So much hot air: the character for "meeting" consists of the one for "cloud" under a roof

So much hot air: the character for “meeting” consists of the one for “cloud” under a roof

Before my recent visit to Wuhan and Hong Kong I was planning to accept the Esperanto challenge that a number of readers had recently thrown at us and use the upcoming holidays to try and see whether it’s really possible to learn Esperanto in 100 hours. However, in China I got so fascinated by Chinese characters that I’ve now thrown myself into a Chinese character challenge instead.

I’d been intrigued by Chinese for a long time but up until about three weeks ago, I was of the opinion that life was too short to learn Chinese characters. They seemed like a huge set of haphazard lines and occasional efforts by my students to teach me this or that character just reinforced the idea that it was an unsystematic mystery that could only be mastered through years of rote learning at a young age.

Not so! Now I’ve discovered that learning Chinese characters makes the most intriguing pastime I’ve come across in a long time.

In Hong Kong, I picked up Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews’ book Learning Chinese Characters. The book draws on James Heisig’s technique of teaching kanji (and more recently hanzi) through visualisation and thus links each character to a memorable story. I don’t always like the stories and association chains in Learning Chinese Characters but it is a lot of fun to make up my own.

Once you have a visualisation, it’s easy to remember the character. For instance, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the character for meeting会: it consists of the character for cloud云 placed under a roof. Hot air under a roof – it’s the perfect image of many a meeting I’ve attended!

In other cases, it’s easier to remember association chains as in the old party game where players compete to remember the longest chain. The chain one – earth – drop –mouth, for instance, gives you the characters for king, jade and country.

one + 土 earth = 王 king

king + drop = 玉 jade

jade + 口 mouth = 国 country

So, connecting the meanings of basic characters to memorize the meanings of composite characters is a lot of fun once you get the hang of some basics.

Learning Chinese Characters is a great book to get you started on memorizing the meanings of characters but it doesn’t do much to help you acquire a muscle memory of the stroke order. This is where an iphone application called Chinese Writer published by trainchinese.com comes in handy.

Designed like a tetris game, the player has to trace Chinese characters in the correct stroke order as they rain down on your screen and get them right before they disappear. As addictive as the original tetris game, it feels much more educational and the 47 characters in their first pack already feel automatic to me.

The free version of Chinese Writer comes with a total of 384 characters in four packs. For now, that’s plenty for me but it’s possible to upgrade to the full version with more than 2,000 characters.

Both Learning Chinese Characters and Chinese Writer claim to be starting with the most frequent characters but, unfortunately, there is not much overlap between the two resources in their first 100 characters. I wish the two resources were coordinated because together they offer an incredibly entertaining way to learn Chinese characters.

Language learning meets gaming! For me that’s new territory and I’m blown away by the potential. I haven’t had much time to do a literature search and haven’t discovered much of a concerted research effort. I would love to hear from any of our readers who are into language learning games to find out what the state of the art is.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I can certainly understand that it is fun to learn some Chinese characters, but learning 2,000 of them? Even with mnemonics it will take an awfully long time. In any case I do have hope that you will get tired of it and might consider your original challenge again. It is interesting to know a bit about how Chinese characters work but there are just too many of them.

    Esperanto is said to be easy to learn, but that’s in comparison with national languages. Learning any complete language is quite a challenge and the time needed will vary a lot from person to person.

  • Thanks for the link, Ingrid
    I’d be glad to chat with anyone whose interested in Esperanto 🙂
    I love Chinese characters too, it’s such fun to see how the parts combine to make a sort of poetic sense that you don’t see coming! I learned some while I was in Hainan for a month early this year as part of a complex of Esperanto classes there. It was a fascinating experience all ’round.

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    How long it will take comes down to all kinds of factors, not least of which are motivation and perseverance, and perhaps most importantly, letting go of the idea of how long it will take! The notion that there are too many of them is an interesting one … even when we consider that the true number is somewhat higher than 2,000!

  • If you learn Esperanto first before embarking into Chinese, that would save you more time in grammar. The beginning of Chinese is interesting, on Chinese character, as Chinese language developed from the shape and size of the things you can see or imagine, 云, it was not written in this form as there is a rain 雨 on top of the place, 雲.By using computer would just be able to read but not able to write well unless one practises 1000 of times of writing the same word to engrave into the mind.

  • Li Jia

    As far as I know, those westerners who stay in China for at least one year can easily acquire a good command of oral Chinese whereas their writing remains unsatisfactory. They, however, do not seem to be bothered with their poor Chinese handwriting and sometimes they are more interested in speaking local dialect as long as they stay somewhere longer. Compared with the learning resources from “Learning Chinese Characters” and “Chinese Writer”, I bet they would prefer other language learning games which aims to help them update their daily-spoken reportire rather than classical or typical examples of Chinese characters.

