There is no polite way of putting it – Chinese is a difficult language to learn. In fact, it is one of the very few languages which is harder to write than to speak primarily due to the nature of the script. Thus, when we say that you will have to be very patient and hardworking if you hope to master the language in its written form, we mean every word of it.
Unlike most languages, Chinese doesn’t have a fixed alphabet system – one of the many features which make it a learner’s nightmare. Instead of alphabets, it has symbols and every symbol refers to a word. Therefore, one is expected to memorize how the symbols are written and what they mean. To make matters worse, every symbol is a combination of intricately made strokes, which convey important information in themselves.
Now, we don’t mean to scare you, our intention is simply to prepare you for the road ahead. And once you start getting a hang of things, the seemingly alien symbols will start making sense to you. Take baby steps, stay focussed and don’t give up, even when the temptation is strong. When you are a little more comfortable, take a course such as Learn Mandarin Chinese to start your Chinese language education.
1. Get Your Strokes Right
Every Chinese symbol is a complex mix of various strokes. One has to be very careful with the strokes because seemingly minute details like the order of making these strokes or needle points can change the entire meaning of a character.The six most basic strokes are –
a. heng or horizontal stroke, written from left to right
b. shu or vertical stroke, written from top to bottom
c. pie or left downward stroke, written from top right to bottom left
d. na or right downward stroke, written from top left to bottom right
e. dian or dot, a smaller stroke written from top to bottom
f. ti or a small upward stroke
All other strokes are variations of these fundamental strokes with features like turns and hooks. To learn the written form of Chinese, it is imperative to get these strokes right. After you have practised individual strokes, you must take note of the stroke order. Chinese follows a specific stroke order i.e. when you write a Chinese character, the strokes have to be drawn in a fixed chronological order. Here are some cardinal rules related to stroke order:
The first rule is pretty basic – always write from left to right and top to bottom.
If you need to make a horizontal and vertical stroke in the same character, always make the horizontal stroke before the vertical.
Similarly, make diagonals from right to left before you make diagonals from left to right.
Some Chinese characters have enclosed box with contents inside them. Always make the enclosure before you draw the contents.
These are only some of the fundamental rules. As you make progress, you will come across several other stroke order rules. Make sure that you follow them stringently while writing Chinese.
2. Understand radicals
If English has alphabets, Chinese has radicals. While the analogy isn’t as straightforward as that, it can be used for functional purposes. Chinese has close to 214 radicals which point towards the meaning of a character. For instance, the radical, yan, or 讠means “a word” in Chinese. Now, this radical will be present in a lot of symbols whose meaning is related to words, like speech, language etc. This way, if you know what a radical means, you can guess the meaning of a Chinese symbols. That’s why it is important to be familiar with the meaning of each radical. Start with the more common ones, understand how they are drawn and what they mean. Soon enough, you would have built a strong Chinese radicals vocabulary.
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3. Practice on special sheets
Chinese is usually learnt on sheets which resemble graphs papers with boxes and fine lines mapped on them. This way, you can understand the intricacies of the strokes and learn to make them properly. Chinese practice books have different characters inscribed on a page with several empty slots where you can imitate the characters. Be very patient and diligent while learning to write Chinese characters. Remember, it’s almost like an art and you will need to apply yourself thoroughly.
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4. Make character clusters
In Chinese, characters which have similar meanings or are related to a single concept, also have similar morphology due to the presence of the same radical. That’s why it makes sense to group characters into semantic clusters. For instance, put together all characters which are related to the idea of “a hand”. These could be characters that mean “hit”, “carry”, “sieze” etc, and you will notice that all of them have the radical 扌, which means ‘hand” in Chinese. Remember, it’s always easier to learn a new language if you can manage to find some recognizable patterns. Work on one cluster for a week or two and them move on to the next one.
5. Use learning aids
As we have mentioned earlier, stroke order is very important for learning to write Chinese. It’s always better to refer to animated Chinese writing guides which actually demonstrate the process of writing a Chinese character in motion. Therefore, you get an idea of how strokes are made, what comes first and the motion that has to be followed. Alternatively, you can also use animated flashcards which also provide the meaning of a symbol along with a short video which focusses on the actual writing of the character. As with any learning procedure, visual aids tend to have a deeper impact on your brain, boosting your memory retention skills.
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Do you have any tips and tricks for learning Chinese? We’d love to hear them! Share them with us in the comments below.