How to make your character learning more efficient

Chinese characters are so difficult to learn! That’s what all of us Chinese learners have heard multiple times during our journey to master Chinese. So we turn to books, websites and apps to help us learn those tricky but fascinating hanzi. Today I’m very excited to have guest post from the Outlier Linguistic Solutions team and their answer to learning characters in a more efficient way. Enjoy!

The problem

Most of us are learning Chinese as adults. We have jobs, families, social lives, busy schedules. We’re lucky if we get an hour per day to study, but we still want to progress as quickly as possible.

Native speakers, on the other hand, have nothing else going on because they start learning as infants. The get massive amounts of exposure to the language on a daily basis, they’re already fluent speakers when they begin to learn to read and write, and they have around two decades to reach the level of an “educated native speaker.”

So if an adult wants to become fluent in Chinese — or any language — more efficient methods must be used than what works for a native speaker.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with learning Chinese characters. A non-native adult learner usually only has a few years in which to master the most common characters needed for literacy!

The solution

The first principle of effective memorization is understanding. You must understand what you’re trying to learn. So one of the best ways to increase the efficiency of your character learning is to increase your understanding of how Chinese characters work as a system, rather than as a bunch of disconnected single characters to be individually mastered.

To do that, you need to know what functional components are and how they function.

What are functional components?

Functional components are the parts of a character form which express sound or meaning. They can also serve as a replacement for an earlier form, which I’ll get to in a moment.

There are four types of functional components: form components, meaning components, sound components, and empty components.

Form components

A form component depicts something. In the example below, we have a picture of a hand 又 taking an ear 耳.

Meaning components

A meaning component adds its meaning to the character’s meaning. In the example below, we have “small” over “big,” which expresses the meaning “sharp” or “pointed.” Note that we’re using the meaning of 大 here (big), not the form (a person).

Meaning and form components are often grouped together and called “semantic components” or simply “meaning components,” but it’s useful to make the distinction between them.

For example, the form of 大 is “the front view of an adult.” Its meaning is, of course, “big.” So as a form component, 大 depicts a person (as in 美, “a person wearing a headdress” = “beautiful”). But as a meaning component, it expresses the meaning “big” (as in 尖, “small” over “big” = “sharp”) Quite different, right?


Sound components

A meaning component gives a hint about the pronunciation of the character. In the example below, 相 xiāng serves as the sound component for 想 xiǎng.


Sometimes the connection between the character’s pronunciation and its sound component isn’t very obvious. One example is 各 gè, which is the sound component in 路 lù. The dictionary we’re working on will have explanations and simple formulas which explain these relationships.


Empty components

An empty component gives neither sound nor meaning. Some empty components serve as substitutions for sound, meaning, or form component in an older form of the character, while some serve merely to distinguish two characters from each other.

In the example below, 羊 yáng, meaning “sheep,” is a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress. So we have a person (大) wearing a headdress (羊, a substitution for an earlier form — a headdress). It’s important to note that 羊 is not adding meaning (sheep) or sound (yáng) to the character, nor is it depicting anything (the form of 羊 is a sheep). This is why we call it an empty component.


And there you have it: how Chinese characters really work. I bet you’re probably familiar with sound and meaning components, and you might have a vague notion about form components, but there’s really nothing out there which teaches about empty components. And like I mentioned earlier, a correct understanding of how the characters work as a system is one of the best ways to increase the efficiency of your learning.

The dictionary we’re developing is the only resource available for learners which:

  • Explains characters in an etymologically accurate way: what are the character’s functional components
  • Distinguishes between two types of semantic components: form components and meaning components
  • Tells you when a component is an “empty component.” That is, it doesn’t express a sound or a meaning. Most other systems try to force a meaning onto these components when there isn’t one.
  • Explains how sound components work. The sound formulas which will appear in the official release are simple, easy to understand, and explain some of the weird variations you get in pronunciation between characters sharing the same sound component. For instance, how is it that 客 kè and 路 lù share the same sound component (各 gè) when they seem completely unrelated?

This is information that simply isn’t available in English. And even in Chinese, you have to read some pretty heavy academic books to find it all, so this will be the first time all this information has been brought together anywhere.

