“Don’t be afraid of characters, they are a crucial part of understanding the language. As you learn new words, try to connect the sounds, tones, meanings, and characters together.”
Most people have their own strong opinions about this, so I’m only offering you some of my own.
- Learn both traditional and simplified characters (start with one depending on your needs, then work to get familiar with the other).
- Practice writing and typing on a regular basis.
- Download software that allows you to type in Chinese. If you use Zhuyin, buy character stickers for your laptop.
- Buy or download software that allows you to draw and type characters on your phone.
- Put in the time for some rote copying of characters in the beginning until you internalize things like stroke order and how to “balance” the characters.
Tip in Practice (True Story)
I started learning Chinese when I lived in Taiwan, so I write and read traditional characters and type using Zhuyin. I’m happy with this decision, and I’ll explain why in some other post. But regardless of whether I’m typing in Zhuyin or Pinyin or writing in traditional or simplified, it was a huge advantage to start learning characters from the beginning.
Improved Quality of Life:
Because I was learning to write, my quality of life improved dramatically. I was able to order off the menu and expand my vocabulary (and dietary options) rather quickly. It was easier to travel, because I understood the street signs. Even if I didn’t know how to pronounce a word, I could differentiate characters better. When I mispronounced something and people stared at me like I was a complete moron, I would just write the word down (from memory), and people would instantly understand and be able to correct me. Needless to say, there were many benefits!
More Dignified (Or At Least Less Embarrassing) Experiences:
Plus, it was a far less embarrassing existence. For example, if I mispronounced a word like “chicken,” I would just write the character雞on a piece of paper or point to it on a sign. But when I didn’t know how to write (or read), I would have to act out “chicken” or just go hungry. Knowing how to read also cut down on eating food with “surprise” ingredients like baked goods with shredded pork. Gross! So, again, I was a much happier person once I learned how to read and write.
Better Interactions with People and Culture:
I also think that reading helped open me up to an interesting world of pop culture and media. I currently read a lot of celebrity blogs; sing karaoke; read news and fashion websites; watch TV programs and movies without English subtitles. I can communicate with friends using different methods: we can text, email, chat online, write each other post cards, send facebook messages, all in addition to being able to call each other and speak face-to-face. Thus, I am able to have a more varied and complete experience with the friends that I make using Chinese.
I want to learn Chinese fast. I don’t have time to painstakingly learn to write thousands of characters. Why exactly are you learning Chinese? If you’re only learning for the short term (example: because you want to travel) then don’t go all out. But, you should at least be able to recognize some high frequency characters (and emergency words) on sight like “restaurant,” “hotel,” “police station,” “hospital,” and so on. For you, dear casual learner, character recognition will be far more important than getting a strong hold on writing. And that’s okay. But think of it this way, if you’re brave enough to learn some of the language (instead of just speaking English), why not do a little more work to round out the experience.
- If you take a class, handwrite your homework. When you get corrections back, type the entire assignment. (or vice versa) That way you can practice both typing and writing.
- Write the phrases and words you learn on flashcards.
- Keep a diary or blog in Chinese. You don’t have to write a lot, just brief ideas and sentences that you come up with yourself and which are enough to get the point across, until you’re advanced enough to write longer or more detailed entries.