The advantage of memorizing Chinese characters in a context

chinese characters

I’ve already discussed in my plan to learn Chinese how I prefer to rely on the “context” while learning a language.

This post tells how, when I started to study Mandarin again some months ago, I was able to fix forever on my mind (well let’s say till next year) four Chinese words by placing them in a well-defined context, instead of trying to learn them by endless repetition or character by character (Remember the Hanzi style).

Another point I would like to stress – always through some examples – is that learning Chinese by osmosis doesn’t work.

Here my four short stories:

滑雪 (To ski)

I know the character 雪 (xuě) means “snow,” however I have no clue about 滑!

I check the dictionary and I learn that 滑 is pronounced huá and means “to slip.” huá does not tell me anything, however “to slip” triggers on my memory the panel I see in about any public toilet, hotel hall, airport and so on: 小心地滑 (watch out to the slippy floor). Now I have a connection.

I then check the meaning of 滑雪 (to ski). Well, that’s easy: slip + snow = slipping on the snow = to ski!

In this case, the input that triggered the connection was the meaning of 滑.

Watching again the panel in the photo I notice the word “小心,” which also represents an interesting example. 小 (small) + 心 (heart) = 小心 (be careful).

The above example is a quite common case in mandarin and shows how useless it may be to learn Chinese characters one by one while most modern Chinese words are composed of two or more characters and change meaning according to the context.

和平 (Peace)

There is one of these words I hate the most. It is frustrating.

I know meaning AND pronunciation of both character: 和 () means “and” and 平 (píng) means “flat.” However I have no idea about the meaning of the combination 和平!

I check the dictionary and I discover that 和平 means “peace.” ein? How I’m going to remember it?

Then I recall that the first time I came to China I slept at the 和平 Hotel and everything becomes easy: the hotel was quite close to the Confucius temple, one of most peaceful spots in Beijing.

p.s. for the “experts”, NOW I also know that one of the minor meanings of “和” is peace (if you look at the dictionary you will see that “peace” is the seventh meaning of “和”). But the people that are starting now with Mandarin cannot learn all the possible meanings of a character in a row. For them, “和” just means “and.”

国际 (International)

If you live in China, unless you are blind and deaf you know that 中国 means “China.”

中 (middle) + 国 (country) = 中国 = Middle Kingdom.

But how about 际? No idea! I check the dictionary and discover that 国际 means “international.”

Suddenly I’m sure I will never forget 国际. Why? Well, half of the Chinese hotels are called 现代国际 (Modern International, don’t ask me why!) and EVERY taxi driver asks me “国内还是国际?” EACH time he brings me to the airport.

Since 内 (nèi) means “inside,” I understand that the taxi drivers were always asking me whether I wanted to stop by the local terminal (国内 = inside the country) or the international terminal (国际 = international!).

How could I possibly forget 国际 now ?

农夫 (Farmer)

When I saw these two characters in a sentence talking about cows and food, I got no triggers at all and I thought I did not know the characters. Then I checked the dictionary. 农夫 (nóngfū) means “farmer”. And I thought:

“Wait a minute, my bank is the Agriculture Bank of China and till now (two years) I was never able to remember neither the characters nor the pronunciation of it.”

I take the credit card out of my wallet and I read out loud “中国农业银行.” Bingo! 中国 means “China” and 银行 means “Bank”. Hence 农业 must be “Agriculture.”

Now, since 营业 means “business” (I know it because many shops in China expose their business time on the door), it’s easy to get that 农业 (agriculture) minus 业 (business) is equal to 农 (farmer), where 夫 just means “person” as for 大夫 (doctor) or 丈夫 (husband).

In this case, the trigger was my bank.

Ok, I will stop here or you will think I’m crazy.

Since I’m studying Chinese flashcards that contain sentences instead of single characters, memorizing and reviewing Chinese words became easier as most of the time I can find a quick way to relate the new information to a context.

I believe this approach is more efficient because our memory “stocks” new information by connecting it to our past experience and knowledge.

