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About Chinese Character learning method

Hi,I'm a native Chinese who have lived in mainland China more than 20 years and still lives here now.I have some advice for western-language native speakers to learn chinese characters.And I really hope this might be taken into the consideration of the duolingo developers for later improvement of Chinese language learning.

Being contrary to the idea that thousands of Chinese characters are almost impossible for foreigners to learn,actually it's relatively easy to learn in terms of its "pianpang/bushou"(various forming components of Chinese characters)and "liushu"(direct translation 'six-scribe',the way how a character is formed)and it's english wiki page->http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_character_classification

Instead of being derived from latin or maybe other ancient language pieces, we know that each chinese character is originally a graph,which makes it important to grasp the form of each component and then relate these graphical symboles' meaning to the final character formed ,and in the end, the "word" you combine using individual characters.It's just like the "word roots" in the alphabetic languages .In the case of european languages,"trans"="from a to b",or "cide "="cut" etc

just one quick show of a simple example!!!Character "林" can be devided from the middle into two identical pictures “木”,which means tree/wood/timber .The original character presented means tree-S or woods.And it can be employed to form a more complex character “森” ,which means forest.There're millions of instances like this in Chinese

just so far.what do you see about this?

May 5, 2013




Makes some good points except the part about it being way more important to speak a foreign language than to write it.

Some people, myself included, are not interested in learning to speak a particular language (at this time) but just want to read and write it.


i wonder why! i can read Cyrillic (Russian) and its of no use to me at all! i would have preferred to speak instead.


Some people who loves literature would love to trade with you.


Well I guess it does depends on the person, but building a system for that will take a while, and as cool as it sounds I don't think its something Duolingo will do soon. The problem is not even the alphabet itself. I don't speak Chinese but I speak Hebrew, and Arabic follows the same rule - to know what sound the letter will make, we don't have vowels but some kind of sign that you draw above/under the letter to know which sound it makes, and when learning new language you can't really learn without them until you will memorize the word (though those signs are never used in everyday life). I think building a system to learn new letters and weird ass signs, is sadly not realistic.


Alright.Here are some facts to consider.

1.Chinese character has a system for writing called "bihua" . A "bihua" or A "bi" , is a stroke.The types of strokes are very few (maybe 10) ,once you have mastered all those types , you can write any character. 2.The different ways of writing a Chinese word used to be influencial,but nowadays I think ignorable. 3.About algrithm.We can set a big box on the top supported by all kinds of strokesw we can draw from(or click first and draw in the box).Then build the character using strokes you've chosen ,the algrithm just do a final recognition in terms of various arguments,and maybe set different levels of accuracy easy/normal/precise.Taken arguments like Graph similarity/Stroke number/Stroke type.Are these three enough?


Actually sound like a good plan, but it will make one hell of a tree in the learning. I know I sounded annoying but I think Duolingo staff are swallowed by suggestions and requests, and we shouldn't add to it something ain't very executable and than ask them why they arent doing it. I think if they ever will add Chinese it will take a long time...


I hope Duolingo will add Mandarin eventually. I have tried to learn it at least three times. I only know like three or four sentences and that's because when my brother was trying to learn Chinese he walked around the house repeating those same three or four lines over and over.

So, I can say "Hi" "My name is ..." and "I love you" "thank you" and "you're welcome". I guess it's five.. I live in a fairly small town and my mother and I have hung out at this little family-run Chinese joint and we talk to them all the time. They have become like family to us! I say "hi" "thanks" and "you're welcome" to them in Chinese. I would like to be able to say more than that.

I think Mandarin is an awesome language. I tried to learn it with LiveMocha once but had trouble retaining the vocabulary (at the time, that was a few years ago) and I also did a sample class from one of those Skype schools based in China. I loved the teacher and memorized some of the sentences (for awhile, that was a year ago) but I couldn't afford to actually pay for the minimum 1 year of school. So, I'm looking into other methods of learning Mandarin. Hopefully, one day Duolingo will add it.

Sorry, my mind wandered.


Have you tried to look into YouTube? :) I have seen some nice videos on YouTube for teaching Mandarins. I myself am reviewing Mandarin so I am making Mandarin videos as well.


I have tried utilizing Youtube to learn other languages and for the most part when I find videos that are just of the person saying phrases and then translating or worse, explaining them, I get bored, zone out, and don't learn anything.

The reason I like Duolingo is because nobody explains the grammar to me. I get it naturally like I did with English.

Please post a link to your videos I'll check them out.


Haha I know how you feel. To make things worse, I have a short attention span so even for some good videos I have to watch multiple times because I can't sit through in one session.

