What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 3 – Outlier Linguistics

What Steps Do I Take to Remember a Chinese Character? Step 3

7 minute read

In this lesson, I'm going to cover two topics:

1) Character components aren't always what they seem to be (I hinted at this at the end of installment #2 in this series).

2) How do I keep track of all my memory objects?

Part 1: Components are not always honest

What? Components aren't honest? What does that even mean? Like I said in the previous installation, understanding a character means understanding its functional components. So, sometimes, a component that you see in a character may actually only be a sub-component, or in other words, a component of a component. For example:

In , is not a component, but rather, a sub-component of . is composed of + , and as such, it will not help you understand this character to break it down any further than that. What this means in a practical sense, is that kǒu “mouth” plays no role in expressing the sound or meaning of jiù “just; simply.”

Or take gāo “tall.” It is impossible to understand by breaking it up into +++. In fact, none of these components give a sound or meaning in . Rather, these components work together to depict a tall building.

Another example is péng “friend.” Even though it appears to be composed to two “moon” (or “meat”) components, it's not. It was originally a depiction of a person carrying two strands of jade discs and came to mean “friend” via the notion of “a pair of strands.” So, if I try to understand by way of , I will fail.

There are other reasons that components may not tell us the truth, but I think you get the idea from the examples above. I hear the gears turning. You're probably asking yourself:

Why does this matter?

Understanding how a character breaks down into components is crucial for being able to see real sound and meaning connections between characters. Seeing real sound and meaning connections between characters is crucial for developing the ability make intelligent guesses about the possible sound and meaning of a character you haven't even learned yet. Of course, you may not be able to predict it exactly, but if you see the character in a meaningful context, you'll probably get pretty close.

Let's do an experiment. Look at the explanation for the characters below, then guess the pronunciation and meaning of the last one. One quick side note: The meanings I give below are the original meanings (not necessarily the modern meaning) because that is the only meaning directly tied to the character's form.

1st attempt:

means “wooden mold for producing tools” and is pronounced :

“tree” + “grass” + “sun” + “big”
Story: Wooden molds are made of wood, packed with grass, and used under the big, bright sun.

means “membrane” and is pronounced :

“meat” +  “grass” + “sun” + “big”
Story: We made a membrane from grass and meat under the big, bright sun.

Now, guess the sound and meaning of . Write your guess down.

2nd attempt:

Let's try this again, but with the correct character structure taken into account.

represents a word whose meaning is related to “wood” and sounds similar to :
mó “wooden mold for producing tools”

represents a word whose meaning is related to “meat” and sounds similar to :

Now, guess the sound and meaning of . Write your guess down.


Even if you can't guess the exact sound and meaning of , you can probably at least come up with:

represents a word whose meaning is related to “cloth” and sounds similar to :

Well, we didn't get the sound exactly the same, but we did pretty close. Knowing that the character sounds similar to cuts down the possible sounds significantly. And “tents” are definitely related to “cloth”. And, if you learn the word “tent” a day or two before you learn the character, the whole process is even easier.

Can you now make an intelligent guess about the sound and meaning of ? Think of how much easier new characters are to learn if you can already make intelligent guesses about their range of sounds and meanings. This is why understanding correct character structure and the role it plays is so crucial to efficient learning!

Does this kind of thing work all the time? Of course not! But, it does work a LOT of the time, making it very, very useful.

This also highlights the need for a source of reliable data for each character's structure! With reliable data, you can grow more quickly in your ability to make intelligent predictions about characters you haven't learned yet and to better recall the ones you have.

Part 2: How do I keep track of all my memory objects?

While the previous section covered some theory, this section is much more practically oriented and basically answers the question: If I'm going to learn characters using memory objects, how to I keep up with all of my memory objects? The short answer is to keep a notebook.

Then again, I'm old school. I like writing. If writing ain't your thing, keeping a spreadsheet works too.

Here is an example of what keeping a notebook might look like. In addition to actually drawing your memory object, write a description as well. The idea being if you look at it a year from now, that you can use the description and your drawing to recall your memory object. I left out the drawings for the memory objects for and because they looked a bit too phallic. Didn't want to make anyone blush! (I'm bald, so when I blush, the whole room knows it!). Of course, you want to keep all of the relevant information about your memory object, like its pronunciation (if it has one), the actual component, its description in words and a drawing of the memory object. You don't have to be a Picasso here. Actually, it's better NOT to be a Picasso, since he had trouble drawing things that look real.

The main disadvantage of using a paper notebook is that you can't go back and alphabetize your list later. However, you could make an index in a spreadsheet (like pronunciation – component – page number). Or, you could have a notebook and give each letter of the alphabet a page. Write that letter prominantly at the top of the page, and put the components that start with that letter on that page.

For those who aren't into putting pen to paper (weirdos!), you can do the same thing in spreadsheet format. The most challenging part of doing it this way is adding in images of your memory objects.

But, as you can see below, you can shrink your images while you're not looking at them, and then expand them as necessary.

The example above also shows another choice you'll need to make. That is, do you keep images of just your memory object by itself? Or, images of your memory objects with the characters/components they represent written on them? There is no hard and fast rule. You can do some of one, some of the other, and some of something else. What you really want to do, is put out the least amount of effort to get the maximum result. So, you might need to do some experimentation to see what works best for you.

Originally, my intention was to show how you can easily alphabetize your spreadsheet list according to pinyin, but for some reason, the memory object image files don't play nice. In fact, they don't play at all. They just sit there staring. I'm using Open Office Calc, but perhaps another spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or if you're a Mac user, Numbers, would do the trick. There is a workaround, though. Let me show you what that would look like:

Our workaround is to have a sheet for the memory object images, like shown above. Note that the cleaver is expanded, so that you can get a better view of it, but normally, you want to shrink it down to cell size. That way, it's easier to click on the surrounding cells if you need to.

On the original sheet, you don't put the actual image, just the image's row number in the new sheet (see below).

That is a little less convenient, but, since we only have to look up the images when we forget our memory object, we won't have to use it often anyway. Also, our word description may be enough in and of itself to help you remember your memory object.

The power of combining functional components and memory objects cannot be overstated. You want to get those functional components into your long term memory, while the memory objects are the perfect bridge for doing exactly that. The overhead associated with that, i.e., keeping up your spreadsheet, is minimal, but also, well worth your time investment. Using memory objects greatly reduces the amount of time and effort required and understanding characters in terms of their functional components brings a high degree of clarity, putting your brain at ease.

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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