Posted by: rbbadger | April 22, 2009

How does one remember Chinese characters?

One of my interests in the field of language is writing.  I’ve been exposed to quite a few writing systems and am able to read in a few of them now. I know a number of Chinese characters now too, though I would like to master the script further.  It is not easy.  I rather like what the Augustinian friar José Villaneuva said of the Chinese script.  He wrote:

 “He should grasp the Chinese-European dictionary and look up each character patiently, one by one, and assure himself calmly of its meaning, without fear, realizing that he is carrying his cross. No doubt he will forget one character while he is looking for another. But he should not give up, only go on and look it up for the second, the fourth, and the sixth time. Often he will feel horrified and it will appear to him impossible to learn the characters. In each character he will see a fierceful lion wanting to attack him. When he realizes that it is a paper lion, he will laugh. After two months or at most three the fearful lion will be transformed in a peaceful ox (taken from”

Anyhow, I’ve been interested in how one learns Chinese script and more importantly how one retains it.  From some of the things I’ve read, it is no easy task, even for the Chinese people themselves.  There is now a veritable plethora of electronic aids available.  Many Chinese people do most of their writing on the computer.  But when you have to write something by hand and you don’t have a computer handy, many do resort to small portable dictionaries which can help to refresh the memory.  These things are ubiquitous in Korea as well, though they are generally Korean-English dictionaries.

Apparently, remembering the characters is hard for the Chinese as well.  I love the story which David Moser tells of trying to remember one of the characters for “sneeze”.  He was at the University of Beijing and had an appointment with a friend later in the day.  He had a bad cold, so he decided to cancel the appointment.  So, he wanted to leave a note for his friend.  He couldn’t remember one of the characters which makes up “to sneeze”, so he asked some Ph.D. students what it was.  Not one could remember!  And these are Ph.D. students. 

Professor Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, recently conducted an experiment on his students.  Taiwan is a topic that is often in the news in China, especially because the powers that be in Beijing would dearly love to have their rebelious former province under their control again.  In a classroom of 36 students, only 2 were able to write both the traditional characters and the simplified characters for Taiwan (in traditional script it would appear as 臺灣 though 台灣 would be more frequently used, even in Taiwan).  Only four could write them from memory partially correctly.  Only 10 could write one form correctly with another 10 being able to write one form partially correctly.  Of the native speakers of Chinese, only a couple couldn’t write either form.  Most of the non-native speakers of Chinese could not generate from memory either the traditional or simplified characters for Taiwan.  These are graduate students.  He said that one of the brightest students in the class told him that it didn’t really matter that they couldn’t remember the name for Taiwan.  According the student, a native Chinese person who holds an M.A. in history and language from the University of Beijing, it doesn’t matter because now most of them do their writing on computers or handheld devices which allows them to access the characters by typing them in pinyin, the way of writing Chinese in Roman letters. 

In Korea, a survey was done of the incoming freshmen into Sungkyunkwan University in 2007.  Twenty percent could not write their own names in Chinese characters.  Seventy-seven percent were unable to write their mother’s name in Chinese characters.  Seventy-eight percent were unable to write their father’s name in Chinese characters.  Seventy-one percent could not write “new student” in Chinese characters.  Some confused “bamboo mat” with “university”.

In comparison to Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, learning the characters is much more difficult and keeping them in your memory is terribly hard.  With the newspapers and most of the books now being printed in mostly Korean alphabetic script, there aren’t as many opportunities to refresh your memory.


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