Chinese Characters: How They Work And How To Learn Them

How to learn Chinese characters

This is a guest post by John Renfroe from Outlier Linguistic Solutions.

John and his team are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for an exciting and unique new app to help people learn Chinese characters.

If you’re trying to learn Chinese characters then have a read of this and head over to the project page here to find out more.


My name is John Renfroe.

I’m a polyglot (English, Chinese, some French, learning Japanese and Cantonese) and I do research on the Chinese writing system. My academic training focuses on excavated texts — especially Warring States (475-221 BCE) bamboo texts — and scholarship on the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字, an ancient dictionary of Chinese characters.

I’m working on a team with Ash Henson and Christian Schmidt to develop a new dictionary of Chinese characters for learners that focuses on increasing learning efficiency.


My Story

John RenfroeI started studying Chinese after watching Hero (英雄) with Jet Li. I thought the language sounded cool — as a music major, maybe the tones appealed to me. But there was this scene where a calligrapher wrote the character for sword () and explained that there were over twenty different ways to write it. I’ve always found writing systems fascinating, so I was hooked.

The next day I got my hands on a Pimsleur course, and then later the FSI Standard Chinese course, and onward from there. I spent a LOT of time learning characters, and learning about characters. I eventually moved to Taipei to step up my learning and dive into the writing system on an academic level.

While I was taking language classes and studying Chinese as hard as I could, I also kept learning about the characters. The first full book I read in Chinese was one on ancient Chinese writing by Li Xueqin (李學勤《古文字學初階》). I audited an intro to Chinese palaeography course in the Chinese department at NTNU as soon as my Chinese was good enough, and the following year I took a full load of graduate-level coursework in palaeography and Chinese linguistics.

Believe me, along the way I learned a lot about characters and how to learn them.


How to learn characters more efficiently

The first principle of effective memorization is meaningfulness: you must at least be able to make sense of or attach meaning to what you’re memorizing in some way.

This is why mnemonic techniques are so effective. You attach a keyword or mental image to a character component that you don’t know, and suddenly it has some meaning to you.

The problem with these mnemonic techniques is that they often obscure how the character is actually structured. Many of them ignore the function that a particular component plays in the character, and they often break down the character in ways that hide the logic of the underlying system.

But knowing this system gives your mind a mental framework into which you can put new characters, reinforces characters you already know, and makes it easier to learn characters in the future. In fact, understanding something is tantamount to making it more meaningful to you, which means that increasing your understanding of how the Chinese writing system works is tantamount to increasing the effectiveness of your learning.

So it seems that the most effective way to learn characters would be one which combines powerful mnemonic techniques with a correct understanding of how characters work.

With China’s rising influence in the world, there’s a greater need than ever for people to be able to learn Chinese to a high level in order to understand China on its own terms and foster cultural exchange. And to do this, we need better tools and more efficient learning methods.

Academics like Victor Mair and David Moser have written fairly extensively about the need for a better, more etymologically accurate way to teach characters.

But there’s the problem: there is nothing out on the market for learners which accurately explains how Chinese characters work.

They might get it 70% right, but that leaves you with a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings.

To truly understand how the modern Chinese writing system works, you have to trace it all the way back to its earliest forms. And to understand how sound components in Chinese work, you have to trace the spoken language all the way back to the creation of the characters.

Obviously, this takes a great deal of academic training, and most of us don’t want to have to get a PhD in Chinese just to learn Chinese.

That’s why we’ve started developing a new dictionary of Chinese characters for learners.

We’ve taken our extensive academic training and are using it to build a new dictionary of Chinese characters which focuses on increasing learning efficiency by fostering a correct understanding of the system underlying the characters. David Moser has called it “easy to use, user-friendly, very clear — but at the same time correct and comprehensive.”

We explain how Chinese actually work: they’re comprised of functional components.


What are functional components?

Functional components are the parts of a character form which express sound or meaning. They can also serve as a replacement for an earlier form, which I’ll get to in a moment.

You might have heard of them. But chances are, you’ve only heard of sound (or phonetic) components and semantic (or signific/meaning) components.

What you may not realize is that there are two types of semantic components: form components and meaning components. Here’s an example of the distinction. The form of is a person, but its meaning is “big.” So when it’s a form component, it’s depicting a person, but when it’s a meaning component, it adds its meaning “big” to the meaning of the character.

Check out the examples for and below and you’ll see the difference.

So there are four types of functional components: form components, meaning components, sound components, and empty components.

How to learn Chinese characters

Click here for an enlarged view.


