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Kelby

Making something about radicals and I don't want it to suck. Suggestions?

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Kelby

Hi Folks,

 

     So here's the skinny. I've been running a dinky little website about learning Chinese as a hobby for about a year and a half. Over that time, I've gotten a small, motley group of beginners who have signed up for my weekly newsletter (Disclaimer: I'm not promoting my site here, I'm honestly asking for advice). The group's great, and I've been doing some simple question and answer stuff, but I got the idea to make something a little more involved to distribute to everyone at Christmas as a thank you for signing up. I ran a poll, and the results show that they're most interested in a small email course about radicals. This isn't surprising, as most people find my site by google searching for stuff about radicals because that word is in the domain.

 

     The research I've been doing and my own thining has got me a little tied about doing this.

 

First, I and a lot of people I've asked about this project don't find learning radicals very useful. Naturally they're good for when:

  • You're trying to identify what component to look a character up under.
  • The semantic component of a character is a radical.
  • You have no idea where to start when learning characters.

Honestly that's all I've got. Now, my original idea was to go through the list and make visual aids with attached descriptions and examples of how Kanxi radicals can be used to affect characters semantically. The more I think about this, the less useful this feels though. I made a mockup of a lesson and sent it to everyone as a preview and didn't get any feedback one way or the other, so I'm not really sure whether this is what they are looking for.

 

I've been banging my head against the wall about how to make something useful for the list and here's the stuff I've come up with.

  • Do a mini-course on useful semantic components instead.
  • Do a mini-course on characters with different forms (e.g., 金钅,手扌,食饣,etc) instead.
  • Just bowl forward with my original plan anyway and hope people are satisfied.

Honestly, there's not a lot to lose here because it's free (well, there are autoresponder email fees but those don't really count).

 

Anyway,

  • Old hats: which one of these would be most useful to a beginner?
  • Beginners: Which one of these would you find most useful?

Kind regards and thanks for any feedback.

 

 

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Shelley

I don't feel I am either an old hat or a beginner but from my point of view looking up characters in dictionaries is one of the main uses for radicals.

 

Your idea about the variant forms of radicals would probably be most useful for beginners and others as this still catches me out after years of study.

 

Also the most misunderstood radicals ie the ones that disguise themselves as it were, is the radical the top stroke or is the the dian at the very top or is both? Sorry not very well explained, but I think you get my meaning.

 

The more obscure radicals are the ones perhaps to concentrate on, not at the expense of the others but hone the lessons to the more difficult ones.

Hope this helps.

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Lu

Perhaps don't write about all the radicals but instead pick the 20/30/whatever most frequently seen and do a rundown on them? Original form, all possible radical forms, other radicals that look like that one but are in fact not that one, approximate meaning range, and a mnemonic (either a silly story or a real etymological explanation or something else). And then perhaps not all of them in one big list, but a 'radical of the day' for the days leading up to Christmas (or the 'five radicals of the day', or whatever).

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Auberon

I second concentration on obscure radicals; not necessary obscure in the sense of seldom used, but obscure in that the radical assigned to a character is not obvious or arbitrary. I doubt anyone has any difficulty with 手 / 扌  or  心 /忄. However, I remember trying to find 亞 in a paper dictionary a while back and I was cursing the heavens before I finally realised it was listed under 二! It's often the simplest radicals that pose the most problems; the ones with lots of strokes are hard to miss.

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Kelby

Excellent ideas! Thanks so much you guys, I think those can go a long way. 

 

I'll make sure to write back with how it goes after I send it out. 

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Demonic_Duck

If I were you I'd focus more on semantics, rather than their use as dictionary lookup. I think these days, what with the many options for handwriting recognition and OCR that are available, looking up characters by radical is of limited use.