I found this thread very interesting because of the different point of views in learning Mandarin. I just watched one video about grammar earlier, and I couldn't remember being taught grammar. Mandarin is my native language but I don't recall learning about grammar.

I have made 3 videos that are really for learning Mandarin. I am re-examining how I should progress from there because the way how I learned Mandarin in elementary school will be very time consuming and not as efficient for new learners.

My YouTube link is: http://www.youtube.com/user/linbaobei


As much as I love learning Chinese glyphs, I consider it a completely different thing to learning Chinese language. No matter how much you can simplify and explain it for westerners, the language and the writing system are still a massive chasm to jump across - this is why systems like Pīnyīn exist in the first place, to bridge the gap.

The first and most important difference between Chinese and western languages is the tones, which IMO most average westerners have absolutely no appreciation of. Using tones to differentiate words is such an alien concept, that what comes as automatically as breathing to natives almost has to be beaten into us. So Pīnyīn is the only reliable writing method both to demonstrate the tones and test whether they have been correctly learned - and even that is not perfect because there is no obvious way to type e.g. "Pīnyīn" on any western keyboard. There is such an overwhelming ignorance of the existence of the tones that even some professional publishers simply try to pretend they don't exist - I cringe every time I find a Chinese phrasebook with no tones. My relatively recent Lonely Planet has Hanzi and Pīnyīn with tones though, so things must be getting better.

The second thing is that [sorry northernguy, but...] trying to learn read and write before you can hear and speak is like putting the cart before the horse, because learning to read is supposed to be an exercise of attaching sounds that you know into symbols on a page that you don't, and no one learns their own language the other way round! I strongly believe that you should not learn to read a language before you can speak it, because A: all writing systems are terribly inaccurate, you will never develop natural pronunciation this way and B: once you have learned to listen and speak, expanding the reading and writing ability you already know from your own language into a second language is trivial. To let people attempt this the other way round seems like cruel neglect to me...

Trying to learn the shape and sound of the words at the same time one by one is 'barely' possible, but very counter-intuitive. Latin, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Indian, Thai and Korean writing systems can break this rule a little bit, because all of them can more or less be used to represent each others languages and have simple, reconstructible and common principles; but Hanzi is more complex than all of these by a factor of 100, and it confounds our hereditary reading paradigm anyway, because it is not phonetic. I am sure there are plenty of people that would quite like to learn Chinese, but run terrified when confronted with the shock of the true scale Hanzi, and the often said '3000+ glyphs' measure of literacy, well before they reach a point where they have absorbed enough to realise that it is quite possible. This is an unfortunate loss of potential students that is very hard to quantify.

I am not just saying all this, when I was young I lived in Hong Kong for three years, but my primary school had no Chinese language instruction - that was to come in secondary school, which would have been the year after I left (as a side note, I think the same school does have it now). I loved everything about Hong Kong, and even bought books to try and learn hanzi myself, but I think the only glyphs that stuck in my head from that time were ‘出口’ - which you might note is probably only because they appear in bright green in almost every public building ;). My older brother however learned more Cantonese just working in a restaurant kitchen from that time than I ever learned from our 'wonderful' expat school system. I've learned so much more about language since dropping out of school than I ever did at school that it isn't even funny, and I lived abroad most of my youth...

What you must consider is that by the time you started to learn Hanzi in China, you would have already been far more fluent than most beginner foreigners, you would have been surrounded by Hanzi in every direction, you would have been able to ask anyone at any time the meaning of any Hanzi [ the living, interactive, ubiquitously appearing talking dictionary known as your fellow human being :) ], and on top of all of that you would have had enormous social and academic pressure to learn them fluently - not one of these things exists for your average westerner, which makes a task which was probably very difficult for you seemingly impossible for us - much as I am flattered to hear you say we should be perfectly capable of it :)


So in summary, all I would say is that if you really want to make Chinese learning easy for your average foreigner, you sort of have to compromise and use Pīnyīn, at least in order to give us a kick-start. Non-Chinese natives are accustomed to using writing systems that are trivial to learn in comparison to Chinese glyphs, which heavily affects whether they decide to try or not. Everyone who studies Chinese knows about the writing system and is going to want to learn the glyphs as well anyway, but it is critical for us to be able to easily obtain a foundational working understanding of the language first, for mental breathing room.

Despite that essay, I am always searching for ways to make Chinese glyphs easier, from my own perspective, and I hope I will find many strategies worth sharing with others. Hopefully, when Duolingo get around to offering Chinese, they can surprise us as well :)


(Vote me down,all of below will be nonsense) Wow,soooo long ...Thanks for your thought.Firstly I must say your brother is very impressive,Mandarin just got 4 tones.I think Cantonese at least got 9 .

