4/10 Why learning Chinese characters may actually make learning Chinese EASIER than Pinyin alone

Do you remember as a child listening to the story of the big bad wolf and the three little pigs?

That house of straw, that house of sticks.

And finally that sturdy house of bricks.

We all know what happened to the little pigs (and even the wolf).

But do I even need to ask you which type of house you would choose to build?

At which point you are probably already asking what in the world does this have to do with learning Chinese...

Pigs. Wolves. Houses.

Stay with me.

Language and commitment: is it really possible to learn a language in three months?

For those of you who have never learnt a second language, or never learnt a second language to complete fluency, few will fully realise how much effort and commitment it really takes.

I remember years ago I wanted advice on building and expanding my business and all I got was "it's all about results and it's all about numbers" "sell the concept that they can learn a language in three months and you will have it made".

I could see the lucrativeness of such a venture.

But deep inside I knew it was wrong.

Not wrong in a judgemental sense or ethical sense. I knew it was fully possible to become conversational in a language in three months and I had done it in Chinese.

But there is a big difference between being conversational in a language and being fluent.

And from a psychological point of view, even if being able to have a conversation in a second language in less than three months is great, starting out with the notion that you will be able to gain fluency in three months only to achieve a first level of conversation, can have a considerable negative impact on your motivation and perception of difficulty because of that overinflated initial goal.

I will be digging into the psychological aspect of learning in more detail throughout this series, but for now, I cannot overemphasize its importance, particularly in the early stages of learning and particularly with a language largely perceived as difficult to learn such as Chinese.

To achieve a certain level of conversation IS already very good in itself, but when we started by expecting so much more, it can be very, very demoralising.

And so can achieving what we thought was an extremely good level only to discover there is significantly more to learn.

It gives that feeling we can never get there when already we have gone to so much time and effort to get to where we thought would be a great place.

And this is why language learning can so often feel like swimming in the dark unknown. Never fully understanding exactly how everything fits together or why certain things should be done in certain ways, beyond everyone saying that that's just the way to do things.

When I start out on a project I tend to like to know all the ins and outs in advance.

Know as much as possible what I am letting myself in for.

And this is where the image of the house comes into play.

Because quite honestly, learning a language can almost be as epic as building a house!

The illusion of simplicity promoted by a 'learn a language in 3 months' rhetoric belies the actual level of effort and commitment it takes to learn and master a language.

And so the question stands, if you are going to put that much time and effort and resources into building a house, what type of house do you want?

One of straw? One of sticks? Or one of bricks?

And this is why we should be asking ourselves the same question when we decide to learn a language. What type of results do I really want to achieve?

Do I always want to be scraping by, or do I really want to be able to speak and interact in the language like I do my own?

Can we really take short cuts and fast track when learning Chinese?

These questions are particularly important when it comes to learning Chinese as a second language.

Because of its perceived difficulty (check out part one of this series looking at overcoming the phenomena of difficulty in learning Chinese) many people promote shortcuts to simplify the learning process.

In itself, this is a good thing, the whole purpose of learning effectively is that ability to break down complex ideas and make them easily understandable and usable.

At the end of the day, there is no reason to take longer learning Chinese when we have effective learning techniques which can get us there in less time.

But many times when it comes to learning Chinese, these techniques and recommendations, while good on the surface don't actually give you that strong foundation to build on and create the language skills you really want to achieve.

They might be a fast track, but they don't actually get you up the mountain.

They are like those times where everybody tells you a certain way is the fastest and cheapest way to build a house.

And so you invest all your time energy and money into building a house.

And you think you have succeeded - you effectively have a house - and the first winds come and it starts to fall apart.

It rains and the water comes in...

A key area where this happens in learning Chinese is when it comes to deciding about learning pinyin and learning Chinese characters.

While pinyin may be touted as a way to shortcut learning Chinese, even a way to bypass learning the characters altogether, I will tell you now that in the long-term it's actually going to make learning Chinese much more complicated and even harder.

