Last time, I identified learning the script as the single hardest challenge facing the student. In some ways, Chinese is easy, but the fact that Chinese children attain literacy some years later than their European counterparts goes to show that, as you might expect, reading and writing in Chinese is inherently more difficult than in English.
My response to this challenge, at the most general level, is simply to give the task the attention it requires. Unless you are blessed with an eidetic memory, or at least, you are a generation or two younger than I, you will need to spend some time absorbing each new character, learning it properly, and re-learning before it starts to fade.
This much may seem obvious, but I know from my own learning history that I have been too easily satisfied in the past with learning a character just well enough to be able to recognise it later. But being only weakly learned, they were often quickly forgotten.
This task can be broken down. Most characters consist of several components, or sometimes just one. One of these components is primary, called a radical. Radicals are important if you look characters up in a dictionary. But this is something I never do, since apps like Google Translate, or that can scan and translate Chinese script are now available. Nevertheless, I have found that learning the radicals is helpful.
Usually, the radical carries some hint of the meaning of the character, and there is often another component that carries a hint of the pronunciation.
For example, the character
Consists of the water radical, 氵(in its full form, this appears as 水) ...
… and the phonetic component, 羊.
The water radical vaguely hints at the meaning (one possible meaning, anyway), which is ocean.
The phonetic component gives the pronunciation quite closely: it is yáng. The meaning of the phonetic component is usually wildly irrelevant; yáng means ‘sheep’. The second tone is correct: but that is pure coincidence.
By the way, most Chinese words consist of two characters. So while 洋 can just about convey the meaning of ‘ocean’ on its own, a more likely translation is 海洋, or hǎiyáng.
The ‘components’ are mostly found on the radicals list, but often they are not.
Vague hints of meaning and pronunciation are generally all you get, however, from the semantic and phonetic components, as the characters of today have evolved over millennia, and the rationale for how a modern character is made up can be indiscernible.
By the way, the pictorial type of characters, as depicted for example on the header picture of this blog, include only about 5% of characters, while the semantic/phonetic kind are about 80%.
It is sometimes claimed that a good understanding of semantic and phonetic components is a considerable aid, and can enable the student to discern the likely meanings and pronunciations of characters never before encountered. This is not, however, my own experience so far, and while the vague hints they do offer can definitely be helpful, my impression thus far is that the claims for this approach tend to be exaggerated.
The next post will present my own methods for memorising characters.
I am a native English speaker, having a lot of fun learning Chinese. I think (and hope) I have a certain knack for understanding what the language is about, so that I might be able to offer something your usual Chinese class does not.