Many people may have told you that Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language to learn and I agree that it has been difficult even for me who comes from a Cantonese-speaking family. I not only have to consider tones but also the character system, the latter which I’ll be writing about today.
When my friends ask how my Chinese learning is going I find it quite difficult to provide them with a simple and succinct answer. Usually I say my writing and reading are alright but my listening and speaking still needs a lot of improvement but it’s difficult to say because writing can be broken down into 2 aspects. These are: writing as in typing on the computer – which I am perfectly capable of doing – and being able to recall and write out a character on a sheet of paper – which is where I get lost.
If you’ve learned Chinese at some point in your life you’ve probably come across this same feeling of being lost amongst the characters and stroke orders. I remember one time when I thought I had learned to recognise the different types of possible strokes in Hanzi (name for Chinese characters) only to discover that there were still very strange forms like 专 and 牌 (though these are pretty tame in comparison to other characters you might come across), that I hadn’t encountered. I remember asking myself, ‘Why does that stroke have to bend/curve that way? It’s so odd!’ Today I’m not so concerned about stroke order (though this does help), instead I want to look at the bigger picture of radicals.
I’d sort of known there were radicals (components that form a character; they’re the building blocks) when I first began studying Mandarin and I was familiar with simple ones like 女, 日, 口, etc. I also knew that when they were combined together they formed a vast number of possible characters that created the Chinese writing system. But I hadn’t really understood how crucial they were to my learning. Fortunately, I can now pass this advice to others learning Mandarin: make learning radicals a priority because they will be foundational to writing characters in the long-term.
These are my reasons for doing so:
1. Radicals help break a character down so that you can guess at its pronunciation
With characters, you’ll often find that one of the radicals hints at how the (unfamiliar) character is pronounced so if you know a similar character or the radical you can take a guess.
For example: 羊 (yáng) and 样 (yàng). I know how to pronounce these two characters but what about 养? My guess is that it is also pronounced like ‘yang’ with a different tone.
The correct pronunciation is: yǎng
2. Radicals help break a character down so that you can guess at its definition
Whilst one radical hints at how a character is pronounced, the other might provide a hint at what it means.
For example: 心 (heart) and 想 (to think; to want). I know these two characters are related to the heart so when I look at 感, I might guess that it also has to do with the matters of the heart.
The correct definition: to be moved; to be touched (by sth.)
3. Radicals help break a character down so that you can recall how to write it
If you’ve never heard of or use mnemonics then I think you might have a problem with your language learning journey. Mnemonics are devices that help you recall a certain piece of information. Whether you’ve heard of the term or not, the majority of people implement them when they want to remember something. These devices can be in the form of a jingle, a story, picture, etc. When it comes to learning Hanzi, the keen learners often use stories built up around their knowledge of radicals to help jog their memory.
Let’s work with 教 (to teach) since I’m studying to become a teacher 😛
耂(old), 子(child), 夂(go) are the radicals that form 教 when they are combined. If I wanted to remember how to write this character during my exam, the story I create for 教 might be: To teach, the older person goes and passes on their knowledge to the child.
Not taking the time to learn radicals during my 1st year of studying Mandarin was one of the biggest regrets I have in my language learning journey. It would have certainly saved me time and I can assure you it will definitely help you navigate through the maze that is the Hanzi system. In some cases you may find there are no radicals to help you understand or recall the character but like most things you encounter, these are exceptions.
Here’s a helpful link to give you an overall view of radicals and the categories they’re found under. If you’re a visual and logical learner you’ll love it and even if you’re not I think it’s still great! 🙂
Hint: you can interact with the chart by clicking on certain characters. Aim to remember the meanings of the top 100 radicals (at least); I don’t think it is necessarily to remember the pronunciations. This will take time but it’s worth it. I used www.memrise.com to do so.
Have fun learning!