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How Do Chinese People Memorize Characters?

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Shi Tong

A certain amount of repetition is completely essential. Even if it is boring. I usually repeat the words I want to learn about 10 times each, then I list the new words in pinyin below and write them one by one in sequence.

When I do a large drill, I drill around 200 characters at a time, and just write from a pre written pinyin list.

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renzhe
If you need to 'drill more' then you just read or write more on a particular subject. It'll all come naturally.

In theory, you are right, and reading and listening a lot has many of the same benefits that boring SRS flashcards do.

But unfortunately, it didn't work out for me. And one of the reasons is that there is simply not enough material for beginner learners out there that they can read. In fact, anything you can read that uses 100 characters only is bound to suck. Same with 500 characters. Nothing against Chinese Breeze and others resources which are trying hard to fill this niche and provide useful tools for learners, but you would not be reading any of that if you didn't absolutely have to.

If I were to spend a year in a monastery near Xi'an, surrounded by friendly teachers and Chinese literature and did nothing but learn Chinese, I wouldn't touch flashcards :) Unfortunately, I'm working full time, and Chinese is a hobby done in spare time. SRS was one of the most important discoveries for me. Reading a lot was the other. In my case, they went hand-in-hand. The one made the other much easier.

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XiaoXi

This is odd to say the least. The general message I'm getting from everyone is that reading a book is boring, reading a book with only 500 words must be boring, you'd all rather be writing individual characters out a million times over or viewing a list of randomly sequenced flashcards. Is that right? Just say yes and I'll be on my way.

The title of this thread is how do Chinese memorise characters...that has been answered. Chinese kids certainly find enough reading material beyond Hanyu Feng so go ask them what they read. If it means you need to read 喜羊羊 then so be it. It beats sitting in front of your computer running through SRS flash cards. Plus you'll be learning the all important grammar as well how to use the new words you learn in context. No one could argue that that is not the best method to learn vocabulary - for any language.

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skylee

The title of this thread is how do Chinese memorise characters...that has been answered.

Indeed. Why do you sound upset?

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anonymoose

One advantage of SRS is that you can drill characters or vocabulary that simply does not crop up frequetly enough in ordinary materials for them to implant into your memomry. Maybe this is less of an issue for beginners, but when you get to 3000 or 4000 characters and still want to expand your repertoire, SRS does have it value. Unfortunately I've let my SRSing slip for the last couple of months.

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renzhe

This is odd to say the least. The general message I'm getting from everyone is that reading a book is boring, reading a book with only 500 words must be boring, you'd all rather be writing individual characters out a million times over or viewing a list of randomly sequenced flashcards. Is that right?

You might be assuming too much here. Many of us do read many books (at least I know that I do). I don't know why you're upset either.

Some disciplined character and vocab study (including SRS) can really help you to read books, in my experience. It's not an either-or proposition. For me, disciplined vocab study was the key that made it possible to actually read stuff. Stuff like Lu Xun, not Doraemon.

But as far as how Chinese people memorise characters, every single one I know has learned them by writing repeatedly as a child.

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Zomac

everyone could recognize more than 300 trademarks.

Let's simplify them into writable formats, we would possess the knowledge of 300 characters now.

If we could make them logically related and built a set of new "logos" based on these roots, there would be hundreds of thousands characters.

Characters like 茬, 踟, 茈, 澬, 沶 are obsolete and most Chinese don't know them.

How long would they take it to learn to write it?

I guess, 1 minute.

If something could be read by 1 billion people, it couldn't be too hard.

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renzhe

Sounds very easy.

You should write a book :D

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Shi Tong
vocabulary that simply does not crop up frequetly enough in ordinary materials for them to implant into your memomry

I totally agree- I would never have know the characters for 端午节 unless someone actually made me read them, and I wouldn't have heard this vocabulary to memorise it if it wasn't in a book, because the only one I've heard is 龙舟节.

Maybe 端午节 is "useless", but the characters on their own (particularly 午 and 节 are very useful), especially in context.

I personally think that of course, with Chinese children, or children who are constantly exposed to this language, they learn a lot by osmosis, just being in situ and seeing/ hearing things, taking them in context and asking questions. For most of us, who are learning overseas, the only way to pick up on really unusual things is to get them from books.

I think there is a lot of value in chatting on something like MSN typing, because this does teach grammar and commonly used vocabulary- but that doesn't mean you're learning to read anything but colloquial street spoken speech, it will not make you a literary competant.

