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