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The Secret to Quickly Learn Characters in Chinese: Know Your Radicals!

If you decide to learn or re-learn the basics in order to steady your acquisition of Mandarin Chinese, I would absolutely go to Pandanese at PandaneseDOTcom and go through all your radicals (there are about 214 radicals in total) as a way to --once and for all-- fully integrate how most of the Chinese vocabulary is built!

The app, purposely streamlined, and set-up on the web only for ease and steadiness of practice, drills down on learning each Radical, thereby giving you a glimpse into how characters are built. Little by little, you will recognize a character, or bigram, etc. as it is composed of one to several radicals, which gives you clues as to a) how it might be pronounced; and b) what vocabulary family the word belongs to, i.e., a body part, a machine part, etc., etc.

The Pandanese system relies on cards grouped by lesson, for a total of 60 lessons (the level they call "Mastery"). Each lesson presents an inter-related set of Radicals, Vocabulary, and Characters. Each set builds on carefully-integrated spaced repetition, each new layer carefully increases the relational complexity of vocabulary, character and radical, slowly but surely building on the preceding set of cards.

After practicing with Pandanese for 5 months now, I am actually able to pronounce dozens and dozens of characters, bigrams etc. I often get ahead of myself and try and pronounce characters and bigrams etc. without yet knowing what they exactly mean, because my near-daily practice of the Radicals Cards and its associated characters has begun to secure in my memory the language’s architecture behind those characters.

For me, to be able to not only recognize but also remember increasingly complex characters feels like a miracle but trust me, it is the actual result of the Pandanese team having crafted a superbly-engineered series of sequences, the secret behind this remarkably efficient Chinese language-learning method.

When I use another Chinese learning app, I now often find myself remembering what I have just learned in Pandanese, and my study gets easier. I attribute this knowledge "cross-pollination" exclusively to the Pandanese method because they are the only application developers who actually paid attention to Radicals, a major element of learning Chinese properly. As you practice on Duolingo, for instance, this knowledge of Radicals will come in handy!

Remembering the radicals and their functions are key to a high-retention score in acquiring Chinese vocabulary!

(Disclaimer: No, I am not an employee of Pandanese :), just an ordinary person who is learning Chinese; and yes, I've tried a lot of apps and put to the test a lot of methods. It seems Pandanese is unique in its particular emphasis on Radicals).

June 20, 2018



And just to give a further insight no how radical are used in real life. If you ask a Chinese person how to write a Chinese word without pen a paper around, the common method is to say something like "use radical X" followed by this other word.


@ waikong - Ha! Amazing... I didn't know that! What a clever way to spell a word! There you have it: another excellent reason to double down and learn your radicals!

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Thanks for the great tip! Have you used Memrise? I have not used it with Chinese yet but I found it very useful for memorising basic phrases and/or words of languages that do not use the Latin alphabet.


@ID-007 - Hi! Yes, sure, I have been using Memrise steadily for the past year. I like it a lot because I can actually practice without too much stress. I also have returned to Cerego (they have a complete library of vocabulary grouped by topic, HSK level etc. I also just discovered Ninchanese: I confess being very impressed with how clean the app is, with none of the understandable mishaps in the back-end of the app, which unfortunately Duolingo experiences a lot in its Chinese version.
Also, a gorgeous, lesser-known app that gathers learning characters, vocabulary, practicing speaking, reading stories etc. is Wordswing. It's an amazing universe, offering a great variety of exercises at many different levels of proficiency, and a fantastic setup to check your progress (A little bit like Chairman Bao, but with even more tools to drill down and learn.)

