New Project: Learn To Write Traditional Chinese Characters

I’m stuck.

After a couple of years learning Cantonese, I feel like I’m at an impasse.

The problem?

I can’t read.

I can speak Cantonese, but I’ve never learnt to read or write.

You might think that’s a bit odd, but not studying Chinese writing at the start was a conscious decision I made, based on the advice of Chinese experts I respect.

Here’s the thing…

Learning to write in Chinese is such a huge task, that your time is better spent learning to speak. (Or so the theory goes.)

So I did that.

But now I’m ready for more.

I’m taking up the task of learning to read and write Chinese, and I’m documenting every step of the process with regular videos on my YouTube channel.

Is Literacy Important In A Foreign Language?

So why am I learning to read Chinese now?

Why not six months ago or six months from now?

It has got a lot to do with my environment here in London, which is amazing, but my opportunities to speak and practise Cantonese are few and far between.

This means that the angle of learning the language through immersion is not open to me. (Unlike, for example, if I lived in Hong Kong.)

Now, if I could read, then I’d have plenty of alternative options for studying.

But the fact that I can’t read and write – I am basically illiterate in the language – means I can’t really study by myself either.

And this is a huge problem.

So, right now, I feel well and truly stuck at what you might call an intermediate plateau in Cantonese:

  • I can speak pretty well, but it leave a lot to be desired
  • I often struggle to understand native speakers
  • I have a limited vocabulary
  • And so on…

Now, when I think about other languages that I have learnt and think about how I have managed to break through that plateau and become properly fluent, it has always involved reading.

I have to be able to read stuff, whether it be emails from friends, news articles, books, magazines…

So my next big move in Cantonese seems clear…

The key to my progress in Cantonese, I believe, is to start to learn to read and write Chinese characters.

But how?

My Challenge: Learn to Read and Write Chinese

Well, Cantonese is far from straightforward, and there are a number of big issues not faced by learners of Mandarin:

  • Cantonese is basically a spoken dialect of Chinese. Although it can be written, it usually isn’t.
  • Instead of writing Cantonese, you take the main message of what you want to say, and write that in standard Mandarin Chinese instead. (The same thing occurs in Arabic dialects.)
  • Therefore, virtually any potential reading material you lay your hands on in Hong Kong is actually written in Mandarin – not Cantonese. (There are exceptions, such as tabloid magazines)
  • To make matters worse, Cantonese doesn’t use simplified Chinese characters (as used in mainland China). It uses traditional Chinese characters, which are more complex

So, what’s the point of learning to read?

Because Cantonese speakers can all read and write standard Chinese.

Although there’s a blurry line between the spoken and the written language, standard Chinese is nevertheless the linguistic core of native Cantonese speakers – it’s what they learn at school, and read in books.

In short, I believe literacy in Chinese will be the key to spoken fluency in Cantonese, and there are probably connections between the two that I can’t even imagine yet.

So I have got a big task ahead of me!

What you can expect from this new video series is my documenting exactly how I go about the task of learning to read and write traditional Chinese characters.

  • Understanding how to go about it
  • Different methodologies, approaches, and materials
  • Trying it all out

Hopefully, documenting this process will help me stay accountable in my learning, but also be informative for you if you ever plan to learn Chinese yourself.

Right now I don’t have any of the answers…

But I am going to go and figure it out and you’ll be able to follow along every step of the way!

I won’t publish every video here on the blog, so be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel right now so you stay up to date with the videos as they’re released!

I’m excited about this challenge! A little bit daunted… but excited nonetheless!

See you in the next video.

There are many different perspectives on learning to read and write Chinese, and I’d be happy to hear yours! Let me know in a comment below. Know anyone also learning Chinese right now? Please send them a link to this post!

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  • Eduardo Zorak

    Hola Olly! Please keep us informed of your progress! I will be with the same task at some point in the future …
    Have you heard of the “Marilyn Method” to remember pinyin and associate with the character? It can be used along with remembering hanzi… I never try, just read about that and I was curious…
    You do not mix pronunciations of words in Cantonese and Mandarin?

    • Thanks Eduardo. The videos will be on YouTube, so make sure you’re subscribed there! I haven’t heard of the Marilyn Method, but in any event it wouldn’t be relevant to me as pinyin is only for Mandarin.

      I won’t mix pronunciation of Mandarin and Cantonese because I’ll only be dealing with spoken language in Cantonese. Maybe if I learn Mandarin in the future that will be a problem.

