How I Learned 1,607 Chinese Characters in 18 Months
For a trip to Japan, I wanted to be able to read at a middle school level or higher. Here’s how I accomplished that goal.
Looking back, it’s amazing how I was able to achieve such a goal at the time. In 2009, I was a very motivated junior in high school with a very busy schedule. I was doing several extracurriculars and taking several college-level classes, yet I found the time to learn 1,600 Chinese characters. Chinese characters are difficult, and they are something that many Westerners struggle with even after years of studying Asian languages.
Well, maybe I had a bit of an advantage. There was a decently sized Japanese community where I lived, and I had the chance to practice speaking it and listening to it at least once a week.
But I could not read and could only write a few “hiragana,” or one of the basic alphabets of Japanese. (For those that are not familiar with Japanese, Japanese consists of two alphabets, each about 50 symbols, and Chinese characters. The letters of the alphabets are commingled with Chinese characters to write sentences. So in order to become literate in Japanese, you have to become proficient in all three categories.)
I was never particularly interested in improving my reading and writing either until I decided in junior year that I wanted to go to college in Japan. That’s when I started studying Chinese characters.
As you saw in my case, it really doesn’t matter how busy you are or not — as long as you do away with all of your excuses, all these techniques ask for is your consistent motivation and a small allocation of time.
First Thing’s First, How Do You Set Your Goal?
There are officially 2,136 Chinese characters that the government through its education system considers fundamental to living in Japanese society. The thousands of other characters are either too complex or are simply not used in everyday contexts. You can get around Japan and live comfortably without any impediments if you know 2,000 characters. This is also recommended as the number of characters one should know upon graduating high school.
The bare minimum number of characters recommended to function in society is 1,607. This is the equivalent amount of characters to what a middle school graduate would know. At this level, you should be able to read newspapers, make sense of contracts, watch the news, read your prescription labels, and work an office job. You will have trouble when it comes to more complicated tasks such as legal proceedings, reading novels or educational non-fiction, etc.
This is where I wanted to get to — the bare minimum — so that when I arrived in Japan, I could take care of myself and be independent, find the best phone contract, enjoy reading the news, read popular novels and manga, take classes at college in Japanese, and ultimately to be able to communicate with friends on a deeper level.
Obviously, you can still have a good time in Japan, or most other countries, without knowing how to read or write the local language. The point here is I wanted to be culturally immersed AND fully independent so I could get the most memorable experience as possible.
How I Studied
Now, how did I study a whole elementary to middle school curriculum in a year and a half?
Looking back, I think that there are five key steps to learning Chinese characters:
- Choose the right textbook
- Snowball practice
- Recognize the Roots
- Understand Chinese vs. Japanese pronunciations
- Application and Retainment
Goal setting is also important. Like me, you may have a very personal goal, like “read Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ in Japanese,” “enjoy Haiku in its true essence,” or even “decide what tattoo I want to get.” Your goal may very well be set by your aspirations, but I do suggest that you also find a way to measure your progress.
A big assumption in this article is that you are already studying Japanese. You should not be trying to learn Chinese characters if you don’t know how to speak yet! That means that you should be at the late beginner or early intermediate level to make active use of this article. While there are tests for overall Japanese mastery like the JLPT that you may already be studying for, there is also a test specifically for Chinese characters that Japanese take nicknamed the KanKen.
There are 12 ranks, and depending on your motivation you should strive for Level 5 (Elementary School graduate), Level 3 (Middle School graduate), or Level 2 (High School graduate). I took the Level 3 exam in 2010.
1. Choose the Right Textbook
When it comes to learning at the intermediate level, which would you prefer: A textbook that teaches foreigners one’s native language, or a textbook that is written to teach children who speak that language?
I’d definitely go with the latter. The books are written for children, they dumb everything down, and there are usually lots of practice exercises. (Remember when you had to do reading and grammar homework every day when you were in primary school?)
There are many publishers in the market for Chinese characters, and as you progress in your studies you can find the one that you feel works best for you. But for people who don’t know where to begin, I highly recommend the KanKen series. That’s the same organization I quoted above that issues the Chinese character tests.
They sell books that teach characters in-depth as well as provide practice exercises for the exams. The books are available per exam level, which helps a lot in measuring your progress. I would say it’s the equivalent of buying the official practice book for the SATs from ETS. Here’s an example page:
This book does a great job of summarizing all of the important points for a character: pronunciation, number of strokes, root, meaning, examples, and stroke order.
