My Five Favorite Tools to Learn Chinese Characters

Learn-Chinese-Characters-zhongwenI have been learning Chinese on and off since 2001. To this day, I am still intrigued by Chinese writing, and I highly recommend learning Chinese characters to anyone who wants to stay in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan for any prolonged period of time. Even if you don’t intend to live in China, learning Chinese can be incredibly beneficial:

  1. You get to understand what Chinese people talk and write about.
  2. You are learning a writing system which gives you access to a huge “hidden” world of literature and web information. For most Westerners, this is the real hidden web.
  3. Chinese writing is the only pictographic writing system still in widespread use. By starting to learn how to write in Chinese, you embark on a fascinating learning journey.

On my journey, I have so far probably learned around 1500 characters, most of them in the simplified form which is used in mainland China (since the mid 1950s) and Singapore. A recent visit to Taiwan once again showed me the beauty and usefulness of traditional Chinese writing. Traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, most overseas Chinese communities, and of course, classical Chinese literature. I have since made the resolution to learn at least the 2000 most frequently used traditional Chinese characters as well.

Here are my 5 favorite tools accompanying me on this journey. Most of these resources can be used whether you want to learn the simplified or the traditional form:

  1. Learn-Chinese-Characters-Remembering-Traditional-HanziRemembering Traditional Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters:  In this book, James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson introduce the Chinese characters using mnemonics. For each of the characters, Heisig makes up a mnemonic story containing one key meaning (keyword) and the character’s components. Most of the stories can easily be visualized. Given a keyword as a cue, you recall the story, the components, and thus how a character is written. The course is split in two parts, with book 1 and 2 each containing about 1500 characters. While most people love this book, it also has some critics because the authors at times use a minor meaning as a character’s main keyword, and because it separates learning the meaning of a character from its pronunciation. While acknowledging these points, I like and use this book.The stories are really good fun and make it a lot easier to memorize the characters. Under the name Remembering Simplied Hanzi, the book is also available for learning simplified Chinese characters.
  2. Learn-Chinese-Characters-MnemosyneMnemosyne: Mnemosyne is a free open source flash card program created by Peter Dienstman and collaborators. Flash cards are the electronic equivalent of index cards and allow you to learn any kinds of facts, including Chinese vocabulary. In Mnemosyne, flash cards can contain text, images, formulas, and even audio and video. The program features automatic review scheduling based on a difficulty rating (0-5) assigned by the user.  For every Chinese character or word you learn, you create a flash card containing the meaning, pronunciation, some notes (e.g. the Heisig stories mentioned above), and the Chinese writing. The program then quizzes you on the character, gives you feedback, and asks how to difficult it was for you. Based on your rating, the program automatically determines when to show you a card the next time.
  3. Perapera: Do you want to read Chinese websites and know what Chinese people are talking about? Perapera is a free pop-up dictionary add-on for Firefox and Chrome which allows you to do just that. While you are reading a website, just fly over any unknown Chinese characters and words with your mouse pointer to see the pronunciation and the English definition. Perapera supports both, traditional and simplified Chinese characters. You can also save unknown words together with their pronunciation and English definition to a word list. This can later be used to create flash cards in Mnemosyne (or another application).
  4. Learn-Chinese-Characters-WenlinWenlin: The Wenlin website describes it as “it is like having a seasoned scholar at your desktop”. Wenlin contains an editor and the famous ABC Chinese-English Dictionary edited by John DeFrancis with more than 200000 entries and 10000 Chinese characters. You can read and edit any Chinese text in Wenlin, fly over the writing with the mouse to get the definition and pronunciation, or click on a character or word to zoom in on it: You get additional definitions, an animation of how it is written, natural voice audio, words containing the character, characters containing it as a components, example sentences, current and ancient forms, components, etc. Wenlin also features handwriting recognition and flash cards. It fully supports traditional and simplified characters. It is easily the most comprehensive Chinese learning software I have come across, and a pleasure to use at any stage of learning Chinese. While being a bit unusual, Wenlin’s user interface is very intuitive and fast. The only downside is the price of around $160-$180.
  5. Learn-Chinese-Characters-FarEastFar East 3000 Chinese Characters CD-ROM v2.0: This multimedia Far East character dictionary includes the 3000 most frequent Chinese characters in both, their traditional and simplified form. It also includes stroke order rules, audio, character animations for the traditional and simplified forms, exercises, quizzes, sample sentences, phrases for daily use, flash cards, the history of Chinese characters, Chinese idioms, and so on. The Far East character dictionary is not as comprehensive as Wenlin and it doesn’t include a word dictionary. But, it is also a lot cheaper and well equipped if you intend to learn traditional Chinese characters. If your primary objective is to learn the simplified forms, it is helpful but not optimal because all examples are written with traditional characters.

As of now, I am using all 5 tools to learn traditional Chinese characters. If you are starting out on your own, consider Heisig’s book (traditional or simplified characters) together with Mnemosyne or the Far East dictionary (traditional characters) together with Mnemosyne as a starting package. At some point (or even in the beginning), you might want to get Wenlin as well as it makes research so much easier.

I would love to hear about your experiences and opinion. Which tools do you use to learn Chinese characters? What do you like about them?

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