How to Write in Chinese
In this long article I’m going to go through a step-by-step method for how to most efficiently learning how to write in Chinese.
It’s a long article so I recommend you bookmark (Ctrl+D or Command+D on a Mac) and come back to it as a reference as your Chinese progresses.
This article will follow the basic outline of my Sensible Chinese Character Course. This video course goes into a lot more depth (~7 hours of videos!) and is worth checking out if you find this approach useful.
This article is split into three main sections:
- Before learning Chinese characters.
- Knowledge about the Chinese characters.
- A systematic method for learning the Chinese characters.
Also, this article is relevant to both Simplified and Traditional characters but I’ll be using Simplified characters as that is what around 80% of learners (and 90% of my readers) use. This article is relevant to Mandarin Chinese only because I don’t speak Cantonese and don’t know enough about it. Sorry!
Let’s jump in.
How to Write in Chinese Phase 1: Before Learning Chinese Characters – The Preliminaries
First up, depending on where you are in your Chinese journey you may be OK to wait a while before learning Chinese characters.
This is controversial but hear me out.
The first couple of weeks (or even months) of Chinese are hard.
Most of Chinese’s reputation for being a “hard language” comes from this difficulty spike right at the beginning of the process.
On Day 1 of learning Chinese you’ll be hit with nǐhǎo 你好, “hello”.
To be able to say hello in Chinese you need to:
- Get a grip on pinyin pronunciation and the fact that it’s sometimes similar to English but largely not
- Learn about the tones, in particular the slippery 3rd tone, a tone that isn’t actually falling-rising despite it being taught this way
- Find out about tone changes – in this case the fact that the 3rd tone in nǐ is going to be pronounced as a second tone ní (even though we don’t write the pinyin that way)
- Get over the initial hurdle of characters. Most likely your textbook will have the characters alongside the pinyin to help you “get used to” the characters. More often than not this will scare the heck out of you, especially if you flick to the back of the text book and see a “Great Wall of Chinese”.
The first few weeks of Chinese are tough.
You basically have two options here:
- Stick it out and stubbornly fight through the first few weeks and hope that after that everything will start to “make sense”. If you have a really good reason for learning Chinese or perhaps are stuck in a 4 year programme then you have a better chance of sticking it out and reaching this “got it” point. If not then you’ll have to rely on sheer stubbornness and an unwillingness to give up.
- Give up. Throw your hands in the air (and the textbook maybe!) and declare that Chinese is just “too darn tough”. This is sadly what a lot of people learning Chinese do. They hit the wall of difficulty early on, get discouraged and give up. To save face they’ll likely go and tell other people that Chinese is “too hard” and that no-one can really learn it. Nonsense!
Granted, the first couple of weeks of Chinese can be rough. However, once you get over this difficulty hump and start to understand a bit more about how Chinese works – a bit more about the logic of Chinese – then the language becomes very approachable. At this point you can start worrying about how to write in Chinese.
I’ve learned a bunch of different European languages and the opposite is true with these languages. In European languages starting out is often relatively smooth sailing. You can take advantage of similar sounds, similar alphabets and words that are basically the same across multiple languages (like “hotel”).
With European languages though this easy start gets more rocky when you need to start memorizing verb forms, learning conjugations, cases and other more grammatical concepts. In European languages you’ll often hear of a difficulty hump at the intermediate stage.
Chinese is just different in where the difficulty is encountered. It’s front-loaded. “OK, day 1, here you go! All the tricky parts of the language at the same time!”
Get past this initial difficulty hump though and Chinese become’s way easier. Tenses? Plurals? Case endings? Conjugations? Please. Word construction and vocabulary acquisition. A cinch.
But we still need to get past the tricky first stages.
The best way to do this is to hold off on the Chinese characters and focus on getting a solid foundation in spoken Chinese first.
What’s the best way to learn a new skill? It’s to break the skill into a set of sub-skills and work on mastering each of the pieces individually first.
We can do this in Chinese by tackling one thing at a time rather than trying to master pronunciation, tones and characters from the very start. It’s too much to deal with and your progress will be agonizingly slow. Instead of worrying immediately about how to write in Chinese I recommend you take a more step by step approach.
My concrete recommendations are:
- Nail down pinyin pronunciation. I’ve got a complete, free (no need for email signup or anything fancy like that) Pinyin course here: Sensible Chinese Pinyin Course. That plus a pinyin app on your phone and you’ll have a solid grip on pinyin in a couple of days.