Difficulty is not just for you.I once met a German girl who exchanged to China to learn Chinese.She just can't say 星xing1巴ba1克ke4(Starbucks)'s first sound right, no matter how hard she trys,because there's no corresponding sound in her language(she also speaks English ,I don't know if she speaks other languages too),she had to develop a new sound in her mind in order to continue.It's the same reason why japanese speaks foreign languages so unnatually(no offense) - they just have too little sounds(I saw a TED video says that after 8 months this ability of developing sounds vanishes dramatically) .Here's what I found so amazing in the process of learning English (and later,French),all of the concetps below were new to us.Fundamental as these concepts are,just to show that the concept of tone is not so much a barrier.

1.words can be singular or plural.They will be surprised when you say that you have leg(s) or girlfriend(-)s.

2.verb conjugates.I felt it strange that why can't I say How is you.What have you do?

3.verbs not only conjugate,they have tense.When introducing yourself,you say I'm a boy,not I were a boy.We got only one tense,which we didn't realize that there is one.English got 16 French got 26... Once upon a time I expected that latin will be easy.

4.nouns might have an article,either the/an/a.Same thing to me.(I guess that the difference between an/a must have something to do with the French liason)

5.why cases exist? Do you like I?(Germans are crazy folks)

6.To indicate things someone has must use corresponding adjectives.(my/your/his/her...and more strange mine/yours...I won't say that about French.Still struggling).In Chinese we just add a 的(meaning French de,German von,English of. From French de?Don't know) after the pronoun.Japanese is the same,add 'no' after the pronoun to link the possesor and the object

7.What the XXXX is a noun gender! And a girl is neuter?

8.French people all beat us in math since we were all babies,they knew two-digit multiplication

9."There are" just sounds illogical,why not there have

  1. Almost all words have distinct accent emphasis. ' water is not wa' ter

11.in/at/to/on are different things



I hear and understand you on that - you might find it interesting to know that at one stage old English was as complex or perhaps even more so than German is now. But all of those 'rules' are not really learned, rather they are just absorbed, we don't really dwell so much on the logic of it. The rules are invented afterwards! Giving them names and trying to explain them just makes it harder, because I never think along the lines of 'definite article' 'noun gender' 'verb conjugation' etc, I just copy how everyone else is speaking. It is impossible for me to say 'How is you', just because my brain checks the listening statistics and tells me that's something that I have just made up. The same goes for 'gender' in other European languages;

if I could offer anyone one piece of advice, forget anything about the fact that the thing is called gender, because that is the most terrible and confusing label that has ever been used to describe anything. It's nothing to to with gender, except in a small minority of cases. It is just someone's terrible attempt to explain it that somehow caught on and become ubiquitous. I'm pretty sure that noun gender is universally despised by people that haven't grown up with it and had to learn it, because it frustrates you that you'll probably never get it right while at the same time doesn't even seem to have a purpose. Just try and pay attention to how other people say the nouns, focus on more important stuff, and if you happen to get it wrong sometimes, it is the most functionally useless piece of grammar anyway so it won't really matter :)

Having said that, this exactly why I felt like writing so much about my perspective on Chinese. It's very hard to brush off any one part of language as 'easy', even things that seem as if they should be simple can actually difficult and need a lot of effort to make someone understand. I wasn't trying to say that the tones are a barrier to learning Chinese, I was just saying that if you don't specifically put a lot of energy and focus on teaching tonally, IE reminding beginners every 30 seconds or less with no mercy for mistakes until they just 'get it', then it's just hard/impossible to pay attention to them. There is too much temptation to just ignore them, and people would be wasting a lot of effort learning Chinese that they would later find out sounds really bad.

That's why I thought it was unwise to try and describe hanzi as 'easy' - it's better to say "well honestly, they are very hard, but if you do this this and this, then you will be able to learn them." - or people will think to themselves "well, this is supposed to be easy, so obviously there is something about my brain that isn't good enough". And if I think back at all the steps I have taken just to learn a few hundred of them, then maybe if I had known a few things first, I could have learned a lot more a lot faster.


sounds intresting


The example above is just one out of six major ways of generating a Chinese character.Basicly you just play with the shapes,like a Tangram


as the chinese character has been simplified since 1950, many characters are hard to be understood in this way.


