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For many of us, memorizing characters is a difficult thing. In Chinese, just because you can speak the word doesn't mean you can read it. Just because you can read it doesn't mean you can write it. At least for me, I find myself constantly forgetting characters I used know, especially when it comes to writing.

Do you guys have any tips or trick to avoid this? Aside from just constant writing?

EDIT: I'm getting a lot of answers on learning based on the radicals. Which is valid and works for quite a lot of characters. But it doesn't always work. There are many cases where there are no such obvious correlation, especially in simplified, where many things are removed and sometimes loses the meaning the traditional character.

限制 矛盾 度

etc, non of the above have obvious hints of pronunciation, or meaning

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do what chinese children do: memorize lots of stuff, and recite it out loud or copy it out by hand. in some schools, lu xun's stories have also been memorized verbatim, down to punctuation. he's not my favorite chinese writer (i think wang xiaobo takes that cake) but getting a feel for his prose style is very useful. –  magnetar Dec 25 '11 at 21:30
    
also, take up calligraphy. when you get a 'problem character', learn to write the character in as many styles as you can. –  magnetar Dec 25 '11 at 21:31
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Listen to people who have more experience than you. If they say you need to learn your radicals better, they might be right. –  Jacob Mar 20 '12 at 14:16
    
1) Learn them in context (in books, subtitles, etc) so you have a reason & additional hooks to help you remember them. Flashcards or radicals alone don't provide this. 2) Actually write them! The kinetic act of writing by hand vs. only reading/typing utilizes different parts of your brain and has been shown to increase retention. 3) Find things to read about your favorite hobby or interests. This helps w/motivation as well as #1 above putting things in context that you're already familiar with. 4) Make up dumb stories to help you recall tones, or mark up text as you read, then review. –  mc01 Jun 19 at 22:11

14 Answers 14

Most of the answers involve SRS, rote and methods. I use Anki. I have thousands of words in my deck. I've tried rote. They work but they're mind numbingly boring.

Here's my take. Read. Read a lot. What's the use of memorizing if you're going to spend so much time memorizing, no practical usage? Read things you're interested in. Not just from books, but from anything you can get your hands on. online news, Twitter, Weibo, blogs, print books, movie/tv subtitles, video newscasts that have transcriptions available, commercials with transcriptions available. This way you're taking in info you're for the most part interested in too.

There is probably a wealth of reading material out there of things you are interested in and tools today - popup translation and handwriting recognition make it way easier compared to pre-computer days.

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It is a really good comment IMHO, and this is how I build up my English vocabulary. However, you need to have a threshold proficiency to be able to read interesting stuff. I don't know what it is the threshold for Mandarin though, I am trying to know 1000-1500 characters because switching from SRS to reading (massively) –  Xavier T. Jun 13 at 13:30
    
I agree. When you first start, there's really not much of a choice, you need to get a minimum comprehension level or you'll be looking up every word. I think it'll be different for everyone when they transition to reading material not written for learning purposes. –  Steve Jun 18 at 11:10

Total Recall

I find the best way to recall characters is reading. I have found lots of material that one can read online. I prefer fiction and find the work of 倪匡 pretty interesting (note: you will need to enable Traditional Chinese Windows encoding). Since I use a Mac, I have added multiple Chinese-English Dictionaries to the computer, which makes for easy lookup.

Music is also a very important way to remember characters. A good song goes quite a long way to help in this area as most folks tend to love memorable songs. One can search for song names, download lyrics, and singalong. In fact, there is a website for that at SingChineseSongs. Karaoke works wonders too.. Here is a list (with links) of some of the entertainers who have inspired me to learn Mandarin.

One of the best way to remember is to force yourself to start fearlessly speaking/reading/writing Mandarin at home. I am lucky to be able to do this (sometimes I'm forced to as my wife will sometime insist talking only Mandarin or Cantonese). Find online games can be another way to build recall (Check out memory game at Yellowbridge). Read character books, Chinese Cartoons, and watch Chinese Movies are also good.

Interesting New Google Service

Google Translate has added something quite useful called a phrasebook. One can add translated sentences, phrases or words to a list (together with a translation, which one can edit for correctness before adding to the phrasebook). The phrasebook can then be converted with a single click to a Google spreadsheet (and from there downloaded as a CSV wordlist).