Form components

A form component depicts something. In the example above, we have a picture of a hand taking an ear .


Meaning components

A meaning component adds its meaning to the character’s meaning. In the example above, we have “small” over “big,” which expresses the meaning “sharp” or “pointed.” Note that the character is using the meaning of here (big), not the form (a person).


Sound components

A sound component gives a hint about the pronunciation of the character. In the example above, xiāng serves as the sound component for xiǎng.

Sometimes the connection between the character’s pronunciation and its sound component isn’t very obvious. One example is gè, which is the sound component in lù. The dictionary we’re working on will have explanations and simple formulas which explain these relationships.


Empty components

An empty component gives neither sound nor meaning.

Some empty components serve as substitutions for a sound, meaning, or form component in an older form of the character, while some serve merely to distinguish two characters from each other. In the example below, yáng, which usually means “sheep,” is a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress.

The headdress looked sort of similar to the character , so over time the two converged. So in we have a person () wearing a headdress (, a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress).

How to learn Chinese characters

It’s important to note that is not adding meaning (sheep) or sound (yáng) to the character, nor is it depicting a sheep. This is why we call it an empty component. It’s simply substituting for the headdress in the older form.

And there you have it: a simple overview of how Chinese characters really work.

A lot of resources out there talk about sound and meaning components, but form and empty components might be new to you.

But as I mentioned earlier, a correct understanding of how the characters work as a system is one of the best ways to increase the efficiency of your learning.

This understanding can be combined with mnemonics to make an incredibly powerful system for learning and remembering characters. For instance, a mnemonic for might be to visualize a beautiful woman wearing a sheep-like headdress.

To emphasize that the sheep is an empty component, perhaps it could be made of glass, not a real sheep.

This is the first time a resource like this will available for learners. Much of the information cant be found in English. Even in Chinese, youd have to read some pretty heavy academic books to find it all, so this will be the first time all this information has been brought together anywhere.

One thing readers of The Mezzofanti Guild might be interested to hear is that were making this a bilingual, multilingual resource.

Bilingual because were writing it in Chinese and every copy will be Chinese/target language, so learners will have something to grow into as their Chinese improves and native speaking teachers will have something in their own language. Multilingual because well be translating it into as many target languages as possible, starting with English and German (our teams native languages).

Too many people have to learn Chinese through their second language English and were trying to do what we can to fix that problem.

Once the first version is finished, well also do versions for people learning Cantonese and Japanese.

So check out our Kickstarter (click here) and if you like what you see, back us and help us spread the word by clicking Share this project.

This dictionary is only possible with your support!

If I Started Learning Arabic Again, This Is How I’d Do It

Starting learning Arabic

Arabic was the first foreign language I learned to fluency.

I started almost 13 years ago when I was just starting college and it took me a full 3 years to reach a point where I felt comfortable communicating in it and understanding people when they spoke to me (which I always say is the most difficult part about learning another language).

Over the last decade I’ve travelled to the Middle East for language immersion many times and had some pretty amazing experiences along the way such as almost marrying a girl who only spoke Arabic.

But you know after all these years of learning other languages as well as doing Masters research on language acquisition, I look back in retrospect on my experience with Arabic and I can now see a lot of things that I would of done differently which would have helped me learn a lot faster and more effectively than I did back then.

Like I said it took me about 3 years to reach a point where I was speaking Arabic fluently AND understanding people when they spoke back to me.

That’s quite a long time even though I was very determined.

So if I had the experience and knowledge 13 years ago that I have now, I’m sure I would have had much better results.

Here’s what I would do if I had the chance to start over again (and what you should do if you’re just starting now):


1. Choose a dialect from the beginning and stick with it

If you’re reading this and you’ve decided to learn Arabic but don’t know anything about it, it’s important that you know there are lots of different ‘Arabics’.

People from the West coast of Africa right across to Asia speak Arabic and everywhere you go it sounds totally different, has different words, different grammar and in some cases sounds like an entirely different language (yet still called “Arabic”).

So before anyone learns Arabic they need to decide what part of the Arab world they’re interested in and make a decision to stick with that particular variety of Arabic at least for the time being.

You’re not going to get far if you divide your attention (I say the same about learning any two languages at the same time).

In the early days I started out with Levantine (Palestinian) and Iraqi Arabic, and also Modern Standard Arabic for reading (the formal dialect of the media).

I eventually switched to Egyptian and ended up spending the next 10 years of my life focused mainly on Egypt and getting my Egyptian Arabic to a high level but if I had of just chosen Egyptian from the beginning I could have made much more effective use of my time.