What you said is partially true.The pianpang still constitues a very effective tool in categorizing characters.Actually there's a way of litterally "spelling the character" on your computer called"wubizixing(五笔字型)" input method,using basic pictures to spell the whole.This method's effectiveness and practicality are wildly-recognized by chinese people,and in fact taken as a job requirement for typers,which also serves as an indicator of this method's value. The traditional method I described not only valuable in its own right,which is to help you learn the characters,but also paves the way for the later process of forming these characters into words.If you are not aware of these rules you're using to form the character,the subtle differences among similiar words won't be appreciated,especially in choosing verbs.

The pinyin method adopted in 79 is the system sorts the characters by phonetic similarity .I think it is not a good way to form one's character landscape.


Is 五笔 mandatory for job even with how much Pin Yin system has improved? I have seen some really amazing improvement with Pin Yin where you can just type in the initial letters and Pin Yin can grab the words that you try to output. I have always used Pin Yin (I think I failed to learn 五笔 a few years back haha).


BTW,we use this pianpang method to look up in a dictionary


I agree! I've been trying to learn Hanzi in a similar way, but haven't been able to stick to it. Plus, it's a bit time consuming to try and figure out the best schedule and way to study Hanzi in this way. If Duolingo could provide already made lessons and exercises to practice in this way, that would be amazing!


Ne vous inquietez pas! Just try your best.We've spent the whole primary school's Chinese classes just to learn the characters.And yet,in the Chinese subject of the national college entrance exam(Chinese SAT,takes place one time per year on June 78.),the first question is on the character ,most of us just count on our luck.Forget about our peers in Taiwan.

btw,I love your picture,it's a bear.^_^


Cocoon+moon+ladle+ladle+fire [or is it grass?] = Bear? Quelle logique! :)


Thank you for your comments.

I have always wondered why the Chinese written language is portrayed as impossible for westerners to learn since it uses ideograms. True, over the centuries many will have become quite stylized and not too intuitive. But still the basic building blocks should be accessible with some practice.


Yes,all things seems intimidating must be treated by a equal heart.A person who pursues a foreign language at least will fall above the medium intelligence area in a normal distribution graph.We have no right to assume others nor ourselves to be somewhat less smart.The learning process takes as much off you as the natives. Plus,the learning peak is in one's 20s.And with the living experences we already have,we don't have to figure out what's behind "a name",but to focus on giving words "another name".So,it's actually more efficient.


Where did you get the information that learning peak is in one's 20s? I heard a lot of in teen age but first time hearing 20s.


I think it would be cool to learn a language like Chinese here, but the problem with it is indeed the letters. Duolingo doesn't even teach languages that use different types of letters instead of latin ones - Hebrew,Russian,Arabic... will be awhile before it will progress there, not to mention progress to Chinese and this kind of languages.


It doesn't have to,solutions can be plenty.Do you think that people don't speak English can't use a computer since the keyboard only have english characters? We can treat different kind of strokes as corresponding keys on the keyboard,or make strokes as an alphabet and use mouse to drag them,given that the types of strokes are finite and are small in number.

Major solutions to chinese typing are worthwhile to study.

Maybe this picture will bring a new perspective, pay attention to deviding lines in the square. http://news.liangguidong.com/SESH/UploadFiles_6265/200907/2009071117241511.jpg


I didn't mean it's impossible, what I meant is that in my opinion, Duolingo will first teach this kind of languages- that use a different alphabet but still some kind of alphabet, before moving to languages like Chinese that use a totally different way of writing. I would be happy to see both kinds here.


Me too.It IS hard indeed.I think it might be possible for the duolingo right now just to teach the pronounciation,and put off the character part.It is a suggestion after all, I'll be more happy to use it if that happens.


If they added a mutiple choice to teach the chinnese charactors. Then, I belive it is possibe to teach the languge. (for later use when it becomes avalible.) They also could add a mouse stroke to create the chatactors.


I think it would be better to study it in Pinyin on Duolingo and use it alongside another course like Memrise and FastChinese.org. If they taught it in Pinyin you could take your knowledge of how to speak and "travel" with it, so to speak. It would be a lot easier for Duolingo to create the course in Pinyin and it would come out faster.


So many problems pop into my head just by hearing this. They will need to make new algorithms, find ways to check how precise you were, when it's way more important to know how to speak a language than to write it.The problems gets even bigger because in languages like hebrew and Arabic there are TWO different alphabets (formal, everyday one) and if I'm not wrong Chinese got some different ways to write it as well. don't get me wrong, I would love to learn those languages here, but I think i will requires a whole new learning system. The only way I see possibly is learning those languages using latin alphabet in order to indicate the sound, and without learning to write in that language.

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