Learning Chinese right now being my job, I have to learn a lot of characters, and be able to recognize them, every day. The most important thing when I started out 60 weeks ago was to lay a foundation. Some days, we would have 60+ words to learn the characters, the pinyin, and the meaning for. While obviously not a choice for people who are learning Chinese in their spare time, I have developed some study habits that may be useful.
1. Write every character that you run across that you do not know. The most useful tool for this is Wenlin, in my opinion. With Wenlin, you can take whatever you are reading and paste it into the program. After that, if you do not know a word, simply move your cursor over the word and find it's correct contextual definition. For instance, if you have a GLOSS article (gloss.lingnet.org - a military language website that is, as far as I know, open and free to the public) you're reading, you can paste it in wenlin and read, listen, and follow along all at the same time.
The biggest thing with Wenlin is to NOT let it become your crutch. Also, Wenlin is NO substitute for a good teacher or native speaker as far as explanation of meaning in context. However, it is a very good program, and has been indispensible for me.
2. Use the words you learn in conversation. Oftentimes, you will run across words you seldom use in speech, or you will run across Chinese words that are only written, and very seldom used in colloquial speech. If you can figure out the difference, great. Otherwise, pepper your speech with the new words when speaking, and guage the other person's reaction - if they say it sounds weird, accept it as a written idiom, and ask them for the spoken colloquial equivalent. The simpler the better is oftentimes the rule for spoken Chinese, whereas in written Chinese the language used is often very descriptive, with LONG modifiers and attributives.
3. Flashcards are very good at the beginning. Once you've got a good foundation, try breadth reading. Read for a general idea, and try to guess words you don't know in context. This will not only help develop your reading and recognition skills, it will also help you develop a feel for the language. It's also the way you learned English.
That's all for now. Good luck with your studies!
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