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Write each new character you learn 250 times in a row, slowly, on a notepad. Pronounce it every time you finished writing it. Pen, paper and practice. Nothing can beat that...

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First, you should know I am fairly new to the Chinese language. So what I like for me may be too rudimentary for you.

Apps

Recently, I have used Anki, Skritter, and Memrise.

Of them, I think that Memrise is the best for beginners. I like their system of additive learning. The package I have been going through most recently is their Chinese lesson on menus. It is great.

The hardest to use for me was Anki since you need to own the direction of your learning. This seems better for someone that has particular higher education goals (e.g. HSK) rather than just wanting to improve their knowledge. There are lots of options to play around with and you can get backlogged pretty easily.

More recently, I have been using a mobile app I helped build called Whizz Learning for Chinese. It combines SRS with a keyboard system referred to as CALLS to make parsing Chinese characters easier.

The system was created by a neurolinguist here in Hong Kong and it focuses on breaking characters out into symbols. I found it easier to write down new characters (and look them up) rather than using the radical and stroke system.

It probably doesn't hurt to try all of them (they are free or have free modes) as it seems that people have opinions about what is best.

Behaviors (non-apps)

Along with the apps, I think focusing on the environment around you is very helpful if you live in a Chinese speaking country (or you could just go to the Chinatown in your city).

For example, I am constantly scanning business signs, menus, ads, etc. to see if there are characters that I recognize. If there is one that I recognize, but I can't remember the meaning of I look it up. It starts to build your ability to see the character in context.

Once I get up to 500 or so characters I am going to start trying to read newspapers or magazines. Until then I have found it to be pretty frustrating since I am looking up everything as I read. From what I have heard proper nouns are a sticky point when starting to read newspapers.

Happy learning and best of luck!

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I try to learn Chinese words in "families."

For instance, this word 妈 means "mother," and is pronounced ma (first tone).

Take away the woman radical to the left, and you get ma (third tone), which means "horse," which is the "root" word.

Place the mouth radical to the left and you get ma (unaccented), which is a word that makes a sentence a question (equivalent to the French n'est pas?)

Other variations of this word, take the meanings "to scold," "docks," "agate," etc. Depending on the word, you could have 5-10 or more "compound" words from one root word.

There are something like 858 phonetic "families" of which maybe 400 are fairly common.I would try to learn these 400-800 "families" first. Once you master them, individual words are just variations of these.

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I rely heavily on SRS. My method is to mainly use Recognition cards (ie the front has the character & the back has the pronunciation & meaning). If I notice a certain character is repeatedly causing me difficulty, I will add more example sentences that include that character. Pleco dictionary & the website nciku.com are helpful sources for this.

Once I feel confident that I can recognize the character reliably, I will reverse the card with the meaning on the front & the character & pronunciation on the back.

Once I can recognize the character from both directions, I will move on to learning to write it.

Writing is less important to me on a day to day basis than being able to recognize the character or translate what I want to say into Chinese, so it is the last step in my mastering of a character. Once you can recognize a character, translate to the character from your language, and write it, I think you will find that it is much harder to forget it.

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I generated a bunch of files for some flashcard software that uses spaced repetition to help you learn efficiently. It's still a lot of work to memorize the flash cards, but I don't know of anything easier.

In total, I generated 32614 cards with 4166 characters and 18385 words. They are divided into separate files, each with about 100 cards in it. You can download the flashcards for the 700 most common characters from my Google Code page. I'll publish the remaining characters after I'm happy with the current set.

The cards cover English definition, simplified character, traditional character, and pinyin pronunciation of each character, as well as the most common words using those characters.

The software is Mnemosyne, which uses the spaced repetition technique to schedule when you review the cards you already know. It's not fast, but it seems to stick a lot better than manually reviewing vocabulary lists.

Here's a screenshot:

Mnemosyne screenshot

In a couple of more recent projects, I tried to build some tools to help with reading practice. I sieved through Chinese text looking for sentences that use only the characters I know. My first attempt was with Twitter updates, but it was kind of a slow process to find and translate them. More recently, I found a huge collection of translated sentences on Tatoeba. I've collected all the sentences that used the 500 most common traditional characters and posted them on my Google Code page. They're sorted with the most common characters at the start of the page.

