Memorizing Chinese characters and vocabulary is one of the most frustrating endeavors for Chinese language learners. It’s kind of like herding cats, where the cats are the characters and your brain is the kennel. They just don’t want to listen to you and stay in the kennel.
However, there is a way to learn Chinese characters and never forget them.
I lay out this process clearly in the video above. The video is a little long because in addition to explaining the process of memorizing Chinese characters and vocabulary, I answer a lot of the questions that I anticipated you might ask about the process. I will do the same here. I apologize in advance for the length of the explanation of this process. But, after all we are talking about a system for memorizing up to 3000 Chinese characters and hopefully never forgetting them. Such a system could not be explained in just a few minutes.
Principles To Keep In Mind
Learning Chinese characters requires a daily commitment. This isn’t something you can work on part-time, starting and continuing for a few weeks and then giving up for a few more weeks and then coming back again. If you want to learn to read Chinese characters, you need to be prepared to make a daily commitment.
As you will soon see, my system involves reviewing daily for several weeks every character that you learn. Therefore, the number of characters and vocabulary that you have to review on a daily basis grows very quickly. Therefore, you want to start slow. I recommend starting by learning only five new characters or vocabulary words a day. After 10 days you will have 50 flashcards to review. In another 10 days you be reviewing 100 cards every day. If you are too ambitious at the start and try learning 20 flashcards a day, in 20 days you would have 200 flashcards that you had to review on a daily basis. That is simply unmanageable and will only lead to frustration and being overwhelmed. At this point you would only want to give up. Therefore, I recommend learning no more than five new flashcards each day. The flashcard could have one character on it, or a vocabulary word that contains two characters.
Read And Write Daily
Learning Chinese characters only using flashcards is not going to be effective. Ideally, in addition to flashcard work, you want to be reading and writing daily. Keeping a journal is the best way to practice writing.
Daily reading poses a problem because there is not enough varied graded content out there. It really doesn’t help to read the same dialogue over and over again every day. In just two or three days you are basically going to memorize the dialogue and so reading it becomes useless. It’s not helping you to recognize Chinese characters.
The key is to have a fresh new dialogues or texts that you can read each day as you’re learning. Nothing like this exists to my knowledge.
I am currently creating an HSK course that provides daily reading that is fresh so that it is actually helping you in recognizing Chinese characters. You can sign up for my newsletter on the right and I will notify you when the course is ready.
The Process In a Nutshell – The Learn-Review-Learn Process
I will go into great detail on this process answering a lot of the questions you may have along the way. Here is the basic framework that you should keep in mind as you continue to read or watch the video above.
Day one: Learn how to write five new Chinese characters. By the end of the study session you will be able to write these new characters from memory. In addition, you will be able to look at the character and recall its English meaning and proper Pinyin pronunciation including tones. You will then continue to work with the flashcards until your reaction time for writing and recognition is immediate.
Day two: Review the five flashcards from the day before. You will most likely forget some of them. Before learning five new cards on day two relearn all the ones that you forgot from day one. Continue working with the five flashcards from day one until your reaction time for writing and recognition is immediate. Then, learn five new flashcards in the same manner. Finally, mix all 10 cards together shuffle them and continue working with them until your reaction time for writing and recognition is immediate. You should revisit the cards 4 to 5 times during the day. If you hesitate on how to write any of the cards or in recalling the meaning and the Pinyin pronunciation including tones, then keep drilling with those cards until the reaction time is immediate.
Day 3 to day 30: Continue in this fashion, learning five new cards every day, both how to write and recognizing its English meaning and pronunciation including the tones. In addition, you are reviewing all the cards from previous days with the goal of increasing your reaction time so it takes you no longer than a second to write the characters from memory or to recall their meaning and pronunciation.
If you are learning five new cards a day, by day 30 you will have 150 cards that you are reviewing several times a day on a daily basis. Again, during the review process, you are not merely proving to yourself that you can write the characters from memory and recall their meaning and proper pronunciation. Primarily, your review sessions are aimed at increasing your reaction time so that you are writing characters from memory automatically without thinking. This is similar to learning how to drive a stick shift car. In the beginning you’re thinking too much about everything you are doing. However, by the time you become expert at the process, you are not thinking about pushing in the clutch or changing the gears. Rather it all happens automatically.
Day 31 and on: Now take out the cards from day one. From here on, each day you are taking out the five oldest cards and adding the five newest cards that you learned most recently. In this way your daily review will not exceed 150 flashcards.
However, you will want to review once a week the flashcards that you take out. If you find that you have forgotten a character or vocabulary word after not reviewing its flashcard for a month or two, then you will want to return that card back into the daily rotation for a week.
My forthcoming HSK course will help streamline this process and system. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to the right and I will notify you when it comes out.
