Since years ago I have been studying some languages with the major goal of being able to read texts, complex or not, written under them. My native is Portuguese (from Brazil) and nowadays I have no problem reading texts in English, Español, Français or Deutsch. After reading and hearing a lot, through years, my ears got used with the sounds of English and French and I believe that the same will occur, eventually, with German. Spanish is no problem, once this language is very kind of Portuguese and the sounds are very alike.

In another words, my real objective is only reading, but the skills to also hear and speak is kind of automatic. Nonetheless, this reality changed when I tried to do this same strategy to Mandarin Chinese (simplified). After months of struggling, I still cannot even get close to a simple text. Chinese is an entire riddle for me. One of the methods I like to learn a language is the massive use of a dictionary, however, how can I do that to Chinese? I cannot even split a sequence like "辣椒的品种有很多" in particular words. For me it's just a Chinese Wall, without beginning or end.

The only thing that works for me are those texts intertwined with Pinyin and pre-divided, so a poor mortal like me is able to differentiate one word from another. Nonetheless, these kinds of text are extremely rare to find online. Something that would help me a lot would be manhua (漫画) with pinyin, but reading forums some people said these virtually do not exist.

So, I'm in a deadlock. I like Chinese and I want to be someday able to read news, romances, scientific books and alike , but I can't find a proper way to study the language (focusing on reading) instead of methods extremely boring (for example, drawing mousehanded hanzi-to-hanzi and after that try to form words and find them in a dictionary, considering that I would be able to organize the characters properly) or then extremely scarce.

Is there some method that could help me?

  • A question for people who know this site better than I do: Are we allowed to recommend specific products? Nov 16, 2014 at 2:18
  • 1
    @ColinMcLarty In my opinion, it's acceptable if the specific products are helpful to the OP. As moderators are human, they of course have an eye for advertisements.
    – Stan
    Nov 16, 2014 at 16:18
  • Similar question. Should I put just a link, or copy the contents, in case it is not too long?
    – PdotWang
    Feb 5, 2015 at 12:38

7 Answers 7


It looks like you need to delve deeper into the Chinese writing system. It is nothing mystical or complex ordinary Western people cannot learn, it just takes time and some dedication.

I suppose you have a textbook or similar material that is divided into lessons with each lesson introducing a handful of characters and a number of expressions, if not you should get one. I know it is very boring in the beginning to read such sterile sentences like "This is my father./Here is a book.", etc., but that's the way it is, you need to lay the basics of vocabulary, characters and expressions and some grammar.

Chinese is unlike any Indo-European language (including those you listed) it has it's own peculiarities, but words are still words in any language, they need to be memorized and practiced. That requires time and patience.

While pinyin is a necessary help to all those who learn Chinese (and to Chinese themselves), it is not something you should rely to much on. Generally, you should avoid using textbooks that give pinyin transcription side-by-side to the Chinese script, because the more familiar Latin script will distract you rather than help you. Pinyin should be given in the vocabulary section of every lesson, but not in the lessons' reader part. I know people who would refuse reading a Chinese script only text, because after a few lessons they were relying so much on reading the pinyin transcripts, that they were simply unable to read the proper characters.

You need to build up some vocabulary, learn the words and their characters, their pronunciation and practice them. Reading something in Chinese simply requires you to be able to recognize the words, not only the characters, as you wrote in your question, you need to be able to "parse" a text to tell where each word begins and ends. Sometimes – with new expressions and terms popping up in the media everyday – it's not easy, even for advanced speakers.

It's a good thing to write characters by hand from the very beginning to memorize them. However, it's not necessary, if you find it a burden. If you think this requires too much effort, you can stick with reading only in the beginning and start writing what you have learnt later when you are more familiar with basic concepts.

Reading your last paragraph, I see that you are highly motivated to learn Chinese. But you should not start with reading to difficult texts, it's a waste of time looking up the vocab character by character and idling half an hour over a single sentence. I have done that, I admit, I thought I would be able to read Chinese comics after I figured out how to look up a character in a dictionary. I wasted hours and hours for this nonsense. Stick with your text book texts, do the exercises, memorize the vocab and you will make progress.


I hope I agree with Drunken Master, but will be more brief. You can learn to look up Chinese characters, and you have to if you want to read. It is worth while to get several kinds of textbooks teaching the language and the characters. Even electronic look-up aids will not work well if you do not understand character structure, like how to identify a radical, and stroke order. You need to learn grammar and idiom as well as vocabulary words so you need general textbooks as well as character books and dictionaries. Comics can be very slangy and not a good starting point.

