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Memorizing Language / Spelling Techniques?

timothy posted more than 4 years ago | from the save-up-for-neural-implants dept.

Education 237

NotesSensei writes "My kids are learning Chinese in school. While the grammar is drop-dead simple, writing is a challenge since there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters. I would like to know any good techniques (using technology or not) to help memorize large amounts of information, especially Chinese characters. Most of the stuff I Googled only helps on learning speaking."

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Flashcards (5, Informative)

Fjandr (66656) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551758)

Flashcards are great for learning Chinese or Japanese characters. There are also many characters, or parts thereof, that have a mnemonic relationship to the idea that they are used to impart. I can't think of any decent books offhand, but they're out there.

Still, flashcards are awesome in this regard.

Re:Flashcards (5, Informative)

schnipschnap (739127) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551848)

Yes, use flash cards, but not the dead tree type. Use anki. I use it to study Japanese, and I'm sure it's almost as good for Chinese. []

Re:Flashcards (1)

Rand310 (264407) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551882)

yep. Anki. It's the way to go.

Re:Flashcards (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552540)

Anki is based on an algorithm that reminds you of material just before you will have forgotten it, called the Forgetting Curve. The more times you are reminded, the stronger the pathways in the brain become and the easier it is to recall later. This algorithm was pioneered by a Polish man and implemented in a system called SuperMemo. You can read more about the inventor and his system in this great Wired article:

Anki used version 2 of the SuperMemo algorithm. The inventor writes his own software with Windows (called SuperMemo) and I believe he is on version 13 of the algorithm. Unfortunately, I can't much recommend SuperMemo software as it's very difficult to use, but Anki takes the basics and makes it usable.

Re:Flashcards (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31553338)

Oh Woz, what can't you do?

Re:Flashcards (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31551932)

I thought this [] was a good book for Chinese characters. I agree, flashcards are good as well (I like the paper type, if you can do it away from a computer I think you're more likely to do it)

Use it or lose it (2, Insightful)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552334)

Import Chinese comic books.

The language is simplified. They're designed for kids and they're designed to entertain, though you'll be missing many of the cultural references.

There is absolutely no point trying to memorize something if you don't use it. It's like trying to hold water in your hands, it'll dribble away in weeks if not months.

Trying to learn any language without being immersed in the culture is extremely difficult. I reckon current language teaching methods are bizarre; defining grammar, memorizing words. No native speaker learns language that way. Learn by example and your brain will build the grammar and vocabulary as it goes. TV/Radio, newspapers, web sites all help and can be downloaded usually. Better, move to China.

Re:Use it or lose it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552770)

Learning grammar and memorizing vocabulary are high-level techniques that only experienced people can perform. Native speakers take many years to master their languages while working at it nearly full time, have a high reward when they do, and are surrounded by willing teachers. These last two conditions can sort of be recreated by immersion, but only partially.

Re:Use it or lose it (1)

Faerunner (1077423) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553314)

Reading and partaking of other media in Chinese (or any other language you decide to learn) is a great idea. Seconding the movies, radio and newspapers. Also, have them write. Writing in another language is really tough, because it not only requires the learner to come up with the right vocabulary but to put it down on paper, which gives you more practice not only remembering but producing the proper spellings, accents, etc (and in this case, remembering and producing the correct symbols).

Refuse to Memorize (0, Flamebait)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553082)

Everyone here seems to be missing the point. We have advanced powerful cheap technology that is infinitely better than a human brain at memorizing things like character symbols and vocabulary.

    Don't memorize anything. Let the computer do the translating. That's what computers are good for. Humans are not good at this. That is why it is so hard. So do the obvious and let the computer do the translation.

    Got a little camera like the one in cell phones? Plug that camera into your hand held PC/internet/MP3player/telephone iTurd whatever. Point the camera at the kanji that you want translated. Press the button on the iTurd. Glance briefly at the little iTurd screen. Trust the iTurd ap program to have done an optical kanji recognition on the characters that it just imaged and is giving you the correct English/Finnish/Thai//Wolof/Whatever translation.

    Tech people seem to have this obsession with doing things that prove to themselves and other people that they are 'smart'. They believe that just because they have mastered technology, then they are under some obligation to themselves or their class that they must master all things that are difficult in order to recertify their 'smart person' credential. So they feel the need to memorize 5000 kanji, or play a difficult Bach invention on an aucostic piano, or run a marathon, or to get themselves killed attempting to 'win the hearts and minds' of people who have neither.

    Don't waste your time, and abandon your hang-ups about your smartness. Let the $200 computer master 50000 kanji, let your $50 MIDI synth play Bach, let your car take 20 miles in comfort, and let the expendable fools go to the other side of the world and get killed.

    Your 'smartness' is certified by your unwillingness to do these things yourself, the hard and dumb way.

    I studied Japanese. It was about the time that personal computers were just beginning in 1979. The first time that I saw an optical-character wand read digits (in 1981) I knew that there was NO FUCKING WAY that I was going to spend 10000 hours committing 10000 kanji to memory. That's what computers do. I'm a better person because I didn't do it.

    Please spare me the horseshit about how the discipline of memorizing and learning makes a better person and builds character. Look at those assholes who spend their life memorizing the Quran, and then go blow up a bus or day-care center.

    Memorization lost its validity the day that computers started selling for $50. And that was a long time ago. So what that I can't pick up a Japanese newspaper and know what it says just by looking at it! I've got a $100 1GigaHertz 400MegaFlop microPC in my hand that does it just as well.

    And I spent the 10000 hours smoking weed and fucking beautiful girls instead of memorizing kanji. Life is a series of difficult choices and hard trade-offs.

Re:Refuse to Memorize (2, Insightful)

fruitbane (454488) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553282)

I feel like your post might be sarcastic, but I don't think it is. If it is you suck at sarcasm, sorry.

Actually, computers are rather bad at language translation. Handwritten and printed characters are presented with such stylistic variation that even the simplest aspect, optical recognition, is very difficult. Hell, even high-grade OCR software for roman character sets is still imperfect. And then there's translation. Some characters have both multiple meanings and multiple pronunciations, most of which is dependent upon context. Computers don't grok context well since it relies a lot on complex relationships concerning meaning.

So yeah, humans are actually really good at language and the memorization that goes with it, especially in the ways that the computer is not good at it. Nothing wrong with using a digital pocket dictionary or phone app that's a dictionary as an aid, but no practical computer can replace the wonder that is the human mind when it comes to language-related tasks.

Same? (1)

TribesPlaying-iuSioN (548280) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551762)

I'm no expert on this, but I don't see a relation between sound and shape of our letters either. So the answer is to study as hard as you can and also: repetition!

Re:Same? (2, Informative)

mmmmbeer (107215) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551812)

I think what he means is that the same characters can be used for unrelated sounds in Chinese. At least in English, you can get close by writing phonetically, but in Chinese there's no equivalent. At least as far as I'm aware.

Re:Same? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31551936)

Nah, it's just that there are thousands of Chinese characters to learn, so you have to find an efficient method. In English you just have a few dozens letters and letter combinations to learn (like 'ph' in photo) so it doesn't really matter how you learn them.

Re:Same? (1)

fruitbane (454488) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553358)

Most Chinese don't really know thousands of characters, though, really. There are probably only a few hundred, perhaps a little more than a thousand, that you likely really need to get by.