- Learn the tones. Now that you’ve got a grip on pronunciation we can overlay pronunciation with tones to start making actual words. Horray! Trying to overlay tones onto sounds we can’t even pronounce yet is asking for trouble. So pronunciation (pinyin) and then tones. Simple.
- First up learn a little about the tones. This blog post goes through tones in a lot of detail.
- Grab an app like Laokang’s tone trainer or Written Chinese’s Tone Trainer to start getting used to the sounds and being able to hear the differences.
- As soon as possible start practicing “tone pairs”. Chinese words are almost always two-characters long (more on this later) and so learning to discern tones in pairs helps with understanding of natural language. Learning tones in isolation (one at a time) is a big mistake. Here’s a blog article I’ve written about tone pairs and why they are amazing.
- Start talking! Ideally you start speaking on Day 1 of your Chinese journey. The reason for this is that we need feedback if we ever want to learn from our mistakes. How else can you know if you’ve messed up the pronunciation or tone unless you have a Chinese speaker to correct your errors!
- Listen/Repeat. This is an amazing time to get your hands on a copy of Michel Thomas or Pimsleur’s Chinese courses. They are available in most public libraries (use www.worldcat.org to check all the libraries near you) or for purchase. Be warned that they are pretty expensive. Also check out the amazing Openculture site as they have a listing of all the free Chinese courses currently available.
- Use a beginner’s audio course to start tuning your ear. You’ll need to get used to the sound of Chinese and the only way to do this is to listen to lots of Chinese! These audio courses (unlike textbook audio or videos) are purely audio, allowing you to really focus on listening.
- Start to use the words and phrases you pick up in the audio course with your language partner via HelloTalk/iTalki.
After a couple of weeks you should be pretty comfortable with very basic spoken Chinese. The main objective here is to not be surprised at a strange-sounding pronunciation. Once we start learning the characters your brain won’t have the time or energy to deal with pronunciation, tones and the seemingly random squiggly lines that are the characters.
Instead we’ve started the process on the right foot by making pronunciation and tones a little more familiar. When we start to learn the characters we will already have something to hang new knowledge on – we can start to connect the characters we learn to existing spoken words we’ve learned rather than trying to learn it all at the same time.
Plus, the first couple of weeks of your study (focusing on pronunciation, tones, spoken and listening) will have been a lot more fun than the traditional method, which would have had you copying out 你好 a couple of hundred times!
There’s plenty of time to learn how to write in Chinese, don’t you worry! Just take the first couple of weeks to learn some spoken Chinese, realize that Chinese is just a language like any other and that you can even begin to start having fun with the spoken language.
Once you are set with that we can start learning how to write in Chinese! Let’s get into that now.
How to Write in Chinese Phase 2: Knowledge about the Chinese characters.
OK so we’ve done all the preparation. Now we can just start grinding Chinese characters right? Grab a textbook, find a vocabulary list and start copying those suckers out by hand, one at a time, a couple hundred times.
Please please please don’t do this!
This is how Chinese children are taught. Write those characters again and again until they stick. And it works!
But of course it works! Chinese kids have a decade, almost two decades of time to commit to this process. Kids are time-rich unlike you as an adult learner. Kids are in school all day everyday and a large proportion of that time will be spent mastering the Chinese characters in some way. And homework? Guess what – exercise books filled with more characters.
As an adult learner you have disadvantages and advantages. The main disadvantage is that you don’t have as much time as Chinese kids do to master the Chinese characters. Oh well.
The advantage is that, as an adult, you have access to different methods of language learning. We can understand how to write in Chinese characters much better than a child can.
Kids needs to use the listen/repeat rote learning methods used in schools because they aren’t as smart as adult learners! We often talk about how fast children are at learning a language but in apples-to-apples studies of language learning (where adults and children were given the same amount of language learning exposure each day) adults far surpassed the stoopid kids.
The reason adults seem slower is because we don’t have a 24/7 tutor (parent/guardian) and the stakes for if we don’t learn are very low. For a child the huge amount of attention they receive coupled with the fact that they have to learn in order to get things they want (“food”/”toy” etc.) sets them up for rapid language acquisition.
As an adult though we know “how to learn”. Quite apart from the fact that we’ve already learned one language (or even more) is the fact that we can understand more abstract concepts than a child can.
We can use our understanding of a language to learn faster than if we are just clumping together random words, phrases and sentences as a child does. We have access to the patterns of the language whereas a child needs to fumble around for years before it clicks.
