Learn the system of Chinese radicals

Chinese is a daunting language for Western learners.  There is no alphabet, leaving you to guess how a word sounds when you see the written character.  And there are thousands upon thousands of characters to remember!

But it's not impossible- after all, the Chinese do it naturally.  Even though you may not have the benefit of a Chinese speaking environment, you can still learn a great deal of written Chinese by learning to scan for clues in the characters.  These clues are called 'radicals'.

Chinese Radicals

There are about 200 of these Chinese radicals. Think of them like a kind of alphabet, but a conceptual instead of a phonetic one. They will give clues about what that character means. (Radical in this context means 'root' meaning.)

Take the character for 'name': å [Make sure your browser's encoding enables Chinese characters to see it. Unicode UTF-8 works pretty well.]  You'll see two parts, the top and bottom.  These are two radicals placed together in one character.  The top one: 夕 , means 'moon', and even looks a little crescent-shaped to boot.  The bottom one :  å£ , means 'mouth', wide open for eating and speaking.  

Put the two together, and what have you got?  You have the mouth being necessary during the "moon time" of day, which means that is when people have to say their name.  夕+ 口 = 名  No one can see well enough to identify neighbors at night time (at least, when Chinese was invented that was the case!).

So the idea of mouth and moon together becomes the character for name, "名".   Each Chinese character follows a rough conceptual idea based on radicals.  Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch in meaning, but often enough it's very helpful to think in this way.

Learning the Radicals

With a little practice, it's not difficult to recognize all 200 of the radicals. It sounds like a lot, but they themselves are mostly picture-ideas themselves (like 'person' -  äºº  -  see the two legs?). Learning the radicals will speed up your memory for the meaning of the written character.

Two good books that I've used to study these are Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary, and What Character Is That?.  The second one is a useful dictionary for teaching you all of the radicals.  The first one explains the picture of every single character in the dictionary just like I did for 'name', even though there are thousands of them.  They're both great references to help sharpen your reading skills.

You can always invent your own mnemonic to remember Chinese characters.  Don't be afraid to give it a try!