This is a basic outline of the system. Below, I will go into more detail on the process of memorizing Chinese characters and vocabulary. You may feel the urge to stop reading here. However, I encourage you to continue on. A lot of questions about the system that may come to you later will very likely be addressed below.
Making The Flashcards
I recommend that you make handheld flashcards. It is my feeling that they work better in the memorization process. Web-based flashcard programs are better for reviewing characters once you have initially memorized them. However, they are a little clunky when you have a stack of 50 flashcards, and you want to separate out cards that are giving you a difficult time in order to focus more time on them. Handheld flashcards are better for this.
To make the flashcards, I used 3 x 5 index cards cut in half. I type all the characters into a word processing document and increase the font to 36 of 48. I then print and cut them out and tape them on one side of the card. Unless you have flawless handwriting I don’t suggest making flashcards with handwritten characters. Then, on the opposite side of the card you can handwrite the Pinyin with tone marks and English meaning.
The Memorization Process
I call my memorization process the “learn-review-learn” technique. In a nutshell, here is how it works.
Note: in the following explanation when I use the word “memorize”, I mean that you memorize how to write the character from memory using proper stroke order. For example, if you are looking at a flashcard with the Pinyin and English, you are able to write it from memory. In addition, I also mean that you can flip that card over, and while looking at the character successfully recall the Pinyin pronunciation with tones and the English meaning.
Before you start, be sure that you have instructions on the proper stroke order of how the characters are written for the five flashcards you are about to memorize. In addition, you should also have audio clips so you can listen to how they are pronounced.
“Test ready” means that if you had to take a test right now you would ace it.
It’s often difficult if you are trying to do this on your own, pulling all these resources together day after day. I am currently developing an HSK course aimed at making the learner a fluent reader of Chinese characters. The course will include stroke order instruction and audio clips for each day’s new Chinese characters and vocabulary, making this process a whole lot easier. Remember to sign up for my newsletter to the right and I will notify you when the course comes out.
- Memorize card 1
- Memorize card 2
- Review both card 1 and card 2 until you are test ready
- Memorize card 3
- Review cards 1, 2, and 3 until you are test ready.
- Memorize card 4
- Review cards 1, 2, 3, and 4 until you are test ready.
- Memorize card 5
- Review cards 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 until you are test ready.
By the end of this process you should be able to write from memory the characters on all five cards. In addition, you should be able to look at the characters and recall its proper pronunciation with tones and English meaning.
Now, you should continue working with the five cards increasing your reaction time. You haven’t really learned the content on a flashcard until your reaction time is immediate. Staring at a Chinese character for five seconds with the meaning finally coming to you after some struggle really doesn’t count as having learned it.
When you see a cat, you don’t sit there for five seconds struggling to recall what it is. The word “cat” immediately comes to your mind whether you like it or not. This is what you are aiming for.
Review the flashcards four to five times throughout the day. Each short review session should only take 10 to 20 seconds. If you have forgotten some of the content, then you’ll want to take a little more time to re-memorize.
Again, if your reaction time has slowed down, then you will want to spend more time with the cards increasing your reaction time. Remember, when you see a cat, you don’t struggle to remember the word “cat”, it just comes to you. You want to work with these flashcards until the meaning just comes to you.
Before learning five new flashcards, review the cards from Day 1. Relearn any content you forgot, and drill with the flashcards until your reaction time becomes immediate.
Learn five new cards using the learn-review-learn technique. Be sure to have your stroke order instructions for writing and audio clips for pronunciation. Once you have learned the five new cards, mix them with the five from day one. Drill, shuffle, and drill again. Spend a few minutes with the 10 cards increasing your reaction time.
Here is what you are aiming for. When looking at the Pinyin and English, you should be able to write the character using the tip of your finger on the table in about one second. There should be no hesitation on any of the strokes. If you are pausing, trying to remember what the next stroke is, then you need to work on that card some more. Likewise, when looking at the character on one side of the card the pronunciation and English meaning should take less than one second to come to your mind.
Days 3 to 10
Carry on in this way. By day 10 you will have 50 flashcards that you are working with on a daily basis. Remember that you are reviewing these cards four to five times throughout the day. If you have done everything right and have taking the process seriously, it should take you about a minute and a half to go through the flashcards and write each character using the tip of your finger on the table. Likewise, it should take you less than one minute to go through the cards looking at the characters and recalling the pronunciation and English meaning.
Reading and Keeping Journal
Beginning on day 10 you should start daily reading and keeping a journal. I have a trick below so that when you are keeping a journal you are not just repeating the same information about yourself every day. If you are memorizing characters from a textbook or some Chinese course, then the 50 characters or vocabularies that you have learned up to this point should have come from three or four lessons. Perhaps in these lessons people are introducing themselves and talking about their family members, etc. Here’s what you do:
- Day 10: write about you and your family.
- Day 11: write about a friend’s family.
