottom line is what Ironlady says: read, read, read.


This. Although I personally like writing (I love calligraphy), and I also rely on Pleco for rote learning, nothing beats buckling down and reading. But it must be reading material that interests you, in my opinion. If your Chinese is at a lower level, finding reading material for adults can be challenging.

For example, I picked up Matilda by Roald Dahl, not only because I know the story and really enjoy it, but because it’s a children’s book that can be enjoyed by adults as well. This edition includes zhuyin, which is an added bonus.


That kind of reading is ideal IMO; not just for characters but for building vocabulary and learning grammar. And not just in Chinese – in any language. I did the same thing in Spanish, voraciously reading first kids’ books that are nice for adults too (Charlotte’s Web, lots of Dahl, and so on), and then moving to young adult stuff, and finally to adult material (ahem, not that adult material – well, a little of that too doesn’t hurt; wide variety, and all that).


Thank you for your reply. I am not specifically trying to learn to write characters, but I am simply writing them to aide in memory retention. To be honest, I am finding remembering how to write the characters to be the easiest part and the readings to be the hardest. Simply because my Chinese vocabulary is very limited at the moment. I kind of enjoy writing out the characters on Skritter, but totally agree that hand writing characters is a nearly obsolete skill.


I totally agree with the reading part and I really want to get into leveled readers in the very near future. I guess my main gripe with using Heisig is the order in which he presents characters. Some extremely basic and high frequency characters are #1,200+++ in his system, and totally obscure and rarely used characters are seen very early in his book.

When I studied Japanese I used WaniKani, which is a system created in the same style of Heisig, but it managed to introduce the characters essentially in terms of frequency instead of just focusing only common strokes and radicals. For me that was much better.


If you have to work to remember how to say the words you’re memorizing how to write, what’s the point? Unless you’re in some field such as academic history where you wouldn’t expect to ever be speaking the language, it doesn’t make sense to learn to write things that are not part of your active vocabulary, because you won’t be able to read them when you hit them anyway if that’s the case.

We also have limited but legitimate data (taken under test conditions) showing that students were able to write a significant number of characters after only being shown huge amounts of text that they could read (for 6 months, high school level in the US, so no language environment). The students were never told they would have to write by hand from memory, there was no testing of writing by hand from memory, and the test where we measured how many characters they could write (out of a total of 110 or so they had ever seen) was unannounced and came after a 2-week school vacation. They were never taught stroke order. We “mentioned” radicals that seemed useful during reading instruction (“See this part? That’s on a lot of characters that have something to do with speech or talking”, that kind of thing.) We still had students able to produce between about 20% and 65% of the characters under those conditions. Plus they could read really, really well. :grinning:

The other thing (and this is personal, your experience may not be the same) is that I lived in Taiwan for a long time, I went to graduate school in Taiwan, and I never had any occasion to write anything by hand from memory other than forms. I did a survey of Taiwanese (n=150) and found that in the case of non-students, they only wrote four things by hand: forms, greeting cards, phone messages and shopping lists. The only time I ever wrote anything out by hand (and I could reference my phone while doing it) was when I sued someone and had to write out a Post Office Evidentiary Letter in triplicate. And I’ve been out of Taiwan for over 10 years now, so it’s only more computerized/tech-y now, so more resources and less need to write by hand from memory…unless you’re taking a test somewhere.

I seem to have to do a test of handwritten-from-memory Chinese about every 5 years on average. I just do a month on Skritter.com before the test and am careful to look at the test booklet if it has text in Chinese (I can use those characters as a reference). That’s enough for me to pass and forget about handwriting until the next exam for something where it’s “absolutely crucial” that I know how to write by hand from memory. I’ve never really used the skill in any of the jobs those tests were attached to, though.

But it does impress Chinese people at parties, I guess.


Really? I can read thousands and thousand of characters that I’d draw a complete blank if you asked me to write them. Don’t these two functions use different areas of the brain?


my best tip is to really understand how many chinese chars are formed. learn the common bushou and memorize the primary ones. these form the basis for the majority of characters. as you go up, you’ll start to see a lot of ‘base’ chars that are used in many other chars. a lot of chinese characters are actually built from two or more ‘smaller chars’, one of which conveys the sound, and one of which conveys the meaning. when you have a good bank of these bases in your head, learning new chars becomes a lot easier.


As a cryptozoological creature, I find this analogy amusingly naïve. :stuck_out_tongue:

Endangered & domesticated is not the same as extinct. And it’s not just church people who are into it – check out Vicipaedia sometime, for example.


I do agree that the ability to write characters is a skill rarely used or rarely necessary in modern day life. I am not explicitly attempting to learn to write characters. I just find that it helps me to imprint their meaning in my mind and I also just happen to enjoy using Skritter.

Of course I am learning the character readings as well, but I just find at my current level of Chinese that I am having an easier time remember character meanings and stroke order than the reading. I assume this is due to my limited vocabulary and lack of exposure to the language at this point in my studies.

If I compare this with my Japanese study for example, when I encountered “new” characters of words that I had firmly implanted in my vocabulary, I found learning the readings pretty easy compared to words I didn’t know.


I learnt to read by watching TV believe it or not. Used to watch soap operas and match the subtitles to the spoken word. Worked for me.

Regarding writing, I can’t even write my own name but then there’s really no need to since typing in pinyin is so easy.