I see from your flags that you are learning Chinese AND Vietnamese at the same time???!!! My sister-in-law is Vietnamese; upon visiting her in Vietnam, I could see it is quite difficult a language because of so many tones! And you are level 25 in French!!! That's awesome! Where do you find the patience! I am (France) French-born and -educated and I scored only 46% fluency on Duolingo's French Fluency test! Grrrrr! Hahaha!... I guess I should keep going, right? In-between getting ready soon for a four-month language stay in China, that is :)


Thanks for divulging to all and sundry an ancient secret, as it were ... too bad I didn't learn about the radicals-up approach when studying Kanji (which is based on the same general Sinic character set) for my two years college Japanese. Instead, the ideograms were all taught through the more common brutal, torturous rote memorization.

Thanks as well for the natural word of mouth about Pandanese; it sounds like the course to finally get my radicals down pat, at least, as opposed to bùshǒu flashcard courses I've already taken.

On related notes, if I can share someone else's DL post just the other day and my reply to it: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/27692678.

Lastly, it would behoove all Mandarin students to learn the lyrics of the classic Chinese ditty ''The Moon Represents My Heart'' -月亮代表我的心 with DRY eyes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hj4bnnek9MU


They didn't teach you radicals in two years of college-level Japanese??!? That is hard to believe. I'm sorry you had to go through that, I truly am!

I can't help but wonder, how did you ever look characters up in a Japanese dictionary without knowing radicals? The four-corner method is faster, yes, but the radical index is indeed the oldest, most universal, time-tested way to 查字典 - and it works for both Chinese amd Japanese.


I guess if you own the Pleco app on your digital phone and have a good command of the tones, you speak into the phone's microphone while Pleco's dictionary function is open, and voilà! The word (and much more) you were looking for appears!


はい、そうです よ!At least I wasn't taught the radicals systematically, that is, and never really knew what they were nor their meanings, let alone how to use a Japanese dictionary. In those pre-app days I only learned of them incidentally and unconsciously, through practicing stroke orders of several hundred random Kanji. A tearjerker in itself ... thanks for caring!

Now it's so many apps, flashcard courses and online resources, so little time!


Per @Frivalry: Here are the Lyrics to the lovely "The Moon Represents My Heart" song, in Chinese, Pinyin, and hovers in English, together with the recording on the same page (not sung by Teresa Teng, though): https://www.chinese-tools.com/songs/song/18/yueliang.html


I am downloading the lyrics this evening! Thank you for the suggestion!


Out of interest, what does one get with a free account and what does it cost to unlock whatever isn't free?


@Garpike - Hi! The Free Account gives you full use of the application all the way to Lesson 3. It takes about 3 to 4 weeks per lesson if you're letting the system pace you correctly. I used to be a bit impatient at the beginning because Pandanese would not let me continue immediately to the next set of cards, but now that I'm almost done with Lesson 4, I see the value of pacing myself. It is genuinely geared towards encouraging regularity since the brain tends to almost forget at a critical interval, and if you catch it just then, as the memory fades to oblivion, and just then reinforce the learning process with another session, the brain actually starts remembering the info each time for a longer period, until "Mastery," i.e., it is firmly with you and your self-recall is flawless.

Unless you stop learning altogether, that memory will be with you for a very long time. If you go to the Lessons tab, you'll see how rich it is, and you can track your progress at the Progress tab.

What I now understand is the fact that the brain actually learns better if you give it a chance to forget a few times. Barbara Oakley and Laurence Sejnowski (both world-renowned Educators/Scientists) have a terrific course called "Learning How to Learn" on Coursera, where they explain all this brilliantly. That course is the best course I ever took to help me manage and optimize my own learning processes.

The Cost of Pandanese is extremely reasonable, around US$9/mo.; here's the page where you can confirm that: https://www.pandanese.com/faq#learning_material

When you're done, within a year to 1-1/2 year, say, you'll have learned 99% of all written characters of general use (you probably won't be ready to speed-read the Analects, but who'd want to anyway!)


Neat resource! I've started using it now.


Thanks, I just checked out Pandanese. Wow - it is a great site; and will definitely help with my Duolingo Chinese lessons as well. Neato! Thanks again


Anyone here familiar with the Chinese Skill app? I've found it fun and interesting, even useful for practicing character stroke orders (however much or little young, keyboard-savvy native Chinese know how to handwrite Kangxi anymore).

