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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.

Therefore…

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:

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?

For those of us from the English speaking world, Chinese characters themselves are often a big piece of what makes Chinese an interesting language to learn. My own experiences are a bit different, since I started with Japanese, but I too have been bitten by that bug. There’s something really neat about how much semantic information is packed in a character! In some cases there are literally a dozen characters with the exact same Mandarin pronunciation, but to the character literate, it’s easy to disambiguate them. That’s cool.

One neat thing about working at an international tech company in China is seeing how new coworkers go about learning English, or if they’re westerners, how they go about learning Chinese. Our CTO has been more interesting to watch in this respect than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s all about the characters.

Vacuuming up every character in sight

In a few months, he’s learned to recognize well over a thousand characters during his limited free time. He’s recently started to pick up stroke order from using his iPad to input them, but his focus has been at least 90% on recognition. With this sort of knowledge, he can read ingredients on food labels to ensure that they’re vegetarian, he can operate remote controls, read shop signs and generally navigate around Beijing.

Crippled without comic book bubbles

Obviously there are limits, though. My co-worker is a really smart guy with a PHD in physics and has successfully built and sold 2 start-ups, but he’s still human. There are limits to how much a guy with a family and more than a full-time job can learn in his off hours. He’s learning to recognize so many characters by not spending time on other parts of the language.

Most notably, he’s not learning how to pronounce the characters he can recognize! E.g. he might know that means porridge, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce the character. He would associate directly with the English word “run” and not with its Mandarin pronunciation. It’s kind of amusing to me because he often asks me “what’s the Chinese for (some or another English word)”, and I unthinkingly say the Chinese word to him instead of describing it character by character! Telling him how to pronounce the Chinese word for broccoli during his 3rd month in the country was useless. What he was looking for was “west-orchid-flower”… if only speaking produced bubbles in the air with characters in them as in comic books!

As strange as this method of learning Chinese seems, it’s quite a bit like Heisig’s famous Remembering the Kanji, which helped me quite a bit a few years ago. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually use these methods from the beginning instead of starting with a traditional approach and later trying RTK.

Looking ahead

My co-worker’s current plan is to continue upon his current path until he can mostly “read” newspapers or magazines. If he’s successful, he’ll basically be like my Japanese classmates in my Chinese class– poor speaking skills but some understanding of what most written Chinese he comes across.

There are obviously downsides to going character-crazy. For one, multi-character compounds present a problem. Secondly, speaking is a more useful skill than reading for people actually in China. On the other hand, his speaking is improving from interactions with Chinese people at work, and for the most part he has mental hooks on which to hang the new spoken vocabulary he learns. He speaks more Chinese than any of the last batch of American interns last summer did, and they were half his age and spending each morning in Chinese classes. I’m really interested to see where this endeavor goes.

This is a guest post by Ed Langley written on behalf of Codex Global Translation Services.

Challenges in Chinese Translation: Achieving the Best Results

Chinese is widely considered one of the hardest languages to translate, presenting significant challenges even for native speakers and requiring extensive experience in order to ensure the accuracy of the translation. When translating Chinese documents into English, the intricacies of the Chinese language can cause misunderstandings and inaccuracies if the translator is not well qualified and highly experienced. Here are some of the most important challenges in translating Chinese documents.

Chinese consists of many distinct dialects

While most linguists recognise seven distinct Chinese dialects, numerous local variations also exist and may create difficulties for less experienced translators. These dialects are generally quite dissimilar from each other and require specialised knowledge on the part of the translator in order to achieve an accurate, reliable translation of the material. Not all Chinese translators are capable of translating all dialects; in fact, most concentrate their efforts on two or three of the seven accepted dialects. Standard Chinese is generally considered a variant of Mandarin and is the most common dialect used in mainland China, followed closely by Cantonese and its related dialects. While there are only two basic written forms of Chinese in common use, the various dialects often influence word choices and meanings and should be taken into consideration during translation work.

