What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 1 – Outlier Linguistics

What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 1

Read time: 6 minutes
This 6 minute read will save you hours of forgetting!

 What the heck is this thing and what does it have to do with learning Chinese Characters?
Read on to find out!


For more on how to learn Chinese characters more effectively, check out our free webinar. And if you're serious about learning Chinese characters, check out the Chinese Character Mentorship Package, featuring a whole course on memory techniques for Chinese characters!


The techniques I'm going to describe here deal with remembering character components by writing them, but the REAL point is the concrete steps you can take to remember characters and components.

You may ask, “Who cares about writing? I just type characters with my phone or laptop!” Fair question.

Answer: if you learn how to write and forget, you can still recognize. If you learn how to recognize and forget, you got nothing!

Not convinced? If you really don't care about writing, then just learn your first 50 components using this method. Once you have about 50 stuck into your memory, your brain will be much more open to taking in character components directly and even then, you can still use these techniques without actually writing anything.

How do I go about the actual process of memorizing characters?

The traditional way, and the way a lot of native Chinese-speaking children do it, is to look at a model and copy it 50 times (check out our YouTube video about how non-native learners differ from native learners). I myself used this method when I first started out and I'm here to tell you, “Don't do that!” If you're going to learn Chinese, you have to be ready for the long road of hard work that lies ahead of you. That, however, doesn't mean that you have to maximize your suffering and minimize effectiveness.

If we are going to be learning thousands of characters, we need to minimize the amount of time learning each character while not lowering efficiency. In fact, we want to increase our efficiency. Also, we want to minimize boring, repetitive tasks. The more enjoyable we can make our practice, the more likely we are to continue doing it. So, how do we do that?

First, I'm going to introduce a few hacks to reduce the burden of learning and to simultaneously make it more interesting. Then, I'll show some examples of how this works.

Hack #1: Reduce the amount of information you need to learn via chunking

Realize that even though there are thousands of characters, the vast majority of them are made up of smaller components. The brute force method would be to learn the strokes and stroke order of each character. An easier and more efficient way is to learn the strokes and stroke orders of individual components. Then, when you learn a new character that is comprised of components you already know, you just have to remember the order that you write those components in.

Hack #2: Increase learning efficiency using organization, association, and visualization by using memory objects for each component

No, this isn't some kind of New Age thing. In his book Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve it, Kenneth L. Higbee lays out the rules of effective memorization. I know “memorization” is a dirty word to some, but hey, if you're going to try and learn Chinese, you really need to roll up your sleeves and get ready to get your hands dirty!

As I was saying, rules #2, #3 and #4 are 2) Organization, 3) Association, and 4) Visualization. This means, the more you can organize the information you want to learn, the more you can associate it with things you already know or associate it with other things you want to remember, and the more you are able to form a mental picture of the thing you want to learn, the more effective your memory will be.

The technique:

For each component you want to learn, choose a memory object to represent the component. The best memory object is the real-world object that the component was created to represent, but also, you can do it in such a way that it maps to what the component looks like in modern Chinese. This works because it's easier for people to remember images (i.e., something they can visualize) than seemingly random lines.

Say you're going to learn 言 yán “speech.” This component originally depicted a tongue sticking out of a mouth (口) with an extra mark on the tongue denoting the movement of the tongue. You might want to visualize a mouth with a wagging tongue hanging out of it, like this:

tongue sticking out of mouth
Or, if you want to something that looks more like 言, picture a tongue with piano keys on it! Let's add some color too. The more vibrant your image is, the easier it will be to remember it.

That image is oriented the way we normally think about a mouth and a tongue, but in Chinese writing, sometimes things aren't oriented like we normally think of them. So, let's re-orient our image so that it's oriented like 言:

mouth with tongue sticking out vertical

What's the point of all this?

The idea is that for each component, you want to have an easy to remember memory object. The piano keys on the tongue is there to remind you of what the component roughly looks like, in this case, the horizontal lines. So, before you even start to try and write your component, you'll have a rough idea of what it's supposed to look like.

How do I use my memory object?

Each time you want to write the component that the memory object represents, you think of the memory object and you write the component's strokes on top of the memory object. This gives you a mental grid to work with. It provides boundaries for your mind. And, you know that the component will fit your memory object, so your memory object will jog your memory as to how to write the component. And remember: memory objects are MUCH easier to remember than the components themselves. Like this:

Note that the tongue and mouth memory objects have been de-emphasized in the picture in order to make the strokes stand out, but the idea should be clear: instead of just trying to conjure up strokes out of the ether, you write them on top of your memory object. Obviously, you don't actually draw the memory object. It's just in your mind.

Take it to the next level:

Using the real-world object that a component was created to represent will maximize the effect, rather than simply using something that looks similar to the modern form. For example, 言 is a depiction of a tongue sticking out of a mouth. If you were to choose, say, a guitar to represent it, it would be much harder to notice the meaning connections when 言 is giving the character's meaning.

If you're learning simplified Chinese, then you'll also have to learn 讠, which is the other form of 言. Of course, you can learn 讠using the same technique as 言 or, you could simply understand how 讠is an abbreviated form of 言 as the following diagram shows:

Image from the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters

How much mileage am I going to get out of this?

Within the most common 2700 characters:

In simplified Chinese, 言 appears 5 times (plus it's a character in its own right) and its component form 讠appears 59 times.

In traditional, 言 appears 72 times (plus it's a character in its own right).

And there are quite a few components that are this common. If you make a memory object for each of them, you'll not only lower the boredom factor, you'll greatly increase learning efficiency by introducing organization, association and visualization to your learning! In the next lesson in this series, we'll talk about how to take this even further.

For more on how to learn Chinese characters more effectively, check out our free webinar. And if you're serious about learning Chinese characters, check out the Chinese Character Mentorship Package, featuring a whole course on memory techniques for Chinese characters!

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