Re:Same? (3, Informative)

oliverlangan (560855) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552048)

That is true in Japanese, but much less common in Chinese. Chinese generally has a single one-syllable pronunciation for each glyph, though grammar rules can change the tone of character in a given word. There can also be several glyphs which share a single pronunciation (homonyms): there are more characters in Chinese than there are possible phoneme combinations (given the rules of the language for constructing syllables).

Re:Same? (2, Informative)

amRadioHed (463061) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552664)

There a handful of characters that have different pronunciations in different contexts. For example the last characters of yinyue (music) and kuaile (happy) are the same, although in the first word it is pronounced "yue" while in the other it is "le". There are a couple others like that I've come across, but I hear it is more common in Japanese.

Re:Same? (1)

fruitbane (454488) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553350)

This is SO much more common in Japanese. See, the Japanese had a widespread spoken language long before they had a widespread written language. When travels to China resulted in "borrowing" the Chinese written language, many of the Chinese pronunciations were brought with them. But the Japanese pronunciations weren't tossed out. So most kanji characters in Japanese have a Chinese (onyomi) pronunciation and a Japanese (kunyomi) pronunciation.

The other problem is that the Japanese have 2 key character sets for native words. Kanji are Chinese characters borrowed straight up and hiragana are characters borrows and then altered to represent the individual syllables of the Japanese alphabet. Chinese doesn't have the latter character set, only the first. Some Japanese works are just kanji. Some are a mix of kanji and hiragana (phonetic characters).

Typically (but not always) the Chinese pronunciation is used in compound words and the Japanese pronunciation is used in words which feature only one kanji character or where the kanji character abuts hiragana (phonetic characters), such as at the end of verbs (phonetic characters end verbs because verbs get conjugated and the phonetic characters may change, whereas the verb's kanji characters do not).

Re:Same? (1)

fruitbane (454488) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553382)

According to an article on linguistics I read some years ago when I was in college, while Chinese characters do often carry a meaning, they are just as important for their sound. The Chinese language and its characters are considered morphemic, however, even though the truth is that the situation is very much a hybrid one.

Re:Same? (2, Informative)

Tubal-Cain (1289912) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551862)

IIRC, Chinese characters represent individual syllables. English letters are strung together to make syllables. I think he's lamenting that syllables in English that sound similar will generally look similar, but there is no such resemblance in Chinese.

Re:Same? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552058)

Nope. If they represented only syllables, there would be only a few dozen symbols, not thousands. They represent whole words.

Re:Same? (1)

amRadioHed (463061) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552716)

That's wrong, most characters have a meaning on their own, but Chinese is not a mono-syllabic language. The average words is two syllables long and each syllable is represented by one character.

Re:Same? (1)

jabithew (1340853) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553258)

Links can be a bit weird in Chinese. FIrst example you're likely to come across is ma. Ma (third tone) means horse. Toneless ma is a particle that changes a sentence into a question. The character for the particle is the character for horse with a mouth (kou) next to it, showing that it's a part of speech, and that it sounds like the word for horse.

Several Chinese friends of mine assure me that there are links between meaning/sound and character for all of them, via these 'radicals', but it's a bit too Times-cryptic-crosswordy to be useful for Westerners.

Re:Same? (2, Informative)

Guido von Guido (548827) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551896)

I'm no expert on this, but I don't see a relation between sound and shape of our letters either. So the answer is to study as hard as you can and also: repetition!

We've basically got 26 characters to worry about (plus numbers, punctuation marks and various symbols). To be literate in Chinese, you have to know 3-4 thousand characters--and there are tens of thousands of characters in all. There are also two different sets of characters, simplified and traditional. So while neither have any relationship to sound, memorizing any alphabet is a hell of a lot easier.

Re:Same? (2, Insightful)

Judinous (1093945) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552044)

You've got the same amount of total information to memorize no matter what when it comes to learning a new language. Any type of writing system has its advantages and disadvantages, though. When you're using an alphabet, it's true that once you know the letters you will be able to pronounce any word that you come across, but you probably won't have any idea what it means. When you're using ideographs, such as in Chinese, you'll probably have a pretty good idea what a new character means, but not how to pronounce it. I'd say that the latter is far more useful in everyday practice, personally. It's true that you can achieve a similar effect once you start to learn the etymology behind an alphabetic language (such as guessing meanings through Latin or Germanic roots in English), but if you've progressed that far it doesn't really matter what kind of characters are being used, anymore.

Re:Same? (2, Insightful)

Smauler (915644) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552286)

When you're using an alphabet, it's true that once you know the letters you will be able to pronounce any word that you come across

Not a chance in English. There are loads of rules involving combinations of letters (ce, ge, kn etx). There are loads of letters and letter combinations that don't have a set pronunciation (th, ough, etc). There are at least hundreds of downright exceptions to all the rules (get, acknowledge, etc). To learn English well, you need to memorise _all_ of these, and many of the exceptions are in common words. As an example, do you pronounce thought like though, but with a t on the end?

Re:Same? (0)

ultranova (717540) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552340)

You've got the same amount of total information to memorize no matter what when it comes to learning a new language.

True. However, if that language uses an alphapet you're familiar with, you can learn it with a dictionary in one hand (that's how I learned English (I'm a native Finnish-speaker)). On the other hand, with Chinese (or Japanese or whatever), how will you look up unfamiliar words? Sure, you could have a dictionary, but how will you know where to open it, when you don't know the alphapetic-equivalent, much less the equivalent of alphaphetical order? That's the real barrier to learning these languages.

If anyone has good ways of passing that, I'd be really grateful to hear them. I've long wanted to learn Japanese, but this has been a pretty efficient roadblock...

Re:Same? (1)

PetriW (816277) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552606)

If anyone has good ways of passing that, I'd be really grateful to hear them. I've long wanted to learn Japanese, but this has been a pretty efficient roadblock...

I'd recommend Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig, it's what got me through kanji after failing the "normal" way of doing it. Takes about 2-3 months if you put in a lot of time. Took me about 4 months at a somewhat relaxed pace entering about 100 kanji into Anki each weekend, each kanji taking about 5 minutes.
Once you can read the kanji studying japanese becomes a lot easier. The language isn't all that hard, just need to spend a lot of time, like with any language.

For more info I'd recommend checking out Reviewing the Kanji and it's forum at: []

Re:Same? (1)

Judinous (1093945) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552628)

Words in Japanese dictionaries are generally organized by radical. To use the Kanjidamage example again, look at [] and note the components of that kanji. In that example, "bury" would be listed along with other "earth" kanji. There are a couple hundred basic kanji that you'll need to learn, but essentially all other kanji are composed primarily of some combination of those more basic ones. For example, you can see that not only is "bury" made up of the kanji for "earth" and "village", and "village" is made up of yet another "earth" and a "rice paddy". As you add a new basic kanji to your vocabulary, you'll find that you often gain tens or hundreds more almost automatically by combining it with the other symbols you already know. While more archaic words will only give you a vague indication of the meaning behind a symbol (earth + rice paddy = village or earth + village = bury does make some kind of sense), newer kanji are intentionally constructed to be easily understood (wise + science = philosophy, for example).

