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Learn Mandarin: Reading, Writing and Chinese Characters

If you are learning Mandarin with the intent on reaching fluency, then you will need to begin learning to read at some time or another. In this section, we will look at reading, writing and Chinese characters.

Origin of characters

When historians refer to the age of `Chinese civilization`, they are, in fact, referring to China`s writing system, or characters. Characters begin as ideographs, much like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and slowly over time evolved into what you see today. The first characters were found engraved on turtle shells and the shoulder blades of oxen-these are called oracle bones. Oracle bones were used by the ruling elite class of China`s ancient dynasties as a mode of divination; a way of speaking with their dead ancestors. Shamans would transcribe a question onto a bone and then heat the bone over a fire. Once the bone reached a certain temperature, it would crack. The direction of the crack would answer the shaman`s question.

Traditional versus simplified

Today there are two forms of characters: traditional and simplified. Simplified characters are used throughout most of mainland China, whereas traditional are used mostly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Which type of characters you choose to learn is a personal choice. However, serious learners of Chinese will likely want to be able to read both. For example, someone who knew only how to read simplified characters would be unable to appreciate the wealth of literature, history, etc. that comes out of Hong Kong and Taiwan, as most of those books are written in traditional characters. Also, those interested in learning classical Chinese will find knowing traditional characters beneficial. Most Chinese seem to be able to read both scripts.

The best way to learn characters

There is no easy way to learn Chinese characters. Mnemonics seem to stretch too far, and learning radicals with their meaning and pronunciation components will only help you understand a handful of exceptions. The best, and only proven, method of learning Chinese characters is via brute force°™rote memorization.

There are two software programs which you can download to help you A) memorize a given character (or word), and B) keep it in your memory. The first is Zhongwen Development Tool (ZDT). The other is Anki.

ZDT is a flashcard program and dictionary. You can create new decks based on whatever you are learning. Study and review a deck until you can go through it in its entirety without making a mistake. Review the deck once a day for three to five days. Then import the deck into Anki.

Anki is a spaced repetition program. Essentially, the best time to review material is right before you forget it. Anki figures this out through a logarithm and then reminds you when it`s time to review. This helps new material stay in your head for longer.

Through these two programs, it will not be difficult for you to memorize characters. Of course, it is still important that you practice reading frequently. You can start with textbooks and gradually work your way up to news websites, blogs, etc.

Writing characters

Just as with reading, there is no secret to learning to write Chinese characters. The only time-tested method is brute force, rote memorization, and a lot of practice. Thankfully, writing practices the recall aspect of your brain, which we are going to talk about right now.

Recognizing and recalling

Imagine you are at the movie theater and you are looking at a movie poster for the movie `Terminator`. Who is one of the lead characters? Do you remember his name? You know, that body builder from Austria who used to be the governor of California? Can you spell his name? Probably not. However, if I showed you his name, you could likely read it without any problems.

The reason you can recognize Arnold Schwarzenegger`s name but not spell it (without spell check as I just did) is because you have probably had adequate opportunities to read his name, in films, headlines, movie posters, etc., but have never had any occasion in the past to spell his name. Your ability to read his name and identify it with a person is the ability to recognize. Your ability (or inability) to dig into your brain and produce something from memory is the ability to recall.

When learning Mandarin, it is important that you train your memory to both be able to recognize and recall new vocabulary words and characters. When you are learning to read, you are practicing the ability to recognize. When you write a character, you are practicing the ability to both recall and recognize. As such, learning to write a character will make a much stronger impression than simply just learning to read it.

You should also do the same with choice vocabulary. We say `choice` because you may not be interested in recalling the Mandarin rendition of every Hollywood actor and actress. Merely being able to recognize important names when hearing or reading them may be enough. The same applies to learning synonyms. Unless you are planning on studying for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) there is no reason why you need to be able to recall a dozen different ways to express `happiness`.

Handwriting and the HSK

Two brief notes. First, if you want to develop perfect, native-looking handwriting, it is best to have a native Chinese speaker check and correct your form. Learning to write Chinese characters is probably the most tedious aspect of learning Mandarin, and takes a long time. In the digital age, it is not always necessary to be able to write by hand, though it is certainly convenient for filling out forms and impressing locals.

Lastly, we mentioned the HSK above. I want to take a moment to explain what this is. The HSK is the Chinese government`s standardized test for non-Chinese and Chinese minorities. Non-Chinese people seeking a non-language degree (e.g. history, engineering, etc.) need to pass a certain level in order to gain admission to Chinese universities. Depending on the level, the exam tests one`s reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar. The lower level tests only require a small amount of reading, grammar and listening, but no speaking or writing. The higher-level tests require a bit of each.

At the time of this book`s publication, two versions of the HSK exist: old and new. The government is supposed to be phasing out the old version, which has eleven levels, and gradually phase in the new version, which only has six. You can learn more about the HSK online.

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