Why you should learn Chinese characters when you’re learning Chinese

A lot of people who want to learn Chinese are intimidated by Chinese characters, and with good reason – there is no simple ABC alphabet, there are tens of thousands of distinct “pictures”, and it really does matter how you “draw” them.  Why not just learn to speak, and ignore the whole Reading and Writing business?

I, however, consider learning Chinese characters an integral part of learning Chinese. Let me explain with my own little story:

I grew up in the United States (San Diego, born and raised!) speaking Cantonese at home with my  mother.  I could speak, but I could only speak “Kitchen Cantonese,” as it’s called — politics and philosophy were beyond my vocabulary (Hong Kong gangster movies were also beyond my vocabulary, for some reason. Something about most of the dialogue being people yelling at each other angrily with, um, “slang.”)

Then, as I was entering teenage-hood, my concerned mother realized just how embarrassingly limited my Chinese was, so she moved our family to Beijing for a year and put me in Chinese-for-Foreign-Born-Chinese-Kids school, where I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and how to read and write (reading and writing are the same in Chinese regardless of the dialect spoken).   Now, my mother had tried very hard to teach me how to read and write characters when I was little, but my one and only (successful) act of rebellion as a child was to demand the end of my mother’s (math and) Chinese Writing lessons; so upon entering Chinese school, my Chinese literary skills were limited to writing 1, 2, 3, and my name.

But OH what an eye-opener it was to learn Chinese! For example, the word “tiao” (jump): I finally learned that the “tiao” in “tiao sheng” (jump rope) was the same “tiao” as in “tiao wu” (dance).  And the “wu” in “wu dao” (dance) was different from the “wu” in “Wushu” (martial arts)!   And the “da” (active verb) in “da pai” (play cards) was the same “da” as in “da ren” (hit people) and in “da Taiji” (do Taiji).  

Chinese started to really and finally make sense for me.  Whereas previously I was relying on rote memory to speak to my mother and all my Chinese relatives (who always laughed at my funny Chinese), now I could see the patterns and remember them easily; and if I couldn’t remember or didn’t know the word for something, I could infer it or, worst-case-scenario, look it up in the dictionary!   It felt very good to understand what I was saying.

Now that I teach Chinese to a class of children, I also realize how useful it is for even children to learn characters. A lot of words share the same or similar pronunciation, you see, and sometimes kids will ask me about “new” words – if they are the same as ones they have previously learned or not.  If the words are the same, then life is easy and they have a new usage for something they already know – the pattern is deepening.  And if the word is new, then they have just learned another word with the same or similar pronunciation  – the pattern is expanding. 

For example, it’s very helpful to know that the “bu” (no;not) in “dui bu qi” (sorry) is the same “bu” as in “bu yong xie” (no need to thank) and “bu hao” (not good) and “bu yao” (no need / don’t want it)!   And it’s so much easier to remember how to say “panda” and “bear” and “cat” and “dog” when you know that in Chinese, a panda is a “’xiong’ cat,” and a bear is a “dog ‘xiong’”.

Chinese just makes better sense when you know your characters.  The written word is powerful.