- Day 12: write about your family from another family member’s perspective.
- Day 13: pretend you are Luke Skywalker and write about his family.
You get the idea? This will allow you to use the same vocabulary day after day, but writing fresh content.
This is a little more difficult because there is not enough graded material out there to give you fresh content to read every day. It’s useless to reread the dialogue in your textbook every day. After two or three days you are going to basically memorize it, and when you read it you won’t even be looking at the characters anymore.
Again, my forthcoming HSK course will have fresh daily reading beginning from day 1. Sign up for my newsletter to the right to be notified when it comes out.
This is a good time for me to point out that working only with flashcards is not going to get you the best results. There must be daily reading and writing involved.
Days 11 to 30
We are only going to make one change to your daily routine beginning on day 11. The purpose of the change is to maximize your time.
Up to now you should have been reviewing all your flashcards 4 to 5 times a day. However, by day 20 you will have 100 flashcards, and by day 30 you will have 150 flashcards. In order to maximize your time and make each daily review session more efficient, you may want to make two groups with your flashcards: those less than 10 days old and those more than 10 days old. Based on your judgment of how well you have mastered the cards older than 10 days, perhaps you could review these only two times a day. However, if there are cards older than 10 days but are still giving you trouble, then you’ll want to continue reviewing these 4 to 5 times a day.
The basic principle is this: the cards you have been working on for more than 10 days that you have essentially mastered need less of your time. However, you still must review them at least two times a day.
Days 31 to 90
Create Five New Flashcards Decks
Beginning on day 31, you are going to start culling your daily review deck. On day 31, take out the five cards that you learned on day one put them in a new deck called “Monday”. These cards you will review once a week on Monday. Should you forget any of these cards when reviewing them on the following Monday and thereafter, then bring the card back into your daily review deck for another week.
On day 32, take out the five cards you learned on day two and put them in a deck called “Tuesday”. Continue to do this day after day until you have five decks labeled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Give yourself a break on the weekends.
So now your daily routine will change a little bit. In addition to leaning five new cards and reviewing all cards less than 30 days old, you will also be reviewing the weekly deck for that day.
Carry-on in this fashion until your daily review load starts to become unmanageable. At this point, you can start culling the weekly decks and creating another deck that you look at once a month. After a couple months, any cards in the monthly deck that you get correct each time can be retired from your system indefinitely. These cards you have mastered and you are likely to never forget them.
Any cards in a weekly deck or a monthly deck that you forgot need to be demoted back to the daily review deck. These cards will need to work their way back up to a weekly deck and eventually a monthly deck before you can retire them indefinitely.
Don’t get discouraged if there are stubborn cards that you keep forgetting. This is the whole point of the system. The system is designed to identify stubborn characters and vocabulary, forcing you to constantly review them over and over until you eventually master them.
I can’t emphasize enough the necessity to read daily. You can’t become a fluent reader of Chinese by using flashcards alone. My forthcoming HSK course will have daily reading beginning on day one, so that every day there will be fresh content to read. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to the right in order to be notified when the course is ready.
In addition, I have included some links below to graded reading material. Read daily, read voraciously, read until you can’t read anymore and then read some more.
Keep a Journal Daily. Keep a list of topics that you rotate through in order to avoid going too much time without writing about certain topics. You don’t want to write only about family members every day for two weeks resulting in forgetting how to write about the weather. Keep a list of topics that you are learning and then rotate through the list day after day so that each topic gets an equal amount of time.
Take It Slow
Don’t add any more than five flashcards a day into your system. With five cards a day, by day 30 there are already 150 cards to review daily. Having too many cards in your daily review deck will result in frustration and being overwhelmed. Take it slow.
A Note On Writing By Hand
Don’t get discouraged if you forget how to write characters by hand. Let’s face it, you are likely to forget how to write most of them. Just remember that all the writing you do daily while reviewing is aimed at helping you recognize the character, not to be able to write it from memory indefinitely.
In addition, most of your writing will be on a computer, tablet, or smart phone. You will be typing in Pinyin, and even if you are unable to write the character you will recognize it immediately once you type in Pinyin and see the character presented to you.
That’s it! If you can stick with this plan for three years, you should be able to read most of Chinese newspaper. You will likely be doing better than a student of Mandarin at a university after three years.
The hard part will be sticking with the system. However, there really is no alternative if you want to learn how to read Chinese. These characters are not going to enter into your mind through osmosis. If you don’t think you can maintain a system like this, then you likely won’t learn how to read Chinese.
I understand how difficult this can be. I have been a student of Chinese for nearly 20 years at the time of writing. My forthcoming HSK course is designed to make this whole process easier, and hopefully more interesting, engaging, and fun.
Please sign up for my newsletter to the right and I will notify you when the course is available.
Finally, post any questions or comments you may have below.