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Should I learn characters?

Updated: Mar 27, 2018 Print

To answer this question, first ask yourself what your goal is.

1. If your goal is short term, i.e. a trip or greeting to your Chinese business partner, the answer is “NO". Obviously you only need some survival phrases. It just isn't worth it.

2. For a long term purpose, i.e. mastering the language or passing the HSK test, the answer is “YES”. You might think you don't need to master the language 100% if you just plan to spend 1-2 years in China, so do you really need to learn characters? The answer is still “yes”. Despite what you might think, it will make your Chinese learning easier and not the other way around. A few reasons here:

1). You can't survive in China without reading characters. Although we all learn pinyin, you seldom see anything written in pinyin in China. You can't even recognize a sign without knowing characters.


2). The spoken language is more confusing if you don’t know characters. 致癌(zhì’ái) and 治癌(zhì’ái)  are exactly the same in pinyin, but one means “to cause cancer” and the other means “to treat cancer”. The more words you learn, the more trouble you will have.

3). Understanding new words will be easier if you’ve studied the writing. If you know characters, you can guess the meaning of new words. For example, if you know “车chē” (vehicle, A1 level) and “马mǎ”(horse, A1 level), you can probably get “马车(mǎchē)” is “carriage”. If you only know pinyin, there are six characters marked as “mǎ”; it will be hard for you to figure out which one is relevant. As you see, you will be able to make out Chinese words when you are able to recognize the characters.

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