Surprise Discovery About Learning Chinese Characters

securedownload (1)Awhile back I wrote about this trick I use to learn Chinese characters. I tend to cycle through different language learning methods, to mix it up and keep things from getting too boring. Recently I began using this trick again and I’ve noticed an increase in the number of characters I can now recognize. But this is not a “formal” learning method. It’s just one that I created out of my own instinctual seeking.

At first blush this may seem unrelated but, on another note, I have also been teaching a six year old Taiwanese girl reading and spelling in English and as a result, I have made an unexpected discovery about the way children learn to read English. While browsing the internet for downloadable English reading and spelling worksheets (that are meant for native speakers) something interesting emerged.

English words are often not phonetic, and are called “sight words.” Their spellings must be memorized. For example, words like “have,” “like,” and “because” are sight words. To teach children these words, the worksheets focus the students on identifying patterns in writing. For example, circling all the lower case p’s in a sentence, finding words that rhyme, finding words that begin or end in a certain letter, word search puzzles, unscrambling letters to make words, etc.

It dawned on me that I’m doing something similar with Chinese characters. My “trick” is to scan or “read” a text for patterns, second tone characters for example, or characters with certain shapes or radicals, and color code them with highlighters. After all, Chinese characters are like English sight words; they are not written phonetically and must be memorized along with the pronunciation. Identifying characters (by tone, or by other criteria) in a text is sort of like a word search puzzle.

I wonder if my early childhood experience of learning to read and write as a native English speaker led me, in part, to creating this method. In some ways it closely resembles what native English speaking kindergartners and first graders are doing to learn reading and spelling, but with adult material like books and magazines.

I feel this study method has incredible value for my learning, giving characters context as well as repetition of frequently used characters. To realize it’s not very different from how I learned reading and spelling in my native English is quite amusing and shocking!

I’m curious if you or anyone you know uses this trick, and where  you / they got the idea for it?

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  1. Despite my undying love for the complexity of English spelling, I had never thought of it this way. It’s funny how easy it is to overlook such similarities. I definitely like the look of your method and will certainly put it in to practice 🙂

  2. I’m glad you made this discovery on your own personal Chinese learning journey!
    If you’re referring to people learning characters through colour-coding tones i think that’s already been done but if you mean you find a text and then highlight the different tones I don’t think anyone’s ever done that as a learning technique.
    I personally don’t colour code tones because I used to manually handwrite my flashcards and it would just forever and if I then tried to use a different program like Pleco or Anki it’d be an extra burden to transfer all my colour coding. If it works for you however I think that’s great!
    I think if I were to get a tutor I’d print out 2 copies of a text and as I read along my sheet I’ll have my tutor highlight the character tones I mispronounce. Thanks for the inspiration! I love colourful ideas 😀

  3. That’s a really interesting way of learning and I’ll definitely be giving it a go when I’m back at home with my textbooks (still got two weeks of travelling left!). My degree is in Chinese so my language skills are already pretty advanced but I’m always looking for new ideas to try so thank you for the post 😀

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