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not sure why this answer got some down votes? –  StarCub Dec 14 '11 at 1:53
    
Perhaps could have been written better - i.e. elaborate a bit more on the flashcard software, and technique for remembering, but I don't see the need for a downvote either - it actually looks like quite handy software. –  Ciaocibai Dec 14 '11 at 2:11
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Well, I fleshed out the answer more, we'll see if the votes are any kinder. –  Don Kirkby Dec 14 '11 at 6:20
    
Great answer - I upvoted :-) Good on you for sharing as well. –  Ciaocibai Dec 14 '11 at 7:31
    
I'm just paying it forward, @Ciaocibai. I couldn't have built any of my tools without the huge effort that other people put into projects like ZDT, CEDICT, and Tatoeba. –  Don Kirkby Dec 14 '11 at 7:49

I would suggest taking a look at skritter.com. You can directly check out their demo on their site.

Skritter is a website helping you to learn and memorize Chinese and Japanese characters. It uses the spaced repetition algorithm to get your Character retention to about 90%.

Skritter basically shows you the pinyin and asks you to write the character stoke by stroke. It also has other memorization options, like word and character definition and tones.

They have an active forum of learners. And they just came out with a new iOS app. It works fabulously on my iPad. You can add words to your skritter list directly through MDBG.net, by pressing the 's' icon near the character.

I have learnt 200 new characters in the past month after not learning a thing for a while, and I feel that I do remember their writing.

Disclaimer, I do not work for Skritter, but absolutely love it.

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added more to my answer. thanks @Alenanno! –  Doody P Aug 8 '12 at 9:52
    
Thanks. Now it looks way better! :) –  Alenanno Aug 8 '12 at 9:57
    
+1 for Skritter, it's a very helpful tool –  dusan Aug 25 '12 at 16:34

Make up stories / mnemonic devices and memorize them. Review them periodically and write the characters based on the elements in the stories.

For example (聘):

Story: @hire@ the archer who draws his BOW (弓) back to his EAR (耳) and hits the X-MARKED SPOT (由).

If I follow the story and recognize the capitalized words, I'll write an ear on the left, an "x-marked spot" on the top right and a bow under it: 聘.

Don't worry about making the story accurate or too logical. The more vivid, dirty, or crazy the more memorable it will be. I do try to keep the keywords for the radicals / components from changing too much from character to character.

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Generally,there are two types of characters. "Compound character 合体" and "Single component Character 独体".

And there are four Character building method "pictogram 象形","ideogram 指事"、"indicatives 会意","phono-semantic 形声".

"Single component Character 独体" characters are derive from "pictogram 象形" and "ideogram 指事".

  e.g: 
  pictogram:   "人" means people "山" means hill  "木" means wood
  ideogram:    "上" means up     "下" means down  "本" means origin

This part should be remembered by rote ,and they are often the component of the "Compound character合体".

And 95% characters in morden Chinese Characters are "Compound character 合体" .

about 90% or even more Characters in "Compound character 合体" are derived from "phono-semantic 形声", which means characters build with semantic(形) and the pronunciation(声).

e.g.:

"dove 鸠" is build with "九" and "鸟" . 
means its kind of bird(鸟).
and its pronunciation is "jiū" which is similar to "九 jiǔ".
and there are "pigeon 鸽" "duck 鸭" "crow 鸦" "chick 鸡" "ostrich 鸵" ... 
they are both some kind of birds.

the "steel 钢 " "iron 铁" "bronze 铜" "silver 银" ... is another example 
which both have the "钅"(simplified "金" radical ) , 
they are both some kind of metals.

Of course , there are lots of exceptions of it, as the pronunciation may changes from ancinent times to now, or as the parts may don't have exactly meanings. but it's of a good method to retain the characters together.

and the "indicatives 会意" is another way of building "compound character". but not many.

e.g.: "尘" which means dust . are made with  small "小" and soil "土"

So , you'd better remember the "Single component Character独体" by rote ,and remember the "Compound character 合体" by their radical and components which are often the "Single component Character独体".

Here is a online tool I often use to lookup characters by radicals. http://www.zdic.net/zd/bs/

NOTE:I'm using Simplified Chinese characters here , but rules are the same with Traditional Chinese Character

PS:

so I will descripe the way for learning "独体字" : (my way is using google before using this,but may not suitable for you)

See the character :

  • e.g: "矛"

Write the character and input it to PC(if it's in your PC ,then next part):

  • This part you need a Chinese IME. QQ Pinyin Or sogou Pinyin if you know it's pinyin "拼音" and works in windows. They both have handwriting tool as well if you can only write it.

