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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?

So what could 口水 mean?

We already know in Chinese means 'mouth'

And we also learnt from deduction above that means 'water'.

Simply put them together: 口水 and we literally get 'mouth water'

Now what do we commonly call 'mouth water' in complex abstract English?

You've got it!


Now think about it:

If we are learning English, we need to learn the abstract combination of S-A-L-I-V-A with no additional clue to signify what is quite simply the water in your mouth.

If you are learning Chinese using pinyin you need to remember the abstract combination of K-O-U-S-H-U-I (in addition to the exact tones) also signifying that water in your mouth.

But if you are learning Chinese characters, you already know the character for mouth: and the character for water: as you literally use these two words every single day.

And now suddenly through a simple connection you have a brand new word you don't even need to memorize because everything is already there!

Are you starting to see the simplicity behind learning Chinese characters?

To know more about the importance of growing knowledge through connections, check out my podcast episode Learn Smarter Not Harder: Making knowledge work for us.

And that is only the beginning!

Time and again I would be in conversation with people and here things and a lightbulb would go off in my head because I would hear a word I knew was technical yet I perfectly understood it without ever having come across the word before!

Take for example the day when two of my friends were talking about someone they knew who sadly had been diagnosed with 白血病.

I knew was the Chinese word for 'white'.

I knew was the Chinese word for 'blood'.

I knew was the Chinese word for 'illness'.

All three words I knew and used every day, obviously as they are so common. But connecting them together, what new word do you get?

Can you guess?

Scroll down for the answer.

What do you think 白血病 might be?

You've got it!

What we simply refer to in Chinese as 'white blood disease', in English we use the more unrelated term of 'leukaemia'.

To learn it in English we need to memorise that abstract combination of L-E-U-K-A-E-M-I-A and in pinyin we would need to memorise B-A-I-X-U-E-B-I-N-G with its respective tones.

And quite honestly, even in English, how many of us even know how to spell 'leukaemia' correctly?

Alternatively, in Chinese we simply need to connect three characters we already know and use on a day to day basis.

See how easy this can be? And how crazy that even at an elementary level you can understand and use what in other languages would be considered advanced level vocabulary!

Now tell me, if you are learning a second language, which term would be easier to remember and use?

Try this one:


So to give you some clues:

is the Chinese word for 'sugar'

尿 is the Chinese word for 'urine'

is the Chinese word you also saw above for 'illness'

Can you guess what 糖尿病 means?

(Answer after image)

I'm sure you guessed it already!

糖尿病 or what people refer to in Chinese as 'sugar urine disease' is what we in English give the more abstract name of 'diabetes'!

Now just stop for a moment, because if you have reached this far in the article and you actually have been working all of these out yourself, just stop and smile and give yourself a round of applause.

Because already, without even having learnt Chinese, you are already starting to understand Chinese characters!

Something so many people say is too difficult to do!

Well let me tell you something.

You just did it! You are rocking it!

Now how awesome are you!

(And quite honestly, how many brain cells did you lose in the process?)


But can you see how through this process of connecting and building and growing your knowledge, all within the Chinese language itself, you can quickly make progress?

How it draws you in and makes you want to keep learning more and more and more?

And that's exactly how learning should be!

Want to discover how learning Chinese characters can also open up a whole new level of meaning?

Discover how learning Chinese characters can open up a whole new dimension of meaning and understanding

Let me tell you about one of my very favourite words in Chinese.

It is the Chinese word for determination.

This is it here: 决心

Admittedly, the English form of the word, doesn't carry a huge level of meaning beyond it's root meaning to determine.

Now let's explore the Chinese version.

决心 is composed of two characters, each carrying their own meaning.

On the left we have the character meaning, as in English, to decide or to determine.

It is commonly used in terms such as 决定 meaning decision or resolution.

If you look it up in my go-to online Chinese dictionary Pleco this will be the first word proposed under .

So what about the character on the right: ? This is in fact the Chinese word for 'heart'.

And this is where the real beauty comes in learning Chinese characters. You miss out on all of this if you only learn the pinyin (or don't even learn Chinese!).

The Chinese term 决心 for what we refer to in English as 'determination', is actually expressed as a 'decision or resolution of the heart'.

So in Chinese determination is not just having a steelness of mind, it is something which also involves your heart!

Which I think is really pretty awesome!

And adds a whole different outlook on the term!

Now before I wrap this up ready to introduce what I have in store for you in part 5, which believe me you don't want to miss, let me also show you how the components of many of the characters themselves also add layers of meaning.

This can help on a level of general comprehension, on a level of being able to guess more or less what the pronunciation of a character might be, or on a level of giving you a deeper meaning.

I want to show you some of my favourite examples for the last level and how the composition of the Chinese character itself can add a deeper level of meaning. It comes under the category of Chinese mnemonics and can also aid memory, but just note that it's not something which can be applied systematically for all Chinese characters. But for those it can, it can be a very cool way to learn, memorise and visualise it better and more quickly.

is the first word we all learn in Chinese. It is part of the common greeting 你好 'hello' and on its own it means 'good'.

Break it down and the two components representing 'good' in Chinese are actually 'a woman’ and a child’,family and having children being a hugely important part of Chinese culture.

You can visualise it more closely here:

The word for used in the word for 朋友friend’. It is actually the visualisation of two hands hand in hand.

You can see that here:

The word for 'home' or 'family' in Chinese is and actually portrays a 'roof' and a 'pig'.

And the final one revolves around the character for 'wood' and 'tree' which in Chinese is represented by the character . The rest, you will see is rather self-explanatory.

For more information about Chinese etymology and mnemonics, and both have good resources.


Learning Chinese characters is a subject I can talk about at length. And for myself has added a richness not only to my experience of learning Chinese, but also to my life in general.

My greatest discovery lied in the beauty of both their depth of complexity woven through their pure simplicity.

Each character history has history engraved in its lines and a story running through its soul.

Our decision to rise to the challenge of learning Chinese characters will always remain an individual one, but I would hope that through these words you may be inspired to rethink that notion of difficulty and open your mind to the possibility, open your heart to the reality, that yes, yes in fact you can learn Chinese characters, and in doing so open your life to countless new possibilities.

Which raises the next question?

What role does challenge play in creating a desire to keep learning day after day?

Did you even know it could?

Sign up for part 5 now because in it, I will also be sharing some specific strategies to get started with learning those Chinese characters!

If you liked this article, please share so more and more people can also discover how Chinese might not be that hard after all!

Are you ready to start learning Chinese characters?

Let me know in the comments!


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