Some friends of mine recently organized a hike that ended up being a steep, arduous, bruising climb.
When they got to the top, they found a group of nicely dressed people, young and old, picnicking.
Turns out, if they had gone up the other side, there was an easier path cut out for them.
In the same way, Mandarin Chinese reading is hard, but it won’t be as bruising if you know how to learn it the right way.
And there’s an easy path that’s accessible to everyone.
Taking the less strenuous path is all about knowing how to learn to read Chinese—how to make pinyin work for you, and how to recognize and remember characters.
And here’s the best part: By reading Chinese, you’ll improve your Chinese regardless of how much you already know.
The fact is, whether you’re new to reading Chinese, setting fluency as your goal or curious about the language, you can just start reading.
How to Learn Chinese by Reading It, Even If You “Can’t”
1. Learn to Read Chinese with Pinyin
The one aspect of Chinese that characters don’t cover is tones, which can greatly influence the meaning of your Chinese words. Learn Chinese tones before you learn Chinese characters.
Absolutely nothing within the character itself will remind you of the tone. Speaking with proper tones is a product of memorization. The best way to learn to read Chinese tones properly is by using 拼音 (pīn yīn — literally, “combine sounds”).
Pinyin is the romanized version of Chinese. Beginner Chinese classes have nothing to do with characters at all because of how important accurate pronunciation and tones are. Chinese school children learn pinyin before they start learning characters, so if they need it, you and I do, too.
FluentU is a great resource to start reading pinyin along with audio.
(I say pronunciations and tones because some characters have more than one pronunciation or tone. This happens in English, too, such as with the word “read.” Without context, you don’t know if it should be pronounced “reed” or “red,” but if you understand how they’re both used, you’ll be fine.)
2. Learn to Recognize Characters
Once you have pinyin down, you can jump into the world of characters. Two tricks to reading Chinese well are:
Character components usually give clues for what the character means and how to pronounce the character. As with any language, the rules aren’t perfect, but they work the majority of the time. Although these components are not equivalents for English prefixes and suffixes, you may find it helpful to view them that way.
Oftentimes (again, not always), the component on the left side of a character has to do with the meaning of the character.
For example, 金 (jīn) means “money” or something related to metals (this is often written as 钅as a simplified character component):
- 钱 (qián — money)
- 银 (yín — silver)
- 铁 (tǐe — iron)
- 锅 (guō — cooking pot)
With some simpler characters, the character component can appear in other places, too.
木 (mù) means “tree” or “wood”:
- 板 (bǎn — plank)
- 本 (běn — root)
- 果 (guǒ — fruit)
- 林 (lín — forest)
Some components give you a pronunciation reminder. The component has a meaning but has no influence on the meaning of the character.
For example, 包 (bāo — package):
- 跑 (pǎo — run; flee)
- 抱 (bào — embrace)
- 饱 (bǎo — become full from eating)
并 (bìng — and; also):
- 瓶 (píng — jug; vase; pitcher)
- 拼 (pīn — join together)
- 饼 (bǐng — round flat cake, usually referring to tortilla- or cookie-like edibles)
Let’s use the word for “eat” to show how the meaning and pronunciation keys work in real life. If you already know this word and understand its characters, try to think back to when you first learned it.
“Eat” is made up of two characters, pronounced chī fàn. Each character has two components. Below are the four components that make up the two characters. Pronunciations are generally easier to remember than the characters, so now that you know how to say the word, guess which character is pronounced chī and which one is fàn:
- 口 (kǒu — mouth)
- 乞 (qǐ — beg)
- 饣(shí — food)
- 反 (fǎn — reverse)
For the first character, think of words in Chinese that involve your 口, or mouth, and then think of which ones sound like 乞 (qǐ).
Although “chi” and “qi” are pronounced differently, they are relatively similar, so“qi” is the pronunciation key for the first character 吃 (chī).
For the second character, think of words in Chinese related to 饣(shí — food), then think of ones that sound like 反 (fǎn). “Fan” is a little more obvious as a pronunciation key for the second character, 饭 (fàn).
Of course, this requires remembering what all these little components mean. Some of them are easier to understand, almost creating pictures on their own to help you remember their meanings. Other not so obvious ones, such as 黄 (huáng — yellow), require a little more work.