Let me share with you that specific aspect of my Chinese language learning journey and you will start to understand why.

Learning Chinese completely from scratch, should I start with pinyin?

When I first started learning Chinese, I was pretty much in the same position many of you are now.

Except online learning for Chinese was still years off.

I mean it had only just started to take off for English.

And I did have a couple years of teaching experience under my belt.

The only advice I received back then was that I was crazy and that it would take me at least ten years to learn. Oh, and that I should go to university to do so.

All I knew was I didn't want to spend ten years learning.

I didn't want to cut corners and later reach a point in my learning only to realise I had missed out a whole chunk of learning something essential.

And I didn't want to accumulate bad habits from the beginning.

I decided that since Chinese was a language so completely different in every aspect to English, I should start everything from scratch.

Instead of making connections to what was similar in English, I would learn everything completely from fresh.

And this was where pinyin came in.

Or didn't.

Be aware of the DANGERS of exclusively learning Chinese with pinyin and the ADVANTAGES of learning the Chinese characters early on

You see over the years I have tested many different ways to learn. And I always remember this one class teaching two people, pretty much at a beginners level.

As part of the class we had been learning, among other things, vocabulary. And to switch things up a bit, add variety, freshen things up, I'd made some quick flash cards which I'd written the new words on. And I remember asking them to spell the words, first without seeing the word on the flashcard and then with seeing the word.

The difference was night and day.

I almost had to do a double take.

Like was I really hearing what I'd just heard?

You see, when spelling from their minds eye, their accent was almost indistinguishable from that of a native speaker.

But when spelling from the flashcard, in essence reading what they saw, they pronounced every letter like their mother tongue. Pretty much massacring every phonetic sound they could!

And this was the first reason why when I started learning Chinese, I refused to let myself look at pinyin for the first six months.

Okay, I looked at it a bit to the extent that I needed it to look up words quickly in my big Chinese dictionary, but for everything else my focus was on my hearing first and getting my ears accustomed to hearing the Chinese language.

Once I felt I was hearing and pronouncing it correctly, then I allowed myself to refer to the pinyin. Without the important step of focusing on hearing first, it would have been very difficult for me to learn Chinese without an accent.

This is because when learning a language primarily in a text based way, we have no other resort but to apply the pronunciation we already know, our first language, as the way to pronounce that text. Listen to any news reporter try to pronounce Chinese names and the majority of the time the pronunciation is completely off.

By avoiding the pinyin, I was looking to avoid this pitfall and cut that connection with the pronunciation of my first language.

In cutting initial ties with the pinyin, this centred my attention more directly on Chinese characters. Having nothing to connect anything to, I basically had to learn things as they came and as they were.

To some extent it was destabilizing in that I had nothing to hold onto, nothing to relate anything to, but this gave me 100% focus on what was in front of me.

Yes it was different, but I didn't really see why that had to be a problem.

And so I turned the challenge into a game.

The easy way to start learning Chinese characters from the very first lesson!

I always remember my very first Chinese lesson.

The first page of the class book was a short text entirely in Chinese characters. In fact I had to turn a couple pages until I even found the pinyin for those characters.

And I remember the text clearly to this day:

My very first lesson in Chinese!


China is big, Japan is small.

Is Japan big?

Japan isn't big, Japan is small.

China is bigger than Japan.

And so what I did, in addition to learning the words and the grammatical structures, I listened to the audio version of the text on cassette over and over again, challenging myself to write the text in characters as quickly as I heard them.

I lost count of how many times I listened to that text.

(Which is likely why I still remember it!)

But in doing so, several things were at play.

1) I was taking the knowledge from something I had learnt passively (pretty much how we had been taught in class) and turned it into a form of active learning.

2) In doing so focus switched to production and use.

3) By adding in the time challenge, I was forcing myself to reproduce the language automatically and without reflection. After all, this is how we use language in day-to-day life.

4) Through the countless repetitions, I was becoming familiar - very familiar - with the characters and they quickly felt like close friends rather than distant strangers.

