How to not teach Chinese characters to beginners: A 12-step approach

I wrote this article to amuse and educate (preferably both) and thought Skritter users might be interested in it as well. It’s a guide (actually a rant) about how to not teach Chinese characters, based on more than a decade of observing terrible teaching and worst practices. Which of these have you seen? Have I missed anything particularly terrible?


Read through the list. Ya - I dislike writing characters multiple times with a picture aid. Wish I didn’t need to do that.

I use the Zizzle system for mnemonics. He pretty much breaks each character down into two components with a meaning for each component. A certain syllable would share mnemonic across all categories such as shi- meaning a phonetic mnemonic “SHIp” for every single instance of this syllable.

But the meaning components would still have 2 distinct mnemonics. Shi4 (to be) is the mnemonic contains sun, upright (I believe), and SHIp. I feel like its a decent system and might have the endorsement from the perspective of expert memory hackers a la “Moonwalking with Einstein” (plus he essentially does the 4 elements for tones)

Is this system that advanced though? Are there higher levels of understanding a character? Or would it start getting into superfluous etymology?

I haven’t really used it or looked into it, but my approach has always been to use mnemonics when necessary, not for everything I can possibly use them for. So, I would never create mnemonics for all character writings and components just because I can, nor would I create mnemonics for all pronunciation. I would only do so if either doesn’t stick for some reason, such as if I keep forgetting the tone or something like that, then I incorporate the tone into the mnemonic. I think very ambitious mnemonic methods seem to consist of more memorising mnemonics that actually dealing with the language itself. :slight_smile:

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I respect that. I like the action orientation you have. Gabriel Wyner (fluent forever app individual) said he regretted he didn’t have a mnemonic for every character while learning Japanese. I think he goes a bit overboard in production of input with his system. Nonetheless considering his success as a polyglot, he might be on to something. Also I think you are an expert “scaffolder” and there is a lot of “how”/manner in what you do it which makes you successful. That being said, you’re specific listening strategies and principles behind them are game changing.

Weird Mnemonics with Vocab, memory hackers in general go crazy for some reason (the guys who remember everything in a newspaper after reading once kind of guys). (Anthony Metivier)…

While I think we can learn a lot from memory champions and the like, it’s also important to realise that memorising a deck of cards is not the same as learning a foreign language. I don’t doubt that you can create mnemonics for everything, I’m just questioning if it’s necessary. :slight_smile:

My old teacher did focus on some radicals (30 or so) during the first lessons. I forgot the names but still think it’s handy to know the left thing in 说 has something to do with speech, and the left thing here with your body 腿.

It is very useful! But I think you’re mixing up components in general and radicals in particular. I’m all for learning functional components from day one, but not radicals as such. This video from Outlier explains it well:

So, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn (or teach) the components of characters, I’m saying that you shouldn’t learn (or teach) which particular component in a character happens to be the radical.