Aside from Kanjidamage and a good dead-tree dictionary, I'd also recommend getting Rikaichan ( for Firefox. If you hover over a kanji, it will display the furigana and definition in English (or German, Russian, or French) for you. It's not uncommon to find Japanese reading material with furigana already printed next to the kanji, either, which helps a lot as well. If you own a Nintendo DS, you might look into getting your hands on one of the kanji dictionary programs available for it. They're region locked, so you might have to go with an R4 cart + rom, but even if you decide to buy a Japanese DS, it's likely still cheaper than most other digital kanji dictionaries. The major advantage to these programs is that you can simply write the character on the touch screen and it does a pretty good job of figuring out what you're trying to look up. I've heard that there are newer ones that can even take advantage of the DSi's camera, but I don't have any experience with it, myself.

Re:Same? (1)

amRadioHed (463061) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552766)

One common way in many dictionaries to look up unfamiliar characters is by first identifying a common component of the character known as a radical then count how many additional strokes are required to write the character. Then you can look up the radical and number of strokes in a table and find the character you want in the dozen or so possibilities listed. This is more difficult then looking in an alphabetical dictionary though, sometimes it's not obvious what radical a character is under.

Re:Same? (1)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553158)

In all latin-based languages there is a phonetic alphabet only. This alphabet is made up of letters based on phonetic sounds. Using these phonetic letters and basic grammar rules you can correctly read any written word, whether you know what it means or not. You can then use a reference to find said words and look up their meaning.

In other words, the shape represents a specific sound (or set of sounds). Knowing the letters in the alphabet also means you know how to pronounce the words written in that alphabet.

Chinese, however, has no alphabet. It uses pictographs for the words, which are completely unrelated to its pronunciation and the only way to look them up in a reference is by searching for similarly constructed pictographs. They generally have base structures that all the pictographs are based on, and this is generally related in some way to the meaning of the word itself, but that can be so muddied that you would never figure it out. It also usually has nothing at all to do with how to pronounce the word. For example, I believe the word for Sunday involves rice patties. WTF? It's not pronounced the same as the word for rice patties, mind you, but it shares the base structure as rice patties. It's exactly the same kind of thing as Egyptian hieroglyphics - what the hell is "man facing left with palm face up at chest level" supposed to mean? How do you pronounce that? How do you look it up?

Japanese is a little easier, as they use both Chinese characters and their own alphabet, but learning the characters is rote memorization for every single word.

Completely off topic, but this is why the modern trend of teaching people to "read by sight" is such utter bullshit. The whole point of having an alphabet is so you can construct any word from a small number of symbols, making learning to write (and read) new words a breeze. If you can pronounce it you can probably spell it (grammar and spelling rules apply, of course), if you can spell it you can probably pronounce it. "Sight reading" completely breaks that because anybody who didn't pick up on the individual sounds each character makes (because the phonetic alphabet was not taught) is now stuck with a limited vocabulary that cannot be expanded upon without the same amount of training it would have taken to teach the alphabet phonetically in the first place!

That's why while they can technically read, with a vocabulary in the 1000-2000 word range about 20% of Americans are functionally illiterate. They can read those stupid sight-reading books like the dickens but heaven help them if they try to read the back of a food label.

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31551764)

I'm learning Chinese right now too and I use and put in all my vocabulary from each lesson and just continuously test myself every day on the vocab I'm learning and have learned to always keep it fresh in my mind. I think you're really at a loss here to do anything other than just practice, practice, practice as, like you said, there's no correlation between characters and sounds.

Re:Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552742)

There is often a correlation though, but it's not always reliable and you might need to know quite a few characters to "get the hang of it". At least that's the case in Japanese where the readings are based on the old Chinese readings, so I guess the same is true in Chinese. (phonetic radicals etc.)

As usual, I recommend everyone to read around a bit on this [] site, in particular I recommend this excerpt [] about the "ideographic myth" :)

A proven technique (4, Insightful)

chrysalis (50680) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551770)

Date a native speaker.

Re:A proven technique (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31551948)

I did but only learned 3 words: "sucky sucky five dollah!"

Hmmm - Re:A proven technique (4, Informative)

beh (4759) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553118)

My girlfriends first comment: Yeah right, that helped...

Almost 5 years together, and she still hardly speaks a word of German because I almost automatically switch over to English when talking to her... ...which may be good for my English, but certainly isn't for her German... :-/

Re:Hmmm - Re:A proven technique (4, Interesting)

jabithew (1340853) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553276)

Entertainingly, I used to date a Chinese girl. We spoke German to each other in England (as well as English) because it was a common language that most other people around us didn't understand.

Radical Spelling (2, Informative)

NoTheory (580275) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551778)

There are ideographic relationships between concepts and what's in the characters. Each of the elements in complex characters bears some of the meaning of the word. Dictionaries for Chinese and Japanese Kanji are in fact organized in this manner (by character radical). I can't recommend a particular manner of memorizing them (i failed abysmally at the task as a child, and am functionally illiterate as a result), however the relationships are there if you want to look for them.

Why not ask the teachers? (2, Insightful)

mmmmbeer (107215) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551792)

Wouldn't this be something you could get best from their teachers? Not that there's anything wrong with asking Google or Slashdot, but the first place I would go is to their teachers. One would think - or at least hope - that they would have additional tools they could give you to help your kids study.

Re:Why not ask the teachers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552170)

One would think - or at least hope - that they would have additional tools they could give you to help your kids study.

I admit, I'm not a great speaker of Chinese, but I think tools like this [] are great.

Re:Why not ask the teachers? (1)

gd2shoe (747932) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552740)

... Not that there's anything wrong with asking Google or Slashdot, but the first place I would go is to their teachers....

Yes, but where do good teachers get their "additional tools"? There are a couple of places. (1) They go online. If they can do it, you can too. (2) They watch and see what their students and parents come up with. When they recognize a good idea, they'll perpetuate it. For this to work, some students and parents need to do independent research. (3) They use what they were taught with. (4) They receive teacher oriented marketing. Most of it is junk (as with all marketing), but there are nuggets there. (5) They come up with something radical on their own.

In short, asking the teacher is really a good idea. Asking the teacher, though, should not be the last and only step in searching for learning tools.

Language settings? (1)

Tubal-Cain (1289912) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551794)

Any anecdotes out there regarding the helpfulness (or lack thereof) in changing your computer's default language?

Re:Language settings? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552098)

Did that.... having been familiar enough with windows to already know where everything i need to look for helps... but i think it's more trouble than it's worth. Better off just trying to visit a few chinese websites

Re:Language settings? (1)

wagr (1070120) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552212)

Anecdote: I've regularly switched between English (US) and Japanese on my computers at home and at work for nearly a decade (and doing so keeps getting easier). I started learning Japanese in 1999 and found playing with it on the computer helped by adding experience using the language as opposed to just memorizing for tests.

As a multi-language computer user, I've been careful about application design, which has come in very handy these last three years as we've grown to support our services in more countries. Three weeks ago, one of our salesmen forwarded a question from a potential client in Japan. My answer was this simple: "Yes, switch the regional setting to Japanese and restart the program."

The downside is I now get frustrated when I see an English sentence fail to get across some subtle meaning when Japanese has a direct word for it.

Re:Language settings? (1)

zippthorne (748122) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552504)

Just start using the romanized Japanese word for it whenever you need the subtle meaning. If you're using it in technical documentation, put a footnote the first time you use it. English doesn't care about linguistic purity or any of that nonsense.

