Learning Chinese characters: 7 bad practices you should avoid

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Is learning to write Chinese characters an uphill battle to you? No problem, it’s normal to rethink your approach to Hanzi. And while you’re at it, you might want to exclude these 7 bad practices from your personal learning habits.

“Do you really have to be able to write Chinese characters? Like all of them?”

I’ll be honest with you, I wasted a lot of time studying Hanzi. It took me a long time to figure out that in most cases it’s really the sound and meaning component that count. Sound for pronunciation, meaning for understanding.

So far on this blog I haven’t covered the topic of learning to write Chinese characters. The reason for this is simple: I don’t have a practical and effective method for memorizing Hanzi that I can share (if there is one). BUT – a blogpost by Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese at least helped me understand why I haven’t been particularly successful at writing characters. This is my list of bad practices and terrible advice I was personally exposed to.

Just to be clear: learning to write characters from a writing system that evolved over thousands of years clearly can’t be done in a day. For a large part we have to take it for what is: hard, interesting but also largely frustrating effort. Some practices and commonly given advice make it even harder though, harder than it needs to be.

Olle already made it clear that this isn’t about bashing teachers or the education system they operate in. This is about what doesn’t work and shouldn’t be part of your Hanzi learning strategy.

Wrong advice NR. 1: Just learn them by rote and you’ll understand!

I guess I started as helpless as almost everybody else: I was supposed to learn my first set of characters, but no one told me what’s the best (or worst) way to go about it. Almost as if learning to write Hanzi is a self-explanatory practice. Just do it and you’ll discover the logic, cause logic is what ties the Chinese writing system together, right?

My teacher would sometimes write new characters on the blackboard and then – annoyingly – say something along the lines of “see how easy?”, making us feel like a bunch of kids instructed to cook some exquisite dish, even though we’d never even washed salad or boiled an egg before. At least knowing the difference between semantic and phonetic components could have made a big difference.

Not all teachers take the time to focus on such essential details or they do once or twice and then never mention them again. They think you’ll figure out by yourself. At least my teachers mostly did. They didn’t have a step-by-step approach that starts with A, moves on to B and C etc. (Maybe this complete guide to learning Hanzi doesn’t exist (yet)!)

Wrong advice NR. 2: Learn as many new characters as you can every day!

Most of my teachers never gave me a clear goal. Should I learn 5, 10 or 20 every day? How many a week? How do I still remember 200 characters by the end of the month? Is 200 a reasonable number or is 100 more realistic? The closest I ever came to a realistic goal was during my semester in China: 40 new characters every week and dictation every Thursday.

That actually worked quite well, although I would have forgotten how to write most of them after two weeks. Why? I didn’t understand enough about the semantic and phonetic components. My understanding was too shallow. To effectively memorize Hanzi, they have to be meaningful to you in some way. That can mean inventing little stories about how their components play together OR (in the long run) knowing the components’ actual meaning.

Wrong advice NR. 3: Hanzi are like pictures!

This is my favorite advice which I heard many, many times; even from teachers who should know better, but are tempted by the convenience of this idea. The “Chineasy method” is also based on this claim. Here’s what’s wrong with it: pictograms are highly stylized and simplified pictures of material objects, but only a small minority of characters actually falls into this category. Most of them don’t work this way. These three do:

Chinese characters: example of pictograms
Actual pictograms! (Source screenshot: wikipedia)

But this one doesn’t:

Complex character that isn't a pictogram
Biáng, a kind of noodle in Shaanxi

And that goes for most of them. They are too complex to be reduced to a simple picture. That’s why this advice is well-intended, but extremely misleading. Let me know if you had different experiences.

Wrong advice NR. 4: Write every new character a 100 times!

Practicing Hanzi by writing them over and over.
Writing each new character over and over

Yes, my teachers told me this too. The number always varied. According to one teacher, writing each new character 30 to 50 times would do the trick. The next time, this laoshi told me, my hand would write out the character automatically. Just like playing a song on the guitar from memory (after practicing it over and over), it would come out naturally. Well, for me this method only resulted in (temporarily) losing all interest for Hanzi. It’s particularly useless when you have to memorize a whole bunch of new characters in one session like on the page above. I would often mix up elements from the previous ones and create entirely new characters.

Wrong advice NR. 5: Learn the radicals!

Chinese character "ma" with the radical in highlighted in red

My teachers used to stress the importance of learning the radicals to me. From all the bad advice listed here, this one is probably the least useless. But it’s a little confusing: In the not so distant past, when people still used paper dictionaries, you’d look up a character by its radical, because dictionaries were sorted that way. Therefore it made sense to single out the radical in each character. Nowadays (almost) no one cares about them any more, unless you are actually talking about semantic components. It does make sense to look for the main semantic component in a character to discover its meaning.

Wrong advice NR. 6: forget about digital tools!

Can you imagine that not any of my Chinese teachers ever mentioned apps like Pleco, Hanping, Anki or Skritter to me? It was a fellow student who back in the day introduced me to Skritter and Pleco. Unfortunately, my Chinese teachers had rather old-fashioned notions about learning Hanzi, almost as if there’s only one valid way: the traditional Chinese way! That’s how we learned writing characters when we were young. That worked for millennia, so why shouldn’t it work for you? They didn’t encourage the use of apps. I doubt that they ever tested Pleco and the like.

Wrong advice NR. 7: Write every new character you encounter!

I remember a teacher telling us that we should be able to write every character from that day’s text. That was already bad enough, but every new character you see on the page? What a complete waste of time. I’m glad I never did that.

