Choosing Which Chinese Characters to Learn

Why are there two types of Chinese characters?

There are two types of Chinese characters because the Chinese government started a project in the 1950s to simplify the written form of Chinese characters. The aim of this project was to increase literacy rates. As a result, people in mainland China use simplified Characters, while folks in Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters. Mandarin Chinese is also an official language of Singapore, where they use simplified characters as well. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of how simplified characters came to be, for those interested in reading it.

photo of traditional vs simplified Chinese characters
The traditional character is on the left and the simplified character version is on the right

Which type of characters should my child (or I) learn?

If you have a strong preference for either traditional or simplified characters, you should stick with that. Learn traditional characters if you think that is the best choice for you. If you think that simplified characters are the wave of the future and that your child should learn simplified instead of traditional characters, then do that!

You can also decide by not deciding. If you send your child to a local Mandarin immersion program, odds are he or she will learn simplified characters. According to this list (from the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council), the vast majority of Mandarin immersion programs in the US teach simplified characters. There are however, many schools that use traditional characters.

Okay, so I don’t have strong opinions, but what are the pros and cons of each system?

There are lots of pros for both traditional characters and simplified characters. In the spirit of a lively debate I will present both. Traditional characters are more connected with Chinese culture and history. If you are interested in reading the inscriptions on ancients steles, or practicing Chinese calligraphy, then traditional characters might be the best fit. Learning traditional characters is also a bit like learning to drive a stick shift first. If you can drive a car with a manual transmission, you can drive an automatic easily. But the reverse is not true. People who learn traditional characters first have an easier time with both systems than folks who learn simplified characters first.

Simplified characters on the other hand, win the numbers game. There are 1.3 billion people in China (maybe you’ve heard that before 🙂 ). They use simplified characters. While Taiwan, with the traditional characters, only has a population of about 23 million. Simplified characters might also be easier to learn. After all, the Chinese government created this system with the goal of improving literacy rates.

No matter which you choose, it will be fine

In some sense it does not matter which system students learn to read and write in Chinese. One of the tasks of learning a language like Mandarin Chinese, is learning to deal with the issues that come with the regional variations. That includes a wide variety of accents, and it also includes the writing system.

This is an imperfect analogy, but say you were on vacation in some exotic locale. A person comes up to you on the street and asks you for directions. You start telling her where to go, but she suddenly turns on her heel. She explains over the back of her shoulder as she walks away, “Sorry, I only speak British English.” If this happened to you, you’d probably think that this person is a pretentious clown. She also still doesn’t know where she is going.

Yet so often, language learners do try to limit their scope to only one part of a language. Some students don’t want to learn how to read and write Chinese at all. Some students want to only learn Mexican Spanish or Spanish from Spain. Teachers can be weirdly selective, too. In the one Spanish class I have ever taken, our teacher didn’t use tu, just usted. We completely skipped the informal you! It was a strange thing to leave out!

Once a person knows one system or the other, it actually is not that difficult to move between one system and the other. I once worked with a Taiwanese lady who wrote all her stuff in traditional characters and then ran it through Google translate to get the simplified character version. Sure, it was a couple minutes extra work, but no big deal! I’ve spent more than a decade using and learning simplified characters. Yet, when I am in Japan (where the kanji are almost identical to traditional characters), I can read* their characters just fine. My friends from mainland China all insist they can read traditional characters with relative ease.

Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. My advice to parents and students is to not get so worked up about choosing traditional or simplified that you stumble at the starting line. As long as you stick with it, it will be fine.

*I can read in the sense of knowing the meaning, but I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation. I don’t speak Japanese.

Further reading and information

For a lengthier discussion on traditional vs simplified, and a handy flow chart , check out the Mandarin Mama blog.

Lotus Chinese Learning uses simplified characters. For more information about classes, check out the classes page. If you have a question, get in touch via the contact page.


photo of simplified vs traditional Chinese characters
The traditional character version is on the left and the simplified version is on the right

Don’t Trust a Pillow: On the Use of Chinese Characters in the US

People in Western Countries Love Chinese Characters

Walk into any home décor store and you are sure to find a throw pillow or some wall art with Chinese characters on it. Usually there is an English translation somewhere too. While it is nice that people are interested in Chinese culture, this is not really how written Chinese works. It is very common to see a character like 爱 on its own and then the translation “love” written in smaller font.

