Unlike English, Chinese is not a spelling language, which means there is no hint from the characters themselves for pronunciation. Therefore, we can only work on the characters individually to figure a way to learn and memorize them.

Thus, is learning and memorizing Chinese Characters much different than learning and memorizing English words?

  • 1
    Yes, you'll use more different parts of your brain when memorizing Chinese. There have been studies on this. And there are much smaller rate of dyslexia in Chinese speakers than English speakers. Learning Chinese has also been used to treat dyslexia in Western countries.
    – user58955
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 7:59

5 Answers 5


Chinese characters and phonetics

You say:

Unlike English, Chinese is not a spelling language, which means there is no hint from the characters for pronunciation!!!

Luckily for us, that's not true! Actually, by some estimates, almost 90% of characters have a phonetic component to them. To understand what that actually means, you have to know how characters are constructed:

Types of characters

There are several ways in which characters are constructed. Westerners often exoticize and obsess over 1-3 and don't realize that 4 and 5 exist (and indeed, 5 makes up the vast majority of cases).

  1. Pictograms -- These are visual representations of the morpheme they stand for. Of course, given how old these characters are, the modern forms are highly stylized, to the point of unrecognizability (e.g., 马 = horse). These are not common.

  2. Simple ideograms -- These are iconic representations of abstract concepts (e.g., 二 = 2). Most uncommon category.

  3. Compound ideograms -- These are juxtapositions of pictograms and ideograms, where the meaning is supposed to be inferred from that juxtapositions (e.g., 人 [man] + 木 [tree] = 休 [rest]). These are also not common.

  4. Rebus characters (phonetic borrowings) -- It turns out that you can't actually draw pictures of all concepts. If you want to have a writing system where you can actually write down anything, you need to make reference to the spoken language. A common strategy (used in every independently invented system of writing) for getting around the limits of pictograms is the Rebus Principle: use existing symbols purely for their sounds regardless of their meaning. Chinese example: 來 (to come) originally was a pictogram of wheat, a word that had a similar pronunciation. You may also be familiar with rebuses in the context of amusing puzzles.

  5. Phono-semantic characters -- It can be confusing to have two different morphemes written with the same character. Many phonetic loans were "clarified" by distinguishing the two usages by adding a semantically-suggestive piece. For example, 皇 (pronounced "huang2", meaning "emperor") and 蝗 (pronounced "huang2", meaning "locust", has the "bug" radical). The vast majority of characters are of this type. Unfortunately, the phonetic parts are often approximate or even poor.

Is Learning and Memorizing Chinese Characters much different than English?

It is different. Like I explained above, it's often the case that you can guess (or at least remember) the pronunciation of characters based on the pronunciation of other characters. Also, like I said, phonetics are far from perfect. There has been thousands of years of sound change working to make once-great phonetics bad. If you want to learn Chinese characters, it's going to be a lot of work, no matter how you slice it. Start with the basics, and once you work up to several hundred of them, you'll start understanding some of the patterns, both in terms of semantic radicals and common phonetic components.

  • +1 Hi Pete,your Chinese is very good! 皮特哥,你的中文牛啊!
    – Harry.Chen
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 4:36

At a high level, the answer is yes, reading Chinese and an alphabetic writing system stimulates brain parts differently. For instance, in http://www.pitt.edu/~perfetti/PDF/Reading%20in%202%20writing%20systems.pdf, it says that

Not only did results show more bilateral activation for Chinese in occipital and fusiform regions, they showed more activation in a frontal area, the left middle frontal gyrus (LMFG).


At the same time, studies of Chinese typically were not finding the same levels of activation of the temporal-parietal region nor the inferior frontal gyrus as found in alphabetic reading, where both are assumed to support phonological processes.

The paper also analyses the brain activities in Chinese-English bilinguals and language learners. Alphabet readers show Chinese pattern when reading Chinese,

The critical results for word perception areas are that English speakers learning Chinese showed only left fusiform activation for English-like stimuli, but bilateral fusiform activation when viewing Chinese-like stimuli, whereas the left fusiform gyrus showed significantly greater activation for both languages relative to baseline, English speakers learning Chinese show significantly more activation for Chinese than English in the right fusiform region.

but not vice versa...

alphabetic readers learning Chinese showed the Chinese pattern for occipital and occipital-temporal areas, Chinese native speakers for whom English was a second language did not show the alphabetic (left hemisphere dominant) pattern for English. ... they showed the Chinese pattern of bilateral occipital and occipital-temporal activation for both Chinese and English. Thus, whereas alphabetic readers showed the accommodation pattern, Chinese readers showed the assimilation pattern, with their native language reading network supporting their second language reading.

There has also been a paper that found learning Chinese affects math ability. (http://www.pnas.org/content/103/28/10775.full.pdf)

native Chinese and English speakers treat numbers with different cortical parts of the brain which indicates that different language systems, such as Chinese and English, can shape the way non-language-related content is processed.


I'm so luck as a Chinese native speaker, that means I can skill that easily. even as a native speaker, I also can't write down to some Characters. in fact, We usually use a small part of these characters. more even, with PCs and Phones development, in the information period, I seldom have chance to write down these characters. so, don't worry, Just remember what you like want to remember, if you have some difficult, just look up dictionary. Regards!


I think memorizing foreign words are similar, for you to memorizing Chinese character and for me to memorizing English words, of course there some kind of rules, but rules won't be perfect, hard works are always needed.


The grammars are similar but characters are way to different. There is no easy way to learn another language, you have to work hard on it. from my own experience of learning different languages, grammar is the foundation of everything. you need to spend lot of time to learn it first, then later on you can build up your words library, another important thing is you have to speak loud lol. best way is to get a Chinese girl friend and live together....lol

  • that's right! the best way to learn a language is under the blanket in the company of your breathing dictionary... Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 6:10

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.