How did you go about learning Chinese Characters or Kanji? Tips and Strategies

I have been studying Japanese for a little while and now it’s time to get started on learning kanji for real. This has been really frightening me for some time. I’m afraid I will screw it up, or study for months and than forget everything. It seems like such an impossibly time consuming task: I know Chinese and Japanese children learn little by little over the course of many years in school.

I watched Steve’s video explaining how he basically just wrote down characters in a workbook over and over for close to a year and was able to learn 4000 characters for chinese. I cannot comprehend at this moment how the brain can become literate in reading characters. I just picked up Andrew Scott Conning’s book on the 2300 most important kanji and figure I would start with that strategy.

Just learn about 10 a day and keep reinforcing them little by little every day. It still seems impossible, but I would love to your experiences, be they intermediate or mastery,

Tell me about your strategies, your failures and success’, your most effective methods, and to those who have succeeded: If it was worth all that time and effort?

I would love to hear about your*

Oh, and also. How easy is it to remember characters after long periods away from the language? I want to ask Steve if he could still pick up a Chinese newspaper and be able to read it if you haven’t looked at characters for a long time or do you have to go back and relearn many of them?

I can’t speak for Japanese, but I imagine it’s similar to Chinese. Basically the beginning is the worst because all the characters are so foreign. So when first starting out you have no choice but to memorize characters through whatever way possible, but that stage really doesn’t last that long. My biggest advice would just be to read a whole lot, I find memorizing the characters out of context to be much more difficult and boring so the sooner you start reading the faster you will unconsciously memorize these characters.

Once you have a solid base of characters down(maybe 500) you will start to see similarities between the characters, such as the radical 心 usually has to do with something with “thinking, a state of conciseness, an emotion, etc”, so these shared radicals between characters will clue you into the meaning.

Also the fact that characters themselves are combined to make words such as, 開心(open+hear=joy/happiness), means that with your solid base of characters you will be able to guess the meaning and retain the meaning of new words easier since you have seen those characters used in other words with a similar meaning to the one you are learning, for example 傷心(hurt+heart=sad/hurt/broken hearted/etc.)

Basically the more characters you learn the easier it will become.

In terms of methods I would suggest;

*Free reading, without much focus on memorizing every character just read through Lingq and pickup what you can, pay attention to the radicals and try to “notice” if you have seen the same character in a different context.

*Focused reading, get a good electronic dictionary and add all the unknown characters from a text(something not too difficult) to a flashcard deck, then memorize them. Then reread the article or even better reread it and listen to an audio of it. Keep doing this every day and you will quickly build your character list, but it’s strenuous so take a break once your brain beings to feel like pancake batter.
I used this method for a long time as a sort of character drill, where I would learn every character in a text and then read it or listen to the audio every day/every other day. With introducing new texts every week, for Chinese I did this through a podcast called “ChinesePod” I’m sure there are great Japanese ones out there.

One last side note. I never write Chinese characters, I did for the first 8 months of studying which I think helped me learn the “radicals” that make up characters, but I gave up after a while since it’s not very practical and I got no joy from doing it. I don’t want to discourage you from writing by hand, if you have a personal interest in it then go for it. But living in Taiwan I’ve seen my co-workers everyday forget how to write characters and they’re started when they were 5 years old. As with the invention of computers it’s not really necessary anymore, even the standardized Chinese fluency test is digital now. Personally I find the time I spent memorizing how to write one character could have been spent memorizing to identify 10 characters.

For example, if I told you to pick the “Starbucks” logo out of 100 other logos could you do it?(maybe?probably?), but if I asked you to perfectly recreate it on paper could you do it then? This is my point about writing the characters.


I agree with everything that Mohrjn686 said. I just want to throw out an idea I’ve had about how I maybe would go about learning the kanji for Japanese if I had to do it all over again from scratch. I would get the book “Japanese Kanji and Kana: A Complete Guide to the Japanese Writing System” (or something similar to it), then I would learn the words given as an example for each individual kanji; i.e. words that are “built” by those kanji. I would learn one word with an onyomi-reading, and one word with a kunyomi-reading. I would use a spaced repetition software like Anki in order to retain those words and kanji in my memory. Rather than memorizing the general English meaning for the kanji, I would develop a sense for their meaning by learning words consisting of them.

Has anyone here tried the Heisig system? I’m especially interested in how it works for non native speakers of english, since you are supposed the connect characters with english words and form an idea or image of them. I imagine it’s more difficult because you would have to differentiate between a lot of words that may be similar in meaning and not have a real “connection” with them.

I co-sign basically everything Mohrjn686 said.

It can be very daunting at the beginning but you just have to push through the initial unfamiliar discomfort! It really gets easier and easier as you continue.

With regards to your question about being able to pick back up reading after being away for a long time - you absolutely can if you have a solid foundation. I had to take a solid 2 year break between my Chinese studying when I was younger because of health issues and retained all my main vocabulary. The amount of words I forget in Chinese with reading and listening is roughly the same amount (percentage wise) I forget in French and Arabic.

Some general tips would be:

  1. Pay attention to the stroke order if you’re practicing handwriting. It might seem not that important, but it’s absolutely crucial if your goal is not just to not just type words. Similarly with hiragana and katakana, memorization is much more effective. And with kanji/Chinese characters, once you know the stroke order for individual radicals you can write many unfamiliar characters. For instance, if you know the strokes for 田 and 心, and you know most characters are written top to down, knowing how to write 思 is super easy.