Not for English, either (3, Interesting)

Sarten-X (1102295) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551796)

I taught English to kids in Africa, and found very few natural connections between English sounds and letters. One of the few techniques that worked decently was to pick some words that could be formed into the letter. For example, the letter "k" can be drawn as a key. It's not great, but it makes a connection that otherwise wouldn't exist. If your kids are picking up words well enough, this might be useful. Good luck.

Re:Not for English, either (1)

Trebawa (1461025) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551842)

Not natural connections, but there are connections. The OP's problem is that Chinese characters have no visual connection to the sound they represent, and there's a huge variety of characters with the same sound.

Re:Not for English, either (1)

Magic5Ball (188725) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552192)


Re:Not for English, either (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552314)

"gh" as /f/ is never used in English at the start of a word. "ti" as "sh" never stands by itself, it is always "tio" or "tia" and 99% of the time is "tion".

Re:Not for English, either (2)

MBCook (132727) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552178)

Yes, there is no reason a K is pronounced like a K. You can make up mnemonics, but it's just an abstract shape. There are only 26 to learn (56 if you include capitals, which can bare resemblance to the lower case versions).

I've been trying to learn Japanese and this effects me too. I learned Katakana and Hiragana pretty easily, using little mnemonics and memory tricks (Kana Pict-o-Graphics [] is amazing), and so the alphabets are easy to learn and retain. There are only about 100 in total, plus a few combinations that are easy to learn, and two possible add-on marks (called diacriticals, I think) which change the sound. This is made easier because some Katakana look almost exactly like the equivalent Hiragana, and they are all for the same sets of sounds (so there is no sound that you can write in Katakana that isn't in Hiragana). The whole thing can be memorized in a week or two with enough effort. Memorizing that much stuff isn't terrible.

Then you get to the Kanji, which are either borrowed Chinese characters, possibly changed and with new inventions. They're a nightmare. Some are simple and you can learn based on what they represent (forrest and river are pretty easy). Many are composed in ways that would help you learn them if you remember the parts and what they represent. Another Michael Rowley is pretty good here, Kanji Pict-o-Graphix [] . The problem is that book has over 1000 characters to learn. That's the amount that a 6th grader is expected to know (and the set in the book don't match that set, I don't think). The equivalent of high school is about 2000, with another 200 which have different readings when used in names.

Then you get the fun of X means "moon" and Y means "duck", but XY might mean "reclining chair", which is read totally differently from the pronunciation of X and the pronunciation of Y. But if you don't know that combination, the sentence won't make sense.

The poster is right. With these kind of languages, they really aren't hard. In fact, Japanese seems much more regular than English. The problem is that if you want to be literate, you're going to just have to blindly memorize a ton of stuff, and doing that is really difficult. I'm glad he asked this, it's something I'm struggling with.

Re:Not for English, either (1)

jabithew (1340853) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553292)

That's actually where our alphabet comes from [] (via the Greeks and Romans).

Flashcards (1)

lawpoop (604919) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551826)

Flashcards. I would have never gotten through grade school math without them. I have terrible ( self-diagnosed ) ADD, procrastination, and aversion to doing anything difficult and repetitive. Math was beyond me. I would have flunked out of grade school if my mom hadn't sat me down with the flash cards every night.

Re:Flashcards (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552296)

According to your "self-diagnosis" everyone I know has ADD. It's very natural to not want to the "anything difficult or repetitive". What everyone needs to learn, and I think this applies at even the very earliest of schooling is how to LEARN. It wasn't until I tried to learn a musical instrument that I understood the importance of practice, practice, practice (oh and did I mention practice?). Flash cards enable that practice.

Once you learn some radicals... (2, Interesting)

Dan Morenus (179942) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551844)

you'll find that some though not all Chinese words are meaning-sound combinations: for instance, many words that are pronounced "zhong" have one radical that is also pronounced "zhong" by itself though perhaps in a different tone.

My wife and I have had success with making our own flashcards, each with a different character or compound word.

Re:Once you learn some radicals... (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552008)

Hopefully you don't end up teaching each other Chonese.

Try flashcard software (5, Informative)

i-like-burritos (1532531) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551872)

I've been studying Japanese for years, and flashcard software has really helped me with the Chinese characters. iFlash for OSX is an excellent tool.

As others have said, there's no way around the need for repetition and a lot of practice.

Also, diligence is extremely important. If you're not using them, then you forget the characters very quickly. If you're not careful you might actually find that you're forgetting characters as quickly as you're learning new ones.

Mnemonics (3, Informative)

Judinous (1093945) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551912)

When learning kanji, I found that mnemonics were far and away the easiest way to remember all of those otherwise arbitrary Chinese characters. If you make flash cards similar to what you find at [] and go through them every day, you'll plow through them at a steady pace. The mnemonic in that example incorporates the English meaning, pronunciation, and component radicals all in one sentence. If you can remember that sentence and recognize at least one of those components, it becomes easy to figure out the rest.

Use flashcard software (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31551930)

I've developed my own flash card software, I've used it for Japanese characters so I suspect it will work fine for Chinese as well. You can get it at, some language files are included

Incorrect assumption! (4, Informative)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551950)

there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters.

This is wrong. Many, if not most, Chinese characters give an indication to both meaning and pronunciation. For instance the Mandarin word for "same" is pronounced "tong". The Mandarin word for copper is also "tong", and the ideogram for copper contains two radicals: the "metal" radical, which indicates meaning, and the "same" radical, which indicates pronunciation.

Once you learn the basic radicals, learning Chinese characters is not that hard. I can read Chinese much better than I can speak it.

Flash cards work well. Some computer programs work well too. "Rosetta Stone" works really well, but it is expensive.

Re:Incorrect assumption! (1)

wagr (1070120) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552278)

Yes! You've explained this better than I could have. I've found using Japanese kanji actually easier than remembering those English spellings. Stupid "i before e" rules with exceptions too long to list, when to use double or silent letters, or forget the e at the end of potato.

And who ever came up with the idea that English letters look like the sounds (outside of 'o')? Let me see, if I form my lips like a double arch and place my tongue vertically under the center, I should make the sound for 'm', right?

Re:Incorrect assumption! (1)

Skewray (896393) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552320)

I completely agree with this - Chinese characters are quite phonetic for learning Chinese, while hopeless for Japanese. I never thought much of Rosetta Stone, though.

Re:Incorrect assumption! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552832)

On the same subject, I think every student of Chinese and Japanese should be forced to read this [] . :)

Re:Incorrect assumption! (1)

snowgirl (978879) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552864)

I like how people purpose mnemonic techniques and everything for remembering the Chinese characters, when they're composed of relatively simple characters. Sure there are 214 radicals, and some chars without radicals, but seriously, remembering that a word is composed of "tree tree cover" is like remembering that "marajuana" has a "j" that is pronounced like an "h" because it's from Spanish.

So much of this confusion about Chinese characters is because they're so opaque, and no one seems to bother to teach them well enough.

Hints to pronunciation and meaning (1)

oliverlangan (560855) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551984)

There is really no relationship between latin characters and sound either, at least until you've learned them. Korean Hangul is the only character set that I know of in which a conscious effort was made to have the parts of the glyphs relate to the structure of the mouth when they are pronounced.