And reading texts which are only around the 500-800 character mark are few and far between- I cant see how I'm going to read anything "useful" until I get to 1000, which unfortunately means I have to ram the characters into my head until I remember them.

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XiaoXi

You might be assuming too much here. Many of us do read many books (at least I know that I do). I don't know why you're upset either.

Some disciplined character and vocab study (including SRS) can really help you to read books, in my experience. It's not an either-or proposition. For me, disciplined vocab study was the key that made it possible to actually read stuff. Stuff like Lu Xun, not Doraemon.

Some study of radicals can be beneficial and studying the characters themselves, origins etc but I don't see the point in flashcards and such when natives don't do that.

But as far as how Chinese people memorise characters, every single one I know has learned them by writing repeatedly as a child.

So they got all 9000 memorised before they were 5 eh? They continued to acquire characters in exactly the same way we acquired English words over time. By usage from childhood, through adolescence etc. Did you ever use flashcards to learn English words when you grew up and if not why not?

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renzhe
So they got all 9000 memorised before they were 5 eh?

This thread is useful.

They memorise about 2,500 in about four years.

Most of them will acquire additional 1,000 to 1,500 passively through reading over time, but this is after they have a very good basis in characters and phonetic elements. You simply don't have that yet when you can only read 300 characters.

If you want to learn like a native, you need to sit down for three years and write characters over and over again. Flashcards are actually the less hardcore solution :)

They continued to acquire characters in exactly the same way we acquired English words over time. By usage from childhood, through adolescence etc. Did you ever use flashcards to learn English words when you grew up and if not why not?

Personally, I had never used flashcards for other languages (though I did write interesting words in a notebook, and it turned out to be a really long list).

The difference is -- it worked for other languages, it did not work for Chinese. I could read and write German at a high level after one year. If you can do the same with Chinese without using any hardcore memorisation, then I will be extremely impressed.

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XiaoXi
They memorise about 2,500 in about four years.

No, they write characters out over and over again. We did the same with English but with sentences. It helps develop writing ability.

If you want to learn like a native, you need to sit down for three years and write characters over and over again. Flashcards are actually the less hardcore solution :)

That is what Chinese do but it is not how they memorise so many characters. I was taught English grammar at school but it is also not how I learned to speak English with correct grammar. All these things are naturally acquired by speaking, listening, reading and writing.

You learn more grammar from listening to someone explain the rules of grammar than you do from the actual rules they are explaining.

Personally, I had never used flashcards for other languages (though I did write interesting words in a notebook, and it turned out to be a really long list).

The difference is -- it worked for other languages, it did not work for Chinese. I could read and write German at a high level after one year. If you can do the same with Chinese without using any hardcore memorisation, then I will be extremely impressed.

Why do you need hardcore flashcard memorisation - because some words you do not come across very often in reading, listening etc? Well if you don't then you won't learn those words so well and may have forgotten them by the next time you bump into them...but it doesn't matter 'cos they are not quite so common words! The same happens in English. There are several words I've come across but forgotten the meaning the next time I heard them. I didn't feel I needed to drill them with flashcards..

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anonymoose

Regarding the "not quite so common words", taken individually, maybe you will rarely come across them, but taken as a whole still constitute quite a substantial portion of the language, and without them, you will not be able to achieve a high level of reading comprehension.

Everybody is different, and maybe some people can remember new vocabulary just having seen it once or twice, but personally, I found my reading skill improved substantially when I made a special effort to try and remember the less frequently encountered vocabulary as well. To a large extent, this task was facilitated with the use of SRS.

As a few examples, just off the top of my head, are vocabulary items such as 赦免、 气馁、 旖旎、 筚路蓝缕、 邂逅、 小觑、 炯炯有神、 奚落 and so on. The chance of meeting any one of them is quite low, but of the hundreds or thousands of phrases in this category, you are bound to meet at least one or two when reading an article in a newspaper or 读者.

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renzhe
That is what Chinese do but it is not how they memorise so many characters.

How can you be so sure?

A kid entering school in China can usually not read very well, if at all. Then four years later, they can read 2,500 characters. A substantial part of those 4 years is spent copying characters over and over.

It certainly plays a big role in the memorisation process.

Why do you need hardcore flashcard memorisation

I'm not saying that you need it.

I'm just saying that without hardcore flashcard memorisation, my Chinese was very basic, and I could not read more than 100-150 characters, after years of study and casual reading. After starting brute force studying and revision of characters (and vocab), I got to reading real books in less than two years.

