Learning Chinese can feel like you’re learning two different languages at the same time. You have all the work that goes into learning any other language PLUS the extra hassle of learning Chinese characters.
A lot of people pick up the speaking part relatively quickly, but then struggle with the characters. I was like this. When I started learning Chinese I already spoke Irish and French. Chinese was just another language.
But oh my, the characters! The characters were tough. I would say about 80% of the time I’ve spent learning Chinese has been spent learning characters. It’s only recently that they’re starting to stick.
The majority of the paid resources I use for learning Chinese are for learning characters. But who wants to pay for stuff? In this article I’ll teach you how to learn Chinese characters for free.
A good course
A good course is the foundation of learning how to write Chinese characters. For that I recommend Coursera or Duolingo.
Duolingo finally opened up a Mandarin course. It’s completely user generated, and completely free. If I were looking for a free Chinese class, this is the first place I’d look.
But it’s not your only option.
This free online course from Peking University takes you through the basics of Chinese characters. It’s useful for someone who already speaks Chinese but can’t read or write. If you want you can pay for a certificate at the end.
They’ll explain stroke orders, and the symbolism behind both characters and radicals. Radicals are the elements used to make up a character. I’ll use emoji’s to explain:
: ) is a smiley face.
: and ) are both radicals, which when combined form a complete emoji.
They can be combined with different radicals to form different emojis:
Chinese characters work in the same way. Spot the radical 口 (mouth) in the following examples:
扣 (button up)
It’s the same radical, used in different ways. You can use this feature of the language to help you remember characters. I’ll tell you how just a little further down.
A good high frequency character list
Not everyone wants to do an entire course on characters. Courses are boring. This is the hacker generation. We want a shortcut.
Why waste time learning thousands of characters when you only need a few hundred for daily life?
I don’t write letters, most of my daily interactions involve asking where, what, when, and with whom am I going to eat? I need common, functional, words more than anything else.
Tim Ferriss famously learned Japanese by hanging a poster of the 100 most common characters on his bedroom wall. There’s no reason not to do the same for Chinese.
A good methodology
Learning by rote is a complete waste of time. There are far better ways of learning Chinese characters. Far better ways of learning anything.
Start with the radicals. Give each one a definite meaning. Most radicals have a kind of fuzzy relationship with a set of words/meanings. If you squint you can see many of them as pictograms. Use this meaning, try to see the radical as a little unit of meaning.
This part may require learning by rote in places, but if you do it right I promise it will be the last time you have to.
Instead of seeing a mash of squiggles on the page, you’ll see a group of little symbols-the radicals. Each radical stands for something. To form the character you just need to make a story involving all the different radicals.
Let’s look at some examples. We’ll be using three radicals.
口 mouth (this looks kind of like an open mouth doesn’t it?)
日 sun (for some reason this always reminds of a pair of headlights. I imagine a jeep on its side that orbits the earth, nourishing plants with its giant high-beams.)
月 moon (I think of a block of holey cheese that’s been cut into slices, after all, that’s what the moon is made of. Note that one of the holes has been cut in half.)
口 + 日 = 唱
mouth + sun = sing
Imagine an angelic gospel choir singing. Their mouths open wide, releasing the blinding light of the sun. In each singers mouth is a sun burning bright.
日 + 月 = 明
sun + moon = shine/bright
Thing of how the moon reflects the sun’s light at night. Now put it in overdrive. Imagine the moon was made of silver, it would shine so bright!
口 + 口 + 口 = 品
mouth + mouth + mouth = stock
Imagine a dentist’s stockroom. Stacks and stacks of dentures, several stories high.
Of course, these are examples. You can, and should, make your own. Your own ideas will be more vivid and easier to remember. Use the base meanings of the radicals to get started. There’s a very good list over at Hacking Chinese.
A good flashcard, or spaced repetition, system
Those characters aren’t going to learn themselves. You need to establish a routine and stick to it. That’s right, you guessed it: use Anki.
You can create your own deck, or download one that someone else has created. It doesn’t matter, just be sure to enable the whiteboard feature. This lets you practice the stroke order of the characters. Anki automatically takes care of scheduling which cards to review and when.
If you’re looking for a pre-made Anki deck, be sure to check the ratings other people have given it. Don’t start multiple new decks at a time. Add them slowly, so you’re not overwhelmed.
Learning Chinese characters can be frustrating, and expensive. But there are excellent materials out there for free.
There are lots and lots of free courses, some better than others. Word lists and Anki decks are easily searchable. And I’ve told you my top tip for remembering complex characters. Start with the radicals, and keep on studying.