Many people wonder about whether they have to learn Chinese characters in order to learn Chinese. The simple answer is no, you don’t. The slightly less simple answer is that it mostly depends upon your circumstances and desires. If your circumstances demand you learn characters, you have to learn characters. If you have a choice, the rest of this article presents the pro’s and con’s of learning them. In the end, there is no right or wrong answer, and both sides have valid arguments.
Argument For Learning Characters
You will quickly notice that the length of this section arguing for learning characters is much shorter than for not learning them. Don’t let this influence you. The reason this section is short is because of the simple fact that characters are the primary written form of the language used in China today. If you want be be able to read and/or write, you need to learn characters. Not much more argument needed. Chinese people use characters for text messaging, emails, and documents. If this is something you want to be able to use now or in the future, then you will have to learn characters. End of argument.
Of course there are other reasons to learn characters besides absolute necessity. Learning them will actually increase your comprehension of the culture. I don’t mean this the way many people do when they argue in behalf of learning characters. Most people use the ‘culture in characters’ argument in that much of the history of China is in various ways seen in the makeup of characters. While this is true, it’s quite impractical and meaningless in a practical sense. For example, 船 (chuán), the word for boat or ship is made up of 3 parts. 舟(vessel), 几(several), 口(mouth). This is the modern version of the character. In the past it was written with 八 (eight) over the 口. Originally 8 people in a boat was used to indicate ‘ship’. Is this a reference to the survival of 8 people in Noah’s ark? This is a great argument for the truthfulness of the Biblical account of the flood, and an interesting bit of trivia of Chinese culture. However, in terms of quickly learning to speak, read, and write Chinese, it’s a small return for an awful lot of work.
My personal argument for learning characters for culture is a bit different. Since characters are difficult to learn and take years even for Chinese people, they are a source of cultural pride and daily discussion. If you learn characters, you immerse yourself in this understanding. You can communicate with people on a more common ground.
More importantly, knowing characters helps you speed up learning vocabulary. Understanding the root words/characters that are used to build other words makes it much easier to understand and remember the words that they make. If fact we regularly use a system called ‘Linkwords’ to quickly increase our vocabulary. Our blog already has the first installment in what we plan to make a series of linkword articles. (LINKWORDS BLOG) Here is a simple example. If you know the character chuán (船 – ship), it will help you to understand other words that use the same character, for example: 船板 (chuánchāo – shipment fee), 船舶 (chuánbó – shipping), 船厂 (chuánchǎng – shipyard), 飞船 (fēichuán – airship/spaceship), 渔船 (yúchuán – fishing boat), 晕船 (yùnchuán – suffer from seasickness). This is a ‘learn one-learn many benefit that you won’t get from studying vocab without characters. (See the blog – Linkwords – Increase Vocab and Understanding).
Another benefit of learning characters is that there is a lot more material for reading and studying in characters than in pinyin. 3-line material (English/Pinyin/Chinese) is even harder to find. If you are going to be doing Chinese long-term, eventually you will be able to do all of your reading in characters.
Learning Characters Is Encouraging
There are two more reasons to learn characters. The first has to do with how many characters you need to learn, the second has to do with the results from having learned characters.
Learn how many? Not as many as you might think. I frequently read articles in which people say 2000-3000 is all you need. While this is true if you want to recognize almost everything you read, the chart below shows that it’s actually a good bit less than that to be functional. It shows how many characters you need to know (from a ‘frequently learned list, starting at the beginning) and approximately what percentage of common reading material you will recognize for every hundred you know.
100 characters = 42% recognition
200 characters = 55% recognition
300 characters = 64% recognition
400 characters = 70% recognition
500 characters = 75% recognition
600 characters = 79% recognition
700 characters = 82% recognition
800 characters = 85% recognition
900 characters = 87% recognition
1000 characters = 89% recognition
1500 characters = 94% recognition
2000 characters = 97.0% recognition
2500 characters = 98.5% recognition
3000 characters = 99.2% recognition
When you analyze it, the list is quite encouraging. At the rate of 25 characters per week (5/day, 5 days a week – and easy to learn number) you can should be able to recognize 1300 characters in the first year. That would mean you should be able to read over 90% of common content material. In just the first two months you should already be recognizing over 50%. The point is, because of good methodology (like Encoding Chinese), tech tools, and good word lists, learning characters is not the impossible and frustrating task it was in the past. It is quite do-able and has many benefits.
Finally, if you learn a bunch of Chinese characters, you will be somewhat of hero. I regularly meet people who have been studying Chinese for 10 or more years. Most of them can recognize characters for texting and some basic reading, but can’t write at all. As just mentioned, now that it is easier to learn characters and can be done quicker, you can actually do something that few foreigners in history have done. Being able to read and write Chinese makes you some kind of superhero genius. Besides just being super cool, especially the writing part, this will give you a lot of kudos and praise. This is very encouraging and motivating. We are not encouraging egotistical pride. We are simply saying that learning any Chinese is a challenge, and any encouragement, and proper pride, can help a student to continue in an effort that many give up on because of the difficulty.
