There are two major forms of Chinese characters used in the world today—traditional and simplified (or three if you count Japanese). Most Chinese learners very reasonably decide to learn only the character set that’s used where they intend to use their Chinese—simplified in China or Singapore or traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong or most overseas Chinese communities. Some learners even more pragmatically decide not to bother learning how to write either type and instead use the time saved to learn a couple of Romance languages!
Really the people who are asking which they should learn first are the unreasonable people with grand ambitions. A lot of them are college students planning to take on both character sets, maybe study some classical poetry and then pick up another language before graduation. I like those people 😀
By far the most relevant thing is which type of writing you have access to, but there are some objective advantages and disadvantage to each approach.
Why learn traditional first
As their name suggests, traditional characters predate simplified ones. The simplified characters were, in fact, simplified from the traditional characters. (See! Some things related to the Chinese language are very easy!) As a result, the way of simplifying characters is often pretty reasonable and not always reversible.
It’s often easy to remember how to simplify a character you know
For example, many characters are simplified just by using part of the original! In these cases, it’s very easy to remember how to write the simplified if you already know the traditional. The opposite isn’t true.
豐 -> 丰 (a piece from the top)
麵 -> 面 (the right half)
廣 -> 广 (first 3 strokes)
號 -> 号 (the left half)
Similarly, a lot of characters were simplified by just swapping out a big scary complex component with a simple one that has the same or a similar sound.
讓 -> 让 (sounds kind of like 上)
認識 -> 认识 (sounds like 人 and sort of like 只)
餐廳 -> 餐厅 (聽 sounds a lot like 丁 and exactly like 汀, 耵, etc)
Once again, this is very easy for someone who knows traditional. They can often remember how to write the simplified character immediately since it’s a sound substitution and the substituted component is simple. If you were a simplified learner, you’d have to try to think of a complicated component with the same sound, you’d have lots of choices to guess from and then you’d still have to remember how to write a complicated component.
Some characters were “merged” during the simplification
The character 麵 mentioned above was indeed simplified to 面, but 面 is a traditional character, too. In traditional characters 面 is face and 麵 is flour. In simplified characters, 面 could be either. Similarly 發 (to emit or project) and 髮 (hair) are both simplified to 发. In general it’s easier to remember to lump two things together mentally than it is to start distinguishing them (e.g. as students of Japanese have a much easier time merging their l and r sounds than Japanese students of English have in separating them).
Traditional may be easier to read
Traditional characters do tend to be easier to distinguish, in my opinion. Part of this is due to having more semantic information available and part of it is due to simplifications that created new characters very similar to existing ones or to other simplifications:
nothing vs day
无 vs 天 (simplified)
無 vs 天 (traditional)
head vs buy vs read
头 vs 买 vs 读 (simplified)
頭 vs 買 vs 讀 (traditional)
bountiful vs life
丰 vs 生 (simplified)
豐 vs 生 (traditional)
You have to learn the “hard” components eventually anyway
Even though you can avoid the difficulties involved with the right hand side of 讓 and just learn 让 in your first semester class, you can’t escape it forever. 釀 (ferment) simplifies to… 釀. Guess you still had to learn that right half of 讓! The same sort of pattern plays out with many, many other characters.
Why learn simplified first
Simplified might be harder to read, but its definitely easier to write. Every single simplification was made with the purpose of making a character easier to write. And with the possible exception of one or two border-line cases such as 者 -> 着, it was successful. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is.
Reading is easier than writing
Even if learning to read simplified characters were a full 30% harder than traditional (which it definitely isn’t), it would still be a great bargain if it made writing 5% easier. Why? Reading is far easier than writing in terms of the time investment required to become competent.
Writing traditional characters is brutal for beginners
There are certain extreme simplifications such as 個 -> 个 that were done on very basic characters. This is amazing for beginners! 個 isn’t too bad, but every single Chinese textbook for foreigners I’ve seen includes the word “doctor” in the first few characters and learning 醫 as one of your first couple dozen characters just sucks. 医, on the other hand, isn’t too bad! Ditto for 讓 -> 让, 認識 -> 认识 and 興 -> 兴. The sum of all these simplifications is that writing just a huge ordeal instead of a cruel form of punishment for beginning students of Chinese.
Some traditional characters are just ridiculous
I used to live in a town called “turtle mountain”. This is written as 龜山. I had to write that 龜 every single time I wrote my address. Why couldn’t it have been 龟 or even just 亀 like in Japanese? 龜 is ridiculous. Even worse, it’s a radical which means it’s used as merely a part of even bigger, even more ridiculous characters.
Speaking of ridiculous characters, you know which one really depressed me upon encountering it in my level 2 class at Shida in Taiwan? It was part of the word for depression, actually! And since it would be basically just a black splotch on the screen otherwise, I’ll blow it up for you:
Yeah… lets all memorize how to write that one when we’ve only been in class for a semester!
Handling complex Chinese characters gets much easier over time
This is the biggest reason why it’s better to learn simplified characters before traditional. Complicated characters, even crazy characters aren’t that bad if you know enough of the building blocks. I haven’t really written any characters by hand in years, but it’s still easy to write that horrible doctor/medicine character 醫 from chapter one of my first Chinese book from memory because I know the parts. I know the simplified 医 (and that it contains an arrow 矢 in a box radical 匚), and I’m familiar with 殳 from many other characters and it’s easy to remember you 酉, one of the 12 celestial stems associated with the animals and years because it’s inside a lot of other characters including 酒 (alcohol) and I imagine an ancient Chinese doctor using alcohol to sterilize a wound before treating it.
I still think it makes sense to learn the character set that’s in your environment because learning both is a gigantic effort that very few people make. But for those who really are going to learn both, I think the faster way is actually to start with simplified.
If a genie were to magically grant you one or the other, the right move would almost certainly be to take traditional since it would make learning simplified so easy. But that’s not going to happen. You’ve actually got to do the learning yourself and you’d might as well start with the easier system that will let you get a faster start. Doing it the other way would be kind of like going to a gym out of shape, and starting with the heaviest weights you can with the plan of later being able to easily switch to the lighter ones.
Related Content: Also check out Chris from Fluent in Mandarin’s take on this question: