“Should I learn Chinese characters?”
“What if don’t learn Chinese characters?”
“I can use pinyin to learn Chinese, so can I stop learning characters?”
During my more than 15-year Chinese language teaching experience, I often heard these questions. And my answer was always, “No, you should definitely learn characters.” In the end, all these students thanked me for my persistence.
There are many reasons why characters are important, but let’s explore the four reasons below:
1. Pinyin is useful, but most books do not have a Pinyin version. For most learners from America or European countries, it is much easier for them to learn Pinyin instead of characters. They are comfortable with the letters and spelling as they are like their native language. I noticed that when they took notes, they wrote them in Pinyin. However, learning Pinyin will not allow you to read Chinese. The only books published in Pinyin are very basic primers written for young children or books with Pinyin added to help foreigners. If you want to be able to understand a news article, immerse yourself in an ancient poem, or read a book, it’s important to begin memorizing characters.
Pinyin is a tool used to record the pronunciation of characters and was created in the 1950s. Characters have a history of more than 3000 years, so it is impossible to replace characters with Pinyin. In Chinese elementary schools, we also spend more time in learning characters and reading than Pinyin now. Do not believe in Pinyin, believe in characters instead.
2. Characters are necessary for daily life
If you visit bigger cities in China, you can see some signs, menus, subways, and roads in English added. With just a few Chinese sentences like “你好” “我要这个.” “多少钱?” you can initiate a polite conversation, select an item in front of you, or ask about the cost of something. Your phone’s translation app will hopefully also be able to translate menus and other signs for you. However, not all menus will translate well. If you have a headache and need medicine from a pharmacy, relying on your phone to accurately scan and translate the medicine may have disastrous results. In order to have a real knowledge of Chinese and be able to communicate and understand the world around you, Chinese characters hold the key. You will not find Pinyin on menus, street signs, etc.
If you want to visit smaller cities in China, your survival Chinese cannot help you anymore. You need to know some basic characters so that you can find a bathroom, get to the bus or train station, and navigate your way around the streets.
For the sake of a comfortable life in China, you need to learn characters.
“Sort Drink”? “Pear Milk Tea””Summer Just Yogurt?”? Maybe it’s better to trust the characters. Have a look at the menu below, and you will realize the importance of knowing Chinese characters.
3. As your Chinese improves, you will get lost with tongyinci.
What is tongyinci? They are like the equivalent of homographs or homophones in English. In Chinese pinyin, there are only 408 syllables. With four tones, there are around 1300 possible syllables. However, there are tens of thousands of words in Chinese. As a result, many characters and words share the same Pinyin. Let us have a look at the following words.
Both 闲鱼 and 闲鱼 are read as xiányú, but they are totally different. 闲鱼 is a platform for buying and selling second-hand goods, but 咸鱼 means salty fish.
Mixing up these two words would lead to many misunderstandings. You will never be able to know the difference if you do not learn characters. There are many words like this. For clear understanding and clear communication, it’s time to begin learning characters.
4. Characters can help you learn more about the Chinese language and Chinese culture。
Chinese culture is thousands of years old, and to truly understand it, you must be able to read the language itself. By learning some basic characters, and with the help of a Chinese dictionary, you can begin to read Chinese books. The more you read, you more you understand Chinese culture and the better you master the Chinese language.
Many of my students began to read Chinese newspapers after learning Chinese for just two months and made amazing progress. Although challenging, this allowed them to learn very authentic words and structures to express their feelings and ideas. The heart of our culture is its long history. The history is written in characters. To understand both modern life in its most authentic form and ancient China, the key is learning characters.
There are many great leveled Chinese reading products that can help you to learn characters in an efficient way. Lingo Bus has a great online Chinese library with more than 400 books that suit children well. If you have a child, make sure to take advantage of this resource. They can be a great way for adults to begin reading Chinese as well.
What’s the best method to learn Chinese characters? Stay tuned for our next blog and we will break down the secrets inside some of the most complex-looking characters.