Organize your Vocab: Hanzi Web

People always ask me, “How many Chinese characters do you know?” I resist the urge to include some of my students and proudly answer, “About zero.” They’re shocked because we’re speaking Chinese right now. And, to the Chinese, the language IS the hanzi characters.

But for us laowai, if your goal is to speak Chinese as soon as possible, it’s a big waste of time to study the hanzi characters from the beginning. They are, however, useful to acknowledge as a way of organizing vocabulary.

I have a much easier time remembering words if I know what each little piece is. It’s also a good way to keep the tones straight.

So, to link all those little pieces together, I often visualize something I call a hanzi web (see below).

I don’t really draw these (that would take forever), this is just an example. But the point is I’m always trying to link the little bits of new vocabulary back to known bits of vocabulary. And the common link (even if you don’t know how to draw it) is the hanzi character. It may not make a whole lot of sense, but at least you might have a better chance at remembering the tone.

So, how do you figure out what that dàn in bèndàn 笨蛋 is?

  1. use the online dictionary (and click the little scissors picture)
  2. try to look up just plain old dàn in a dictionary and hope it has it’s own entry
  3. ask someone who speaks Chinese

Click to enlarge

Comments

  1. The word “寒期han2 qi1” in your Hanzi Web—
    We usually say “寒假han2 jia4” indicating winter vacation.
    Well, I never use “寒期” 🙂
    mmm… Is it dielect or something?

  2. I agree. “寒期” cannot be used to mean “winter break/vacation”. It is usually an adjective that’d be translated simply as “winter” or more formally as “hivernal”. To mean the holiday period, one has to add a noun afterwards, eg., 寒期季節[] or 寒期假節(->寒假).

    Ex.
    寒期營 Winter camp (which would technically take place during the break, yeah…but, it doesn’t always involve vacationing:
    寒期訓練營 Winter boot camp
    寒期校/寒期班 Winter classes
    寒期課程 Winter curriculum

    It sometimes could be a noun, literally “winter break,” as in the sentence 寒期打工 (working during the winter break).

  3. This sounds like a good scheme for helping you to process the fact that a lot of characters are used in combination with other characters – do you know anywhere on the web that creates these sorts of “hanzi webs” for you? ie you type in a word and it shows you the connections for all the words that each of its constituent characters appear in?

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