Not only that, but our dictionary will be released through Pleco, so it will be available on your phone or tablet and integrated into all the other great features that Pleco already offers, making it much easier to fit character learning into your busy schedule.

So check out our Kickstarter and help us spread the word by clicking “Share this project.”

I’ve already supported the project on Kickstarter and can’t wait to get my hands on their dictionary next year!


A start to an exciting adventure

Sara and Alan

Today I was reading a post at My HongKong Husband blog, where she was sharing her feelings about her budding maternal instincts and when does people know when they are ready to have a baby. I decided that it’s finally time to write this post!

My husband had a clear plan for his future, get married the year he turns 27, have a kid at 30. Then he met me! I am “follow my heart” kind of girl and when I met Alan I knew he would be the right person for me. Sure I had kissed some frogs before and my husband jokes I used to have a terrible taste in men, before I met him!

When you meet a person you love plans tend to change, so we got married one year before my husband’s ultimate “five-year plan of Alan”. As we live in China, talks about babies started the minute our guests walked into our wedding banquet in May last year. 早生贵子 zăo shēng guì zĭ is a  common phrase you hear at Chinese weddings, “Give birth to a son soon!

So after being parents to four furry cat babies these years, we are getting ready to welcome a new family member at the end of this year, a little bit less furry this time we hope!

Having a baby is both exciting and scary at the same time, but having a baby in China, that’s an adventure!

Stay tuned for more…


How to find time to study Chinese

I’ve been a full-time student of Chinese for five years now, but it’s rarely a situation most learners of Chinese are. For example my students are either busy working or staying at home with their active kids that demand most of their time. Often it’s hard to find enough time for studying Chinese.

Do you really want to learn Chinese?

The first problem to solve is if you really want to make time for Chinese or not. For many the idea of learning Chinese is intriguing and they know knowing Chinese would help their daily lives in China, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily enough for motivating your self to actually make time for studying. So do you actually want to learn Chinese and do you find it interesting enough to slot time for it in your daily life?

Chinese is a fascinating language, it has captivated my life for six and half years now, or even more depending how you count. It’s such a different language from European languages and is part of a culture I find very interesting. But not everyone comes to China to fulfill a childhood dream. Many of us come here to work or accompany a working spouse.

Of course it’s possible to learn Chinese without being interested in it, but according to my experience it’s hard to keep up the motivation if you find the language boring or unnecessary.

Lets look at the reasons why learning Chinese is beneficial when you live in China.

Why to learn Chinese?

It is totally possible to live in China without knowing any Chinese besides nihao and xiexie, I know foreigners that have been doing that for years. So why should you learn Chinese then?

From the practical point of view, for many expats they soon find out that the taxi drivers don’t speak any English at all. During my five years in Guangzhou I’ve met one taxi driver that knew three sentences in English. As taking the taxi is a common way of transport for many foreigners, it comes handy to learn some related phrases and words. Makes your commuting a much more pleasant experience.

Talking with a driver or ayi. Nowadays there are English-speaking drivers and ayis (cleaners and nannies) available for expats, but often their language skills might be lacking. If you learn even a bit of Chinese, it helps you to communicate with them and also to get to know those daily helpers better. You can learn a lot about the city and the culture from them!

Shopping and haggling the prices is also a valid reason to learn Chinese. No matter if you are grocery shopping or hunting for gifts to take back home, knowing the numbers and relevant phrases in Chinese is a must. You might get along with a calculator at first, but miscommunications often happen without a common language. Chinese skills can also help you to negotiate a better price!

One important reason to learn Chinese is also to step out the expat bubble and experience the new culture around you. Living in China is an exciting experience for the whole family, sometimes accompanied with a culture shock. Understating the people and the culture helps you to tackle Bad China Days, and learning the language is the first step.

I recently met a fellow Finn living in Guangzhou and I was amazed by her adventurous mind. Her son goes to school where there isn’t a metro station nearby, so she was wondering what is the best way to take him to school and back. She noticed there is a bus stop next to hear home and the school, with one bus with the same number. She hopped in and found a quick and easy bus route to her son’s school! Now she is looking forward to learn Chinese and get to know the city even better.