That’s not to say that Levantine, Iraqi and MSA didn’t benefit my Egyptian.

It definitely did.

But it would have been better to focus on one dialect from the beginning.


2. I would not attempt to learn Modern Standard Arabic first

Or even at the same time as learning a spoken dialect.

I say choose a variety of Arabic and stick with it but if your goal is to learn to speak Arabic, then forget about Modern Standard Arabic and focus on something people actually speak.

Modern Standard Arabic isn’t spoken by anyone on Earth as a native language. It’s archaic, it’s grammatically more complicated to learn than spoken dialects and you will understand virtually nobody when you travel to the Arab world (apart from the TV).

Save yourself the regret and read this article I wrote which explains why I’m so against learning it first.

I made the mistake of devoting quite a bit of time to it in the early stages and getting continually frustrated when it conflicted with everything I was learning about Egyptian.

As I said above, it’s not that it didn’t help me in the end (especially having worked in translation in recent years), but at the time it would have been better not to.


3. Learn the alphabet immediately and not just resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic

Arabic script is actually what’s called an abjad which means it’s an alphabet primarily made up of consonants without vowels.

This means that a word like computer written in Arabic looks like this: kmbywtr.

The problem is when you see a word written like this and you’ve never encountered it before, it’s very hard or impossible to know how it’s pronounced unless you can hear it.

You can guess but you just can’t know (although you do improve at this at higher levels and can make very accurate guesses).

I think this is one of the main reasons why people avoid the alphabet altogether and use materials with transliterations.

This is a mistake.

The thing is – yes it will be confusing and difficult to read at first but as long as you have quality material with audio and/or a native speaker to listen to (all very easily accessible these days either in person or online), you’ll get used to it.

Have you ever seen this before?

There have been studies which have proven that when we read text, we don’t actually read every letter of every word. We see the outer letters and the ones on the inside can be scrambled up and chances are we won’t even notice mistakes while we’re reading.

What this means is that when you get used to Arabic words – just like English – you’re not actually spelling the word out anyway.

You’re just recognizing the image of the word in a sense.

So for example if I take a simple word like كتاب, I know instantly by looking at this word without spelling out it’s individual letters what it is and what it means.

I’ve associated the image of that word with sound and meaning.

The problem is if you always resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic, you’ll never improve at this. It’s a lazy way out and will affect you majorly later on.

Also, pretty much all good quality resources for Arabic use the Arabic alphabet so you’re missing out on quality material if you avoid it.

I made the mistake early on trying to just write Arabic using English letters all the time which caused delays for me later on down the track.

The alphabet’s a piece of cake as I explained here so why not take some time to learn it?


4. I would recognize and practice the importance of acculturation and assimilation from day 1

This is one of the most important things I’ll tell you.

To the Jews I became a Jew.

To the Greeks I became a Greek.

Every time I step off a plane somewhere new in the world this ancient bit of wisdom that I live my life by comes back to me (admittedly way out of context but still!).

Assimilators learn languages better than anyone else.

Assimilators appreciate and understand other cultures better than anyone else.

Assimilators earn the respect and trust of local people better than anyone else.

This is one thing I was always mindful of even when I started with Arabic and I’d do it all again.

To the Arabs I became an Arab.

There’s a big difference between learning Arabic and becoming Arab.

Of course you’ll never become an Arab in the literal sense but it’s a mindset that will drive you to succeed with the language.

I’ve applied this same principle in every country I’ve lived in around the world while learning the local languages and I always earn respect from local people for it.

The one thing that really separates what I do on this blog from most other language learning blogs out there is that I take a very holistic approach to language learning which encompasses complete assimilation into the target language culture.

For me language immersion and cultural immersion cannot be separated.

As far as I’m concerned language fluency only comes about when you’re fluent in the culture as well (so to speak!).

I often encounter people too who say things like “I want to learn Arabic but I don’t really like Arab culture.”

My response is “Forget it. You’ve already failed.”

If you don’t respect and appreciate the culture and its people then don’t waste your time.

And if you want to truly excel in any language, strive to assimilate.


5. I would devote time in the beginning to surrounding myself with and listening to the target dialect

Be a fly on the wall in every Arabic speaking community you can find.

Assuming you’re living in a Western country in or close by a major city – you’ve probably got Arab community groups and events going on somewhere.

I attended every event I could when I started Arabic (Arabic-speaking churches, Islamic events, cultural festivals, refugee centers). If I even suspected that there were going to be Arabic speakers there, I was there.

