Chinese Learners: Know your radicals.

Originally my Quora answer to What is the easiest way to memorize Chinese words and pronunciation of each word?

This is how Chinese and Japanese children learn them. I don’t think rote memorization is the way to go for learning anything, but if that’s the method you believe in, then I would say go for the radicals. Many Chinese characters are pieced together by the same radicals over and over again.

For example, if the mouth radical (口) is next to anything, I’d think that it’s related to a sound or something that is meant to be phonetic.

叽叽喳喳 — That is the onomatopoeia for a bird’s twitter or chirp, “Jījizhāzhā.” See all the mouth radicals on the left part of the character? That’s how I know it’s probably a sound. How that sounds is pronounce is on the right.
几 is pronounced ‘ji’
查 is pronounced ‘zha’

哈哈哈. Guess what that means. Hahaha.

Whenever I see a meat radical (⺼) I would assume the word might be an organ or body part, such as the following characters.

肝臟(liver) 腸 (intestine) 肚 (stomach)

The right side of the characters mean something else by themselves, but put it together with the meat radical, the right part of character tells you the pronunciation of that body part. So Chinese is kind of like English in the sense that it’s possible to be able to pronounce a word you don’t know the meaning of.

If you put ‘pull’ into Google translate for the Chinese characters, consider the radical that keep appearing on the left side of almost all the words.

拉 pull, draw, drag, haul, pluck, lug
拔 pull, pull out, unplug, promote, pull up, draw
扳 pull, climb, draw up
扯 pull, tear, gossip, chat
挽 pull, draw, roll up, lament death
拖 drag, delay, tow, pull, drag on, trail
扣 buckle, button, deduct, pull, fasten, detain
揪 pull, hold tight, seize, drag, tug

For ‘push’:
推 push, promote, shove, infer, deduce, advance
按 press, push, check, control, restrain, shelve
擠 squeeze, crowd, push, press, shove, pack
撳 press, push
搡 push
撥 dial, allocate, set aside, stir, poke, push
扒 dig up, hold on, cling, rake, push, strip
抵 reach, resist, withstand, mortgage, equal, push

扌is the hand radical.

Characters using the speech radical (言):
誁 詋 詔 詧 詥 評 (comment) 詗 (rumor) 試 (test)

Finally, imagine you encounter the character 嫋.

If you break down the radicals, you get: 
嫋 = 女 (female) + 羽 (feather)
A female feather…? A female like a feather…? That would get you the meaning of delicate and/or graceful. There must be at least 5 other words I know that would translate to delicate, graceful or elegant in English, but this one in particular is in the way that a feather is delicate and graceful. It’s a much more refined, illustrative, and descriptive way of expressing the exact nature of someone’s gracefulness, isn’t it?

Finally, here’s a chart of some of the most common radicals. This is much less daunting and intimidating than the thousands and thousands of characters in Chinese.

Look at all these beautiful ABC’s.

If you know your radicals, you will always be able to get at least in the approximate vicinity of your character’s meaning or at least know how it’s pronounced, or both. Like 肚. Meat radical = body part/organ. 土 is pronounced tǔ (though it means earth/soil). 肚 means stomach and pronounced dù. In Cantonese, 肚 and 土 have the same pronunciation.

There you have it. My case for radicals. I think it’s worth whatever time and effort to get your radicals down because they are literally the building blocks of Chinese characters, and would yield a greater ROI than focusing on anything else.

Related reading/resources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangxi_radicals
Learn To Read Chinese In Eight Minutes
The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Learning Kanji
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Originally my Quora answer to What is the easiest way to memorize Chinese words and pronunciation of each word?