Argument For Not Learning Characters
Characters are for reading and writing, and they take a lot of time and effort to learn, even with a great method like encoding. If you only need to be able to communicate verbally, it sure seems like a huge waste of time to learn something you will rarely or never use. Unless you just really want to, why should you take the time to learn them if your circumstances don’t require it?
Around our house we say ‘speaking is king’. The bigger your vocabulary the more abilitity you have to express yourself. Using the encoding method, to study one vocabulary word takes a little less time as it does to study one character. Mathematically this means you can study more than twice as many vocabulary words in the same amount of study time if you skip learning characters. In just 3-6 months you could have a pretty good working vocabulary, enabling you to be basically functional.
This comment from Grace Shao, writer for CGTN (China Global Television Network) is also very encouraging, in terms of not learning characters. She says, “Although Chinese is widely known as a very difficult language and often people quit before even starting due to this prejudice, some students actually said that Chinese has a relatively uncomplicated grammar. Unlike French, German or English, Chinese has no verb conjugation and no noun declension therefore once you build your base level of vocabulary, you can excel faster than other languages in comparison.”
The point is, focusing on vocabulary can greatly speed up your ability in this difficult language.
Even if you are a business professional who needs to learn to communicate for business, you won’t necessarily need to know characters. Yes, recognition of characters is necessary for texting, which you might do a lot if you are in business, but other than that, you’ll probably never use characters. If you are doing business outside of China, most of the written material will be in the language of the country you are in. If you are in China, you will likely have access to a bilingual Chinese person who could do much better than you at reading and understanding business related written material. Between that and a good vocabulary, it should be enough for any business you will ever do. On top of that, many Chinese people speak enough English to fill in any gaps.
The rest of the comments below are excerpts from a few very well written articles by Wayne Wong, about the benefits of pinyin over characters.
Chinese characters may be the traditional writing system for Mandarin… Indeed, compared to other writing systems, characters incur very high costs in terms of the ongoing time, attention, and effort required to learn and remember them. It’s good if some have already learned to use characters, but for those of us who are learning Mandarin…our focus should really be on understanding Mandarin speech and speaking Mandarin understandably.
Giving attention to proper pronunciation and grammar right from the start will prevent you from forming bad habits that are hard to break.
As imperfect humans, we may tend to focus on Chinese characters simply because we can see them… Indeed, those who have expended much time and effort to learn some characters may find that they can understand those “gateway characters” faster when they see them, compared to when they see Pīnyīn. This is because Pīnyīn represents meaning indirectly by first simply and directly representing invisible Mandarin speech sounds, which in turn represent meaning, whereas characters try to represent meaning directly through their visual designs. However, even such visual distinctiveness does not qualify characters to be top priority…
Pīnyīn is a simple full writing system for Mandarin that can help us to focus on and successfully develop the primarily required abilities of understanding Mandarin speech and speaking Mandarin understandably, without the often unnecessary distraction of the visually beguiling, bewitchingly complex Chinese characters.
Characters focus mainly on themselves, and are at best a scenic route to learning Mandarin speech, while Pīnyīn is an expressway for doing so….There is of course some value in learning a reasonable number of characters, since they are so pervasive in the Chinese world. However, characters can gradually be learned later, if desired, when you actually have time for the diversion that they entail. Your first priority, though, should be to learn to actually talk to Mandarin-speaking people…
Reading just Pīnyīn may take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to reading (or trying to read) Hànzì (Chinese characters), but going by first principles of linguistics (the scientific study of language) rather than mere human traditions, it should be more than worth the effort. You should at least give yourself a chance to get used to it.
“One of the basic assumptions of modern linguistics [the scientific study of language]…is that speech is primary and writing is secondary”. Yes, speech is the foundation on which writing must be built, not vice versa…Thus, it is very good that Pīnyīn represents Mandarin speech so straightforwardly and easily, and that it enables us to focus on speech. Yes, while Chinese characters, as beautiful and traditional as they are, demand distractingly large commitments of precious time and energy just for themselves, Pīnyīn frees and empowers us to focus on communicating…
Since Pīnyīn is not just a pronunciation aid, but a full writing system, it is not “training wheels”—it’s regular wheels. On the other hand, Chinese characters are like non-round wheels—more difficult than necessary. While some may find non-round wheels “interesting”, or maybe even “beautiful”, much of the time we just need to get from point A to point B as quickly and easily as possible…
But, aren’t characters more meaningful than Pīnyīn? There are certainly meanings and stories behind how certain characters are written, but taken as a bewitchingly complex, independent system for directly representing meanings visually, the characters can actually be a distraction or a diversion from the Mandarin words themselves, which are already a system of representing meanings through Mandarin speech sounds. Really, a Mandarin word still means what it means, no more and no less, whether it is spoken, written in characters, or written in Pīnyīn. Shakespeare said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, and indeed, a rose would smell as sweet whether the spoken Mandarin word for it is written as “玫瑰” or as “méigui”. Writing the word in characters does not add to its meaning, and writing it in Pīnyīn does not take away from its meaning.