 

You'd certainly be offering something of value to learners by focusing on how the semantics of a radical might not be what you expect, and how the forms can change, for example:

 

  • Whenever “贝” is a radical, you can be reasonably sure the meaning is related to money, and not to shells (due to shells being used as money in ancient times). Examples: “账”、“财”、“货”、“购”.
  • Although you'd probably first associate “示” with “表示”, words with the “示” radical (“礻”) are normally related to things that are sacred or religious in nature. Examples: “礼”、“神”、“福”、“祝”、“祈”.
  • “阝” is “阜” (mound) on the left, but “邑” (city) on the right. Examples: “队”、“附”、“阿” are “阜”, but “都”、“那”、“部” are “邑”(saying that, the semantics are pretty cloudy for any of these to be honest, except for “都” when it's “dū”, as in “首都”).
  • “月” is shorthand for “肉” in all but a few circumstances. Examples: “肤”、“肠”、“肌”、“肝”、“腰” are all “肉”, but “期”、“朗”、“朝” are “月” (semantics much more evident here, except perhaps for “朝”). I would suggest something similar's going on here with the left/right thing, but according to Pleco the radical for “服” is also “月”. Perhaps it can be stated as a general rule, with exceptions.
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OneEye

But radicals are for looking up characters in a dictionary. Their sole purpose is to sort characters into sections of a dictionary based on a shared graphic component ("radical" isn't a good translation of the term anyway: 部首 = "section head"). They often overlap with meaning components, but they're not the same thing.

 

I actually just finished writing a blog post about radicals yesterday, but it hasn't been posted yet. My hope is that it illuminates the difference between radicals and meaning components and demonstrates why you should focus on the latter unless you need to be able to look up characters by radical in a traditionally-arranged Chinese dictionary (and even then, you should still focus on meaning components, but also learn the radicals). I'll link to it in this thread when it comes out.

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Demonic_Duck

I guess what I'm saying is that that overlap is what's going to be more interesting and useful to the majority of Chinese learners.

 

Also I suppose the “阝” thing was a red herring from that respect, as a lot of those characters don't seem to have any semantic relation at all to either mounds or cities.

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lechuan

@OneEye, wouldn't the most common radicals also be some of the most useful meaning components?

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OneEye
I guess what I'm saying is that that overlap is what's going to be more interesting and useful to the majority of Chinese learners.

 

I agree. But they should learn them as meaning components. If they're learning radicals, the conversation needs to be about dictionary lookup. If they want to know how characters work (etymology), then it needs to be about meaning components. Getting the terminology straight helps to prevent confusing statements like "radicals are the building blocks of characters." They're not. Sound and meaning components are.

 

 

 

Also I suppose the “阝” thing was a red herring from that respect, as a lot of those characters don't seem to have any semantic relation at all to either mounds or cities.

 

I'd have to look into it to be sure, but most likely it does have a semantic relationship. It's just that words change in meaning over time, so you have to look at the character's original meaning to know for sure. The only meaning that has a direct relationship to a character's form is its original meaning (本義), not any extended meanings (引申義) or borrowed meanings (假借義), so that's the one you have to look at. The classic example here is 漢. The water component is there because it was originally the name of a river. It later got extended to the people who lived near the river and so on, to the point that today it refers to an ethnicity and the connection to water is not immediately apparent.

 

 

 

@OneEye, wouldn't the most common radicals also be some of the most useful meaning components?

 

Yes, but they are still two different things. A component can play the role of "radical," but whether it plays that role or not is up to the editor of a dictionary (who decided that 變 would get filed under 言, but 蠻 would get filed under 虫?). It's not an inherent part of the nature of that component. What is inherent to a component is its function as either a sound or meaning component (or as a stand in for a previous form that has been corrupted), and that's why functional components are the building blocks of characters, not radicals. The notion of "radical" didn't come along until the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years. So the people who created the vast majority of characters weren't thinking about radicals, they were thinking about sound and meaning components.

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Shelley

Why don't you post it here so we can see the results of our input. It would be interesting to see what you end up doing.

 

Or post the link so we can choose to join your email list.

 

Hope it goes well.

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Altair

One approach might be to answer some proposed FAQs.  Below is one way you might start, supplementing each answer with more or less detail as desired as other posters have indicated.

 

1a.  Questions: What are "radicals"?

 

b. Answer: This term actually tends to cover three distinct things that have a large overlap.  They are, in increasing order of inclusiveness : (1) characters and/or character components used as traditional chapter headings in Chinese dictionaries (部首), (2) a component of a character that tends to classify its meaning (义符 or maybe 形旁), rather than giving its sound (声旁), and (3) any component of a character with an associated meaning (similar to 偏旁).  Group 1 is included in Group 2, and both Groups 1 and 2 are included in Group 3.