    For Linux Users. There is not any good handwriting IME. you can only use pinyin with fcitx or ibus-pinyin.

    You can use Cloud IME http://pinyin.sogou.com/cloud/ or QQ’s Cloud IME both in Linux and Windows as well. they only have pinyin currently

Lookup the Character you input with online chinese dict like zdic: http://www.zdic.net/

  • search the character in it and check the 字源字形 tab . that means the origin of the character.

  • If you can not input the character. you can check the character by it's radical 部首 using 【字典部首检字】(http://www.zdic.net/zd/bs/)

    the 矛 ‘s stroke 笔画 is five . so you look up in 笔画五 and you will find it there. if not , check if is using parts in 笔画一:丨亅丿乛一乙乚丶. in this case. you can find it in 笔画五.

    but if you are looking for "予" you can only find it in 乛 of 笔画一.

http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9FZdic9B.htm

that's the page you get about 矛’s 字源字形

You can see the origin and evolution of the character. and there are also basic info about it, like pronunciation ,expalnation and stroking sequence.

it may help you understand the character better.

PSS: And the best way to learn it one character(矛 here). I think is to read, write and learn it in words (矛盾 here) many many times. which all student of primary and junior school in "语文" (Chinese Language Lessons) must do it over and over.

And in fact, we are using words not characters. we don't use single 矛 as we don't use spear for a long time.
but 矛盾 which means contradiction are more vigorous.

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All those character parts are easy and all, and works easily for the examples you presented. But not all characters are so easy.The radicals don't always infer the correct pronunciation or meaning. Lets take 矛盾 for example, non of its部首 really clearly indicates its meaning or pronunciation. There is no doubt some way to interpret it, sometimes there is some ancient chinese story associated with a character. But whatever it is, it's not as obvious. I have the most trouble with these kinds of characters. –  mugetsu Dec 14 '11 at 23:47
    
the 矛盾 both are 独体字 . so they should be remembered by rote. maybe a better way is to find the origin of the word and remember it . but it's sometimes far too cost in time and stamina. e.g.: 矛 zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9FZdic9B.htmzdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic9BZdicBE.htm . they are both created with "pictogram 象形" –  Ryk Dec 15 '11 at 4:42

I'm getting a lot of answers on learning based on the radicals. Which is valid and works for quite a lot of characters. But it doesn't always work.

Beyond learning radicals and "families" like other posters suggested, there are no shortcuts.

The only way to learn and retain characters is to constantly practice and reinforce what you learned by using it. Just talking from experience: I've done my share of copying down Chinese characters over and over again. But if I didn't use them, I'd quickly forget what I "learned."

This is probably true for any language you learn - you have to apply what you learned (and keep using it). I am a native and fluent Portuguese speaker, but after a few years of not using it as often, I am starting to forget things.

So keep practicing. This is probably the best advice I can give you.

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For me, I found learning the meaning of all (or at least most) radicals (the parts that make up each character) the crux of it all.

Once I learned the meaning and could recognise the parts it made it a lot easier to remember them long term. For example, all metals seem to have the 金字旁, and every time I see a character that has this, e.g. 钢,铁等等, I can recognise them pretty immediately. Putting them together with the other parts, in this example 冈和失, I find it much easier to remember.

Hope that makes sense to you. Let me know if you want some clarification. Good luck!

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You can use a SRS (Spaced Repetition System) software, I personally use Anki to create a deck of study cards and I review them on my mobile phone.

I also recommend Memrise.

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+1 to SRS method of learning. I use Train Chinese. It's pretty good as it supports simplified/traditional and you can practice via your browser or a mobile running Android/iPhone. –  pyko Dec 14 '11 at 6:25
    
I wish there was something like Anki (or Anki itself) for Symbian phones too. –  Alenanno Dec 14 '11 at 14:33
    
+1 Memrise is really really fun to use ! –  Stephane Rolland Aug 25 '12 at 8:37

You could try to use some Chinese flashcard software like ZDT or Easy Hanzi, and try to remember the pinyin, Chinese character or definition. If you don't want to write though, it's going to be difficult to remember them no matter what.

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