Written Chinese uses characters, not letters

Because the written form of the Chinese language is very old, it employs characters known as hanzi rather than letters or a standard alphabet. Each character represents a word or concept and typically serves multiple purposes, making accurate translation dependent on context and connotation as well as the literal meaning of the written characters. Additionally, there are two written systems in common use in China. The traditional system dates back two millennia to the time of the Han Dynasty, while the Simplified Chinese system was introduced in 1954 in order to provide greater opportunities for literacy to the public at large. Accurate translations depend on an extensive knowledge of both the context of the document and the connotations of the word choices present in the material to be translated.

Sentence structure is radically different in Chinese

In English, verb tense indicates the time of the events described. This is not the case in Chinese, where adverbs and contextual material serve that purpose. As a result, determining the proper tense for a particular passage can be difficult when translating materials from Chinese to English.

In order to ensure the most accurate translations of important documents, it is essential to obtain the services of professional, experienced translators with a strong background in the Chinese language. Generally, it is advisable to work with a professional translation firm since they are more likely to employ translators, expert in the various dialects and written systems of the Chinese language and can thus produce far more accurate and reliable results.

Now that I’ve been in Kunming for a couple of weeks, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what the city would be like to live in for six months to a year. I’m still not sure whether if I want to stay here that long or go somewhere else, but here are my thoughts so far.

Costs

Kunming is cheap. My friend and his roommate are staying in an awesome apartment, far better than any I ever lived in in Taiwan and they’re in the middle of the city in about the most expensive part of town. They only pay 1400RMB (about 200USD) each. They also have a maid come by to clean each week, a water jug delivery service, reasonably fast internet and all the other amenities that go with a nice place in China.

Kunming is deep in the interior of China, though, and any imported goods have to be shipped across thousands of kilometers of poor roads to get there. Things like imported fruits or cereal are really expensive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a lot of locals eat more noodles and fewer vegetables for monetary reasons. It’s not that poor in the city at least, but the incentives are definitely set up in a way that encourages a poor diet. Electronics prices don’t seem to be affected.

Language

This is a bummer for me. Mandarin is less dominant of a language here than it was even in Taipei. I’ve met well off, well-educated college students and found them really happy to talk to me in Mandarin… but they still talk to each other in Kunminghua. I don’t mean to be a language elitist, but it’s juts not a language I feel like dealing with my whole time here. Yes, I was interested in learning Hokkien and Cantonese, but both those language have 50+ million speakers and Taiwan and Hong Kong each have all kinds of TV shows, songs and movies to learn from. Kunminghua would be much harder to learn and it just doesn’t do much for me.

Transportation

Busses are uncomfortably crammed full of people, but they’re really cheap– like 1 or 2 RMB. All in all, the small size of the city is a big help. Cabs are ridiculously hard to get here. I’ve actually had to wait 30 minutes to find an open one on a few occasions.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as Taiwan was, but a lot of people here own scooters. They’re in their own traffic lanes which are physically divided from the cars! It’s a wonderful system that could probably save thousands of lives if implemented in Taipei. The scooters are all electric, too, which is very cool. They’re not the noisy, smelly beasts I’m used to. On the down-side, though, they can approach very rapidly and quietly. Pedestrians beware!

Another consideration is that I were to live in the center of the city like my friend, I could walk to a lot of places.

Environment

Kunming is not the relatively city I had expected. Pollution is seriously bad. The sky may look blue compared to Beijing’s, but I get a headache walking by the street. Busses smell foul. Things might get better once the subway opens in a year or two, but that doesn’t really help my decision for this year.

Conclusions

It’s kind of hard to decide. I think Kunming would be a great place to get a lot of programming done. I could live on very, very little, even splurging a bit on good food. On the other hand I do want to take my Chinese to the next level, too. It’s not my main goal, but if I were to ever use it professionally back in the US, I’m sure I’d be better served by a standard mainland accent and the ability to read simplified characters comfortably than by my current Taiwan-style Mandarin.

I’ve long been an occasional user of the Perapera-kun plug-in for Firefox. It’s pretty handy for quickly looking up Japanese words online.

Once it was installed, you could right-click on any web page, pick “perapera” from the right-click menu, and then hovering the mouse over any word bring up a pop-up display with both the English translation and the pronunciation of the word in question. The Chinese version worked pretty much the same way.