  2. Be generally familiar with radicals. I wouldn’t say you have to rogue memorize radical charts or worry about knowing the less common or obscure ones, especially because your goal is to learn Japanese and not Chinese, but they can be useful. Just common ones like 火 (fire), 土 (earth/land), 口 (mouth) etc. You learn to recognize them overtime. For instance, 地址 means address in Chinese and it has the radical 土 representing land in both characters.

  3. Learn characters in context. Start with the most simple simple lessons and continue from there. I think your goal of learning the 2300 most common kanji is great but I hope the book provides sentences and uses for them, so you can practice them holistically.

  4. Be conscious of your goals. There’s a HUGE difference between being able to read characters, being able to write them with a dictionary at hand, and being able to write them from memory alone. I’ve taken Chinese in school and therefore have been forced to develop strategies to remember how to write characters. I don’t exaggerate when I say it used to take probably 3 hours to memorize 20 words for a writing quiz. Now, it takes me about 30 minutes to remember 40 words for a writing quiz. Your mind adapts. But it takes A LOT of time. If I didn’t have to take university level Chinese language classes where I am forced to handwrite essays on politics, economic policy, culture, history, etc. for exams I wouldn’t practice handwriting anymore and I’d just be happy with typing and recognizing words.

There are also some apps, such as Skritter, that help improve writing ability. But if your goal is recognition/reading ability, most flashcard systems + reading a ton through resources like Lingq will help with that.

I know it’s a really overwhelming task but I hope you won’t be as afraid. The human brain is really amazing and if you’re determined, you’ll definitely do great :slight_smile:


It depends on how you like to learn. I, personally, hate learning from paper. I want a program on my screen telling me what to do and when. If you’re like that, I’d recommend a website called Wanikani. It’s a paid service, but the first three levels are free. I’ve nearly finished the third one and even that little amount has been so much help. The system works like this): “radicals” are taught. I put that in quotes because they’re not real radicals, nor do radicals mean anything in reality. But wanikani takes little pieces that appear in lots of kanji, calls them radicals, and gives them a meaning. These radical meanings have no real-world use, they’re only there to help with memorization. After learning the required radical pieces, the program proceeds to teach you actual kanji, and vocab using that kanji. Your memorization of the terms is tested through an SRS (spaced repetition system) algorithm.
Everything is memorized through story mnemonics. For example, 毛 is a kanji and is formed by the “radical” 彡 which wanikani says means “hair”. 毛 is hair with a tail attached, almost like an animal. Except animals have what we call -fur-. So, 毛 means fur, as in, animal hair. But there’s so much fur! You have to -mow- it down. Mow sounds just like “mou”, the pronunciation of 毛.
That’s just one example. A little strange, no? But that’s the point, the weirder the story to remember it is, the better you remember it.

And this is how I’d recommend learning kanji/hanzi/any character based writing, with or without wanikani. Separate the characters into smaller pieces, and make up stories to remember what they all mean and how to pronounce them.
In fact, it looks like,“The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course” (I believe that’s the book you got) teaches in a very similar way, so definitely give a solid effort to use that book. If you prefer programs, try out wanikani and if you like books, you’ve already got an excellent one to use!
Additionally, like it’s been said here, I’d also recommend SRS systems like Anki, and the reading material here can only help you :smiley: About Anki, I’m probably in the minority in here, but I try to keep my decks to only 200-300 cards. I’ve seen decks with over a 1,000 cards, and this guarantees that you’ll get the max limit of cards to study every day in that deck for a VERY long time, giving yourself a bigger work load compared to, say, four 250 card decks.

Lastly, I use a site called duolingo, it’s like Rosetta Stone but entirely free. BUT, there’s no option for English speakers to learn Japanese, so I’m registered as a Japanese speaker learning English. It’s helpful for learning new vocab and to practise typing full Japanese sentences. You can use it everyday to keep your kanji in use and viewed in context! Beware though, the lack of any English help makes the grammar very hard to grasp… it does for me at least.

I’m still learning kanji myself, obviously, and I can only speak for what’s worked for me. I can’t speak as a veteran who already learned it all, but hopefully some of what I said is helpful ^^’

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Good stuff guys! Thanks! I just have to believe I can do it!

The idea of being able to pick up and read a book or newspaper in Japanese is so exciting to me. I hope i can get there one day!

Mandarin is on my to do list in the future, probably going to look to Chinese in a few years after I get a handle on Japanese where my current interests are.

Also, being able to speak Chinese and Arabic is badass. It took me forever to really get going in Arabic, that’s a great accomplishment!


I used the Heisig method and it worked fine for me. As you say, some of the English keywords was a bit confusing and similar to one another. But it was nothing a good dictionary couldn’t help me overcome.

I tried wani kani but found it sloppy and amateurish. On a recommendation I switched to the Kodansha course using Memrise. It’s far more intelligently put together. The book it’s based on is well written and attends to every need. It uses a similar approach to Heisig, but teaching the kanji with and through vocabulary, and providing an excellent, concise way of remembering all 2300 kanji. All the mnemonic devices are integrated into one system that holds together, and unlike wani kani it does not rely on corrupt interpretations of radicals. The whole wani kani system tends to fall apart due to this fatal flaw.