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Experiments in Chinese Language Study: Learning the Alphabet

Posted by furyougaijin February 2, 2008 in the Group General Discussion.

This forum has seen lots of topics on characters recently so I might as well share my own thoughts on this subject. Also, there's been too little shameless self-promotion on CPod since the departure of Aric. (^_^)

I have finally completed a task I set myself some time ago: that of learning around 6,000 characters of the 'Chinese alphabet'.

It's nothing unique and far from being The Way to fluency. It's just an experiment: I was curious to see what comes out of it for me personally.

So here are a few thoughts, designed to commemorate those hours spent with books and flashcard software and help people think outside of the box.


I have learnt to recognise the form (both simplified and traditional) of about 6,000 characters and associate the form with the main concepts represented by the character, its pronunciation (or multiple pronunciations) and its tone (or multiple tones).

Meant to be a Christmas present for myself, as I had mentioned earlier on this forum, the project inevitably got delayed by a few weeks through obstacles generally called 'life'. Taking out non-productive periods, it took me between 4 and 5 months to complete. I am convinced, however, that a less work-shy and more orderly person can easily acomplish this task within two months.

WHY 6,000 AND NOT 4,000 OR 10,000?

Too lazy to perform my own research, so I have used the frequency tables compiled by T.A.Tan in his monumental 5-volume opus. It is supposed to cover most of what is seen in newspapers and to stretch a long way into classics, which I happen to be greatly interested in.

I was initially sceptical about some of the characters on the list until I started to encounter them in proper names, on restaurant menus, etc. It makes all the difference if you're reading a text and don't have to stop to look up that one irritating character.


Great 'circus' value.

Showing off the knowledge of the exact tone for any given character never fails to impress Western students. (As I myself was suitably impressed by John P. over a year ago... :-) )

Being able to read out any text with correct tones and pronunciation, even without fully understanding its meaning - similarly to what a Westerner might do in a vaguely familiar European language. This sometimes impresses the Chinese. :-)


Ok, the main advantages are as follows:

The ability to guess the meaning of a huge number of multi-character words through the meaning of the components. It's rather accurate for objects yet much more difficult for abstract notions.

The increased speed of acquiring any new vocabulary items. Even if you can't guess the word, once you've looked it up, the relation usually becomes quite obvious. So it goes: 'Familiar Concept X' + 'Familiar Concept Y' = 'New Word that Makes Sense' rather than 'New Word Composed of Two Unknown Characters with Random Pronunciation'. Retention of any new items has massively improved as well.

Plus, there are, of course, multiple fringe benefits, in no particular order:

The ability to make sense out of Classical Chinese, to a degree. The private pleasures of deciphering the real meaning of chengyu. 

The ability to ditch pinyin in my notes (still have to pay attention to the elusive 'zero tone' and some variations though). 

The ability to look up obscure characters in my Japanese dictionary by directly inputting them through a Pinyin-based Chinese interface - no more wasting the time with tedious multi-radical look-up. In fact, reading Japanese novels in general has become much easier as I would already know the meaning of most obscure characters and can get the reading from the furigana.

The ability to pick out and being able to pronounce proper names. Somehow, this is one of the most satisfying achievements. The same applies for spelling of foreign names.

The ability to take a guess at the pronunciation of any unknown characters - based on the knowledge of the phonetic components. I estimate that the accuracy of such guessing is about the same as if a Chinese person were to do it but have not experimented much with it yet.

Some beautiful discoveries along the way of studying the etymology, e.g.: () lang2 'reading aloud' or 'reciting poetry' where, as reflected in the character components, the meaning comes from melodious tinkling of thin pieces of jade.


Hell, no. Being able to figure out the meaning of most words does not automatically imply being able to parse them together in a meaningful sentence. Besides, I neglected most other aspects of the language during my study of the characters and (so much for my karmic history!) even stopped listening to CPod. Now it's time to catch up. 

For one thing, this hasn't done anything for my listening skills. Although if I can guess a meaning of a word I hear from its context, I'm often able to think of how it should be spelt.

Also, this hasn't done much for my speaking skills, except for giving me the tendency of speaking in monosyllabics, e.g., [沸] instead of . ('How very poetic!', a Chinese friend once commented.)


Going into the panic mode upon seeing a character consisting of well-known elements but that doesn't trigger recognition. More often than not, I discover that it wasn't one of the 6,000. Also, occasionally seeing something that I should know but seem to have forgotten (I'm only human).


Mnemonics and spaced repetition on flashcards. Associating the meaning with the the radical and other components, finding appropriate associations for the pronunciation and the tone. These methods are all over the web.


Studying the form, the reading and the tones at the same time for related groups of hanzi shapes comes at very little extra cost as compared to learning separate unrelated characters.

Let's have a quick look at some examples.

Example 1: The Dream Scenario

〔皇〕huang2 (imperial)
〔凰〕huang2 (phoenix)
〔隍〕huang2 (moat)
〔惶〕huang2 (fear)
〔徨〕huang2 (doubt, walk back and forth)
〔煌〕huang2 (bright)
〔篁〕huang2 (bamboo grove)
〔蝗〕huang2 (cicada)
〔鰉〕huang2 (sturgeon)
〔遑〕huang2 (time)

The radicals give excellent hints at the meaning. The phonetic component, the pronunciation and the tone are shared. That's 10 characters in one go with very little study effort.

Unfortunately, groups like that are rather infrequent. A more realistic example would be the next one.

Example 2: Mixed Tones

〔章〕 zhang1

〔樟〕 zhang1

〔蟑〕 zhang1

〔嫜〕 zhang1

〔彰〕 zhang1

〔獐〕 zhang1

〔璋〕 zhang1

〔嶂〕 zhang4

〔瘴〕 zhang4

〔障〕 zhang4

〔幛〕 zhang4

This is slightly more challenging but still all of the above share the same reading, with some tone variations. It's sufficient to create some mnemonics to remember the tone patterns.

Groups of this type are rather frequent yet the most common type is probably the following.

Example 3. Mixed Readings






Clearly, this is more complex yet there is enough similarity (especially in the so-called finals) to link all of the above together. 

Yet one occasionally sees groups like this one.

Example 4. The Chaos.

〔路〕 lu4
〔露〕 lu4
〔璐〕 lu4
〔鷺〕 lu4

〔各〕 ge4
〔落〕 luo4, la4
〔格〕 ge2, ge1
〔閣〕 ge2
〔擱〕 ge1
〔咯〕 ka3, lo5
〔胳〕 ge1
〔骼〕 ge2
〔貉〕 hao2, he2
〔賂〕 lu4
〔駱〕 luo4
〔珞〕 luo4

Challenging but not impossible, especially because the first four clearly have a commont component and shared pronunciation.


If I can find enough time, it's back to CPod listening (trying to tackle Advanced this time and it's actually working nicely so far, due to the ease of acquiring vocabulary, as described above). I am also trying to discipline myself to listen to the news (with and without transcripts) and the radio in general. Will try to read more Chinese fiction and online news. And of course, spoken practice - haven't been to China for about 3 months now, it's time for another trip. (^_^)

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