 

2a.  How many radicals are there?

 

b. Answer:  Through history, there have been varying numbers of radicals considered 部首, but modern dictionaries are generally based on the 214 radicals of the 1716 Kangxi Dictionary, supplemented with simplified radicals, where necessary.  There are many hundreds of 义符/形旁 and even more 偏旁.

 

3a.  Question: How can learning radicals help me learn to read or write Chinese?

 

b. Answer: Learning the 214 偏旁 helps in using a traditional dictionary, but is not really necessary for a beginner or intermediate student, since other methods usually work almost as well or better.  Even those focusing on Mainland usage and who have mastered Chinese tend to look up words by pinyin and guesswork first, before resorting to 部首.  Learning some 形旁, which may or may not be 部首, helps to learn the meanings of many characters, since it can give you some visual association with the meaning.  Learning 偏旁, which may or may not be 部首or 形旁, helps you to learn to breakdown Chinese characters into more digestible bits.  Those fluent in the script do not learn new characters stroke by stroke, but generally component by component.

 

4a  Question:  Which radicals should I learn as a beginner?

 

b.  Answer:  This is a tough question, and potentially the most important.  It is perfectly possible to learn Chinese without focusing on radicals at all, simply learning characters one by one and eventually learning to recognize individual components as they repeat or as you learn the characters they represent by themselves.  Such a method, however, would throw away some easy wins.

 

About two thirds (?) of the 部首 are of some help in learning characters.  The others are just arbitrary means of classifying characters in the dictionary or cover too few characters be worth it.  How much help the 部首 can give depends on the character and your particular method of learning characters.  The potential list of 义符/形旁 and 偏旁 would include all these 部首, but would also include many more components.  This longer list would be most helpful for those learners who like to learn the etymology of characters and use that as part of their learning method.  Probably a good way to start for any beginner would be with 10-50 部首 radicals, and their various forms.  As you learn more characters, you can gradually increase your understanding of 义符/形旁 and 偏旁.

 

5a.  How should I learn the radicals?

 

b.  (Refer to or provide an appropriate list of radicals to learn).  Depending on your preferred learning method, consider learning the etymological image that lies behind a radical, its general meaning, and the strokes needed to write it.  Also check it if it comes in variant forms depending on where it appears in a character.

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Kelby

@Demonic_Duck: I love the idea of focusing on covering some of the most common and useful semantics, although it seems a little ambitious. Perhaps taking a grab bag of examples guided by what appears in the Kanxi radical list would be a good way to pare it down from a full scale survey of thousands of characters. I'd love to do so but my time is pretty limited by my full time job.

 

@OneEye: Thanks for pulling the difference between radicals and components into this discussion. That's definitely something that the newbies on my list won't know about. For them radical just means part of a character. One of the primary distinctions I planned to make in my intro to the course was the difference and why it's important. This could lead into a good follow up after I've covered the basics in this mini-course. Care to link us to that article you're putting out? Sounds like a great read.

 

@Shelley: I'll absolutely put everything up for the great members of Chinese forums to check out, especially after all the help everyone's offered. If there's any interest in joing the list and following along I'd be happy to throw another thread up in a few months (I don't want this thread to turn this thread into a self-promotion one, lol).

 

@Altair: I love the idea of a FAQ. That could fit perfectly into an intro or conclusion to the course.

 

Here's the table of contents I've come up with:

  1. Intro and FAQ
  2. Radicals and Components.
    1. An introduction to the different functions of character components.
  3. Radicals in dictionary lookup.
    1. An explanation of how to break a character down to its parts and use those parts to derive meaning.
  4. Components in different forms.
    1. A survey of some common components that take different forms but retain their meaning.
  5. Confusable components
    1. A survey of some common components that look alike but hold different meanings.
  6. Semantic components
    1. A look at some components that commonly affect the meaning of characters they are attached to.

As for the timing:

  • In the background I'll assign an anki list as homework, with 30-60 radicals/components in total.
  • The course will begin on a Sunday and end on a Friday to take advantage of peoples' schedules.

Any thoughts on the structure?

