UPDATE OCT 28 2014 – I have developed a piece of online software that teaches Chinese character recognition. It is based on the way I learned to read characters and if you use it correctly (ie daily) you should be able to read 50% of all written Chinese within 1 month and 90% of all written Chinese within 3 months
You can try my software for only $5 via paypal by clicking HERE. This will purchase the top 50 most frequent characters enabling you to read about 30% of all written Chinese.
If you find this method effective (which I am SURE you will) you can then purchase Characters in quantities of 50 for $10 each up to as many as you want. There is no time limit on usage of the software. This is a limited time offer to get feedback and testimonials from students.
If you want to learn how to read Chinese Characters then this book is definitely one to buy (the software mentioned above already has the characters from this book in it, PLUS MORE). I bought it a few years ago when I was finding my progress rate in the language was beginning to slow down. I thought that by adding a new skill to my Mandarin Chinese ability (i.e. reading) that it would help me break through this plateau that every language learner reaches eventually, and usually more than once.
I don’t quite remember what brought me to buying this incredible book. I think I was speaking to someone who was already well along in the language and I asked him “What is the best way to go about learning how to read Chinese?”, he mentioned the phrase “frequency dictionary” and I went online to look for one, and this is the one I found and bought.
Logically speaking this is the best way to leverage your efforts. This book presents the top 500 characters in order of their frequency (the software I have developed has as many characters as you want, not just the top 500). As with any language there are some words that are used more often than others. There is no point learning how to read a Chinese character that you might only see once a year (at least not in the beginning anyways).
By using this book and learning the Characters in the exact order they are presented in this book you will think you are learning how to read Chinese at an alarming rate. For example if you learn how to read only the first 100 characters in this book you will be able to read about 50% of all written Chinese. That’s incredible considering there are an estimated 10,000 characters in the Chinese language. So by knowing how to recognize only 1% of the total number of Chinese characters you will actually be able to read about 50% of whatever you see. Incredible leverage ! It is said that you need to know about 2000 characters in order to be able to read a newspaper. I am sitting at around 1000 characters and I can read at least 90% of everything that I see. So as you can see, the next 1000 characters are only going to give me a few more percentage of reading ability. This is why learning the first 500 is incredibly satisfying as you can actually see your progress by simply picking up a Chinese newspaper or book and highlighting the characters you recognize.
Further you don’t need to know how to write the characters in order to read them. It’s simply a memory game. The method I used was to create flashcards of each character and drill myself. I would learn them in batches of 10, but you could do smaller batches of 5 or so to make it easier. (The software I designed was based on the method I used years ago and I improved upon the method to increase it’s efficiency)
Once I mastered a batch of 10 I would learn the next batch of 10. Once I learned the next batch of 10 I would be sure to review all the characters I had learned to date from the very beginning. If I found that I was getting some of the earlier characters wrong I would wait until I was getting all my characters correct from the very start before moving on to the next batch of 10. There’s no point in learning 10 new characters if you are already forgetting the first 10 you ever learned. Especially when you consider those first 10 are the most frequent and therefore the most important 10 characters you will ever learn. (The software I have designed does all this automatically. When I learned I had to keep track of everything manually which slowed me down and reduced my efficiency, but it still worked well all be it slower than necessary)
You will be very surprised at how quickly you can learn to read using this method. You can easily learn 10-20 characters per day just by spending 15-30 minutes using the flashcards. What is really important though, and I can’t stress this enough, is to practice at least once per day. Even if only for 10 minutes. If you learn some characters and then take a break for a few days you will find that your brain has decided this info isn’t very important and then puts that info towards the back where access is slower. By spending just a few minutes per day reviewing what you have learned and perhaps adding a few more characters each time you will be reading Chinese in no time. It’s this regularity that tells the brain this info is important and needs to stay at the front for quick access.
A simple rule to remember with language learning is that 10-20 minutes per day is better than 10 hours in one day and nothing for the rest of the week. 10-20 minutes per day only equates to 1-2 hours per week. Spaced out over time those 1-2 hours are more effective than 10 hours all in one day and then nothing for 6 days.
Another thing I would stress is be sure to learn the meaning of each character and not just how to pronounce it out loud. This way you aren’t only learning how to read but you are also expanding your vocabulary. This will of course slow down the rate at which you learn how to read, but you will be glad you did it this way in the long run. So when using the flash cards (or whatever method you think up) don’t only practice how to say the character but also test your ability to remember what the character means.
This is another great aspect of this book. It presents each character in order of frequency and also shows how that character is used. It gives the definition and also many examples of how to use the character in a word or sentence. Extremely useful stuff.
I can’t stress enough how satisfying it is to be able to read Chinese. It’s a skill I never imagined I would ever have, and now that I can read most of what I see (I still only know about 1000 Characters) I feel like I have conquered a mountain. What is more, it was much easier than I had ever imagined.
Be sure however not to run before you can walk. If you are just getting started in Chinese make sure you have mastered all of the basic sounds and phonetics before you embark on the reading aspect of Chinese.
I have to admit that I have wasted a lot of money on various “learn Chinese books” over the years and they haven’t done much for me. This book however is the exception. I owe my ability to read Chinese to this book. I hope you find it as useful as I did.