I taught myself enough German, Italian, Dutch, and ancient Greek to read books in those languages will real pleasure. Happily I had French in school. What works is to keep trying. Of course Chinese is harder for a European than those. But there is a boom in great graded readers. The very best of them to me are the Chinese Breeze series. The first one I read seemed to take forever, but I loved the story. Four years later I have read all they have in print. Clavis Sinica let me read the famous novella The True Story of Ah Q, plus Mo Yan's Red Sorghum (the 80 page story, not yet the whole book Red Sorghum Clan). While I have not used it yet, Kindle has built-in Chinese dictionaries available so you can look up characters as you read. Just do it!


My experience is primarily with Japanese, which has many similarities but also some differences.

As Colin McLarty indicates, you need to learn how to look up characters by radical and stroke count. Explore different dictionaries! It looks like my daughter took back her Chinese dictionary so I can't compare, but the Japanese-to-English character dictionary I use most has each character listed with words where that character appears as the first character, as the second, etc.

Chinese is a bit harder than Japanese, because there are fewer indicators for word boundaries, but there are certain characters that have specific roles in a sentence and give you a clue; any words that you recognize that fit the context are also good indicators and give you a start in breaking up the sentence. Back in the early 1990's, I wrote some software to partition Chinese text into words. The starting point was statistical data on how frequently pairs of characters occur together. You can get a pretty good start by simply knowing common vocabulary -- this amounts to something very similar.

You're going to be doing a lot of lookup. If you're using a paper dictionary, I suggest doing some mods to help speed up lookup. I mark the edges of the dictionary pages with a marker so, without opening it, I can see where each radical's section is found. I fold some tape over the first page and fold over the corner and tape it, so the dictionary opens more readily to the start of each radical's section.

Since my memory isn't perfect (far from it!), I also highlight the characters and words I look up. Very often I'm looking up something I've looked up before; this both reminds me of my past lookup, and helps me find it more quickly.

Anything to help make the lookup process more efficient will help. Learn the radicals, and how to recognize them in characters (including in their different forms). Personally, I find this to be harder with the "simplified" characters, as it makes them look much less distinct, but the strategy will still be the same.

Google Translate appears to do a surprisingly good job with translating Chinese now. If you paste (or type, if you learn to enter Chinese) some text you're having trouble with into Google Translate, and use your mouse, it will highlight the different phrases and the Chinese text they came from (or vice versa), and also offer you alternate translations. You can use this to help break apart your sentence structure, and give you an indication in where to start your study and investigation.

(Of course, for learning, you don't want to rely on that, but use it as a launching pad to find what you need to study -- you want to know WHY that's the translation, and how you'd use it.)

Another point: each character tends to bring certain meanings to a word. If you become familiar enough with the characters, you can begin to leverage this to make educated guesses. This isn't very reliable from a translation standpoint, but it can help guide you in identifying words, or in quickly scanning text looking for something relevant, or something perhaps not too hard to dig into. Even though I don't know Chinese at all, and my Japanese vocabulary is limited, I find I can often scan Chinese text to find relevant pieces as a starting point.

In your bit of text, I picked out a few characters as guidepoints:

  • 的 -- I happen to know this usually plays a grammatical role, like a possessive.
  • 品 -- "stuff" or "things" or "goods" or "items" or "articles". The exact meaning would depend on what follows.
  • 多 -- "many", or "much".

In addition, the first word is often a good starting point.

So based on that, I'd look up 品种, 辣椒, and either 有很 or 有很多

Of course, with zero Chinese vocabulary and only a very vague idea of the structure, it's slow going from there, and I've never put any effort into learning the language. But I hope my experiences encourage you that it's possible to approach the language with limited knowledge.


You may try the Kingsoft PowerWord, it can be used to translate Chinese word to English and vice versa. I am from Hong Kong and I use it to assist me to learn English. You may download them from following links for browser-plugin version.


The PC version of Kingsoft PowerWord can translate a sentence. It tranlsate "辣椒的品种有很多" to "There are a lot of hot pepper varieties." which is not a bad translation.

You may also consider to learn traditional Chinese first as Simplified Chinese is only simplified in character but become complicated in the whole word-forming system. You may read more in following youtube.


