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Learning characters individually

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I'm just curious what people personally mean by "learning Chinese characters". That is, do you study each character individually (be it meaning, sound, writing, whatever), or go straight to learning sentences/dialogues/passages containing them in use?

I ask this mainly as I have been debating whether to finish Heisig and then start learning to actually read Chinese in whole sentences, or whether to do both at the same time. I can't be bothered working exclusively on characters individually, so I've opted to simultaneously learn to read sentences and the like, many characters of which I may not have seen yet in Heisig I will probably gain a passive recognition of in the meantime.

Is the study of the characters individually actually necessary, in your opinion? Has anyone bypassed that and got straight into reading? Do you recommend this, and why/why not?

Edited by roddy

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There is a lengthy discussion about the relative merits of individual characters Vs sentences in the RTK thread.

My opinion is on the side of words/sentences.

Maybe, if you already started Heisig, can go for a mixed approach:

Take for instance Rapid Literacy in Chinese which plunges straight into sentences and check each character mnemonic in Heisig. (Even better than mnemonics I prefer real etymologies like the ones in http://www.chineseetymology.org/

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Hey Christopher

> do you study each character individually

> (be it meaning, sound, writing, whatever)

Yes, that's the starting the point. Eventually you will have to know all of these - but if you're learning to read first, then you don't have to know the pronunciation, just the meaning.

> straight to learning sentences/dialogues/passages containing them

Chinese isn't an overnight process - so you don't need to do everything at once. I ignored reading & writing for the first couple of years, only focusing on getting conversational. Only in recent weeks have I started learning to read/write - and mentally I'm ready for it. In the last few weeks I've learned nearly 400 characters using the Heisig method.

You can follow my progress here:


At the same time as I'm learnin individual characters using Heisig, I'm learning words (usually made of two characters) using flashcards. These two approaches compliment each other.

> Is the study of the characters individually actually necessary

If you want to read/write, it's essential. If you're happy with spoken Chinese only, then you don't need to. Depends what you want.

But don't think if it as a "task" - it's actually great fun. And as you learn characters, suddenly you can tie them to so many other words. You'll enjoy it as you progress.


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I don't think that anyone will recommend just learning characters and not learning anything else.

I do flashcard characters individually, testing myself on pronunciation and main meaning. I find that this helps both learning new words and retention. But I also learn vocabulary (multi-character words) and read a lot, so I have a source of context.

I think that sample sentences help understand the nuances of a word and the proper way to use it, but in my humble opinion, I'd rather read 100 pages of a good book than prepare 3 example sentences for each of 100 different words, which would probably take much longer too. So I learn words and characters, and couple that with lots of reading, so I see most of them in many different contexts sooner or later.

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