If someone says that they don’t get much meaning from reading Pīnyīn, that’s not a sign that Pīnyīn is not meaningful. Rather, it’s perhaps a sign that this person has become accustomed to and perhaps dependent on the way characters represent meaning visually, and it’s probably a sign that this person’s understanding of Mandarin speech needs improving, because Pīnyīn is a very simple and direct representation of Mandarin speech, such that if one understands Mandarin speech, one will understand Pīnyīn, and vice versa. Furthermore, as a very simple and direct representation of Mandarin speech, Pīnyīn is thus just as meaningful as Mandarin speech is…
But, does using Pīnyīn mean that we are failing to show proper respect for Chinese culture? Since, as mentioned above, the Pīnyīn system was developed in China by Chinese people, it is a product of Chinese culture, and it is a part of Chinese culture. So, using Pīnyīn is not an imposition of Western culture—it is an application of Chinese culture! While Pīnyīn uses the Latin alphabet, it does so because the Chinese developers of Pīnyīn of their own free will purposely chose to base it on this international alphabet (it’s not just the English alphabet) so that users of Pīnyīn would benefit from its familiarity. This Chinese design decision has caused the international Latin alphabet to be adopted as part of Chinese culture. As Zhōu Ēnlái (the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China) said, ‘When we adopt the Latin alphabet, in which we make necessary adjustments to suit the needs of the Chinese language, it becomes the phonetic alphabet of our language and is no longer the alphabet of ancient Latin, still less the alphabet of any foreign country.’
“But There Are So Many Words That Sound the Same!”
Some may object, saying that there are so many homophones in Chinese that the characters are needed to differentiate them from each other. (A homophone is a word that has the same pronunciation as another word, but that has a different meaning from it.) However, consider: When people are just speaking Mandarin, with no characters in sight to help them, do they have problems understanding each other because of all the homophones? Can blind Mandarin-speakers, who cannot see characters, still “see” what people mean when those people speak Mandarin? So, people can use the context and understand each other okay when using Pīnyīn too, since Pīnyīn directly represents the sound of spoken Mandarin. The style of some written Mandarin would perhaps need some adjusting to be less terse and more like that of spoken Mandarin, but it is definitely doable—Mandarin written in Pīnyīn is workable, just as spoken Mandarin is workable.
Actual Evidence That Using More Pīnyīn Is Better
It is actually not necessary to rely merely on personal opinion when considering whether or not it would be a good idea for Mandarin-learners to use Pīnyīn more than it has traditionally been used…
Strong evidence was provided by an experimental program that was conducted in many elementary schools throughout China to explore what would result from expanded use of Pīnyīn…Basically, compared to those in the standard program who were just taught Pīnyīn for a couple of months or so purely as a phonetic aid for pronouncing characters, the students who were allowed to use Pīnyīn on its own as a writing system for a couple of years or so not only did significantly better in learning the language and in learning the Chinese characters, they also did significantly better overall academically. This is not surprising to me, since language is needed to learn and progress in any and every other field of learning. As former UN interpreter Wu Wenchao said,
Chinese language is difficult to learn in comparison with alphabetic languages. …Chinese students work very hard and would have to spend two more years [some have said even longer] in learning in order to reach the same level of a Western intellectual. …The difficulty in learning is analogous to long boot-up time in computer terminology, which means system delay in becoming operational.
In addition to those who feel that phasing out the Hànzì would be a regrettable cultural loss, I have also noticed that there are some for whom knowledge of Hànzì is a matter of pride and self-identity. They are proud of knowing the Hànzì as they do, and they view their knowledge of the Hànzì as part of what makes them who they are, as something that distinguishes them from those who don’t know the Hànzì. Such ones may defend the Hànzì to the point of irrationality in the face of a more accessible alternative that would make them and their hard-earned knowledge of Hànzì less “special”, that would threaten to render worthless all of the blood, sweat, and tears they have invested into grappling with these “Chinese puzzles”. It’s as if they are saying, “That’s not fair! If I had to go through all this bitter hard work to learn characters before I could read and write Chinese, then everyone else has to too!”
This is probably a big reason why, …“opposition [to Chinese writing reform] ‘comes primarily from intellectuals, especially from high level intellectuals.’ ” Lǔ Xùn (鲁迅/魯迅, Lu Xun). More recently, one commenter pointed out:
It takes a very grown-up person to say “I did this the hard way, but child, I want you to do it the easy way, for the greater good.”
The current reality is that it is good…to learn as many Chinese characters as we reasonably can. However, experience has shown that focusing too much on characters can cause one to get bogged down with their multifarious complexities and vagaries—while a picture may be worth a thousand words, it can take a thousand words or more to precisely describe a picture!
All these complexities and vagaries can cause Hànzì to effectively be a GREAT WALL OF CHARACTERS blocking communication with Chinese people. (Honestly, that’s what a block of Chinese characters can seem like to even a long-time learner. What an ironic and wrong thing for a writing system to be—a long-term barrier to communication!) This can understandably be discouraging…
Yes, overemphasis on Chinese characters can be a burden that weighs us down rather than helping our progress in learning and using Chinese.