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Learning Characters - Methods


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I am wondering what people who have gained experence see as the best methods fro acquisition of character vocabulary. I have been frustrated by the prospect of wanting to get into a book and start reading, yet the task of looking up the characters and finding the pronunciation, and meaning is difficult.

I wonder if people like to start out with basic reader books, or if anyone has any methods to help gain skills in looking up characters? I have found some links to software that will pronounce the characters, as you read, and "makes dictionaries unnecessary". Luddite that I am, I like the idea of getting over the hurdle that it might take to learn to use a Chinese dictionary, and be empowered to look up any word at my pace, instead of being on a guided software tour of the language. I want to be able to live, and experience the language as dynamically as possible.

I have come to believe that basic reader texts are one of the best methods (other than total immersion), of getting into a language. I just would like the freedom of knowing how to maximize my use of a dictionary.

Hey, any recommendations of the best quality dictionaries would be far-out, groovy, and totally, da bomb too.




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there are some very good chinese dictionaries online. all you need to do is, try & find chinese reading matter online. then you highlight any character you want to lookup, cut & paste to dictionary, bingo! then return to text, one character the wiser.

I don't however see how you would be able to do that with printed material.

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personally I find that my visual memory is better than my hearing memory (I can learn stroke-combinations in making characters better than I can recall sounds and tones which leave my head so fast its not even funny :wall:wink: ) but I'm finding it hard to pick characters i should know. A lot of the characters are ambigious by themselves, with several completely different meanings. Some are completely clear cut with one meaning (like 小, etc..) but others are useless without a larger understanding of the language and context.

I would be interested in knowing what 100 characters you chose to learn?

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  • 15 years later...

My suggestion is you can try start learning some easy to remember Chinese characters such as 人,then expand your reading skill with one single character.

For example :  大人 adult;  小人 evil person;  人人 everyone ; 男人 man; 女人 woman...etc. 

Then from that, you expand it again with sentences.  For example : 這個”女人“很高。 See if you can spot the characters you've learned from daily sentences. 

Another way to do so is to spot the daily signs or Chinese menus to improve your reading.

You don't have to understand everything by reading, just by recognizing some keywords, you'll feel so much sense of achievement already as a beginner.

Hope it helps! 

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I’m actually at that long painful stage myself between intermediate and advance level where graded reader books are becoming less interesting but native contents are still too advance. I did a few painful calculations while reading a few native contents and my understanding is around 90-93% at this point. I’m a bit of an obsessive person so originally I just cannot let go of not looking up every word I don’t know but recently I’ve been trying not to do that because I ended up with too many new words that I’d never remember anyway. So when I read now I just read 4-5 pages at a time and just mark the words that I don’t know and potentially could be interesting but I don’t stop, I set a rule of only marking 3-5 words per page (in a page where roughly there are 200 words) and just make peace with it. Then at the end of 4-5 pages, I go back and choose which words I marked that I want to look up. Normally, they would be words that I’ve seen a few times. You can also do this per chapter not every 4-5 pages. I find this to be more enjoyable than looking up words while reading because doing it that way really made the reading process too disjointed and I normally can tell the gist of the story without looking up the unknown words right there and then anyway. 

Not sure if it’s a good method but I’m reading native contents a bit faster and I think I’m becoming better at choosing which words to look up. 

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22 hours ago, amytheorangutan said:

So when I read now I just read 4-5 pages at a time and just mark the words that I don’t know and potentially could be interesting but I don’t stop

I do something similar and I although I am sure of my level, I would say I am also in between intermdeiate and advanced. I've never used a graded reader so since I started reading I've always used native material/content. I think because of that I'm used to ignoring words I don't know and only highlighting the words that stand out the most. I don't worry because the words will always be there for me to come back to. 


On some occasions, with certain material, I will look up every single word. I usually do this when the goal is to get new vocab instead of enjoy what I'm reading.

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I think nobody has invented anything better than flashcards for memorizing Chinese characters. I still use paper flashcards. I write the character on the front of the card and pronunciation & meaning on the back. For characters that cause me difficulties, I also add some example sentences. In addition to paper flashcards, I practice characters with flashcard-based apps with SRS. Currently, I use Hack Chinese. It's pretty good as it has a built-in dictionary with audio, it allows creating custom lists of words for the books I read, and spaced repetition in this app is done well.


I review flashcards for 5-10 minutes every day, this helps me memorize new characters without spending much time on that. I can recall these characters quickly when needed and I retain them reasonably well.


Sometimes I try other techniques for learning vocabulary, like making up stories and pictures of the character's meaning. But they require more time and effort as compared to flashcards and spaced repetition.

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