I wrote this post to underline two concepts:

  • The reason Chinese language appears so difficult to Western people is that most of time there is no way to link the “objects” we are learning (strange characters as 赢, 餐 or 拿 that have weird sounds as “yíng“, “cān” and ““) to our past experience.

    So stop to learn Chinese characters one by one and start to put them in their context.

    Make work your fantasy and try to use any piece of information you can to link the new information to something you already know as this is the only way our brain is able to remember things.

  • Mandarin is not Spanish. There is no way you will learn Chinese by osmosis, it just doesn’t work like that!

    Taxi drivers kept asking me whether I wanted to go to the local or international terminal for ages. I never got it and I kept telling them (the dumb way) “let me here,” no matter if I was going to Beijing or Roma.

    Also, I owned my credit card for about two years but I never learned how to pronounce the name of my bank till the day I put some conscious effort into it, that is the day I met the word 农夫 during my study.

Learn Chinese: My lazy way (Month four)

Here we are, if you are new to this blog and you want to know how I’m trying to learn Chinese, check this post.

June has been a busy month and, if I didn’t have previously committed to learning Chinese every single day, I would have probably let it go and forget I was actually studying Mandarin.

Instead, I have only slowed down the pace. Here is what I did:

  • I kept doing my Anki flashcards but I slowed down from fifty to twenty-five new cards per day, which I think is still acceptable, especially when you consider that I was able to finish the third deck (out of ten decks of about 1,500 cards each) and the characters I’m studying now are much rarer (and then difficult to remember).
  • I kept watching a Chinese movie per week and listening to 100% of Chinese music on my iPod (but I must admit I’m missing Italian and Latin music a lot).
  • I was not able to finish my Chinese course because of lack of time and the fact that my Internet connection at home is still not working (and I used to do the Chinese course at home, after dinner).

So yeah, I cannot claim it was a fantastic month but I’m satisfied that I actually kept doing something.

In July I intend to:

  • Keep my daily SRS revision sessions and start the fourth deck of Anki cards (but slowing down to ten new cards per day to avoid boredom).
  • Finish my Chinese course.
  • Purchase a Chinesepod subscription and start to play with it (for now the goal is to listen a new podcast per day).
  • I want to take back the Anki’s deck I was building and this time insert ALL the interesting sentences I find on the Rocket course and Chinese Pod. The goal is to end up with at least one hundred and fifty cards at the end of the month.

Photo Credits: Cover Photo by Sapore di Cina

10 thoughts on “The advantage of memorizing Chinese characters in a context”

  1. Hi.

    Nice posting, could you please update your information about this Topic?
    Like did it prove in a long run, or did you choose another way of learning?

    Currently I am learning Mandarin by myself, and I am really confused about these characters, like should I learn them one by one or in sentences.

    I am not sure about what to learn, Characters or Words, or both at the same time?
    It is so confusing.
    I mean if you learn Characters you still can`t use them.
    But if you learn words, you don`t necessery learn the meaning of all characters, and words do have a different pronounciation sometimes.

    From my Expirience of Mandarin course in my University, this is a very common Problem among the Mandarin beginners.
    They don`t understand why you have to learn 3000 Hanzi+ if you can`t use them as a standalone Word.
    And yet, you find many books from Heisig and so on, who taught isolated Hanzi.
    At the same time, if you learn a sentence, you know the meaning of it but not of its characters.

  2. Holy Hell.

    Thank you, furio. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I knew there had to be a better way than rote memorization.

  3. Dear Furio,

    Could you post what songs you have on your iPod? I’m also learning Chinese and living in China for the summer. I loved your suggestion to use Anki and now I’m learning at lightning speed!!! I’m tired of only singing English songs when I sing karaoke. Ilove your blog.
    Thanks so much!!!

    1. Hey Grace,

      thank you for your comment : )

      At the moment I’m mostly listening to Fenghuang Chuanqi (Chinese pop) and Ershou Meigui (kind of punk mixed with Chinese traditional music, if that makes sense to you haha).

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