How to get started with Chinese writing
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Yorke writes his Chinese name

Posted by Nancy

I’ll start with the bad news: unfortunately, there is no quick and easy way to learn how to write Chinese. Of course in this day and age with modern technology, you can definitely get away with having a basic knowledge of Chinese to write on the computer. But to truly be able to write Chinese, you need to practice, practice, practice which I am sure you have heard many times. The good news is that it is definitely doable! I believe that the initial part of learning to write Chinese is the hardest, and that you just need to get over this initial hurdle before the pieces of the puzzle start to come together.

If you want to learn how to write Chinese, then don’t fall into the trap of relying on Pinyin. Some friends of mine at university made flash cards with just the Pinyin and English translations and ignored the 汉字! This was fine for them to start off the course with, but by the end of that first year, we were required to write passages in Chinese and they really struggled with it. They found that learning new words and characters were tough for them since they added in an extra step themselves of first learning English to Pinyin, and then English to Pinyin to Chinese. It is always good to have the 汉字 there as well as the Pinyin; because once you build a foundation of knowing enough Chinese characters you won’t need the pinyin so much anymore. After studying Chinese for three years, I only used Pinyin when I learnt a new character to figure out how it was pronounced, and then once you have learnt the character you will be able to associate the correct tones that go along with it. I know that some of you will think “easier said than done”, but it is true that the more Chinese characters you know, the easier it becomes to learn more. It’s all about setting up your base knowledge of Chinese characters, that is the tough part and then it’s all downhill from there.

雪 xuě​

So, how do you actually get started with those first 100 characters? Many of you will have experienced the frustration of learning a character one day and having it magically vanish from your head the next. But you knew it so well yesterday! It just takes practice. Don’t try to overdo it, have a goal for learning 50 characters a week, or 10 a day. It’s very achievable. Learn your 10 characters and test yourself that day, and the next and at the end of the week. I used to make my vocabulary lists, practice writing them over and over and over and then test myself. The words that I did not know or weren’t confident with, I would put a mark next to them, and keep testing myself with those words over and over until I knew all of them. Then I would make myself a snack, go on Facebook, hang out with friends etc. and when I got back to my desk, I would test myself on the whole list and do the whole process again! I would sometimes want to hurl my textbook at the wall when I realised how many characters I had already forgotten after studying them for hours. But this process worked for me personally, and I hope it helps you as well.

Practicing my writing

The first 50 characters you learn will probably be the hardest since they are just random symbols which are all very different from each other and you have to somehow associate meaning to them! But then as you learn more, you will see recurring features from this first batch of characters you learnt and you will notice that the words relate to each other as well. These recurring symbols are called radicals and they are super helpful in helping you to read and write. For example, wood is 木 (this is the radical), tree is 树, and forest is 森 or 林 (many trees). Learning radicals are also essential if you want to be able to use a Chinese dictionary.

Chinese-English dictionary

As you learn a new word, try to break it down and look at each component of it. Many Chinese characters are composites of characters, for example ‘good’ is 好 which consists of a woman 女and a child 子. There are also sound radicals which can also help you read and write.  For example, 艮 pronounced ‘gen’ is in the word ‘with’ 跟 (pronounced ‘gen’) and ‘very’ (pronounced ‘hen’) 很. It also helps to be able to write characters in the correct stroke order – incorporate this into your learning process as you learn each new character as it will help you memorize them. You will be able to find numerous guides on the internet of all the rules of stroke orders, but who wants to memorise a bunch of rules when you have hundreds of characters to memorise! Instead, learn the correct stroke order for each character as you go, and soon you will be able to figure out the correct stroke order. Writing in the correct stroke order will make sense to you and come naturally.

writing chinese

Finally, you will need to put all your new vocabulary to good use – WRITE! Look at your vocabulary list (in English) and try to write out a mini paragraph in Chinese using the words you have just learnt. Try to keep a journal that you write in Chinese – this is really helpful as you will train yourself to think in Chinese. You might even find yourself dreaming in Chinese which means your subconscious is working in a foreign language — very impressive! Constant exposure to Chinese is essential. Don’t substitute it for one massive 5 hour study session. You need to do a little every day. If you are ever feeling overwhelmed by it all, take a step back and set fewer goals for yourself. You can even just look over the words you are already confident with and remind yourself how much you have already learnt!


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