For my studies, I referenced the Kanken series more than any other set of textbooks. Because these books contain all of the key ingredients for my learning strategy, I’ll also be showing examples from their books in the following steps as well.
In terms of time, I set an aggressive pace of 20 to 30 characters per week for the elementary school curriculum (Kanken Level 10 to Level 5), and then about 10 to 20 characters per week for the middle school level ones (Kanken Level 4 and 3). So that’s about 1,000 characters in the first year and 600 characters in the last half-year. Again, the point of this guide isn’t on how to cram characters in your head. If you follow these steps, you can comfortably learn at a pace that’s right for you and still walk away a more knowledgeable student of Japanese.
2. Snowball Practice
Taking a step back, remember what our goal is. We are trying to learn 1,300 to 1,900 Chinese characters. That is a huge number of characters. Native speakers spend their whole childhood learning them slowly, but as motivated adults, I’m sure we are not opting for such a long-term plan.
The strategy I used to literally stuff my brain full of characters is what I like to call the “snowball” method. When you make a snowball, you have to start small and make a hard core. After that, you start to roll the ball slowly as more snow catches on. Once it’s big enough, you can be a little reckless and the snowball will still grow bigger with every roll and also gain momentum.
Chinese characters are similar. You need to start slow with the basics, and then your knowledge of character compounds can help you learn even more, faster.
But the trick is you have to keep rolling and growing your snowball every day. Otherwise, all your efforts will simply melt away.
Here’s a page from one of my notebooks from when I was studying Level 2 exercises in 2011 (I didn’t stop studying after Level 3, and to this day I study albeit at a slower pace):
I’m sure everyone will have their own unique reaction. Yes, I wrote the same characters over and over again. It’s cramming. It’s repetition. And it works.
Key points for snowballing:
- Observe the character. Look at it, close your eyes, reimagine it. No daydreaming, no dozing off. Each character requires your full attention. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time. If you are tired, wait until you are energized rather than forcing yourself through an exercise.
- SAY the character each time you write it. Whether you say it out loud or say it in your head, make sure to give it all of your energy.
- At the very least, write the character 10 times.
- Have multiple sittings. One session is NOT enough, and that’s especially if you settled for the minimum of 10 times. The first time I study a character, I wrote it at least 40 times within the span of two sessions. Also, don’t space out your sessions too much until you have memorized it. Later on, whether it’s been two weeks or two years — if you forget how to read or write the character, repeat the process again. That’s why I leave space in my notebook. If I forget a character, I review that section again and rewrite the character about a dozen times. You can see I did that in the picture for 「偽」.
- Practice more than one character a day. Another reason why I call this Snowball practice is that you have to constantly review what you’ve learned. Whenever you hit a bump in the road as your snowball rolls on, you’ll lose a fragment of two, and you will need to rebuild back up to your original size. Cramming characters is difficult, and sometimes it will feel like the first time you tried to stuff a sleeping bag back into its stuff bag. You will need to constantly review characters and write them out again. So the amount of time and energy that you take to increase your pool of knowledge will “snowball” too.
For those of you that are busy, number one and number three are somewhat interchangeable as according to research they have the same effect on learning, though you’ll more often find people like myself who focused on writing.
Referring back to the Kanken books that I was using, I would usually try to complete one “Step,” or one set of seven to 10 characters, in four to seven days. It was a pretty aggressive schedule, but as long as you keep reviewing and snowballing your character practice, your brain and motor memory will be able to handle it.
3. Recognize the Roots
Steps three and four are about important shortcuts you can use to learn pronunciation faster, make an educated guess on the meaning of a word, and how to most essentially simplify the “complex” looking characters.
Roots are important to any language. In English, we usually think of our words as having French, German, Greek, or Latin roots. For example, the word “biography” comes from combining the Greek words bios + graphein, or life + write. “Biology” is bios + logos, or life + study.
Chinese characters share the same concept. While to study roots in English, you would have to study a bit of Greek, Latin, or etc., for Chinese characters, the basic characters that you start with ARE the root words for more complex ones.
The earlier you realize the importance of this, the faster you will be able to snowball your learning. The Kanken books will actually tell you the root characters outright (you can find it in the example Step page from the previous section), and they also provide some nice exercises to help you retain your knowledge.
I would say there are three key benefits from knowing roots that will help you in the long run:
- It helps you understand the context of the character. Many characters look very similar, and they often only differ by their “root.” If you know the root, then you will understand the basis for the difference in context.