 

Also, I'm a little tied on when to hold this mini-course. In a perfect world I'd just turn it into an autoresponder series and people could go through at their leisure, but holding it at one time will help to keep costs down. I'm thinking one of these times:

  • The week before Thanksgiving: Nov. 16-21
  • The week before Christmas: Dec. 14-19

Any thoughts on the timing?

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Lu

If you have non-American readers, Thanksgiving won't mean anything to them. I suppose they won't mind getting interesting emails whatever the timing, but there won't be a 'special occasion' feel to it. If you have time or can program things to be sent automatically, perhaps consider the week from Christmas to New Year. People won't have much to do, so they'll have more time for your emails, and the minicourse will also give them a good excuse to spent a little bit of time away from the family (if they are so inclined. Can you tell I don't like Christmas...)

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Shelley

As Lu says for non Americans Thanksgiving doesn't exist, so not a problem.

 

From my point of view the week before Christmas is the busiest week of the year for my business, this would be the worst time for me personally.

 

Glad you are happy to share, will keep an eye out for more info.

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OneEye

Here's the article I mentioned before, as a guest post at Hacking Chinese.

 

Another key difference between radicals and functional components is just that: function. For instance, if you look at 部, the functional components are 咅 (pǒu, the sound component) and 邑/阝 (the meaning component). That's it. 立 and 口 are both components, but they don't have any function, so they're not functional components in 部, though they are in other characters. The important thing is to know how the components function within a given character. Thinking in terms of radicals completely misses this point.

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hedwards

@OneEye were'd you get that impression? Radicals were selected and differentiated from other components for use in dictionaries, but you could say that letters in English are for looking up words as well. Whereas in practice the radicals and letters are used for writing the words as well as identifying similar looking words from each other. I hope that analogy explains the flaw in your reasoning.

 

I focus on radicals because it greatly simplifies the task of memorizing and learning to write new characters. What's more, the radicals themselves often times represent a hint about what the character means and how it should be pronounced. Obviously, that's limited, but it does help a bit.

 

If we're just wanting to look up words, radicals are a poor method for indexing characters as you don't necessarily know which radical should be used and then you've got stroke count that isn't always easy to identify if you don't already know the character.

 

As far as the topic goes, I'd probably focus on the most common ones first and then over time expand to include the rest of them. There's a bit over 200 radicals and about another 200 or so components and learning a few at a time makes a huge difference for the purpose of reading and writing characters.

 

@Shelley, Canadians have Thanksgiving as well, they just celebrate it on Columbus Day.

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Shelley

Yes, I know, I was born in Canada, but it was never quite the same holiday it is in the USA. It is also not as close to Christmas so there is less holiday hype going on around it.

 

Having lived in the states and Canada I have noticed a different attitude surrounding Thanksgiving.

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OneEye

hedwards, I have to ask if you've read my article. Particularly the section called "So what are radicals, really?" I recommend reading it, as it will clear up some of your confusion about radicals vs. meaning and sound components.

 

I agree that these days, radicals aren't the best way to index characters. That doesn't change the fact that the purpose of radicals (部首 — read the article for explanation) is indexing and looking up characters. If you want to talk about components that "represent a hint about what the character means and how it should be pronounced," then you're talking about functional components [偏旁], not radicals [部首] or components [部件].

 

In the example of 部 above, the radical is 邑/阝. That's the radical not because of any intrinsic quality it has, but because a dictionary editor decided it should be filed in that section of the dictionary. That is precisely what the term 部首 means: 邑/阝 is the "head" [首] character of that section [部] of the dictionary.

 

There are two functional components [偏旁] in 部: a meaning component [邑/阝] and a sound component [咅]. There are also two components which are not functional [部件]: 立 and 口. They have nothing to do with either the meaning or the sound of the character (hence "non-functional").

 

Hopefully this clears things up.

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hedwards

@OneEye,

 

I don't think I'm confused here, the difference between functional components and radicals is completely meaningless in this context in the same way that stroke order and stroke count are often times meaningless. In order to know any of those, you have to already know the character. Yes, you often times can know that by looking at following rules, but it's not always clear what is present without looking it up.

 

Now, if you've looked the character up or know it and are trying to study it in an academic context things like that might matter. But, for the purpose of learning new characters I just don't see that as being viable or useful. And besides, you can't assign purpose based upon something that's so recent for something that's as old as Chinese characters are.

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