  • You did the right thing Ingrid by delving into and learning some kanji while you were in China. Now that you are back in Australia I hope you can still find the 100 hours to give Esperanto a go. An hour a day for a hundred days will only be a little over 3 months, which would not be bad for learning a full language.

    To fit into a busy life, you could do 2 hours on each Saturday and Sunday and a half hour on work days. Also how were you intending to learn it? You can learn it on line through http://www.lernu.net which is particularly popular with young people all over the world. The Australian Esperanto Association has Correspondence courses which can be adapted to your needs is being run by Hazel Green, 07 46 911 238 or .
    Trish O’Connor in WA has prepared a course which has a small book and a CD, her contact is . You might like to browse around Penny’s Mondeto website to pick up a good two-way dictionary or you may even buy Talking to the Whole Wide World which is rather expensive, but it includes all the resources, songs, jokes, games etc that are required by teachers who are teaching young children a language. It and PIV (Plena ilistrita vortaro / Fully Illustrated Dictionary) are the jewels in the crown of Esperanto Resources.

    We are coming to the time to make New Year Resolutions, Ingrid, see how you go!

    Havu bonan novan jaron, Ingrid. Make 2013 the year you become an Esperantist.

    Best wishes,

    Dianne Lukes

  • Grace Chang

    I remember when I was learning English in high school there wasn’t any game involved. It was pretty much rote learning of sounds and spellings. And two thousand items of vocabulary can only get you to elementary level at most in the General English Proficiency Test. : )

    I think it would be absolutely rewarding to explore and learn Mandarin as the traditional Mandarin characters are carriers of five thousand years of culture and history for a reason. People today can still read and appreciate literature written two thousand years ago with traditional Mandarin characters. There must be some wisdom in it, isn’t it? : )

  • There are lots of ways of studying a language. Once I’ve learnt some of the grammar, I like to read children books. The little prince is a nice book available in many, many languages. The Esperanto text can be found online.
    Video courses are nice too. For Esperanto there is Pasporto al la tuta mondo, which can be watched on Youtube and here you get notes, exercises, the script, etc. http://esperanto.lodestone.org/novajxoj/ scroll right down to see the first lesson (used at the University of Rochester).

  • xiaoxiao chen

    Thanks, Ingrid, for this very interesting post! It has never occurred to me that language learning can meet gaming and they seem to match perfectly in learning Chinese characters. I’ve kind of forgotten how exactly I learnt Chinese characters when I was a kid. But I remember we were taught to learn the characters according to their ways of constitution. There are generally four ways: xiangxing (pictographic), zhishi (indexical), xingsheng (two parts: meaning & pronunciation), huiyi (meaning consists in two or more parts). And mostly the Chinese characters can be leanrt by visualization or by making associations or links between the parts. Probably that’s why Ingrid’s association chains work very well, and they are not necessarily from learning guides! So learning Chinese characters is not very hard once you have figured out your own way of learning. And it can be lots of fun! Ingrid’s experience is a very telling example, isn’t it?

  • Thanks, all, for your comments!
    @Angela: you are right: the journey is the goal! …
    @Nicole and Dianne: you are very persuasive! 😉 … but maybe I’m not the right person to take the Esperanto challenge anyways because with my background in Germanic and Romance languages,Esperanto looks really familiar and I’m sure I’ve got quite a headstart. The real test for the claim that it’s easy to learn probably needs to involve speakers of non-European languages …

  • Ingrid, you are certainly right, that people who speak a language that comes from Latin will recognise more Esperanto words than a Chinese person, for example. Even though I am amazed at how many English words there are nowadays in Japanese, for example.

    Here is what a Chinese worker in a factory of electric appliances in Nanking has to say. Her words have been translated from Esperanto into English, so that you can understand them. It was not written in English.

    “I have always wanted to have contacts in the outside world. So I went to an English course. After an exhausting work day, there is not much energy left to strain one’s mind and overload one’s memory with so many unexplainable things (why, in English, can’t you deduce ‘first’ from ‘one’ as you deduce ‘tenth’ from ‘ten’ and as we do in Chinese? Why can’t you deduce ‘my’, ‘mine’, ‘me’ from ‘I’ as we do in Chinese?). So I realised that I simply could not assimilate all these complications. Just imagine, in English, if you know how to say tooth’, this does not help you to say *dentist*, you have to memorise yet another word. And if you want to say ‘mare’, ‘stallion’ or ‘colt’, remembering ‘horse’ is of no avail. In Esperanto, as in Chinese, those words are derived from the basic word according to a consistent pattern.

    • I have the same feeling as Nocole as I only got to know Esperanto in 2010 and learnt it a year later and I have got the B2 examination certificate from EU.