How to find time to learn Chinese?

Now that you might have a rising interest towards Mandarin Chinese and during your first weeks or months in China you noticed it’s both useful and important to learn for living in China, how do you actually make time for studying?

Take group lessons at a language school or schedule a private tutor every week. If you are busy, even one 1.5 hours tutor meeting a week gets you to the journey of learning the daily expat Chinese. With an experienced tutor you make sure not to waste any time and get the tips and tools to study on your own as well.

Be realistic when your tutor asks you how much time you have for self-study, even 15 or 30 minutes per day allows you to start getting the basics of Chinese.

Make use of those extra minutes when waiting in line or when commuting. Besides more traditional textbook study, I give my students a small list of smart phones apps to download.

  • I recommend Skritter (affiliate link) for reviewing vocabulary as it has tons of vocal lists ready, also for the textbook I use.
  • Pinyin Trainer by trainchinese is great for mastering pinyin and learning to differentiate to similar sounding sounds.
  • Tone Test by Laokang is my choice for learning the four tones of Mandarin. Train your ear regularly and see your score get higher and higher.
  • For dictionary I of course recommend Pleco which is the choice of most Chinese learners all over the world.


Here’s my thoughts about why to study Chinese as an expat and how to motivate yourself to keep at it. If you are living in Guangzhou and want to know more about learning Chinese or hire me as your tutor, send me an email (sara (at) sarajaaksola . com) and we’ll meet for a cup of coffee.


5 Years in China

Guangzhou by Night

About five years ago I stepped on an airplane for the very first time since I was two years old and moved to China. A Chinese phrase 回家 huíjiā came to my mind. In Chinese you can’t go home, you can only return to your home. And in a sense I was doing just that, returning back home where I had been in the safety of my mother’s belly when she was expecting me in the late 80’s in Beijing.

Recently I realized that Guangzhou has been my home the longest, if you don’t count my hometown, small city in the Southern Finland. I went to high school in an ever smaller city, after graduating I worked and studied at Tampere, the third biggest city in Finland. I stayed in Tampere for four years and still feel likes it’s the best city in the country.

But now Guangzhou has been my home longer than that, for five full years.

I was 22 years old when I came to China. Out of a long relationship that ended badly. Traveling on my own for the first time, starting this adventure in a country I always wanted to visit. In a way these years have passed by very quickly, but on the other hand it feels like I’m been here for ages. It’s a saying that there is a seven-year itch in a marriage, lets see if that includes being married to China.

During these years I’ve graduated from university, started my master’s, learned a ton of Chinese, started teaching Chinese, met the man of my dreams and married him, made new friends and lost them when they went back home, moved a few times from apartment to apartment before making home here with Alan.

Of course there have been tears and sadness inside these years as well, that’s just life, but I prefer remembering all the good things that have happened. Hope that my next five years in China will be even happier!


Our First Anniversary

Wedding Cake

One year ago in 14th February 2014 it was no ordinary Valentine’s Day. On that year the Chinese Lantern Festival fell on the exact same day, being held on the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar. As Lantern Festival is also considered a Chinese Valentine’s Day, it was a double lucky day, the perfect day to register our marriage.

Even though we had our Wedding later in May both with Chinese and Finnish characteristics, we still consider the Valentine’s Day as our anniversary. Easy to remember too!

After our wedding we finally moved to our own house, the old family house, and started our life together surrounded by history and four cats. I’m probably the worst person to be given a big house to live as I’m not the housekeeping kind, but it’s been great to have a real home where you can decorate and arrange furniture just the way you like it. I hope we will have lots of happy years in this Chinese house with a lot of character.

The Autumn was so busy we barely even saw each other. I was at the university from Monday to Friday, sometimes from morning till late night. Alan was taking English lessons on the Saturdays so Sundays became our only time to relax and have fun together. Our first year as a married couple ended with our honeymoon to Malaysia, from where I will share more photos later on.

All in all it’s great to be married to a man like Alan who understands and supports you when you pursue things that are important for you. Alan is a husband who always puts his family first. The other day when I told him to always be by my side, he replied: “Of course I will always be by your side, and our kids too.”