Unfortunately, the developer decided to merge the Chinese and Japanese plugins and abandon the old right click interface and instead add an icon at the bottom right hand corner of the screen (incidentally, the same spot I use for my pinyin plugin). Instead of text, the developer decided to use flags.

Here is the result:

Why a flag?

Using flags is a poor user design choice

Needless to say there are a lot of people in Taiwan who would rather not fly the PRC flag on their desktops. Though I’m not a very political person myself, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this on the computers at my office after the upgrades today. I doubt the secretary would much care for seeing it and while I could explain it to her, it could be more awkward if students see it on the computers.

An icon with the character 中 would be a better choice. Also, from a purely functional standpoint, I miss the right-click interface. It was much quicker than having to go to the lower right-hand corner of my browser and make two clicks.

I’ve recently found the Wikipedia Commons Stroke Order Project, via Sinosplice.

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:


from the site:

Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

Like John, I’m very impressed with the general look of the project, and very happy to see a free alternative to the various proprietary systems we’ve had to choose from before. I am curious how they’ll handle characters with variable stroke order, but I think most students will be happy being able to see an acceptable stroke order for whatever character they happen to be looking up.

There is one thing about this project that’s a bit depressing, though. That’s the near total neglect of traditional characters. According to the Wikimedia page, only three traditional characters have been added!

BlackWhiteRedGradientAnimation
Bopomofo37/40 Done0
Hiragana Done Done0
Katakana Done Done0
Hangeul1/3500
Kangxi radicalsThese aren’t categorised separately. See the progress pages.
Traditional Chinese305
Simplified Chinese1,010181379
Kanji4889

I’m used to traditional characters getting back of the bus treatment in textbooks and online resources for Chinese learners, but this is just sad. Who’s up for adding some Traditional characters to balance this out a bit?

Over the past month as made my way through the phenomenal guide Remembering the Kanji, I’ve learned some interesting things. Not only am I writing all the Joyo kanji with an accuracy I could only have dreamt of before RTK, but I’m starting to recognize some of the systematic aspects behind the post WWII Kanji simplifications. Some are fairly mundane, but one is a more abstract sort of simplification than I had realized existed.

Simplifications of radicals and other components

The PRC simplified a large number of radicals and other character components components after the second world war. Very few Japanese radicals were simplified, though some of the less manageable ones such as “turtle” (龜) were. In complex components of radicals that are not radicals, the Japanese and Chinese simplifications were often the same.

TraditionalJapaneseChinese

Nothing in the above table was anything very new or interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to be able to remember those kinds of systematic relationships between the different writing systems. But they’re not the kind of thing to make me say wow.

Simplification via the “tripler” component

This was, though:

TraditionalJapaneseChinese
or

I love that. Any time you see something tedious to write repeated three times, there’s a good chance that it can be written once with four sparkles under it, instead. It saves time, and unlike Chinese simplifications, it preserves all the original information. It’s like writing a function.

Notes: 渋 is a bit problematic.

Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I’ve just this month truly discovered James W. Heisig’s landmark work, Remembering the Kanji. Back in 2001 and 2002, I heard Heisig’s name pop up a couple of times while I was studying Japanese at UC Boulder. I think my very first Japanese teacher may have even used some RTK-inspired methods when she taught us hiragana.
continue reading…

I’ve made a Firefox extension that converts pinyin with tone numbers into pinyin with tone marks. The specifics of the conversion process are identical to those of the online pinyin converter I wrote earlier.

After installing the extension, a blue square will appear on the right side of the status bar at the bottom of your Firefox web browser. To use the tool, type some pinyin with tone numbers into any plain text field on any web page. Then highlight the text and click on the blue 拼 on your status bar. It will convert the tone numbers into the appropriate marks over the appropriate vowels.pin

For example, if you type in “zhong1wen2”, highlight it and hit the button, then it will be converted into “zhōngwén”.

Thanks to John for feedback on the design, and to Wayne and Andrew for testing on Mac and Linux machines.

Go to the download page to get it.