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Learning Chinese Characters

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Learning Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese Characters is Easier than You Thought
I bet you’re wondering, “How the heck and I ever going to be able to remember all these Chinese characters?”.  Well, by using a couple of memory tools along with understanding the underlying character components, you may just find that its much easier than you thought.

Learning Chinese Characters
First, let me give you a quick example of how you can use memory tools to improve your memory.   Lets suppose you are about to go to the supermarket and you have a number of things on your shopping list.  Well, there’s no need to bring the list with you if you can memorize it.  First we’ll create a list of random things to purchase at the supermarket.
  1. Bananas
  2. Apples
  3. Bread
  4. Cheese
  5. Lunch Meat
  6. Milk
  7. Eggs
  8. Lettuce
Imagine in your mind the picture of a monkey up in a tree using a banana to try and reach an apple hanging from a branch which is just out of his reach.  He manages to break the apple free but it falls to the ground.  Thankfully it lands on a loaf of bread which is dancing with a slice of cheese.  The hit on the head makes the bread fall unconscious.  Then both the slice of cheese and a slice of lunch meat pick up a pitcher of milk and pours it over his head, waking him up.  As he starts to wake up the lunch meat puts an egg under his head as a pillow and leaf of lettuce over him as a blanket.

Now replay the story in your head starting with the monkey.  Are you able to recall the entire story?  Do you remember the eight shopping items?  Now go ask someone else to memorize the same list.  Hand it to them, give them a few minutes and then see how well they do.

Of course, this is just a short example for demonstration but you can continue the story to build a list much longer.  The trick is to think of ridiculous things whenever possible.  The more funny, or unordinary it is the easier it is for you to remember.  I bet that if you saw a woman walking down the street yesterday that you don’t remember her.  But if there was a guy dressed as a hot dog walking behind her that you’d remember him.

Now that you know that it’s possible to find shortcuts to memorization you need to start developing your own short cuts.  With Chinese there are many ways to memorize the meaning and pronunciation of the characters.  For example, the word for “join in” is 参加 pronounced “can jia”.  Now in pinyin (English characters) the “c” sounds like “ts”.  So now you know how to say the character.  Now, how in the world do you remember that crazy character?  Well, if you look at the lower left portion of the first character it has four lines which look much like the waves on the sand dunes of a dessert – this gives you a hint that it sounds something like “sand” (just leave the “d” off).  Now if you look closely at the second character you can see that it begins with a “J”, the middle portion can be an “I”, and the last part can be an “a” – with some imagination of course.  So now when you see the character you know that it’s pronounced tsan jia.  Now you can link the jia with the word join – as they both start with a “j”.  So now you know that 参加 (can jia) is pronounced tsan jia and it means to join in.

Radicals can often give you some pretty good hints at a characters meaning. Radicals are a component of a Chinese character which helps to categorize the word. If you go to look up a word in a Chinese dictionary you’ll find that the characters are indexed by their radical. For instance 她 (she) 妈 (mother), 妹妹 (younger sister) and 姐姐 (elder sister) all contain the female (女) radical. Not all words which contain the female radical will have a meaning based on female; however, it’s a good place to start when trying to figure out the meaning of a word.

You’ll also find that many Chinese characters will give you hints on how to pronounce it. Many Chinese characters include in its pictograph a phonetic component which tells you how part of the word sounds. A phonetic component can tell you how the entire word is sounded, or just the vowel portion. For instance, 吗 (modal particle), 妈 (mother), 马 (horse) all contain the 马 phonetic. The 马 phonetic says that the word is pronounced as ma, but you must also note that the phonetic doesn’t give you the tone for the character. By identifying the phonetic component, when it exists, you can quickly remember the proper pronunciation of the character. Another example is 元 (yuan), it is the phonetic for many characters including 元 (Chinese dollar), 远 (far), 园 (garden/park), 院 (courtyard), and many other characters.

The word for ticket is 票 (piao) which contains the phonetic 小 (xiao) – hint 小 is squeezed underneath the bottom horizontal line. Xiao means small, so as you can see the phonetic gives no hint to the meaning. However, the phonetic here gives you a hint to the sound of the word by presenting the vowel portion (iao). The radical for 票 is 示 (to show/manifest), which gives you a hint to the meaning of the word.

Now use your imagination and start having fun.  Look at the characters you’re learning; identify the radicals and phonetics, and make up your own funny little picture of the character’s meaning or pronunciation.  Enjoy yourself!

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