If I started again I’d be even more active in finding every single opportunity to be around people and if this wasn’t possible, I’d at least have Arabic media playing in my house every day just so my ears adjust to it and Skyping with Arabic speakers daily.


6. I would find teachers who don’t just drill grammar but teach with a communicative style in the dialect I’m learning

I hate to say this but most native Arabic teachers have one of two common problems:

1) They either teach using outdated and ineffective teaching methods.

2) They teach Modern Standard Arabic as if it’s real Arabic and don’t understand the value of spoken dialects.

Traditional teaching methods which are all about drilling grammar rules and tedious memorization are prevalent all over the world unfortunately.

I’ve had a lot of bad teachers over the years (not just Arabic teachers) and the ironic thing is the bad ones have tended to be the most expensive. :)

If you feel overwhelmed, bored or confused in a lesson don’t always be quick to blame yourself.

Chances are the teacher stinks.

As a general rule you should come away from every lesson with you having spoken 80% of the lesson.

If you feel like you just sat there and listened to explanations without talking much then your teacher is rubbish and it’s time to look for another one.

Harsh words I know but if your teacher is doing all the talking then they aren’t a real teacher and should find another career.

Also make sure that they understand and appreciate the value of spoken Arabic dialects over Modern Standard Arabic.

Modern Standard/Classical Arabic are held in very high regard – sacred in fact – in the Arab world so it can be quite challenging to find teachers who understand why you specifically want to speak a local dialect.

In fact, even with my own site for spoken Arabic dialects, I’ve often had trouble explaining the concept to my Arab friends who struggle to see the logic behind learning spoken dialects of Arabic instead of Modern Standard Arabic.


7. I would start speaking Arabic as soon as possible even if it’s grammatically terrible

This is something I didn’t have much control over when I first started.

I began learning Arabic at a time where amazing tools like italki didn’t really exist. I couldn’t just jump on a website and find people to Skype with for a couple of a bucks an hour.

That would have been a dream come true for me back then! :)

But even with the chances I did have to speak to people all those years ago, I was often very nervous and shy about making mistakes in front of people.

If I wasn’t too sure about getting the grammar right and didn’t know enough vocabulary, I’d just avoid using Arabic and speak English.

These days when I learn a new language I speak as much as possible as early as I can even if my grammar is horrendously bad.

Mistakes have a way of working themselves out over time but you need to take every chance you can to practice the little that you do know.

If I started Arabic again and I only knew a couple of words and phrases, I’d be out there using them constantly until they were perfect.


8. I would only spend time using quality books and resources

When I started learning Arabic all those years ago, there was hardly anything available for learning spoken Arabic.

My very first book for Arabic in fact was a book put together by a local mosque and it was absolutely atrocious. A waste of paper and ink.

I’ve still got it today. I look at it sometimes and think “Wow. Did I actually use this crap?”

Thankfully things have improved somewhat for dialects (not a lot though unfortunately!).

For starters, see this review and this review that I wrote recently.

I also shared some of my favorite Arabic language books here and here.

And then of course there’s my own 8 dialect resource which me and a few buddies have put together here.

Finally before you go ahead and get a language book or resource, see my crucial checklist for deciding whether it’s good or bad.


9. I would cast fear and prejudice of Arabs and the Middle East aside

Let’s face it: swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are nuts right now.

There’s some pretty horrendous stuff going on in various places and it’s always unpredictable what’s going to happen next even when there’s peace.

But you know one thing I’ve learned during all my travels through the Middle East and everywhere else in the world is that most people regardless of their political or religious affiliations, just care about the same stuff you and I care about: getting married, having kids, going to work to put food on the table, buying a new home, the latest gadgets, a new pair of shoes, etc.

I said the same thing about Russian people after doing language immersion there – most of them aren’t even aware of Putin’s politics and couldn’t care less. They’re too busy working, paying the bills and putting a roof over their kids’ heads.

Painting the entire Arab world as violent and psychopathic is a really naive and stupid thing to do.

My first trip to the Middle East was not too long after September 11th and I was absolutely shitting myself that something was going to happen to me.

My mother cried at the airport because she thought it was goodbye and so did I. Seriously!

And something did happen.

I loved it and went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. :) My life was changed forever and I fell in love with the people there.


Are you learning Arabic? Share your thoughts below!

Also check out: for spoken Arabic dialect material.

For online Skype teachers and conversation practice for a few bucks an hour I recommend italki.

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