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… But They Usually Don’t Understand How They Work

This is misleading to anyone who does not speak or read Chinese because Chinese words are usually the combination of two characters. So while 爱 does in fact mean love, we have many words that are love-related that use the character 爱. For example, the word for romantic love is 爱情. The word for patriotism is 爱国. Just translating 爱  as love on a piece of wall art misses a great deal of the richness of Mandarin Chinese.

There are also cases in which the translations written on a candle holder is wrong or misleading. It took me .000235 seconds of Googling (okay, maybe a little bit longer) to find the below image. It is a pillow with the character 牙 on it and the English translation is “fang.” The word for fang in Chinese is actually 獠牙 (like a monster’s fang). On its own, 牙 can mean tooth, a tooth-like thing, or even ivory. Without the addition of the character 獠 in order to clarify the meaning, 牙 does not translate to “fang” at all.

photo of pillow on it with Chinese character
Yet another example of Chinese characters with a misleading translation

Don’t Trust a Pillow to Tell You What a Character Means

It is great that people appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. I would not, however, trust anything that you can buy at Target. Just like any other language, Mandarin Chinese is complex. A piece of wall art with the character 静 on it and the word “tranquility” below does not give the full picture of how the character is used in context. It may look cool, but there is a lot more to it.

For a laugh, the blog Hanzi Smatter is devoted to “the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” There are lots of embarrassing tattoos! (Some content is adults-only).

More on written Chinese:

Chinese Writing: The Mechanics

Do you have a funny story about seeing Chinese characters used and misused outside of China/Taiwan? Share in the comments!

Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Reading to Speak

It is book fair season at the school where Lotus Chinese Learning has after school classes. It is great to see so many students excited about getting books! Today’s post is a roundup of Chinese books that are great options for students who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Reading is so important in language acquisition. There is a great deal of research out there to support the idea that reading in a second language helps students become better speakers.

How Does it Work?

In the early stages of language learning, students benefit from hearing stories. Stories are naturally interesting to students of all ages. Stories also help students pay attention to meaning. Paying attention to meaning is how students learn a new language. Learning grammar rules and studying lists of vocabulary is not a very effective way to learn! As students progress, they can read Chinese books on their own. Doing independent reading helps students acquire vocabulary. With this additional vocabulary, a student can read more and more complex books. Reading creates more reading.

Books for Young Learners

Chinese books that are appropriate for young learners have either lots or repetition, or a familiar story or both! The book  大卫不可以 (No, David!) is great book for young Mandarin learners. It has both lots of repetition (the phrase not okay). It is also very popular in America, so the kids probably already know the story. Similarly, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See works well. It repeats the same couple phrases over and over and it is also an extremely popular children’s book in the US. Hats for Sale (卖帽子) also fits the bill as a popular children’s book. It is also great for children to practice counting.

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

Books for Upper Elementary

There is a big jump between listening to a teacher read a story and reading independently. Especially if students only have class once a week, it might take several years before they can read books on their own. Nevertheless, reading is a key part of language learning. It is up to the teacher to make sure that the students read books that are the right level. Students should feel that reading is fun, not frustrating. 

Upper elementary language learners need books that are written for them. Just like young learners, they need lots of repetition. They also need books that don’t require lots of background information that they don’t have. This means that the story of the monkey king might not be a good choice. American students usually do not know that story. I like the book Susan You Mafan for upper elementary students a lot. Part of the reason I like it is because it is about an American girl. The students can more easily identify with the main character. More books like this one are available here.

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books for Adults

Are you an adult looking for a book to read to improve your Mandarin Chinese? Use the contact form to get in touch. I will send you a Chinese novella, free of charge!

More posts on reading and Chinese:

Favorite Books for Younger Students

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

The Curse of Knowledge and Mandarin Learning

What is the curse of knowledge?

Teachers have “the curse of knowledge.” We tend to assume that our students know much more than they actually do. For Mandarin teachers, this means that we assume that our students can understand much more than they really do. The curse of knowledge leads to bad outcomes for the students because teachers do not give them the comprehensible input that they need. Students do best when they understand 100% of the words that their teachers use. The challenge for teachers in a good Mandarin Chinese class is not to have fun games, cool crafts or any other activity to keep students engaged. It is for teachers to speak Mandarin in a way that the students understand.

