1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Chinese
  4. >
  5. learning Chinese characters


learning Chinese characters

Right now I'm learning Mandarin Chinese and I have to learn the characters instead of the pinyin so that just makes it really hard!!

March 10, 2018



I guess chinese is a working progress at the moment. I reckon in the next year or so, the pinyin will be up with the characters and the english translation. We just gotta be patient for now :(


I agree, this course is driving me insane. If you haven't already, try an app called ChineseSkill (http://www.chinese-skill.com/cs.html) - I found it also via a disgruntled duolingo chinese learner, and it has literally everything explained. It is frustrating to come back and see how bad this course is. I am learning nothing except trying to memorize correct order of things (and I do not know their meaning), in order to progress :(


I am learning nothing except trying to memorize correct order of things (and I do not know their meaning)

I see comments like this so often I'm starting to wonder if there isn't some weird test or bug happening. The sentences for me work exactly like they work in every other language taught on Duolingo. The translations are right there at a click (and they're a lot easier to use than they are in, say, Hungarian, which has a much more unfamiliar word order). Do they not work for you?


They do not. I mean, maybe I'm missing something, but if it is not in a sentence, I do not get the translation, just a character and pinyin. For me that is a nonsensical way to learn, because I do not know the meaning and I cannot hold the character and pinyin in memory long enough to get to the meaning/translation - which is sometimes offered later in the excercise, in a sentence. I have nothing to click on or hover the mouse over :(


Ok, it sounds like it's the same for both of us. I like the system the way it is because I think it's a much bigger challenge to remember the pronunciation-character combination than to remember the meaning, so I like the focus on that, but I'm certainly in the minority among those who make their opinions known.


different styles :D I will practice with it, because I think it's an invaluable tool, I just....got grumpy. Chinese has so many obstacles; the learning curve is really steep in the beginning, and to not offer translation to me seems like an additional step to the already hard characters and correct tones.


Yeah, I'm with piguy3, this system may seem frustrating, but it is actually really important. As I mentioned in my own comment to this post, I had to basically re-learn Chinese in Chinese, without English, when I hit a fluency roadblock. Learning it this way from the start is hard, but it lets you think of Chinese in Chinese, without trying to translate in your head, which will cripple you linguistically.

That said, this course really works best if you have access to a living person who can help you continue to get a feel for the language and provide you active responses (the major thing missing from duolingo) so you can start to get a feel for how to use the words.

Bear in mind, I have found that most English "translations" of Chinese characters are often dramatically misleading. For example, to translate 龙 as dragon is misleading. It was attempting to match European mythology to Chinese mythology on a very superficial level, but if you know what a "dragon" is in the west, that doesn't mean you understand what a "龙“ is in China.

Learning Chinese through Chinese syntax and context solves these problems before they take root in your mind.


Again I have no option to reply to your last comment, my duo is acting up XD

But, I think I have overcomplicated the thing I wanted to say, and got carried away in general language learning. I do not want the literal translation of everything, I am aware that is both impossible and futile, I absolutely agree about exposure and immersion, but surely, on this basic level - an apple is an apple? èr is two? And I find it easier to then construct a approximate translation when duo gives me a sentence, without hovering over every character to see what translation is and to try to connect the character I saw and tried to remember both it and its pronunciation, two excercises ago. Thats all. I think it is more a matter of simple convenience of constant repetition for memory than anything else. That said - I immensely enjoy the fact that their words are constructed the way they are - the other day I saw an example that a word for lobster is constructed from characters whose separate translations are a shrimp + dragon, which....come on. It's beautiful and funny and interesting.

My native language is Croatian. And yeah, I know the issue with articles, and my personal bane which are then and than - even after more than 20 years of continuous exposure.


I find this course to be fine, but maybe it's because i already have an understanding of the chinese language and how it works. Try writing the characters when they first appear, write down the character, the meaning and the pinyin so you have all three for easy reference. Then, write that new character 20-50 times. It may seem tedious, but its really the only way to properly memorize a character. Once you start memorizing the characters, it will become a whole lot simpler, i promise!


Ultimately, I think what you find hard is the difficulty in adjusting to a radically different language paradigm. Looking back on how I learned Chinese, I had the same feelings you are having now, but today when I teach people Chinese, I generally go the same route as duolingo.

