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This article is focusing around the most efficient methods of quickly learning Chinese characters. The Internet has been providing a lot of help recently when it comes to pictures and visual-kits to memorize the most basic characters in a short time. My goal is not to sell anything in this post or to diminish the other existing concepts of teaching, however I do not believe that any of the recent methods out there are really efficient compared to original way the characters are supposed to be understood and I am going to reason with you why I see it this way based on my own experience.

Chinese vs Foreigners Learning Chinese Characters 

Chinese people learn how to write Characters since kindergarten. If you start since childhood, nobody tells you that Chinese characters are hard to learn or that the system is more complex compared to the latin-alphabet. Nobody puts discouraging thoughts and fears into your head. By the time a Chinese kid leaves kindergarten it already knows enough basic characters and by the time they spend one or two years at the elementary school they already have effortlessly learned so much that the rest just flows naturally. It is not just the young age but more important, the absence of judgement that is limiting your own spirit and belief in your own abilities to master the system.

The Background Story 

One time I was attending a seminar organized by a gentlemen, who was charging businesses 10.000$ per hour for his expertise and employee motivation services. He background story was, that he badly suffered from short-term memory. Leaving the house was always very frustrating for him as he always left his keys or other important items in his house. Finding the solution to his problem eventually became a big business, making him wealthy and paying his daughter scholarship in Shanghai, China. I remember how he bragged about his daughter being fluent in Chinese in a subtle manner while selling his method. When I came asking him at the end of his speech at our school about what you can do if the child isn’t really interested in learning the subject, but is forced to. The response i got was “Well, then forget about it, there isn’t anything you can do”. I was basically listening to a 20.000$ expensive lecture just to find out that motivation is the core of it.

Motivation When Learning Something That Takes Dedication Such As Chinese Characters 

The perfect motivation is considered to be the sweet spot between “hard” and “still able to manage”. This is the moment called “flow”, it happens when you lose yourself and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment after successfully finishing your task. You feel boredom if your abilities are not challenged and you feel frustration and loss of motivation when your task is beyond your capabilities. What happens to many students is that they are overwhelmed with thousands of characters that they cannot get into their head and end feeling either frustrated and drop it or solely focus on the spoken language. This process usually starts with students easily learning the hard way for the first few months as the first 100 characters are easy to memorize even if you have no idea whatsoever about the characters origin and the system behind it. The whole thing becomes quickly very boring and frustrating as you fail to efficiently memorize after you move on to higher levels of Chinese usually HSK3+, because you find yourself unable to memorize enough characters within the short period of time or you realize that you are nowhere close to be really literate despite a lot of effort.

The Method 

Methods that I see being offered these days in the world wide web are memorization techniques I saw being sold on self-help seminars in the past. Many of them are good for numbers but they fail badly with languages. I will not recommend any particular literature although I could, because there is no particular author to blame. What these so-called memorization techniques rely on is our primitive part of the brain, which is responsible for orientation when it comes to remembering routes. Evolutionary it makes a lot of sense that the brain has developed to a quick memorization-machine because it was necessary for survival. You had to remember how to get back home after your found food or ran away from an animal. What certain authors recommend you to do is going any route that you like, a route that has landmarks e.g. on your way to the school there might be an important church and a store that you know. You’re supposed to visualize what you want to remember in any of those landmarks, the architecture of the church might have a shape, which reminds you exactly of the symbol or number that you are trying to remember. Assumed you want to remember the number 83, you would have to make up a story in your mind. The church looks exactly like the number 8 while the traffic light next to it has exactly 3 different colors. The more you are able to make up something crazier that makes all sense together in your own little world and is still somehow based on a route that you have to walk to get somewhere, you will be able to trigger your brain to memorize. Paired with story and emotion it will be stored in your long-term memory because the subconsciously and from evolutionary point of view this information is labeled as “important for survival or critically important” by your brains subconscious.

Some coaches just recommend story-creation as a general tool for memorizing. As long as the story makes sense and is emotional enough it will make your brain label the information as crucially important, forcing it to store it into your longterm-memory making it hard to forget. Assume you have to remember the following grocery shopping-list :

  1. Meat
  2. Onions
  3. Rice
  4. Olive-Oil
  5. Noodles

One way is to make up a fantasy of a “moron” (m-o-r-o-n) tripping over rice on the floor and breaking the bottle of olive-oil he had in his hands. This is an emotional story that is somehow containing the necessary information. Even if the story has nothing to do with what you have to memorize, surprisingly it does the job, because the content is somehow linked to emotion-triggering events. It can be really as crazy as that as long you can see all the links and explanations behind it.

You are basically using metaphors and analogies with a bunch of feelings attached to it. As a result your brain created connections and gives the information higher priority as it is constantly trying to figure out which incoming data is important and which is not. The important stuff is getting stored in the longterm-memory.

The Best Way To Teach Yourself Chinese Characters

The above described methods, even some other suggestions you might find online act rather as a substitute for the real knowledge and understanding of the Chinese writing-system. Actually this is the core message of my whole blog post. If you are trying to understand how a computer works, why would you look for fake explanations to help you to get it into your head ? From my own experience i realized that with certain Chinese characters, once i researched the whole origin of the word and how the particular Character of this word has developed over time (which took me around 5 minutes with the right book) and eventually understood why it has the shape it has in modern times,  I never ever again got it out of my head. In simple words : Once you understand how a word that you are trying to remember came to life e.g. the word “to wish” that I am going to explain below, you will never forget it’s meaning or how to write it.

Do not look for easy shortcuts, instead get the books that you need to find out about the words backstory. To get a better understanding take a look at the example below. The word “zhù” means to wish. The character represents a person praying in front of an altar, asking the gods for a blessing. As you can see the word “to wish” in Chinese originally stems from “praying for a blessing”.



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