  • Pablo Pankun Román

    I’ve never met a foreigner who learned to read and write Chinese or Japanese to a decent level (even just being able to read signs in the street) who didn’t use Heisig’s method. For me the choice is quite clear. I wouldn’t use anything else unless you’re ready to spend the 12 or so years that children in those countries spend to learn to read and write.

    If you decide to give it a try send me a message and I can give you a few tips to make it even easier.

    • Hey Pablo, it’s working really well for me — to a point. I’m making regular videos about the method I’m using:

      • Pablo Pankun Román

        That’s great! I did it for Japanese and now I can read and understand most novels. I didn’t use the books for the readings of the characters though, and just learned them when I learned the words that use those characters.

        In my case I never got the stories mixed up. Actually something really good about Heisig’s method is that a simple tick on a character (like between 日 and 白) completely changes the story. What I did mix up, though, was keywords with similar meanings. For example, between the characters “fear” (恐) and “dreadful” (怖). What I did in those cases was to slightly tweak one of the two keywords to help distinguish them. For example changing “fear” for “fear of ghosts” or something. Just making it more specific in a way that relates to the story you use to remember the character and helps you tell the keywords apart.

        Other than that, I totally recommend using the website . It’s a crowdsourced list of stories for each of the characters. The character numbers are for the Japanese version of the book, but you can use a reference like this one to look up the character by its code in your book and copy-paste it to search on the website. It saved me from having to come up with my own stories for more than 2500 characters.

  • I’m currently learning Chinese and I also decided not to bother with learning the characters until I reach a certain level of fluency. I’m finding it rather frustrating to not be able to read. When I learned Spanish, reading was useful in building my vocabulary. Good luck with Chinese characters. My Chinese co-workers say it took them many years to learn them.

    • I’m certainly feeling that frustration. I keep dipping in and out… it’s such a huge task and I struggle to stick at anything for more than a few months if it’s not directly related to what I actually want to do with the language, i.e. speak! Hopefully I’ll crack the code this year!

  • pdwalker

    An anecdote.

    I never learned to read the Chinese while I was learning Cantonese because I was absolutely certain that’d it be impossible.

    Last year I started learning Mandarin with reading and writing. To my own self embarrassment, I’ve found the reading and writing about a hundred times easier than speaking and about a bajillion times easier than I originally thought it would be.

    It’s really not hard, especially with the wealth of language learning apps available (insert shameless plug for Pleco here)

    • Haha, that’s great to hear, and really quite encouraging. I’ve been gearing up to start mandarin for some time, and it’s just a question of pulling the trigger.

      How did you get started?

      • pdwalker

        The old fashioned way; part time classes at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. Their Mandarin and Cantonese classes overall are pretty good. Even better if you do it full time.

        Since you like textbooks, look at “Kung Fu (I), An Elementary Chinese Text” as that is their main beginner to intermediate text. There are audio files for the vocab and practice stories, as well as a workbook. It’s in simplified Chinese,

        In fact there are so many good books for Mandarin learning that’s it’s hard to pick one. Some are in Traditional, some in Simplified and some in both.

        The course is taught in Simplified, and I’m just casually learning to read the Traditional characters as I need to. (Pleco helps me a lot here because of all the available dictionaries you can search simulataneously)

        Some additional personal observations:

        Reading is easier than writing – recognizing characters that I forget how to write is a common problem. Lots of my native Chinese friends also experience this, just not as often as me.

        Take the time to learn the pinyin phonetic alphabet. It helps my pronunciation a lot and lets me start using new words faster. And inputting characters via computer becomes a breeze, even if you can’t remember how to write it. iOS, Windows, and MacOSX have fantastically easy to use pinyin input systems.

        The iOS character recognizer is very tolerant of how you draw your characters. The recognizer in Pleco is almost psychic. I sometimes try to see how badly and out of stoke order I need to be before I confuse it. I almost always lose. What a difference 20 years makes in technology.

        Leaning Mandarin is easier than Cantonese, mainly due to the wealth of structured learning materials available; also because of pre-existing knowledge of Cantonese. Tones are much less of a problem because they are more distinct.

        Spoken Cantonese grammar seems less strict than Mandarin, but I never learned Cantonese grammar formally so I might be wrong.

        Graded readers are good for maintaining interest.

        The reason I’m here on your site today is I’m looking for ways to improve my learning, and I’ve learned my biggest problem holding me back is not speaking enough.

        You already know not to do that.