As for the radicals themselves, there are indeed good (if less effective than Pandanese) Memrise and Tinycard courses for learning and reviewing the meaning of each one. They've taught me enough to successfully guess pictorial translations of other, larger characters presented on another fun language-study platform, Badadum. com.

Anecdotes aside, perhaps it's worth considering that the 214 radicals arguably form an alphabet!


I love Chinese Skill! The app is very well organized and yes, very useful to constantly practice stroke order on my iPad or iPhone. I use it regularly as another go-to app for regular reviews. Babadum is a lot of fun, too, and although superbly designed, it has more of a visually-gorgeous appeal to me, and when I start to get those characters correctly, it can be quite addictive to see that score "go up"...


ChineseSkill is one i use as well, but cannot find Babadum in the Apple App store on my phone. Should it be there?


This is interesting! I knew Chinese as a child, but had to forego it, as it interfered with my ability to learn English. However, bits and pieces stuck with me, including some of the characters. I've recently started Duolingo Chinese to recover this latent knowledge after many decades of disuse.

I had peeked at some of the aspects of Chinese over the years, so I knew about how radicals were used in combination to form new words. (I have a distinct memory learning about 明 which is the combination of "sun" 日 and "moon" 月 which would make it bright. Also, a friend of mine had the last name "Lin" which means "woods" which is represented by two "trees" 木 )

Duolingo isn't particularly good about giving you a way of remembering the characters, so I decided to start looking into the radicals.

I came across this page: http://www.archchinese.com/arch_chinese_radicals.html

So, I've been trying learn the radicals but in a haphazard way. It looks like .pandanese will be a great way to help me progress a long.

Thanks for the pointer!


You're welcome! After using it for about 5 months, I am not tense anymore when looking at a character, because I try and see if 1. I can pronounce it; and 2. I can guess its meaning. ARCHchinese is superbly complete, and sometimes just a bit too dry, in my humble opinion; for a little more levity or variety, I'll go to WordSwing (ArchChinese on steroids), [wordswing.com] or Chairman Bao [TheChairmanBao.com], or even Ninchanese [Ninchanese.com].

So you are what language schools call a "Heritage Learner"? I think you're going to fall in love with the language all over again! And congratulations for re-starting it!


"Heritage Learner" sounds better than "Recovering Chinese Speaker"!

Yes, I am.

I wanted to like Pandanese, and maybe I'm not using it correctly, but... I found the training intervals too far apart. I would be exposed to some symbols for too short a time and then when review came up (hours or a day later), I would totally forget the new things that was presented to me.

The ones that I already knew or had a good handle hold on, worked out. It was too frustrating to me. Maybe I'm using it wrong?

I'll try some of the other links you cite.


@clemwang: Oooh! This is so interesting! You stumbled on exactly the same frustration that I encountered in Lesson 1 and Lesson 2. I actually communicated with them about it. When a user is not a total beginner, the carefully-layered learning process doesn't yet work fully in our favor. By the time one reaches Lesson 3, because of the variety of characters introduced, that sense of drag between intervals disappears completely, in part because now you have 60 to 125 cards to review, let alone the new cards to study.

I don't have that odd feeling of memory lag anymore. As a matter of fact, Pandanese now is whipping me into shape: I have to catch up now: the roles are inverted. The reason why I persevered is due to the results I experienced: around the time I was at mid-lesson 2, I was taking an exam online with Peking U. and, to my shocked realization, I was reading with ease characters I had had so much trouble remembering in previous tests. After that first "proof of the pudding," I was "sold," and it has occurred many times since, especially with really recalcitrant characters. Now that I am a few cards away from Lesson 5 and my last two weeks were unusually crammed with "urgent "to-do's", now I have to catch up!