Ultimately, learning to associate character with sound and meaning in context is far better than attempting to translate the character into pinyin, then translate the pinyin into an English meaning. I had set up all these mental translations in my head, (ironically, just like Searle's Chinese Room Experiment) and I was utterly unable to command the language.

It was only when I put away the pinyin, and put away my bilingual dictionaries, did I begin to really learn Chinese, in Chinese. I had to basically relearn everything I thought I knew, but when I did, I was able to speak fluently, instantly, and understand meanings in Chinese that are not immediately obvious in English.

So as painful as this may seem, it's better than having to start over later when you hit a wall.


Yes, I agree. I think associating the English word with the Chinese character won’t get a learner anywhere, even if they think it will help. Associating the sound and character is a great way to learn, in my opinion, and if someone can’t find the English translation, they know what the character sounds like, so they can type it into a dictionary easily. I think it’s easier to learn that way.


But in this language there are plenty unfamiliar phonemes so it is impossible for a beginner to hear them properly enough.


I am not sure what native language you are coming from, but for the most part, all Chinese phonemes can be found in the English language, and English has quite a few more phonemes than Chinese. (For Japanese and Korean students I do know that Chinese deploys certain phonetic combinations that simply don't exist in those languages, and thus can be challenging.)

Ultimately, I think your problem is that you are getting hung up on being "proper" and trying to master the language as you learn it. The reality is that everyone who speaks Chinese learned to speak it poorly at first, and then gets better with repetition. Indeed, even in China, people often struggle to "properly" hear/pronounce the phonemes of other Chinese speakers, depending on the dialect they grew up speaking.

This is why the repetitive nature of Duo-lingo is so effective. You can struggle and fail over and over again, and eventually you will start to notice the more subtle differences. This will give you a much more robust understanding of Chinese in the end, if you are willing to let go of your expectations at the beginning and just go with the flow.

Perhaps the most alien phonetic element in Chinese for English speakers is the tones, which honestly took me a long time to hear distinctly. But you'll be comforted to know that using proper tones is actually really inconsistent between different Chinese accents. For example, people in Tianjin stereotypically pronounce almost everything as if it were falling tone. People in the countryside with lower levels of formal education often simply pronounce all words with an even tone. So if you are struggling with some of these aspects, understand that is simply part of the Chinese language, and something that is common throughout the Chinese speaking world.


Actually, I struggle with consonants. For example 这 (zhè) I hear as duo. 他 I hear as pa. I don't hear b, d, g at all... or something like a glottal stop? I mishear almost all dentals too.


I dont understand - what do you mean that it wont get me anywhere if I translate the idea/meaning of the character and how the word is built? How am I to learn the language without associating meaning to words and characters at some point? I am somewhat confused with this discussion, I should abandon actually knowing what character and words mean, because I will ''learn better just with sounds and characters''? Do we misunderstand ourselves here? English is not my native language so maybe I am missing something. I understand the context idea, but I was reffering to the parts of the excercises where there isn't any context, just a character and pinyin - for which duo does not offer translation.


Well, ultimately, when you speak a language fluently, you associate words with syntax, rather than meanings. Think about it, for example: there are lots of words in your native language that you know how to use, but you don't necessarily know what the definition is in the dictionary. This is how fluent speakers are able to conceptualize and improvise in a language without knowing everything about it. It is also why languages are constantly evolving.

Ultimately, it is no problem to associate words with meanings, within a language. What I'm cautioning against is associating Chinese words with English words as "meanings." These are really just correspondences. They don't necessarily have the same meaning.

I like to use the example of "dragon." In the west, the concept of a dragon is rooted in Norse mythology, as a mythical reptile that lives under the surface of the earth, and uses the power of fire to reek havoc on our lives. Most dictionaries associate the word dragon with the Chinese word 龙 but a 龙 is a totally different thing. While it is also a mythical reptile, it lives in the water, and is associated with bringing rain. Mythologically, these are two different and unrelated things, but if you tried to find a linguistic correspondence, you might cobble one together by saying a 龙 is a "Chinese type of dragon."

My point is simple: don't learn the meanings of Chinese words through memorizing correspondences with English words. That will only confuse you. Instead, learn how Chinese words are used - which words go with which words, and where each word comes in a sentence. That way you'll understand the language in its own context. As you get better at this, you can begin using a Chinese language dictionary to understand the Chinese usages of the words.