5) My ability to memorise was greatly increased without having to sit down and force myself to memorise as we are taught to do in school.

And to this day, I still remember that text and many of the others like I learnt them yesterday.

There were many other factors in play, but by repeating this scenario with several different short texts I quickly became very familiar with a core range of characters. Almost as familiar as with my own language and so Chinese quickly stopped having that sense of everything being different, but something fully within my reach and a language I could actually understand.

Each new text opened up a new range of possibilities, but because each of them were short and easy to assimilate, my knowledge quickly grew.

And so instead of making connections between my first language and Chinese, I started directly with building connections within and between the Chinese language I was learning.

In fact, this was where learning the characters made everything very very easy.

Because in exclusively learning pinyin, you may have the initial advantage of letters you understand, and thus a connection with your first language, but the meaning will forever remain abstract.

Whereas in learning Chinese characters this is reversed.

While the initial period may be very abstract, little by little as you learn the initial core characters and then build on them, the meaning and sense grows and grows and grows.

Discover firsthand why learning Chinese characters might not be that difficult after all!

Let me give you some of my most memorable examples which quickly made me realise if you could get over the initial hurdle of learning Chinese characters, everything would only get easier.

One of the first characters I learnt was which means person and one can easily imagine as somebody walking(*).

Soon after I learnt in another text the word meaning and resembling a mouth.

Then I learnt if you put them together 人口 you get the word population or number of people.

(*)To get some cool ideas on visualising some of the basic Chinese characters, check out the very cool work by Shaolan Hsueh over at Chineasy.

In a different text I also loved entitled 你想不想喝一杯茶 (would you like to drink a cup of tea) I learnt the words for 红茶 and 绿茶 or red and green tea along with my first indirect exposure to the colours in Chinese.

Fast forward a short time later and I'm either in conversation with someone (yes, I started having conversations in Chinese pretty much as soon as I started learning the language) or watching something in Chinese and I come across the word 口红.

So I want to challenge you for a second to scroll up and, from the characters I have already given you, see if you can figure out what these two Chinese characters put together might mean.

Put your answers in the comments and I will check them!

For the actual answer I will put it after the image, so if you want a few minutes to figure it out, don't scroll down straight away!

Can you guess the meaning of 口红?


So with 口红 on the left you have the Chinese character which means mouth and on the right the Chinese character which you saw above in 红茶 which means red tea, so by deduction means red.

Put (mouth) and (red) together and you get lipstick!

Get the visualisation?

How about another one?

So in the same text dealing with red and green tea (inadvertently, in Chinese what they call 'red tea' is actually what in English we call 'black tea'), I also learnt some drinks:

你想不想喝一杯 红茶? Do you want to drink a cup of red tea?

你想不想喝一杯 可口可乐?Do you want to drink a cup of Coca Cola?

你想不想喝一杯 ? Do you want to drink a cup of water?

My first question to you here is:

Can you identify which character in the above question means water?

Let me know in the comments!

Answer below

Can you identify this character?

Answer: the Chinese character for water is

Now let's hold onto that snippet of information because you're going to need it again in a moment. But first I want to take you into the world of more abstract and technical language and this is when you will discover that in learning Chinese characters, Chinese actually becomes a much easier language, even easier than Latin languages!

Come and check this out!

Discover how learning Chinese characters can make it possible to learn and understand advanced vocabulary even as a beginner learner!

I never forget the day I came across the word 口水 in Chinese. It was truly exciting. Because I'd never learnt it and yet already I'd understood it.

This would never be possible in a Western language. Unless the word already bears a resemblance to the same word in our first language, for the more technical words we pretty much have to learn the whole abstract combination of letters.

口水 is a perfect example of this.

So once again, as you did above, see if you can figure out what 口水 might mean.

I'm sure you can do it very easily now.

When think you have the answer, add it to the comments then scroll down to the explanation below the image.

Can you figure out what 口水means?