- It helps prevent careless “misspellings” and “misreads.” If you can find the root word, then you will be less prone to writing the wrong word or reading something wrong. Do you want to nurture something 「然」, or do you want to incinerate 「燃」something? Having the right or wrong root word will completely change the meaning of your sentence.
- It will save you time when looking up characters in a dictionary. This one doesn’t matter too much if you are casually surfing the web. However, if you are studying, reading a novel, or find an interesting character in the physical world, being able to correctly guess the root word will save you a lot of time flipping randomly through a dictionary. Dictionaries always have a section in the back where you can search by root, then number of strokes.
4. Understand Chinese vs. Japanese Pronunciations
What makes Chinese characters difficult in Japanese is that there are often multiple ways to read the same character. Mastering how to read each character in every context is very difficult and will take many years. Even Japanese natives can have a hard time.
As long as you develop a strong foundation and know that there are multiple ways to read characters, you don’t need to worry about choosing the correct pronunciation until you get more advanced.
On average, I’d say that there are at least two to three ways to read each character. In Chinese, on the other hand, the average character has one pronunciation, and sometimes two.
So going back to the sample page from the Kanken book:
You can see that in the row right under the character, there is a box that houses a red and black circle. Under the red one, the Chinese pronunciations are written, and under the black one, the Japanese ones are written.
What you will immediately notice is that there are many characters with the same Chinese pronunciation. Most Japanese texts organize words by Chinese phonetic alphabetical order. The Japanese pronunciations tend to be unique to that particular character.
One important shortcut to learning fast from these pronunciations is that most of the time, the non-root portion of a character shares the same Chinese pronunciation even with different roots. This will save you a lot of time!
From left to right these read and mean “Ji”-temple, “Shi”-poem, “Ji”-time, “Ji”-hemorrhoid, “Ji”-hold.
This is a good example. These characters all have the same non-root word, 寺, which means “temple” in Japanese. The Chinese reading for four of the five characters is “Ji” while one of them reads “Shi.” In Japanese, as you may know, “Shi” and “Ji” are considered similar pronunciations based on the alphabet. So basically, all five characters read exactly the same.
Once you get the hang of this rule, you will realize that your reading skills will improve A LOT.
5. Application and Retainment
Cramming characters is not like cramming for a test. If you are studying for an exam, especially in school, you are usually not concerned about remembering all of the content for the rest of your life. For Chinese characters, though, every character counts. It’s not until you get over 2,000 characters that you get into the “SAT” equivalent of non-essential vocabulary.
As you know, the best way to remember a word is to use it in everyday life. Speak the word, write the word, read content that uses the word, etc.
The difficult part about Chinese characters is that you won’t be able to comfortably do that until you master at least 1,300 characters. That’s because whatever you read or write will most definitely require knowledge of all characters up to the middle school level.
Until you get to that point, there are a couple of ways around this.
- Snowball your snowball practice. Keep going back and reviewing Chinese characters that you’ve worked on before. Whether it’s a set of characters you studied a couple of days ago, a few weeks ago, or many months ago, it doesn’t matter. As your knowledge of characters increases, you will find more connections between the seemingly unrelated simple characters and the frighteningly complex ones, both in terms of writing and pronunciation.
- Read children’s books. Read Japanese books for elementary school students. Educational ones are great, like a half-book half-manga book on the history of Japan. Books for kids will have the correct pronunciation written next to difficult Chinese characters, which is great in reinforcing your understanding early on. You can slowly progress up to more difficult books. Definitely stick with non-fiction until you get comfortable enough with it before jumping to fiction. Fiction uses the Japanese language quite liberally and there are many possibilities you will get confused with the grammar and pronunciation of characters.
For anyone studying Japanese, Chinese characters are essential. All too often I see many foreigners who start off great with Japanese with good speaking and listening skills, only to see their progress fossilize because of how difficult reading and writing are. Reading and writing are essential to mastering the Japanese language, and I would think of having a conversation with someone who can’t read and write the same as having a conversation with someone about how tough it is to run a marathon when they have never raced before.
You don’t have to follow an aggressive schedule like me, where I was studying at least two hours a day every day for 18 months while following these five steps. Of course, you could be even more diligent and finish in one year, or take your time and spend several years. If you have the chance, cultural immersion will amplify your learning too.
Chinese characters are daunting, and natives spend over a decade studying them. But if you are motivated, then I am sure that you will have found this guide useful. Remember that finding your motivation is the difficult part, actioning your mission is the easy part, and sticking to your plan is the hardest!