That being said, it is not entirely true that there is no relationship between sound and character in Chinese. Once you have learned the hundred or so base characters, these are re-used over and over as 'radicals' (parts) in the more complex characters. The main radical often gives a hint to the meaning of the character (for example, 'water' may mean that you are talking about some liquid or water-related thing) and other parts of the character often give a hint to how the characters should be pronounced.

In my experience, this is true for both Chinese and Japanese, but in very different ways. (In fact, the differences in the languages that originally shared a common writing system explains a lot of the divergence in their use of the characters.) Simplified Chinese (used for mainland Mandarin) has changed the shape of many characters without maintaining the hints that were previously embedded within the word.

My suggestion would be to learn the simple first-and-second-year hanzi for whichever dialect your children are learning... probably no more than a hundred characters or so. You can probably do so much faster than they can. But at some point the pace of their classes will increase dramatically. You may be able to keep up as they learn additional characters, but ultimately the only way to learn them is to use them: practice practice practice. It takes time.

Kanji (1)

AXNJAXN (673089) | more than 4 years ago | (#31551994)

I had to learn Kanji (albeit much fewer than you'll have to for Chinese) when I took Japanese in college, and the easiest way I found to learn the characters is to memorize what the simplest characters look like first. That way, the more complicated ones are just combinations of things you already recognize. Plus, their meanings are usually related in some way. Beyond that, a program named Anki helped me a great deal with learning the Kanji since I didn't have to spend a ton of time for characters that were easy to learn.

Byki flashcards (1)

haystor (102186) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552036)

I started using the express version for free. Then went ahead and bought the deluxe version which included 150 lists. The vocabulary words in it already have sounds attached. It's some pretty slick software and they went out of their way to make it user friendly for managing/editing cards and lists of cards. For instance, I can make a list then do all the sounds at once if I want. Press record, speak my word/phrase, press record again to stop, check it with playback, press next for the next card in the list.

It has a variety of modes, from simply viewing the cards to self-checking recognition to actually typing the answer. I'm currently doing Japanese with these cards and I was very impressed with how well it handles the input methods. I can type in English one second and when it asks for a response in Japanese it switches to a Japanese input method automatically.

It also has a couple activities that you might find useful. I like the multiple choice activity.

void WasteYourTime (void) (1)

AlexLibman (785653) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552046)

while (MemorizedCharacterCount TOTAL_COLLAPSE && OfficialChineseWritingSystem != PINYIN) { cram(); cram(); cram(); /* ThinkAboutReturnOnInvestint(); */ cram(); }

forget (EVERYTHING);

Seriously, China will not own the 21st century, and they'll be even weaker in the 22nd. Demographics is everything. Sure, they're a big country (presuming they don't collapse like the Soviet Union did), but their per-capita GDP will be lagging, and China will grow old before it grows rich. And all Chinese people who are worth talking to are learning English. What matters is the ideas you can express, not how many languages you can express them in, and English will remain the most prestigious cultural, technological, and scientific language for the foreseeable future. And, phonetic insanity aside, English does deserve to be the global language by being the language of the culture responsible for modern science, the industrial revolution, and relative economic and personal freedom. The only reason China is doing so well economically is because they've abandoned Chinese ideas and made use of the ideas that were imported through places like Hong Kong (still the freest economy in the world, but thanks exclusively to its English influence). Of the top 5 Russian writers of the 20th century (and, yes, I'm counting Ayn Rand) 3 wrote in English, 1 fled to (eventually) Vermont! By the end of this century 70% of the world's 800 million remaining Chinese and 90% of the world's 4,500 million South Asians will speak decent English!

The only language that can supersede English is something like Lojban, and studying that would actually be good for children's mental development. The Chinese language is like an explosion at the irrationality factory that's been burning for 5000 years!

Re:void WasteYourTime (void) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552236)

Bah, the first line of the above text should have been:

while (MemorizedCharacterCount < 6000 && ChineseEconomy > TOTAL_COLLAPSE && OfficialChineseWritingSystem != PINYIN) { cram(); cram(); cram(); /* ThinkAboutReturnOnInvestint(); */ cram(); }

Serves me right for not previewing and trusting Slashdot to escape my angle brackets for me...

(Signed: Alex Libman's sock-puppet.)

Heisig's technique (4, Informative)

vorpal22 (114901) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552066)

James W. Heisig, a researcher at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan, has released an excellent set of books for memorizing Japanese Kanji, traditional Chinese Hanzi, and simplified Chinese Hanzi:

Remembering the Kanji: []

Remembering the Traditional Hanzi: []

Remembering the Simplified Hanzi: []

While this technique focuses on memorizing the meaning of the characters (and how to write them yourself) and not so much on the readings of them, I've found it an absolutely invaluable technique for doing the former. I have an abysmal memory to the point that it's shocking, and yet using his techniques, I was able to easily memorize the meaning of about 400 characters and how to write them in a couple of weeks with only a couple of hours of dedication a day, which I was very impressed with. His technique is based on building up from simple radicals and employing visual memory to make everything stick in place, which basically means concocting an elaborate and often ridiculous story for each character to tie the correct radicals into their correct places. The story is usually so silly that it cannot be forgotten, which is, IMO, in where the trick lies. As your skill in recall develops, you can let go of the stories and move to natural recall.

Also, the use of timed memorization software is essential when we're talking about this amount of information. Here are two great free software packages for this that were largely based specifically at learning Japanese (and thus are quite suitable for other languages, especially Chinese):

Anki: []

Mnemosyne: []

(Personally, I prefer Mnemosyne a bit more, even though Anki has many more features, but this is because I'm making a set of cards to memorize all of Heisig's Kanji, traditional Hanzi, and simplified Hanzi, and I'm using HTML tables to store all the information. Mnemosyne preserves my HTML exactly, whereas Anki futzes with it and ruins the formatting.)

Re:Heisig's technique (1)

PetriW (816277) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552458)

Remembering the Kanji along with Anki has worked great for me. Can't recommend it enough.
I learned the first 200 or so kanji in the traditional order and it's was a major pita. With Hesig kanji became fun and a lot easier.

From what I've read Remembering the Hanzi is good as well so one should most certainly check it out.

Re:Heisig's technique (1)

FooSoft (1150437) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552460)

This is so true. Heisig's method combined with using Anki for SRS (spaced repition system) works so well it's like a human memory exploit. You can learn and retain 25 or so characters a day in about 1 hour's worth of study. It's pretty amazing. I have learned over 3000 characters in the span of about 1/2 a year with this method, with retention rates of about 93-94% during my reviews. I can't speak highly enough for how well this works.

Re:Heisig's technique (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31553116)

I second Heisig's kanji/hanzi memorization method, which I found to be by far the most effective, although it was ~15 years ago now that I used it and can't really compare to what's available today.

One caveat, though, is that you need to commit to going all the way to the end if you start with his system -- the characters need to learned in a certain (partial) order, but that order is driven by shapes/character containment and has absolutely nothing to do with frequency of use. In fact, if there's a correlation at all it's the opposite -- many of the first few hundred characters you'll learn are vanishingly rare in practice but happen to appear as components of more common characters you learn later.

Also, about mnemonics in general, I agree that for some kinds of memorization (and Chinese characters fall into this bucket) they are extremely useful, but it's not because they help you internalize the thing you're memorizing (only practice will do that) -- it's because they allow you to avoid breaking your "flow" by having to interrupt what you're reading and look something up in a dictionary. (You can maybe think of items you just plain know as "hardwired", items you know via of mnemonics as "in cache memory" and items you don't know as "on disk".)'s lists are good (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552102)

For Japanese's "Japanese Core 2000" series really helped me.