In every duolingo assignment there are two parts, the part where you associate characters with pinyin, and the part where you use those same characters to form sentences. Often times the individual characters whose pinyin you learn are used in bisyllabic words, and it would be difficult to assign a concrete individual meaning to them.


...but this is exactly what Duo does - makes me blindly memorize the character and pinyin, and then offers me only one meaning for it later in the sentence part of the excercises. Still confused with what your system actually is, and I will respectfully disagree because I do not see how an absolute beginner can ''think in chinese'' without having anything translated. I would like to know how you organize the basic syntax learning without explaning what connectors, intensifiers (not sure if those are correct terms, as I said, english is not my native language) or verbs translate to. If you have any online materials - you mentioned you teach chinese - I would like to see them. And re: usage of same characters in different words - that is why to me, knowing a character makes it easier - they group words based on ideas, using and repeating a character. Understanding and knowing one, makes word building and understanding easier for me. I understand they are not words* in a western kind of meaning, they are ideas, and they operate like that within a sentence, but I still think beginners need translation for some basic things. Either that, or they shoud have organized this in a different way, maybe.


I get that you are coming at this from a very different perspective, and what I'm saying may not make a lot of sense. When I talk about "learning Chinese in Chinese" I'm thinking about the way that Chinese people, especially infants, learn Chinese. You don't literally start out understanding it all, but instead, you move towards pattern recognition and repetition.

This is why I see sentences like Duolingo is giving you as more important than definitions of individual characters. What I'm encouraging you to learn is phrases, usages, patterns, even if the meanings don't seem obvious - eventually they will become intuitive through usage.

As for materials, I don't have any online of my own. When I'm working with people I tend to give them clips from actual Chinese useage, like websites, books, newspapers, or films. In the past I've used the Integrated Chinese books, which were written by the professors who taught me Chinese as an undergraduate. They're good books, but nothing revolutionary, and I think the intuitive, interactive mode of learning in Duolingo is better.

If you really want book learning, with "questions" and "answers" for you to memorize, so you can "understand" something before you learn it, then I would certainly recommend those books, but I still think that ultimately you'll never be able to achieve fluency through that method.



I do not have the option to answer directly to you last comment, and I'm sorry I promise I will stop pestering you and other people in the thread after this - but I still disagree. What you said is demonstrably false - every language has elements that just have to be memorized, explained and learned how they work and why they work that way. From basic spelling in english to languages that have grammatical cases and three genders that sometimes require a really non-intuitive approach. I do not know how you would, without translation, explanation and how you say ''book learning'', approach those languages. I come from one of those slavic languages and there is nothing intuitive about learning higher order grammar - or simply writing, considering diacritics or long vowel - that lets you achieve fluency. Of course you have to understand it - it enables you to learn the way how other elements of that type are built even before you learn them or hear them. I do learn through immersion, but every movie has subtitles, and I do use translator for articles. Directly translating, or finding a dictionary explanation of the word in that language - doesnt matter. I wholeheartedly agree with you about immersion. But for the absolute beginning, I need to have a clear start that tells me the basic phonology, morphology and syntax. All I wanted is for Duo to offer translation for characters and words before we get to the sentences so I could, with repetition and practice, be able to remember them faster. I do not understand why that is so backwards for learning - all other languages I learn here have that.


All I wanted is for Duo to offer translation for characters and words before we get to the sentences so I could, with repetition and practice, be able to remember them faster. I do not understand why that is so backwards for learning - all other languages I learn here have that.

There's variation in how many picture exercises there are in different courses to introduce (almost exclusively) nouns. Chinese has these, too. I don't think there's any variation that the number of picture exercises to introduce constituent parts of words is zero, which is what you would be asking for with "translations" of single characters. I think it is probably true that every language on Duolingo introduces most of its new vocabulary by just plopping it in a whole "sentence" (ok, in some languages they're not really always sentences), and having you check a hint. If you have an objection to that tactic in general, that's one thing, but you haven't mentioned as much.

The only thing different about Chinese is that it adds an additional layer about forming the character-pronunciation connection in your mind. As I read it OstenCramer's point is about not having that connection depend on some fictive "translation." I have no competence in Chinese to base my assessment on, but that certainly sounds right to me (and his experience would be pretty convincing to me even if I had been originally inclined to think differently). If one ever hopes to read Chinese fluently, one can't see "我不吃鱼,你呢" and think "I no eat fish, you (weird particle translation of which depends on context)." One should think "wǒ bù chī yú, nǐ ne?" (apologies for any transcription errors) and have that string of sounds in your head immediately carry meaning. That string of meaning is then something one could feasible translate should one have a need of doing so.