So what does work?

That’s for all the methods that from my personal experience don’t work. You’re welcome to disagree with me or share methods that do work! Let’s have a try:

  1. First concentrate on Pinyin, pronunciation and tones (plus basic vocabulary). Don’t start with Chinese characters right away.
  2. Learn characters in context, learn frequent combinations and practice sentence mining.
  3. Start reading graded readers from an early stage to grow your vocabulary and reading fluency (practice extensive reading instead intensive reading (textbooks)).
  4. Understand that most characters consist of a meaning and sound component.
  5. Gradually deepen your understanding of functional components.
  6. Install a tool like Skritter if you’re serious about writing Chinese characters.

To end on a positive note: I’m pretty sure smart minds will improve the way we learn and think of Chinese characters in the time to come.

Please feel free to comment your least (or most) effective Hanzi study method.

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

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How long does it take to get HSK 6?

In a previous post I tried to answer the question how difficult the current HSK 6 exam is. Now I want to find out how long it takes to get to that level.

Obviously, the duration of the climb towards HSK 6 depends on many factors I don’t want to go into here, but for example: what’s your starting point? How much experience do you have learning foreign languages and different writing systems? Can you immerse yourself in the target language? What I want to do here is take a look at some practical cases. I found five test candidates who passed the HSK 6 exam, let’s see how much time they needed to beat the test.

HSK 6 in one year

Took 1 year: This is extremely fast! One year to reach HSK 4 is already extraordinary, but HSK 6? I have no doubt that this German girl, who spent her gap year in China, is highly intelligent and hardworking. In addition, she was immersed in various Chinese speaking environments (Beijing, Chengde, Shanghai) during that year and had private tutors to assist her. What’s striking though is that she speaks Mandarin well, but does not seem super fluent (yet): she speaks rather slow and uses basic phrases. Needless to say that doesn’t diminish her excellent achievement, but it could be a sign of an imbalance in her Mandarin skills. (Plus, it’s a reminder HSK is just a test).

HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”

Took 2 years of part-time study: Wait a minute, HSK 6 in “two years of part-time study”?! I have a hard time believing that. It might not be completely impossible, but his story sounds more like some kind of elevator pitch to me, an awe-striking from struggling to completely fluent in just two years kind of story – without any real effort (like learning more or less 40 hours a week for example). It just sounds too good to be true. I’m not saying these guys haven’t got a good thing going (looks like they run a language school in Chengdu for expats), but I don’t buy into their one-size-fits-all solution, success guaranteed kind of thing. And in my experience, it’s very difficult to learn a language from scratch in your spare-time, even when you’re already living in “the right country”. And you could argue that once you’re living and working in China and joining a Chinese language program, you’re in fact learning full-time, since you more or less receive 24 hours input.

HSK 6 in four years

Took 4 years: Now here’s someone who took four years and is actually fluent, sounds local and gets her tones right (as far I can judge), but also is aware she still has to improve her pronunciation (she’s communicating to a Chinese audience). It’s clear she spent more than one year in China. Well done!

HSK 6 in four and a half years

Took 4 and a half year: another interesting experience. 1.5 years of studying in Finland, 3 years in China, eventually passing HSK 6 with 238 points out of 300. She writes: “If I could get to this level in 4,5 years, you can do even better if you live in China the whole time or/and work harder than I do!

HSK 6 in six years

Took 6 years: unfortunately she doesn’t reveal how she did it exactly and how much time she spent in China, but what I get from her words is that she studied Mandarin at least three years (full-time, I assume). I’m sure there are plenty of people who take even longer, but aren’t very eager to admit it. I don’t think there’s any shame in taking six years. After all, Mandarin is a difficult language and not everybody is good at taking tests.

The official HSK recommendation?

Is there an official recommendation how long you should take to get to the sixth HSK level? I couldn’t find any such information, but others claim they have:

According to the Hanban (汉办), HSK tests should reflect distinct stages in the Chinese acquisition journey. They designed the HSK 6 to be reflective of someone who has reached what they consider to be the highest level of proficiency in Chinese that can be expected of a second language learner. Unsurprisingly, it’s a challenging test. They estimate that you must have four years of full-time study before you can pass the HSK 6.

When they say “full-time,” they mean approximately 40 hours per week during university semesters. In China, the winter & summer holidays from a university add up to approximately 16 weeks of the year. With that in mind, we can glean that “four years of full-time study” means 36 weeks a year (52 weeks in a year – 16 weeks of holiday) at 40 hours per week on average.

With this in mind, they estimate that you need 5,760 hours of study to reach HSK 6 level (36 weeks in a year * 4 years= 144 weeks, 40 hours a week * 144 weeks = 5,760 hours.)

Mandarinblueprint

Conclusion

I think this rough estimation of 4 years full-time study or +5000 hours of study is reasonable. In reality it might be more of a 3 – 6 years range. Some are slower, some are faster, some are more accomplished at structured learning and test taking. Others lack the time and resources for full-time language learning – if you’re a student of sinology, you probably pass the test within 4 years, but if you aren’t and have other obligations like work and family, things are likely to take more time. Some may even outgrow the need to write the HSK 6 test completely. At the end of the day, it’s just a test.

Another thing I noticed: easy come is easy go, super quick learners tend to have less stable foundations. Plus, spending time in China or at least in Chinese speaking areas and really soak up the language does seem the key to success for our five test candidates.

Any thoughts on HSK 6? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.