They seem to have some lessons for Chinese characters too, so it's worth having a look.

You're doing it wrong, son. (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552104)

> My kids are learning Chinese in school.

Quite the forward thinker, huh?

> While the grammar is drop-dead simple, writing is a challenge since there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters.

You're doing it wrong, as far as I understand. Sound is very much important for anglophones; not so in other languages. Even in my own related Portuguese, the written form is fundamental to recognize etimology. I've found there's another mindset when dealing with some oriental languages. This is a problem in itself, because a few people seems to have a hard time at talking... from the usage of the word "dumb", it seems not being able to talk is not highly regarded among you.

Such is the importance of sound to you... Hence confusions about "their" and "there", "you're" and "your", "its" and "it's" etc.

Other cultures view refraining from speaking in a better light. "Uneventful is noble", a Japanese saying... or so I've read.

> I would like to know if there good techniques (using technology or not) to help memorize large amount of information, especially Chinese characters.

From what I've been shown regarding Kanji and Chinese ideograms, you can divide an ideogram in subparts, each with its meaning and then recall what their reunion would mean.

I can even give a simple example. Mind you, I can't speak neither Japanese nor Chinese. (Li, if you ever reads this, thanks... I hope you're well)



Stop: (i.e., cannot go up nor down)

> Most of the stuff I googled only helps on learning speaking.

I'd suggest it's a good starting point, as spoken Chinese may be orders of magnitude easier than written... After you get the basics of speaking and hearing, maybe writing could be easier... after all, this is how children start.

Re:You're doing it wrong, son. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552202)

Sorry, Slashdot simply swallowed the ideograms. This software is so advanced, ain't it?

Anyway, go to Google Translate (English to Chinese), enter Up, Down and "Jammed" to see what I mean.

[ The time limit imposed between posts is a nuisance in the present case ]

chinese/japanese are visual concepts, not sounds.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552144)

make your own flashcards and you learn to write the character at the same time that you are learning to read it and say it. Use them often and practice memorization. I studied Japanese for years and that helped me a lot. The characters are complete concepts that are added together to modify each other and the whole thing is visual, not phonetic. Even though Japanese has hiragana and katakana they are not an alphabet, they are patch sounds to blend characters or to be used as furigana to show how to read difficult readings of characters.

Chinese of course has no need for hiragana and katakana and the modern mainland chinese has simplified characters that are easier to draw.

Use Colors + components + Anki (4, Informative)

Murmel84 (1033852) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552162)

I started studying Chinese in September too and I'm trying a lot of techniques to memorize it quickly and efficiently.

As others have already mentioned, Anki ( is the way to go for memorizing vocabulary, as it uses a psychological algorithm that helps you repeating things as often as you need to. If you then install the pinyin toolkit plugin for learning chinese it's the best thing to learn chinese vocabulary as it imports all your translations, pinyin and even sounds automatically when you just enter the Hanzi.

This pinyin toolkit also uses a nice colour system for the tones. Basically, every character is displayed in a color depending on its tone: red = first tone orange = second tone green = third tone blue = fourth tone black = no tone

You can go even further and WRITE the characters in those colors when practicing. The tones of each character will stay in your memory WAY better!

Another tip when trying to memorize chinese characters: try to grasp the meaning of their components and learning to read and write them will be way more easy. You can use sites like or where characters are split up in their components. However, you won't find everything there. There's also an extremely good book called "Learning Chinese Characters" ( - it teaches you the 800 most common chinese characters by telling you everything about their components and even giving you stories to remember the components of each character. It's by far the best book I've found for learning how to write chinese.

From personal experience (1)

aBaldrich (1692238) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552166)

Hi, i'm 18, and I can speak and write in 5 languages.
I tried to memorize 5-8 words every day, make sentences using those words, etc. I imagine the most difficult part is learning 5000+ symbols, well, when I learned the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets I memorized each letter by writing it and, at the same time, pronouncing it. It doesn't seem serious, but it helps a lot.

Flash cards (1)

il dus (244149) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552184)

The low-tech kind. When learning Russian I was able to memorize a new wordlist (40-50 words) in 10-20 minutes after having written them all out on flash cards. The writing itself was a major part of the learning process. As for retention once learned, a lot of practice is really the only way. Reading out loud is actually fairly helpful, and conversation is the very best.

Learn Chinese... by playing an MMO (1)

BertieBaggio (944287) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552196)

This MMO was the subject of a previous /. story, and since others have commented on other useful techniques, I'll leave you with this:

Zon [] ( [] )

I've also seen it said (in a comment on here perhaps?) that it is preferable not to use pinyin romanisation as that doesn't help as much with making the correct sounds. Whatever it was pointed at GR [] as an alternative. Don't take that as gospel though as I may have no idea what I'm talking about!

Write and write again (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552256)

Write the characters as you review. The motion builds muscle memory so you don't have to think

I use flash cards with definition and/or pronunciation on one side and the character on the other. I write the character on a practice sheet (basically, a page of squares large enough to fit one character) and if I miswrite even one stroke, I count it as incorrect and practice it correctively several times before returning the card to the stack.

Others have said flash cards, in particular Anki, which I use. It's good for maintaining your vocabulary.
Also, lists characters broken down by constituent parts (not merely radicals). If you need more, Wenlin ( is an ugly kludge of a program, but the content is well worth the investment.

One technique that might be useful... (1)

thewils (463314) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552262)

I've been picking up some Japanese recently, via podcasts, torrented mp3s and the like but learning Kanji above Grade 1 isn't going too well. This is largely because I never get to use it in real life. My suggestion to pick up Kanki/Chinese Characters is to associate the symbol with the actual object. For instance, to learn the Kanji for "shoe" write the Kanji on a sticker and put it in your shoe, or all your shoes. That way, every time you put your shoe on, you will be reminded of the Kanji. Do this for everything around the house and pretty soon you will build up a healthy knowledge of Kanji for everyday objects. Once you can write the Kanji from memory, you can remove it from it's associated object.

structure of characters (1)

bcrowell (177657) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552292)

The complicated-looking characters are actually built out of smaller, standardized parts. If your kids want to be able to look up characters in a dictionary, they're going to have to learn to recognize the more common Kangxi radicals [] anyway. The 7 most common radicals are used in about 10,000 characters. Most characters [] are formed by combining a semantic part with a phonetic part. Once you learn a bunch of these, it makes it much easier to remember words made out of them. Lots of words are actually compounds of characters, e.g., "computer" is "electric brain." Once you know "electric" and "brain," it's not particularly hard to remember the two-character compound.

It sounds like in the short term your kids are having an easier time with the spoken language than with the writing system. My experience in terms of long-term recall is exactly the opposite. I took a Chinese class 13 years ago, and have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned. Of the part I do remember, the easiest to remember is characters. The part I really can't remember at all anymore is what tones the words are. E.g., I can remember that "red" is "hua," but I can't remember which tone that "hua" is. Because of that, I have no chance at all of being able to speak and be understood.

Two cents from a native Chinese (1)

weibin (75531) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552474)

Disclaimer, I am not a teacher, I once explained this to a co-worker.

