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!