The Curse of Knowledge and Class Content

I wrote about story listening earlier here and here. Story listening is a language teaching method developed by Professor Beniko Mason, a English professor in Tokyo. In story listening, a teacher tells her students a story using pictures, gestures, and definitions to make sure that students “get it.” Where does the curse of knowledge come in? It means that teachers have to question all of their assumptions about what the students know. For example, when telling the story of Mulan, it is safe to assume that students know the basic plot. It is also safe to assume that students know the name Mulan. When teaching the story of “Butterfly Lovers,” however, teacher should assume that kids do not know the plot. It does not have its own Disney movie :). Telling a story to language learners is not the same as telling it to native speakers. The storyteller must speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, and use only known vocabulary.

Trade the Authentic Materials for Comprehensible Materials

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that something is easier than it really is. Teachers have to constantly check themselves to make sure they are using language that the students can understand. Even a slight variation can confuse students. Some educators think it is important to “challenge” the students. Many teachers believe that using authentic materials (meant for native speakers) will keep students engaged. In fact, the opposite is true. Authentic materials often use low-frequency words and are simply too difficult for beginners. Students don’t pay attention if they can’t understand. Authentic materials can often make students lose interest.

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that a children’s book in the target language will be easy for students. They think, “Oh this is for kids. I think it is very easy, so it must be appropriate for kids.” In fact, beginner students need material that is specific for them. The best materials use high-frequency words that the students know, or can easily pick up from a gesture or a drawing. In the beginning, a story for novice students is going to be very different than one for native speakers. If teachers do not highly modify their the story (or reading), it will easily be too hard for the students. If the students are not engaged, they will learn very little.

photo of excerpt from Monkey king book
This book is for language learners. It has a limited vocabulary. It is appropriate for intermediate students.
excerpt from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese
This is a page from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese. It is for native speakers, so will be too difficult for beginner or intermediate students.

Read Chinese at our Little Free Library!

New “Editions”* at Lotus Chinese Learning

Reading is the key to acquiring advanced proficiency in a second language. Reading is the key to becoming a better reader, writer and thinker in a person’s native language as well. I tell my students all the time that they need to read in Chinese if they want to get to the next level. Reading in the language is a part of all my Mandarin classes. In an effort to emphasize the importance of reading (especially the kind of reading that we do for pleasure) I installed a Little Free Library with books in Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish in front of Lotus Chinese Learning headquarters. They are for students to read, and it is also for the benefit of our neighbors.

Why Read Chinese?

Students learn Mandarin (and any other language) through comprehensible input. This input is even more effective when it is highly compelling to the student. This is an academic way of saying that students get more out of reading when they are interested in the content. Dialogues in traditional textbooks in which Dawei asks Xiao Wang about his family members are not compelling input. This is very boring for students and they do not get much out of it because they don’t care about a stick figure’s family members. If students read extensively in their second language, on a topic of their choice, they will learn the vocabulary and grammar (without explicit instruction in vocabulary and grammar) necessary to reach the next level of language acquisition.

Renowned acquisition researcher Stephen Krashen writes: “Self-selected voluntary reading is often compelling, and studies confirm that it is the primary
source of our reading ability, our ability to write with an acceptable writing style, our
vocabulary, spelling and our ability to understand and use complex grammatical structures … It has also been established that more self-selected reading leads to
more knowledge in a variety of areas, including history, science, and practical matters.”

Reading is that “special sauce” that leads to more advanced language acquisition. With extensive reading, students acquire more complex grammar structures and also more vocabulary words. Inside of every fluent speaker of a second language is a passionate reader in that language.

What is in the LCL Little Free Library?

The Little Free Library at LCL headquarters is stocked with books in Chinese, English and Spanish. Why those three languages? I want my students to be able to freely take books in Chinese to improve their own language, at their own pace. LCL also has many students who speak Spanish as their home language. Literacy in the home language is essential for development in an second language. The library also has English books, because it should also serve the neighborhood at large where most readers are going to want books in English.

Little Free Library (Chinese)
Little Free Library (Spanish)
Inside the Little Free Library
Little Free Library of Lotus Chinese Learning

*I’ve spend too long in China and now I cannot resist a pun 🙂