Instead of 26 alphabets, you have several hundreds of basic characters that represent BOTH meaning and sound. They are simple and often pictorial, but you do have to memorize their sounds (in Mandarin or Cantonese or other dialects :-).

Once you pass that, more complicated characters can be composed. Often one part gives the basic sound, while the other half extends the meaning. Together they form a new character of which the sound and meaning that you can guess or infer.

Figuring out the "magic" of how these compositions work can be entertaining and often leads to "ah-huh!" moments. Try to make it fun for your kid (and you), in a detective story/game sort of way. You'll often guess the sound wrong or fail to infer a new meaning, but your kid (who likely outplays you in Mr. Potato Head :-) has far better imagination and would be more often right than you do. So play it like a puzzle, only it is also good practice for you both.

Good luck,

Tony Buzan and Daniel Tennet Memetic techniques (2, Interesting)

lkcl (517947) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552502)

one of the key reasons why the chinese don't need a large intelligence agency is because their entire population is actually their intelligence agency, having been trained from a very young age to memorise vast amounts of information - for example, the 10,000 or so chinese characters.

tony buzan's memetic learning techniques were the first popularly re-published discovery of the greek "mnemonic" memorisation techniques, and he adapted them to get you to focus on the use of the five senses and "familiar" or powerful emotive things, such as "home" or "naked person" or "funny picture" as "hooks" on which to hang the sequence to memorise.

the use of such "hooks" was well-known in medieval times. if you look closely at the top and bottom of the bayeux tapestry, there's a continuous but very small row of naked people in various sexual poses and performing various acts. the idea is that if you want to memorise the battle of hastings, and what happened, you get yourself all worked up "wha-heey!!" and _then_ you look at the pictures of the battle, and the pictures sink in.

daniel tennet, aka "brainman" has also developed a similar sort of technique, focussing specifically on helping people to memorise languages. daniel is approaching this from a different angle from tony buzan, however: optimising the actual language learning process.

tony's technique of "hooking" first gets you to associate numbers with familiar or exciting things. for example, the number 1 could be "red post box". the number 2 looks like a swan. 4 a sail-boat etc. etc. but you can equally as well use what works best for you (kinesthetics) - smells, movements, touch etc. it's _entirely_ up to you to use the right "hooks" which are appropriate for _you_.

so, you now have your "hooks". to memorise things by numbers, let's say the number sequence 412, you imagine a sail-boat on a lake, and it goes past a red postbox, and there's a huuuge white swan sitting on top of it. voila, you have just memorised the sequence 412. this technique of picture/thought association gives you the ability to memorise absolutely huge sequences which you otherwise thought you were incapable of.

so, if you were to use tony's technique, you would look at the character in one of two ways:

1) see what the picture reminds you of (for example, tree is blindingly obvious: it looks like a tree) and then "hook" that in, in some imaginative way, with the actual object (as other people have suggested here)

2) decompile the character by brush-strokes, both the sequence of the strokes (which is critically important for chinese calligraphy) and the direction, length and position, and assign each stroke's direction and position a numerical (or other sequence). you then cross-reference that numerical sequence against the "hooks". you also cross-reference the actual meaning at the beginning of the sequence, again in some imaginative way.

by recalling the pictures / hooks, one after the other, you can turn them back into numbers. you then turn the numbers back into brush strokes: voila, you have your chinese character.

it's a lot of initial work, setting up the "hooks" that are appropriate and creating the mnemonic interpretation, but if you're serious, you'll do it.

all that having been said: it would be much much easier to do sanskrit. if you look closely at the written form of sanskrit, you'll notice that the actual written language - the brush strokes - are a _phonetic key_ to the pronounciation! a vertical line means "plosive" (as in - you're going to close your mouth in some fashion). a horizontal line means "make your voice-box resonate". a slash on top going top-left to bottom-right means "close mouth" and a slash on top going bottom-left to top-right means "open mouth", thus you get "taaah" and "aaahht" respectively when combined with the horizontal and vertical lines. various curly-bits mean "do different things with tongue" and thus you get "kuhh", "puhh", "tuhh", "buhh" or "aabh", "aaakh", "aahhp" if the diagonal slash is going the other way.

sanskrit is absolutely fascinating, and _much_ much older than people give it credit for. ... if only all languages were so simple and powerful, rather than having no connection between the written and the spoken forms...

about 1/3 phonetic (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552536)

The non-radical part is often pronounced the same in multiple characters it appears, particularly for newer words or characters. This happened in older times, too. But pronunciations diverged with time, particularly after the Mongols mangled the northern dialect. I can often guess the pronunciation of character I havent seen.
Unfortunately, I dont know if there a way to teach this. You just observe the sound patterns as you learn characters.

Language-specific apps (1)

Aladrin (926209) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552590)

Someone above recommended Remembering The Kanji (and it's Chinese version, Remembering the Hanzi), so I'm going to leave that alone. is a -great- site for learning to read Japanese words. It is the single best thing to help me read Japanese that I've found, and I've spent a lot of time looking. I even thought about writing my own version, but other than some fairly minor features that I'm not ready for yet, I can't improve on it.

I don't think anything like it exists for Chinese, but if it did, that would be my recommendation.

This is more of a long-term thing, though... If you expect them to learn particular characters -right now- instead of learning them more naturally over time, then a flashcard program like Anki is probably the way to go.

Do what works (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552592)

Try Tuttle's "Learning Chinese Characters" by Alison and Laurence Matthews. Very good imagination-driven way to memorize the characters. Depending on the age of your children, you might have to moderate between them and the book. Worst case, you tell them the memorizing stories yourself.

Nothing can spare you rote repetition of writing the characters. Methods like the above will improve efficiency a lot, but there is actually a "kinesthetical" or "feeling" dimension to Chinese characters that can only be learned by writing them over and over again. This feeling for the strokes helps in distinguishing the characters and reproducing them from your mind.

Also, have your children teach you. Studies show this improves their learning a lot.

Have your children repeat all the characters they know regularly. In Chinese you learn one new word and forget two old ones. Repetition is the only way out.

Having said all that, a classroom centered curriculum will tend to force students on the new material in order to pass the test. Passing tests has always priority over long term memorization, but once this basic need is met, spend as much time on repetition as possible.

There is also an excellent Nintendo DS game "My Chinese Coach", which covers at least 1000 words. Not good at adapting to different learning curriculums, but very good for repetition and deepening Chinese language skills, both characters and pronounciation.

characters are made of sub-parts (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552630)

And not just the radical (dictionary lookup) part. I wish all my teachers had named the parts from the start. But you gradually learn their names. Then you sort of remember character X is made up of the water and water and po-sounding part and so on.
After a while you dont think of parts, but the "gestalt" or entirety. Same thing happens in English reading. You see the whole word, its length, the ascending and descending parts, the first and final letters. Theres a trick text going around where the interior letters in English words are scrambled and its fairly easy to learn because you see the whole word instead of each letter after a few years of reading.

The only way to learn is to use it. (2, Insightful)

Frater 219 (1455) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552636)

Having studied eight foreign languages (French, Spanish, German, Latin, Ancient Greek, Russian, Japanese, and Finnish) in my life, and after talking this theory over with friends who have attained fluency in some really different languages (e.g. Spanish and Bahasa Melayu), I feel safe in stating this here in pretty strong terms:

The only way to learn a language is to use it.

