When I started learning Chinese characters, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
I remember that I passed through multiple stages in my learning. I began by simply trying to learn to write all of the characters given to me in class. I spent time everyday reviewing vocabulary and writing everything I could at all times of the day.
Now, this method of Chinese character acquisition takes a long time. Too long, in fact, for many purposes. Due to the sheer volume of characters you need to learn on top of the language requirements you will spend tons of time just writing characters you already know how to write (this was before I learned about Spaced Repetition and Anki, so my time was already not being spent in the most efficient way...we'll cover this in a later article), so after about a month of this I chilled out on the writing.
Because the most important aspect in learning Chinese characters in modern society is most often reading and recognition. So, after 3 or 4 months of straight characters on top of reading them, I stopped writing. I started reading much, MUCH more and watching tons of television with subtitled characters (most shows have this).
What was the result? The speed of my Chinese acquisition increased immensely. I still studied vocabulary but it took much less time. I used this method in conjunction with Anki for four years and didn't have many problems. Even now, after I have started writing characters again so I can write a blog and stories/literature in Chinese, I find it easy to write characters I have never written before because I have “learned” to recognize a vast amount of characters.
If you have a foundation for writing Chinese characters you don't have to consistently practice them in order to recognize or 'make sense' of them.
Whenever anyone mentions learning Japanese or Chinese among people who have at least studied or read up on how to learn languages, Heisig's Remembering the Kanji always comes up. Now, I understand that Remembering the Kanji is a book on learning Japanese – not Chinese – characters, but the author has also published a book entitled Remembering the Hanzi that encompasses how to learn Chinese characters as well. In short, his method approves of breaking down characters into their individual components and learning them as a mnemonic attached to a keyword you arbitrarily assign.
A quick internet search unearths flame wars galore on the efficiency of Heisig's method compared to “brute-forcing it” (which basically equates to learning as many characters as you can through rote memorization). I interviewed a friend of mine for this post who learned ALL of his first 1500 to 2500 characters with Heisig's method before he started learning Chinese. He had this to say about the efficiency of Heisig's:
"It's a logical process. You break the characters down into parts (not always radicals), memorize many of those original parts (which many times are characters themselves), and build upon them slowly in your memory bank. Ultimately, it's about following an organized process to learn the characters and reviewing them efficiently (his method of choice for reviewing is also Anki). That's what is required, persistence."
Ultimately the goal of any of these methods is to produce efficient character acquisition, so almost everything works to varying degrees of efficiency. Stay positive, stay productive, and never give up hope.
I encourage you all to post below with questions or comments about this week's post.
See You, Space Cowboy...