I'm saying that it really worked for me. I hate studying. I absolutely hate it. But it worked.

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Zomac

As far as i can remember (bad memory), I didn't write over 2500 characters again and again in my childhood. You surely need to do it on parts of them (maybe lesser than 300?) but many characters share common roots and have logical relation. Our infererence ability should be able to deal with them well. Some characters were learned when i was getting old ,like 勘, 酹, 憲, 儉, 詭, 霾, 歇.

I think XiaoXi and Renzhe are right on this to certain extent. Native speakers have millions of chances to immerse themselves in the language. It'd be unimaginable how these exposure wouldn't help them memorize the characters. But for non native speakers, flash card is possibly the only way to go.

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chinopinyin

I have asked this same question to native Chinese speakers in Livemocha. Here is a selection of responses:

  1. But,interest is the most important.so try to develop the interest in it. Maybe you'll find that it's not a boring thing.
  2. Learning Chinese is really a hard work! Of course, you need to read more, write more and practise more.
  3. Because when we were very young, our teacher always asked us to repeat the same thing for many times @@ so boring but I think it's useful for us. Because if you learn many words by repeating them, they'll be very difficult to forget. On the other hand, you can also remember other words very easily in the future 'cuz you've remembered so many things.
  4. Practise is very important too, you can chat more with Chinese! My MSN:

Some of them also mentioned the value of learning radicals.

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XiaoXi

How can you be so sure?

A kid entering school in China can usually not read very well, if at all. Then four years later, they can read 2,500 characters. A substantial part of those 4 years is spent copying characters over and over.

It certainly plays a big role in the memorisation process.

If its such a good method then why stop doing it after 4 years? Surely you need to keep doing it on and on. Especially since after the first 2500 characters, the characters you learn after that will definitely be the less frequently seen ones. ie the ones you say you said you needed to learn by flashcards rather than reading.

Let me ask you, what do you think the Chinese learn about the meaning of a character when they write it out over and over again? The pronunciation? No? Do they in fact learn anything other than how to physically write them? I'm sorry but that method is not really akin to flashcards.

I think you'll find in those first four years Chinese children also write and read simple sentences and stories. That way they learn the pronunciation of said characters, the meaning and usage.

I'm not saying that you need it.

I'm just saying that without hardcore flashcard memorisation, my Chinese was very basic, and I could not read more than 100-150 characters, after years of study and casual reading. After starting brute force studying and revision of characters (and vocab), I got to reading real books in less than two years.

I'm saying that it really worked for me. I hate studying. I absolutely hate it. But it worked.

Ok fair enough, each to his own. I'm just trying to explain how the Chinese memorise the characters.

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realmayo
but I don't see the point in flashcards and such when natives don't do that.

Why is there this idea that doing the same as natives is the best way to learn a second language? They are learning their FIRST language! And in this case, they are already very good at speaking Chinese.

Before they start learning Chinese characters, Chinese children walk around wearing trousers with a slash in the seat, pissing and crapping in the street. Is this recommended too? Would I know more characters if I'd used the "Slit Rear Seat" SRS method rather than the "Spaced Repetition System" one?

People say learning characters and words in isolation is unnatural: you could say the same thing about learning how to write "a", "b" "c" individually -- but it is sensible & saves a lot of time. Why learn how to SAY "I" and "tomorrow" and "China" when you could just "pick them up" over time -- because it is sensible & saves a lot of time. Why do long-distance runners and sprinters and hurdlers all spend some time in the gym? Because there are advantages to isolating a skill/muscle and improving it efficiently and quickly, and then reaping the reward when you run your main event (or read the next chapter of your Chinese novel).

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Zomac

every time I'm told by Chinese that characters are so difficult, I always feel puzzled. Every classmate in my childhood seems to be pretty capable of memorizing characters in a very short time and I don't even think of any stressful experience at learning it.

Major problems were bie-zi(別字) and the picky marking scheme. Biz-zi is akin to misspelling; the later one seems only to happen in Chinese language class. Let say, you're writing 国, but you miss a dot in 王. The character is still comprehensible, but the teachers were trained to have a sharp eye to catch them all, saying that you made a mistake. 5 marks deducted. It's science exam!

I did have stressful experience at learning a language. I had to repeat vocab all the time, had a long word list written on my handy notebook ... it's English.

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XiaoXi

Why is there this idea that doing the same as natives is the best way to learn a second language?

We're merely answering the title of this thread.

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