      Min Nan Hua is my mother tongue and I learn Chinese and Putong Hua when I went to Chinese primary school. It took me more than 20 years to learn English and still cannot control well of the sentences. However, a year of self-learning, via lernu.net and kurso.com.br I could pass the Esperanto language test. Economical and I have friends from Latin America which I never thought of before as I did not speak Portugues and Spanish.

  • Second part of the quote:

    “I’m very glad that when a course of Esperanto was organised in our factory, I decided to follow it. Here I felt comfortable, and I enjoyed the lessons very much. Esperanto is like Chinese, a language entirely consisting of invariable elements that combine without limitation. People say that English is the international language. But what’s the use of an international language that cannot be acquired by working people? I have now many contacts all over the world. For what I wanted, I didn’t need English. Too bad that I was so late in discovering it.”

    • Thanks for sharing this great quote, Nicole! What’s the source? Would love to read up on it if there is more …

      As I said in another comment today on the post about “Supermarket language learning,” to me the immeasurable value of Esperanto is that is can serve as a “real linguistic utopia” in a world where our collective linguistic imagination seems to have been largely reduced to language as either shaped by the state or the market …

  • I am pretty sure that it was Claude Piron who translated this quote and mentioned it, but I can’t remember exactly where. I found 2 articles written by Claude Piron that might interest you
    Esperanto: european or asiatic language?
    http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/europeanorasiatic.htm
    Esperanto, a western language?
    http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/westernlanguage.htm

  • I first started learning Chinese at the Defense Language Institute, in California. It’s one of the top places in the U.S. to learn a foreign language, because you are completely immersed. I did nothing but study Chinese for 8 hours a day for a year and a half. There were 3 classes of 10 students, and we were taught by a team of 7 teachers, all of whom were native speakers from Mainland China.

    Despite the fact that the program was fantastic, I look back today almost in horror at the way we were taught characters–the rote memorization method. Sure, teachers would occasionally mention something about the radical of a certain character, or that 山 was a pictograph. But most of the types of memorization tips that Ingrid mentioned in her post were learned from other students, or from books we picked up on our own.

    Chinese characters are like little puzzles, and once you have solved them, they stick in your head and become easier to remember if you continue to read. I always tell new Chinese learners to study the meanings of the radicals inside and out, which helps with characters you don’t know. I also tell them that when learning a new character, that they should start with the traditional form, even if they are only focused on learning simplified. I just think it is way better, for example, if you know that “electricity” 电 used to have a raincloud over it 電 !

    Best of luck in your continued Chinese character study, Ingrid. I hope it’s a lifelong passion!

    Ryan

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  • Binisha Sharma

    The characters in Nepali language are also taught in an entertaining way to the children by their parents and teachers at school. The Devanagari script has 36 consonant characters and each character is taught in a way learners never forget. For instance the character च (cha) is taught signifying bird’s beak and children remember it as a tongue twister. (चरी चुच्चे च) The character च is visualized as a bird’s beak to the early learners of Nepali language.

  • 44277660

    Someone told me that there are two things we never forget once we know how to do them which are swimming and riding bikes. Everything else, especially language, will soon be forgotten if we do not practise for a long time.
    I used to learn Chinese for 2 years and I got my Chinese proficiency degree with flying colors. My overall score is even higher than those who are half Vietnamese-half Chinese. However, after several years of not studying Chinese, I soon forget how to write Chinese. Not surprisingly, all of Chinese words I still remember now are those that I make a visualization. For example, ‘heart’ in Chinese is 心, ‘door’ is 门, ‘depressed’ is 闷. Then I make an association like “the heart is blocked in a door, then we will feel depressed”‘.
    It is so true that once we make a visualization, it is easier to remember the characters.

  • Jo.

    Thanks to my innovative Chinese teacher, I was also taught similar story lines while learning Chinese characters. Somehow the story for the word 安 (keeping the women inside the house will bring about peace!) is the first example I can think of, probably because of my disapproval towards it that I remember it more profoundly :)) On a more serious note, I strongly support this method of language learning because it encourages the learners to link the language to their own perception of the world and the culture of that language. Literacy should include cultural awareness, not just merely the ability to read and write.

  • 000

    I learnt Chinese as a foreign language as a kid where we were just expected to rote-learn characters. I wish they would have used the pictograph/visualisation method as it might have made more sense to a bunch of six year olds. Later on, I found out that radicals have their own meanings, and once learnt, one can guess the meaning of the character or have an idea of what the character relates to. For example, 氵(three drops of water) is used for almost every other word related to water 海 (ocean), 湖 (lake), 冰 (ice) etc.

    I learnt the Japanese alphabet using pictographs as well. For example, あ (‘a’) looks like an antenna, and い (‘i’) for Hawaいい (Hawaii). This allowed me to learn quicker and has proven to be fruitful as I still remember the pictographs until today.