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Why Chinese is getting easier and easier to learn

By Memrise Blog

Chinese has a reputation for being incredibly difficult for English speakers to learn. This is really for two key reasons:  the sheer number of characters that you need to learn in order to be able to read to even quite a basic level, and the fact that the meaning of each syllable can be changed by pronouncing it with a different tone.

These two points aside, Chinese is actually quite an easy language, as I posited in a previous post (Why is Mandarin so incredibly easy to learn).  In that post I slightly skimmed over the massive number of characters that need to be learned, and was rightly taken to task by several readers. So lets look at the learning task now and how Memrise breaks it down.

Here is a Chinese character:

Can you tell what it means? Perhaps, but probably not. But how about if I show you this animation?

It means “Man”. Now it is very easy to remember. What about this one.

Any idea what it means? Here is another animation to help you.

It means “Corpse”. Again, not hard to remember, thanks to the vivid drawing.

Now sadly not all Chinese characters are as easy to learn as these. There are, in fact, a couple of hundred that can be rendered as simple pictures – some of these pictures are true to the etymology of the characters, some are not. That is another discussion, touched upon in this post: Are Chinese characters pictographs. Here, the key point is that these 200 or so simple characters are then used as “building blocks” to make up all the other characters.[1]

On Memrise we and our users have made nifty little mnemonics like the ones above to help you learn all the building blocks incredibly quickly – people have done it in just a couple of hours of study time.

After learning these building blocks, the rest of the learning task becomes a matter of combining the building blocks in vivid stories or images. This may sound daunting. But here is the key: at Memrise we have a team of memory experts who have been developing ways to make this task much, much easier. Leading the team is Ed Cooke, the memory guru who taught Josh Foer (author of Moonwalking with Einstein) to become a memory champion in just a year.

The same techniques that helped Josh to memorise packs of cards and strings of random numbers can help you to learn to remember how to combine the building blocks used in thousands of Chinese characters. And just as Josh did, you will find that it isn’t nearly as hard as it might sound. Still don’t believe me? Give it a try.

Now the very sharp eyed among you will have noticed that the mnemonics above teach you the meaning, but not the pronunciation of the characters. This is true. For various reasons, discussed in this post, “Why does Memrise teach the meanings and pronunciations separately?,”  we decided that we should teach the meanings and pronunciations separately.

First we tackled the problem of how to learn thousands of characters quickly and enjoyably, now we are implementing a system that makes learning the pronunciation of characters equally fast and fun.

So that is why I said that Chinese is getting easier and easier to learn: Memrise is already helping thousands of people to learn to read Chinese characters; so the first reason that Chinese is difficult to learn has already been made much less of a problem. Now we are tackling the second reason – the pronunciation and tones.

It might sound like an impossible task, but Josh Foer thought that it was impossible that Ed Cooke could train him to be US memory champion in just one year. And look where Josh is now.

So try it now and see how the Memrise combines the art and science of memory to make you remember things that you never thought you could – its totally free!