The only sort of "classroom" language class that works worth a damn is an immersion class, in which during the class period you do not speak any language other than the one you're studying. Even classroom instructions ("Open your book to page 23") are in the language, once you've learned numerals.

The worst language classes I've taken have been ones in which the foreign language being studied is treated as a matter of abstract grammar and vocabulary to be memorized, not used ... and in which the teacher spends most of their time telling anecdotes in English about their experiences in the culture in question. I took two years of Russian in high school and a year of it in college -- and forgot more Russian than I learned in that last year, since the teacher spent the class time telling stories (in English!) about run-ins with the KGB, instead of helping us practice speaking and reading Russian.

As regards Chinese: I've never studied Chinese, but I have studied Japanese including kanji, albeit only to the extent of a couple hundred kanji. The above applies fully to kanji, and I expect it applies to hanzi (Chinese characters) as well -- in order to learn them, you have to use them. Write them. Come up with silly sentences and write those. Don't just use flash cards and memorization; come up with things that you want to say in Chinese (even if just to be silly) and say those things with hanzi.

The other half of the equation, of course, is to get someone who is fluent to respond to your crude childish attempts at speaking and writing. That's the point of a good language class: you get to make the sort of errors that a little kid makes, and they correct you. That method of language acquisition works for little kids, and it works for adults too if they're willing to be childish for a while.

there are relationships (1)

pydev (1683904) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552696)

since there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters

Chinese characters aren't just pictures. Rather, they consist of about 200 radicals that are combined 2, 3, and 4 at a time. Many characters consist of just two parts: a sound indicator and a meaning indicator. There are plenty of books explaining this and using these relationships to help make Chinese characters easier to learn (look on Amazon).

Repetition (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31552710)

I tried learning Hindi a few years ago, and apart from several Devanagari letters resembling English letters, such as the letters for ha, ra, and ka sounds, etc, the rest were completely foreign. However learning the alphabet was quite a bit simpler than learning the language, although Chinese characters might be different due to them not representing letters, or so I've heard. Anyways what I did to learn Devanagari was what presumably all school children do, ie fill page after page repeating the various letters-

C,C,C,C,C,C,C,C,C... ...and so forth and so on.

A system of pictograms works fine. (1)

meburke (736645) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552882)

There is a great children's book, "The Chinese word for Horse and other stories" by John Lewis ( [] )which shows the structure of some (very few) Chinese characters. (Charles E. Tuttle co. published a small paperback that illustrated some basic Kanji in the same way, but I can't find my copy and I can't remember the name.) Look for a Chinese calligraphy guide that describes the meaning of the radicals as derived from pictures and you will be well on your way to binding the character with the meaning.

It can take as much as 15 years for something to go from short-term memory to long-term memory. (See "Brain Rules" by John Medina [] ) A program that helps bridge the gap between initial learning and structured recall is SuperMemo [] . Ignore the cruddy website and look at the idea behind it and the history.

Flashcards are good, too.

Major practice for writing Chinese is provided in "copy sheets" which can be found at Chinese shops that sell calligraphy supplies and school supplies. They have blocks with faint outlines of Chinese characters and you practice your calligraphy by tracing the character with your brush tip.

You might find "A practical English-Chinese Pronouncing Dictionary" by Janey Chen [] . This book give an International Phonetics pronunciation (both Mandarin and Cantonese) next to the Chinese words. This is VERY important: One slight change in sound utterance and you've said something different from what you intended!

When learning Chinese, learn some patterns. I suggest "Chiang's Practical Chinese Language Patterns" [] , "Practical Chinese Reader" (and the associated workbooks) [] , and an advanced monograph: [] .

Another resource, associating the sound with the character by typing it, can be found here: []

My ex-girlfriend and I used to watch a lot of Chinese movies together with the captioning on. The right channel would be Cantonese and the left channel would be Mandarin and the characters would change color as the actors pronounced them. You can find a switch to change the audio channel in most Chinese video stores. This is a good way to associate the sound visually with the language. Cartoons are great for kids and beginning adults because the language is syntactically correct but not too complicated. (Watch out though!; Jackie Chan has lousy Mandarin pronunciation and Zhang Ziyi has lousy Cantonese pronunciation.)

Side note: Japanese Kanji are derived from Chinese characters, but Chinese has tones and Japanese is mainly homo-phonic so many different words sound alike in Japanese. You will often see Japanese talking with each other and using their index finger to draw the character on their palm to show which character they mean. It is VERY important to pay attention to the tonality and patterning of your words when speaking Chinese.

I hope this has been helpful. I realize you may be of Chinese extraction and much of what I said may be something you already know, but I wanted to be as complete as possible in case the info is useful to other readers.

sounds familiar (5, Funny)

Punto (100573) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552904)

since there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters

so it's sort of like in English then?

Re:sounds familiar (2, Informative)

Lars512 (957723) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553288)

since there is no relation between sound and shape of the characters

so it's sort of like in English then?

You're right on the money. They call the complexity of a writing system's form-sound relationship orthographic depth [] . English is a deep language, Chinese is deeper, Japanese is deeper still. Spanish on the other hand is orthographically shallow. So it's considered easier to learn to read and write in Spanish, than English, in English than Chinese, in Chinese than Japanese.

Link: Review of Mnemosyne vs. Anki vs. SuperMemo (1)

irchans (527097) | more than 4 years ago | (#31552926)

Review of Mnemosyne vs. Anki vs. SuperMemo []

Mnemosyne [] , Anki, and SuperMemo [] are great learning systems. Although they are frequently used for learning a language, they can be used to memorize almost anything. Mnemosyne is simple, free, and opensource. SuperMemo is complex. I have not used Anki.

As someone who learned at home as a kid (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31553146)

can I say that the best way is to get a well illustrated book with not a lot of words. If you go in trying to memorize how the characters look like, you will not succeed. You should think that there is a Chinese-writing "personality" then think of the actual act of writing as an after thought. No Chinese/Korean/Japanese/etc person complains that there is a lot of strokes. Remember that even personal names (including mine) can have characters going up to 12 or more in stroke count, and children are expected to write them correctly.

Not once above did I mention how the characters sounded...

Simple Grammar? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31553174)

"While the grammar is drop-dead simple". There is more to speaking the language well than just mastering its "simple" grammar. English suffers in many ways from the same issue. Many non-native speakers, particularly Germans, never learn learn the language properly once they in their on minds think that they have "mastered" the grammar. This is why Germans often come across as sounding like cavemen when speaking English.

My technique has been to read children's books (2, Informative)

IDtheTarget (1055608) | more than 4 years ago | (#31553266)

I've studied Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and now Dari. The thing that has helped me the most has been to read children's books. I start out with the ones intended for kindergartners, and work my way up. Once I get halfway decent, I start on newspapers. These days you can find online newpapers in just about any language.

I've also just found the International Children's Digital Library [] , which has digital children's books for many languages.

professional linguist input (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31553270)

do not listen to anyone telling you that flash cards work. or rosetta stone. the likelihood of them working is very small

having been around many other linguists, flash cards are only good for very, very short term memory. rosetta stone is a joke. border line scam really

i'm not saying they never will work ... for some people they have, but, the number of people i know for whom flash cards and rosetta stone have worked is very, very small. about the same as the number of people i know that are referred to as "sponges" because they absorb language very easily

unless you are a sponge, you will have to work hard at it. it's not easy, and good luck finding shortcuts

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