Learning to read and write the Chinese script
is particularly challenging because it consists of a thousands of
complex characters, and each character represents both sound and meaning.
Usage of Chinese characters
Chinese is written entirely with Chinese
characters or hànzi. To read Modern Standard Chinese you need
to commit about 4,000 - 5,000 hànzi to memory.
Japanese is written with a mixture of
Chinese characters or kanji plus two syllabic scripts and sometimes the
Latin alphabet. Knowledge of about 2,000 kanji is sufficient to read
most Japanese texts.
Korean is written mainly with an alphabetic
script known as hangeul. Chinese characters or hanja are also used,
but to a much lesser extent than in Japanese. A knowledge of about 2,000 hanja
is essential when reading older Korean texts, which use many more hanja than
modern texts do. In fact many modern texts use no hanja at all.
Until the early 20th century Vietnamese was
written with a script based on Chinese characters known as
Some possible ways to learn Chinese characters
Most characters are built of components which represent physical things or
abstract concepts. Learn what each of the components represents and try building
up mental images featuring the components for each character. Include in your
mental images the meanings of the characters and the pronunciation.
There are a number of books, such as Fun with Chinese Characters,
which explain the structure and meaning of each character with illustrations and
When learning Japanese remember that most kanji have several different
readings: usually at least one derived from Chinese and one that is the Japanese
word with the same meaning. Japanese children learn the Japanese readings of the
kanji first and later learn the Chinese-derived readings. This is probably
a good technique to adopt, unless you know Chinese already.
Learn the correct way to write each character and if possible, take
a class in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy.
Practice reading and writing characters at every opportunity.
Make some character cards with a single large character on the front and
the character's pronunciation and meaning together with words and/or
phrases featuring the character on the back. Carry these cards around with
you and refer to them whenever you have a moment. Some Chinese language courses
include character cards like this.
As you learn more characters, you will start to notice recurring themes
and patterns. This will help you to guess the meanings of new characters.
The more characters you learn, the easier it will become to learn new ones.
To avoid eyestrain when poring over Chinese or Japanese texts,
dictionaries, etc, make sure your study area is well-lit and consider
buying a large magnifying glass. I'm serious - when I start learning
Chinese and Japanese I had perfect eyesight. After studying them
for four years I needed glasses.