Characters Are Not As Complicated As They May Seem

Chinese characters have long been the hardest part of learning this language. All those random lines!! If you’ve been studying Chinese for any length of time at all, you know that all characters are made up of one or more components, often called ‘radicals’. There are over 200 basic components used to build all of the various characters. So while at first characters might seem a little intimidating, there is actually a lot of structure and repeating forms there. Once you learn these forms, learning and remembering characters becomes much easier. Since the encoding method converts all these base components into easy to remember images/objects, it only makes them that much easier to learn.

To help clarify and lessen the intimidation factor, you might think of these components like the letters in most Western alphabets. Where the English would use individual letters to write a word, like ‘cat’ (c-a-t), Chinese uses individual components (犭- 艹 – 田) to ‘spell’ cat like this: 猫

When you think of it in those terms, it already seems a little easier. When you are familiar with using the encoding method, you can view this character as a dog: (犭)

….in a grassy: (艹)

….field: (田)

Ok, that last one is not a field in the beginning. You will learn later that (田) means field. So a cat in Chinese is just a dog in a grassy field….ha.

The Challenge

The challenging part of learning characters, as we keep trying to tell everyone, is remembering all of these details. Chinese components can appear in all types of layouts. Chinese doesn’t usually arrange these comps in a line like most other languages. If they did, a simple sentence like, “This is a cat.” might look something like this:

辶亠乂    日一龰    一    口八   犭艹田

If they did it like this it might be able to be learned just like any other language, especially if each of the above components had an individual sound or pronunciation. Unfortunately that’s not how it works. By bunching the letters or comps up the way they do, the sentence looks like this:

这是一只猫

While this type of layout is more concise and more efficient, it is also more frightening. This stack style arranging of comps into a word presents several problems. One is separating the individual components, which means you need to learn them all. Another is remembering which particular comps make up each word, and still another is where those comps are placed in the arrangement.

The reason it is sometimes difficult to remembering which comps were in a character you studied is because many of the comps are very similar. Like a ‘V’ and a ‘U’ or an ‘E’ and an ‘F’ are similar in Roman letters, there are many character components that are similar. The following groups of similar shaped comps and words give you an idea of what we’re talking about:

土士, 儿几, 七匕, 人入, 阝乃, 厶龴, 寸弋, 女丈

These are just a few of the similarities. When you add the comps that are the same but just have one or two small additions like:

小少, 心必, 尺艮, 户尸戸戶, 无兂夫, 又夂丈夊

then getting things right can make your head hurt.

The reason why remembering where to put the comps in the arrangement can at times be difficult is because Chinese characters have many different layouts, as we mentioned above. Unlike most languages where the letters are arranged in a single line, Chinese character comps are arranged over and under other comps, side-by-side, comps inside or around others, overlapping comps, and even comps split in half to make room for others in between. You can have the same ‘letters’ arranged in different ways, like ‘art’, ‘rat’, and ‘tar’. Same three letters, different words.

At first this might seem like no problem at all, since you have an alphabet of over 200 letters to work from. After all, English makes up all of it’s words from a base of only 26. However…..most Chinese characters use only 2-4 of these ‘letters’ or components, and that’s where the problem lies. Look at any sentence in this article and see how many of the words use more than three or four letters. Try building an entire language of 500,000 or more words, where all of the words have only three or four letters, and you quickly get a sense if the problem. Like the above art/rat/tar, you end up being forced to use the same letter combinations a whole lot more often. This leads to a huge ‘sorting out’ problem, and is another reason why Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn.

Fear Not – It’s Easier Now Than Ever Before

In languages where the written components or ‘letters’ affect or indicate the sound, knowing the correct arrangement is easier, because there is a logical construction, or reason why each letter is in a particular place. Because Chinese comps have no sound, no context, and usually no reason for being in their position in the character, the whole arrangement becomes harder to remember. The Encoding method helps with this problem. Because encoding a character turns the components into objects in a story or picture, like our cat above, they are given a reason for being in their particular position or place in the character arrangement. By giving the comps a reason or story behind the places they occupy, we create a context for these comps. They are much easier remembered where they are ‘supposed to be’.

Fortunately too, there are a somewhat limited number of these comps that are used to build Chinese characters. The final number of comps we have prepared for you is 260. Since the encoding method converts these confusing comps into familiar objects, each one very different from the next, you don’t have to worry about the ones that have similar written appearance. Also, you can make contextual stories, and thus greatly decrease the likelihood of mixing up ones that are similar, and greatly increase the likelihood of remembering them.

More and more methods for learning Chinese characters are using this pictorial system, because of it’s effectiveness. Whether you use our encoding system, someone else’s, or one of your own devising, remembering that characters are just groups of smaller ‘alphabetic’ type of components, should make things much easier, and give you the confidence to tackle what once was a most difficult challenge.

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