So, if you don't mind my suggestion, maybe persevere a little deeper, and do write to them (the easiest is to use that little collapsible window that sleeps near each character reviewed. They are really good at listening and correcting, and will happily engage in a discussion with you. You can also use their forum because you might find contributors there who realize --like I just did-- that they are having the same experience as you do.

I'm glad you're trying it though!


i have spent a large part of today with Pandanese and i want to thank you for sharing ... esp bc of the radicals


Pandanese's method unlocked for the first time the blueprint of a Chinese character for me. Once you understand that, then your progress become more grounded, because you don't feel you're at the mercy of a fleeting rote-memory success.


Yes, you are correct to some extent. I am a native Mandarin Chinese speaker- ignore my level on Duolingo for Chinese (that's because I've been checking out all types of resources for my students). If we take an example such as: 蚂蚁 which means "ant" (the insect), you can see clearly see that the radical is on the left (i.e. insect radical) indicating that it's an insect. The character to the right of the radical can give some meaning, but in the example I gave, it give indications of how the character should be pronounced. Luckily for the characters, 蚂蚁, it is pronounced the same if we removed the radicals (i.e.马义, which does not make sense because 马 means horse, and 义 means righteousness).

Polyphonic characters catch people out. These characters include 长, 行, 都 (commonly used) and many more. They each have two different pronunciation depending on context. And there isn't really a way of memorizing these. I usually do it by context.

When I teach my students, I give them the basics (or I like to call the "toolkit") for learning the language. With Mandarin Chinese, I stick to teaching Simplified characters because students can memorize and remember them easily compared to traditional characters (though I can read both types). There are characters such as Zhé, Biáng and Nàng, which you cannot type via PinYin, that catch people out because of there complexity. The great news is that these words aren't used widely, but are instead either made up by people as the name of a local dish, or for descriptive usage.

There are other characters that get there meanings from the pictures- i.e. pictographs (i.e.象形文字). I always split the different Chinese characters into different groups (i.e. pictographs, ideographs, derivative cognates, rebus or phonetic loan characters) as this makes learning Chinese characters easy.

I do have to admit that Chinese is not easy, in the sense that multiple characters can have the same pronunciation. For example, on items of clothing I have seen the characters 兰色instead of 蓝色, which I understand they are trying to say the clothing is blue coloured. 兰色 means nothing, and you can see that using the wrong character can change the context completely.

Its essential to use learning tools, books and websites that give proper learning method, but also the correct pronunciation and correct characters in the correct context. Tones are very important too.


Nice info! I live in 沈阳... And my wife is Chinese.. And I'm determined to get up HSK 6 level :).. Thanks to CvonD1 and everyone else in this thread for an interesting discussion! I'm definitely going to check out all the links posted. My two cents worth is(by scanning through..I'm sure hasn't been mentioned yet...) "trainChinese" app.. Which is free to download and also has many accompanying apps to practice writing etc... It has been updated in last year or so to include and emphasize radical/pronunciation components, etc.. Of each 汉字.. Especially useful is the tone colorings which enables memorizing the tones without effort.. Over time the Chinese words will naturally appear in your brain as these tone colors.. You will understand after downloading the app.. Or otherwise you might be already familiar with this concept from apps such as "Pleco"(another amazing resource). Cheers :)


It also helps to learn several hundred phonetics. Many characters have a radical indicating the general topic, like sun, moon, tree, roof, and so on, together with a character roughly indicating the pronunciation.


洋 (ocean) – this character consists of water 氵 and sheep 羊. Now, it should be obvious that this is not simply a combination of two related characters to form a third related character (such as 木, 林 and 森). Instead, the semantic component 氵 tells us that the character is related to water and 羊 tells us that the character is pronounced the same way as sheep is, i.e. yáng.


Looking up the same example as above, we find

羊yang2: 洋,羊,佯,烊,蛘,徉

Don't try to memorize this all at once. :þ Start by looking up compound characters as you come to them.


Seems promising, but why is it telling me 与 is a sleeping bag? 以 fisherman? 之 Zorro? 向 TV? 不 wasp?

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