Of course, this can be taken too far. Learning a language from a grammar book is a horrible idea – it means we only learn about a language and don’t actually practice speaking the language as a skill. Instead we want to know enough about the language to support our use of language as a skill. Beyond that book-learning only weighs us down.
In the case of Chinese characters knowing how they are constructed is invaluable for learning and remembering them quickly. Here’s a run down of the stuff you should know before plunging into months of solid character learning:
- Individual strokes are the basis of all characters. There are only a certain number of strokes and combination strokes possible in Chinese, meaning that the form and structure of Chinese characters is limited. Knowing a little about the strokes allows you to recognize characters much better – as well as recognize when you’ve written a character incorrectly.
- All Chinese characters are constructed of Components. You may know some of these components already – for instance 口，讠， 人， 水， 火. Every single character is composed of these same elements. They are the building blocks of every character.
- There are only 214 components, of which the same ~100 or so make up most characters. So: every character is made of components + there are only 214 components = all characters are made of the same 214 components. Learning the components unlocks all of the characters – even if you don’t know the meaning or how to say a character you will at least recognize all the pieces inside of it, helping to make characters seem less like “random squiggles”.
- Here’s the kicker: 90%+ of characters have one component that gives us a clue about the character’s meaning AND one component that gives us a clue about how to pronounce it. Getting a grip on these is key to rapid progression. I’ve recorded about half an hour of video lessons about sound-meaning characters and why they are amazing..
Knowing (and using!) these four facts makes progression through the Chinese characters much faster and much more efficient especially when coupled with a system for utilizing this knowledge (which I’ll look at in the next section).
I talk a lot more about the Levels of Chinese and how to write in Chinese in this Chinese learning article on iwillteachyoualanguage.com.
It’s another in-depth but valuable read and well worth checking out.
How to Write in Chinese Phase 3: A systematic method for learning the Chinese characters
Here you are. Armed with basic spoken Chinese and an understanding of how Chinese characters work. You are now truly dangerous. The Chinese characters don’t stand a chance.
To top it off you’re going to use modern methods for learning and memorizing the Chinese characters. Don’t use old-school (literally) school methods to learn. Rote-learning of vocabulary lists is ridiculously time consuming and inefficient.
Instead you’re going to use a proper, thought out and tested system. Actually, you can have mine, the one I used to learn 75-100 characters per day with 90% recall after a week, reach literacy in Chinese within a year and start my first business in China. Very efficient!
The basic outline is this:
- Break down the character into its constituent components. (Pleco dictionary has a built-in decomposition function).
- Use the components to create a memory-aid; tell a story using the pieces. Hook the meaning and pronunciation of the character into this story. I personally use colours to signify the tones but there are lots of ways to use memory-aids to learn meaning, pronunciation and tones.
- Add your new character + mnemonic to a flashcard or (preferably) into a Spaced Repetition System like Anki or, my preference, Pleco.
- Review the new content using Spaced Repetition. If you get something wrong don’t just tap Wrong but re-learn the character (break it down and create a new mnemonic if necessary).
- Each week remove a certain amount of material from the SRS and write Sentences of the Week. Make short sentences from the characters/words you now recognize on sight. Use Lang-8 to get the sentences corrected. Add the sentences into you flashcards/SRS as “grammar cards” to help you understand the structure of the language.
- Use your Sentences of the Week in conversation using iTalki or HelloTalk or face-to-face. I prefer HelloTalk because it is so low-friction. You need to remove any barriers that would stop you from communicating regularly.
- During Usage make note of new content you want to learn. This could be corrections to your existing sentences or completely random language nuggets you want to capture.
- Loop the new material from Usage back to Step 1 above. Run through a similar process of breaking down, creating memory-aids, using SRS, writing sentences and then communicating.
Here’s a systems diagram! Because…I’m a nerd. And proud!
Is this the best way to learn how to write in Chinese? Probably not, no. But it’s a damn sight better than the traditional alternatives which rely on rote-memorization and book learning.
If you dig this kind of approach definitely check out my Sensible Chinese Character Course. It’s about ~7 hours of video content teaching all of this. It’s my magnum opus and I’m very happy that it’s helped thousands of people learn how to write in Chinese and work through the Chinese characters with much less angst.
By combining knowledge of spoken Chinese, how the characters work and then a system for learning the characters we can progress through Chinese much faster than if we try to learn without direction, without a set method.
I see so many people start Chinese, get excited, hit a brick wall and immediately quit. I write posts like this one to help get more people over that wall (or straight through it!). If you have any particular questions about learning Chinese drop them in the comments below and I’ll get back to you.
Kyle / 白马楷