Gradually learn the 214 components and their meanings. As you learn more components, it will be easier to piece together characters that are new to you. A little good news about the 214 components: some aren’t used that often, so unless you need to learn a Chinese character that uses a more obscure component, you can skip it.
3. Learn How to Remember Your Chinese
Components and creativity are your best allies when trying to remember characters.
Here’s an example:
- Character: 意
- Pronunciation: yī
- Definition: “meaning”
- Components: 音 (yīn — sound; voice); 心 (xīn — heart)
To remember this character:
- Use the components to remember the definition: your meaning is the voice of your heart.
- Use creativity to remember how the character is written: imagine a sculpted fountain with a spout shaped like a heart, and the water that shoots up from it is your voice.
Another example, this time with a word:
- Word: 明白
- Pronunciation: míng bái
- Definition: “to understand”
- Components: 日 (rì — sun); 月 (yuè — moon); 白 (bái — white; clear)
To remember this word:
- Use the components to remember the definition: the sun and moon make things clear to see.
- Use creativity to remember how the word is written:
- First character: the sun and moon work together to provide light.
- Second character: to understand something, your questions have to be cleared up.
These are just a couple of simple tricks to remember characters. I’m sure you’ll find plenty more great suggestions online and on your own.
All in all, remember:
- If you haven’t learned all of the 214 components yet, start reading Chinese anyway.
- Resist the temptation to immediately look up an unknown character. First, try to break down the character into components, then guess the meaning and the pronunciation. After you do that, look it up to see how close (or otherwise) you were.
This will increase your awareness of how Chinese character components work, making it easier and easier over time to handle Chinese reading.
4. Practice Reading Chinese Online
Of course, the best way to remember your Chinese is to use it. If you don’t run into many Chinese people where you live, get on Chinese social media and see who you can connect with.
Send them this message to get the ball rolling:
我在学习中文，可以跟你练习吗？(wǒ zài xué xí zhōng wén, kě yǐ gēn nǐ liàn xí ma? — I’m learning Chinese, can I practice with you?)
Here are some other online resources to practice your Chinese reading skills:
- The Chairman’s Bao publishes articles organized by HSK level, from 1-6. (It’s also an iOS and Android app.) Each article comes with a list of key words for that article and their meanings, as well as grammar points found in the article. If you double-click on a word in the article, the “live dictionary” on the side will give you the characters, pinyin and definition of the character.
The articles also feature audio tracks, so you can listen and read at the same time. TCB features a weekly 成语 (chéng yǔ — idiomatic expression) in their email newsletter.
- Marco Polo Project takes Chinese texts and translates them into English. This site provides more straightforward Chinese reading. You cannot simultaneously view the Chinese and English texts, so this will test your Chinese reading comprehension. Try to break down characters you don’t know into components, then guess what the character means and how you might say it before looking it up.
- Escape from WordSwing offers Chinese learning in the form of a full-text RPG. Similar to other “escape the room” smartphone games, this involves finding clues and using discernment to make your way out of the situation. The difference, of course, is that it’s all in Chinese character text. If there’s a character you don’t know or don’t remember, you can click on it and a sidebar will appear with the character, pinyin and meaning.
- Chinese Reading Practice provides readers with loads of stories for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels with information ranging from jokes to recipes. As you read the stories, you can hover over a character you don’t know to get the pinyin and meaning.
- My Chinese Reading also forces you to use the characters you know, only giving you the pinyin pronunciation and meaning when you mouse over a word.
There are some great apps out there to help with your characters:
- AnkiApp is a very well-known flashcard app to help test your recall once you’ve learned character components and created a way to remember them. Anki is available for iOS, Android, Windows and MacOS (apps for Windows and MacOS will automatically download).
- Skritter is an app that tests your ability to write and remember the meaning and tones of characters. Stroke order, pronunciation, meaning and tones are all part of the exercises. You’ll also get hints for how to refine your Chinese writing if your strokes aren’t drawn with appropriate detail. Skritter is available for iOS and Android.
There are a lot of other great options for online Chinese reading practice and apps, all of which will help you improve your Chinese reading ability.
Learning to read in Chinese is no simple task, but with the right strategies in place, you can make the road to the top a lot smoother.
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