Besides, I know traditional Chinese and I undergo no training in simplified Chinese. But I still can read simplified Chinese fluently. I observe the same thing around my friends in Hong Kong which uses traditional Chinese widely. But the reverse case is usually not true.

If you want to learn traditional Chinese in forum, I recommend you to learn them from Taiwan Forum instead of Hong Kong. As spoken language and written language is totally different in Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong tends to communicate by spoken language in forum which is not helpful if your final goal is to be able to understand a book.

  • Anyone in mainland China who has taken a high school education has little problem reading traditional Chinese. There is even a mandatory class for that. The problem comes at writing. Nov 17, 2014 at 3:09
  • I got no problem in writing too. I feel that translating traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese is like a many-to-one function(surjective function?). More importantly, you need to learn in high school to understand traditional Chinese, but I don't even have to learn simplified Chinese and can understand it. Nov 18, 2014 at 3:46
  • Probably because it's easier to go from complex to simple than vice versa.. you've got a natural advantage there :) Nov 18, 2014 at 5:38
  • not exactly, simplified chinese is complex since it destroyed the logic of some characters and original/traditional chinese is complex since it have more stokes. Dec 2, 2014 at 9:43
  • It would be more of an advantage if you still use seal script and speak classical Chinese :) Dec 2, 2014 at 11:37

I'm thankful for all answers so far. I learnt a lot from all these perspectives.

I'm ashamed to say that I had been neglecting a very important aspect of Chinese learning: that there are multiple ways of keyboard input, not only 拼音. I like pinyin and it's a great way to learn faster how to pronnounce for people like me, who have almost no direct contact with natives (also for natives themselves), although the problem that pinyin can also have the bad side effect of making one more focused on the Latin characters rather than the hanzi properly, as "Drunken Master" has also stated.

But the really bad side with pinyin alone to lonely students like me, the ones who want primarily to read instead hearing/speaking, is that, although you can hear a character faster, you simply are put with tied hands when you are faced with a text that doesn't present it. You simply do not have enough vocabulary to immediately recognize the characters in front of you based on its sound, once you don't know the sound and consequently are unable to perform any kind of lookup (you're not like a child who can speak and hear but can't read, you simply know nothing and the text is just a great riddle). It's a horrible blockade because, I think, how can one learn a language if not given the simple opportunity to at least try to study it but through boring decontextualized repetions as trying to memorize over and over again words on ANKI and hoping that, once faced with these words on a real text, you'll remember them? I forget most of words I learn if not exercised in meaningful texts like news or anything else.

Well, answering my own question, after a long research, I say now that the best way for me is input based on shape instead of sound, and for this aspect I chose Wubi (五笔字型输入法). Incredibly, I could today read a entire book page! Simply because now I know what to search. It took a long time, yes, but constant exercise will improve it, I hope. Wubi is specially meaningful for me because I was since a time practicing hand-written Chinese and so it's much easier for me to find a character based on its shape rather than its sound, consequently the hard task of spliting words is turning out to be less and less mysterious. Alongside with Pinyin, Wubi + Pinyin forms now the perfect combination. I can search what I want - with Wubi - grab its meaning and also the sound - with Pinyin.

Perhaps a time I'll have enough sound vocabulary to be able to search based on Pinyin alone.

I hope this answer can also help people in the same circunstances I had been.


Is Mandarin impossible for my goals?

Yes. It is impossible. It needs a tremendous of time that you just do not have. It is like that you make a car yourself from steel sheets and rubber blocks.

Chinese Han Zi cannot be self-studied. It has been proved in history.

You need tools that (a) translate HanZi to Pinyin or something similar, and (b) a dictionary based on ABC. Search ABC dictionary, and try translate of Google.


I learnt most of my Mandarin on a smartphone to start with. Download as many apps as you can, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. There is a great app with a screen reader called Pleco for android phones, you can hit one button and all hanzi on the screen (more or less) will become click-able and you can look up how it is said, what it means, the radicals, related words, etc.

After this, you can move on to children's books. Very basic ones, a few hundred words to start with, then slowly progress with more and more words.

As for typing methods, I think pinyin is fastest and used by all the young native Chinese people I know. Writing characters is useful to remember them clearly but you can learn Mandarin being able to read/speak/listen but barely write at all if you want a 'lite' version.

I've only been learning for 2 years or so and I can read ~1500 word stories.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.