For those who use the Latin Alphabet on a daily basis, learning to write Chinese characters can be really complicated. While China has made efforts to make the language more accessible to those in the West, it still remains a challenge for anyone wanting to travel to China, participate in foreign exchange programs, or work in China.
In addition to all the available Chinese textbooks, you can find plenty of resources for learning Chinese on the web from lighthearted videos on YouTube to websites focusing on mastering the Chinese language.
There’s a common myth that you can define a student’s level in Chinese by how many different traditional Chinese characters they know. This means that a lot of students are preoccupied with learning as many Chinese hanzi characters as they can, often at the expense of learning the other aspects of the language.
However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore it altogether, either. Let’s have a look at some of the best ways to learn, memorize, and write Chinese characters...
Learn the Chinese Alphabet and its English Translation
When we say “learn the Chinese alphabet”, we don’t really mean it in the same way as you’d learn to recite the alphabet in English, Spanish, or French.
Chinese uses 汉字 hanzi (or Han characters) to write and the writing system operates in a completely different way to the Latin Alphabet we use to write (which can make finding Chinese vocabulary in dictionaries quite complicated).
The Chinese writing system is around 4,000 years old and originated from a traditional writing system which was subsequently simplified by the Chinese government in order to improve literacy in China and make the language more accessible to foreigners.
Today, the traditional system of characters which represent Chinese words and phrases is only used in specialized newspapers, magazines, and old books on Chinese literature. It’s solely used by the literate elite, knowledgeable linguists, and is associated with good taste, good manners, and a high social standing
The biggest change to came when the Mandarin Chinese language was standardized by the People’s Republic of China. This had an effect on both Japan and Singapore, too. While Chinese was ignored by foreigners despite how many people speak it, Mandarin Chinese started becoming more attractive to foreigners when the Pinyin romanization system was created in the 1950s.
The system created by Zhou Youguang was created in order to bridge the gap between Chinese characters and the Latin Alphabet. While based on other older transcription systems, it has far outperformed them in terms of utility and popularity.
Having broken down the barriers to entry, learning Mandarin Chinese became much more popular than it had ever been and Confucius Institutes were created all over the world. Thanks to Pinyin, Chinese and its system of tones became much easier to understand thanks to putting simple diacritic marks over the tops of vowels. Writing was also standardized across Chinese provinces. Chinese is written and read from left to write.
Whether you’re looking to travel to China, participate in a Chinese language exchange program, or start a career in China, learning Mandarin Chinese through the Pinyin system can make your first steps a little less daunting.
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Learn to Write in Chinese
If there’s one word to describe how foreigners feel when it comes time to learn how to read and write in Chinese it’d be “intimidated”. With over 5,000 official characters (not to mention older characters and special characters), learning to read and write in Chinese might sound like an almost impossible challenge.
For those brave enough to tackle it, they’ll have to put in a lot of work at home in order to master:
Memorizing the characters
The pronunciation of the characters
The meaning of the characters
If you want to learn to read and write in Chinese, you’re going to need to learn the basic rules that you have to apply to every stroke of every character in every text.
Firstly, you need to fully learn your first characters before you even consider moving on to more complicated characters. This will help you to avoid confusion and getting mixed up when it comes to reading the characters.
Secondly, it’s imperative that you learn the association between each character, its shape, and its meaning. This can help you better understand the characters as well as giving you technique for remembering them better.
Finally, you’ll need to focus on the pronunciation of each character. Each character in Chinese has a particular tone associated to it that you’ll need to learn as they completely change the meaning.
It should be noted that when learning to write in Chinese, the methods used by the language schools, Confucius Institute, and inter-cultural associations should be seen as a sign of the quality of their teaching.
There are a number of kinesthetic approaches are currently very popular since they can help students to memorize characters much more quickly than some of the other methods. It can often be effective to learn characters in order of difficultly and treating each character as an independent entity. Learning Chinese characters using these methods can speed up the learning process.
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Chinese Writing: Techniques for Learning Chinese Characters
Chinese characters are the cornerstone of learning the language that was standardized by the People’s Republic of China in 1956. If you want to learn how to write Chinese characters, you’re going to have to follow a number of rules which, after regular and frequent practice sessions, will make learning these characters much easier.
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To start, you'll need to know what a radical is. Each Chinese character is made up of anywhere between 1 and 20 radicals. To understand just how important these are, you should know that it’s impossible to look up any word in a Chinese dictionary without having an understanding of the radicals that make up the Chinese character you’re looking for.
Chinese characters are written within an invisible square whose limits must always be respected and are made up of 8 fundamental strokes that define how each hanzi is to be written. Whether the movement is straight, curved, or broken, the orientation of each stroke is predetermined by a set of rules.
In fact, this set of rules and the stroke order that helps define the balance of each character has been around for a few thousand years. When it comes to learning how to write the Chinese hanzi characters, there’s a hierarchy with three main steps that you need to follow:
Firstly, you need to respect the visual aspect of each Chinese character. This is done by paying particular attention to the radicals.
You need to be able to memorize, place, and accurately reproduce all the key elements of each Chinese character together.
These key elements (of which there are over 200) can be subsequently used to create further Chinese characters with similar meanings.
Learn to Write in Chinese with Calligraphy
It’s not uncommon for Chinese artists to have sleepless nights fretting over a particular curve on a hanzi character they’ve written. This is just how serious Chinese calligraphy is. It’s the pinnacle of written Chinese both in terms of artistry and technique.
Chinese calligraphy or 书法 is one of the human race’s oldest art forms. It brings together both lovers of Chinese culture and lovers of traditional art. It’s also a way for you to learn more about Chinese writing without having to lock yourself in a classroom and listen to a long and boring lecture.
Without going into too much detail about spirituality, the bond between the body and the spirit, and how it all comes together in this art form, Chinese calligraphy can also be a great way to learn more about how Chinese writing is put together.
Given how much Chinese calligraphy focuses on the action of writing, the quality of each stroke, and the technical aspects of writing, it can be an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to better understand the Chinese writing system.
Of course, you can learn to read and write Chinese without mastering the complexities of Chinese calligraphy as not all of the same rules are followed in everyday Chinese. Calligraphy is a useful learning tool when it comes to focusing on the order of strokes which you need to be familiar with before you put pen to paper.
By leaving your pencil case in the draw, you can learn a lot about Chinese writing through calligraphy. However, you should also consider taking Chinese lessons London - or whatever city you live in, or private tutorials if you want to also be able to speak and understand Chinese.
The spoken Chinese language, after all, can be as beautiful as the calligraphy that’s used to represent it on paper.
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