Imagine how hard it would be for you to read English if the connection between every written English word and its pronunciation were somehow mediated through your native language. It just wouldn't work. But that's pretty much what would be happening if you complicate the direct character-pronunciation connection by having it keyed in your memory to "translations" in another language.

You mentioned coming from a Slavic language background. You don't say which one, and this doesn't apply to all of them, but one big problem many Slavic native speakers have learning e.g. English is how to use articles. I'm sure their textbooks give some guidance, but that's all it is. When I look in the forums for the English from Russian tree and people are trying to figure out the articles based on lists of textbook rules, there's always a very good chance that either the rule they're applying is the wrong one or that there's some sort of exception to it. The only way for them to get close to mastery is just to see lots and lots of authentic English content and pick it up just like native speakers do. The same thing works for English speakers trying to understand Slavic verb aspect. One of my textbooks basically flat out said, "you've got no hope of getting this right until you've been exposed to lots and lots of authentic Russian." That's certainly how ever so many things work for Chinese. Sure, some grammar guidance can be useful (and at least as far as I've gotten the Chinese Tips and Notes seem pretty good), but it's just never going to be able to cover the full ambit. Just like no Russian textbook for English speakers tries to catalogue every verb that governs some case besides accusative (which is a basic syntax issue).


A good example of this would be the character "机” (ji) which you see in bisyllabic words such as 机会 (jihui), meaning opportunity, 飞机 (feiji), meaning airplane, and 危机 (weiji), meaning disaster. So what does 机 really mean? It isn't really used by itself. It has a very abstract meaning that gives a sense of specificity and instrumentality, but if you look it up in the dictionary you'll get some nonsense telling you it means everything from “instance" to "machine." This is what led John F. Kennedy to muse, incorrectly, that the Chinese word for disaster is danger plus opportunity. The reality is: there is no English word for 机. It's just a part of Chinese that you have to understand in Chinese.

  • 1736

yes i agree that it is hard. im also strugling, but i can tell you this. if you keep repeating them you will remember them and get better at it !


The pinyin shows you how to pronounce the Chinese character. If anything, it's writing the characters that is optional.


i have found a new method to memorize the meaning of chinese ideogramms and compounds. i simply use them without their pronunciation to represent individual words in texts written in one of my own languages,thereby integrating the chinese vocabulary into a known european context. for me this is a good method to learn the chinese vocabulary.i also collect and sort bilingual vocabulary cards.

duolinguo is good at teaching me chinese grammar ,colloquial phrases and the correct pronuciation.

but my deficient knowlegde of spoken english is a problem. in most cases i understand the meaning of the chinese sentences correctly and i could translate them into my native language or latin,but very often i dont know how to say it in english,since i am not a fluent speaker of the english language.most of the mistakes i make have this cause.if there was a duolinguo programm for learning chinese in my native language or latin it would be easier for me. i am good in latin and i also understand koine greek ,a little bit of sanskrit and three of the modern roman languages.sometimes i use universal grammatical symbols drawn from latin and chinese characters to write down my thoughts. chinese ideogramms and universal grammatical symbols can by integrated into the written surface of all human languages languages . that would could make intercultural communication much easier.


I understand your frustration Completely! If I hadn't already known most of the hsk1 vocabulary I would have been totally lost when I started here.

http://www.archchinese.com and www.wohok.com are amazing sites!

I get my vocab lists from wohok with both character, pinyin and english translation... and they have some nifty practice systems.

I use archchinese for my go to dictionary because they offer handwriting practice. I use the free stuff but if you subscribe you can print out games, worksheets etc. When I get more money that's what I'm planning on doing.

I learn best by writing out the characters over and over and saying them to myself. I pick 5-10 characters a week and see how to draw them on archchinese. I put them in a tiny notebook I carry with me everywhere with the english translation on the front page and the pinyin and character on the back. In practice in free time and occasionally give myself little 'tests' to see if the info is sticking.


Finding some good basic explanations of how the characters work and come together as a starting point is a good idea. Then starting with the simplest ones and working up from there is a good idea, Heisig is a popular starting point if you don't know where else to look. Maybe this is also of interest: https://fulltimefluency.com/2018/04/05/chinese-characters/

Learn Chinese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.