If your main goal is to read or write Chinese, then yes, you definitely have to learn characters. But what if your goal is speaking? Do you really need to learn how to read all of those complicated characters?
Just like children learn to speak before they learn to read, learning to speak Chinese before learning how to read characters will help you quickly reach spoken fluency and also accelerate the pace at which you learn Chinese. Chinese characters can be written using pinyin, a transliteration system that perfectly maps the sounds of Chinese to English letters. If your main goal is speaking fluently, spending the first 6-12 months exclusively using pinyin resources will help you build a foundation in the spoken language. Since there are plenty of resources that teach Chinese using pinyin, it is very possible to reach an intermediate to advanced level in speaking without learning characters.
Why NOT learn characters?
1. Building muscle memory takes time
Let’s do a little exercise. Read the following sentences out loud. Your goal is to sound as fluent as possible—no stuttering, pausing, or hesitating. Take as many attempts as you need.
Now try it one more time.
Which was easier? Even though you had already read the pinyin above, it may have taken you a bit longer to parse through the Chinese sentences, just because reading an unfamiliar script requires more processing time. This processing time takes away from your focus on speaking fluently.
If your main goal is to speak Chinese fluently, you need to build muscle memory in your mouth, and the only way to do that is to spend a lot of time deliberately practicing speaking.
Let's say takes 500 hours of deliberate speaking practice in order to speak Chinese fluently. You and your friend both start learning Chinese today. The only difference is that you also decide to spend half of your time learning characters, whereas your friend only uses pinyin resources and doesn't learn any characters. Assuming that you both study Chinese for one hour each day, it will take your friend about a year-and-a-half to reach fluency. But since you are spending half of your time on speaking and half of your time learning characters, it's going to take you 3 years to get to the same level as your friend.
It’s simply a matter of time. The more time you spend learning characters, the less time you have to practice speaking.
2. You will get better at predicting
One of the words in the sentence below is written in a made-up language. Figure out what the made-up word means:
I really enjoyed the prendistadt, the fight scenes were my favorite part—Bruce Willis did a great job.
You probably correctly guessed that “prendistadt” means “movie”. How did you do that? Since you speak English, you were able to use your knowledge of the language to deduce the meaning of the new word using context clues.
Knowledge of a language gives us powers of prediction that allow us to figure out unfamiliar words using context clues.
If you spend 6-12 months learning Chinese using only pinyin, you will quickly develop a foundation in the language, so that when you start learning characters, your knowledge of the language will help you predict the meanings of unfamiliar characters. If you dive straight into characters, you have no knowledge of the language, so using context clues to figure out unfamiliar characters will be a big struggle.
At what point do I have to learn characters?
There are two main scenarios where you will have to learn characters.
1. If you’re at an advanced level and you want to keep learning Chinese, you will have to learn characters at some point. When you get into the realm of Chinese literature, or explore a specialized field like business, or science, there simply won’t be resources that teach such advanced vocabulary in pinyin.
2. The other scenario is if you find yourself in an environment where you need to know some characters to navigate your world. If you’re living in a Chinese speaking country, you will need to learn some basic characters in order to get around.
What resources should I use if I want to focus on speaking?
If you’re a beginner, pretty much every language learning resource you find will include pinyin. Once you get to the intermediate and advanced levels, those resources start to diminish. One great resource that I recommend for intermediate students is Columbia University‘s audio language course, David and Helen in China. This course is a great way to transition from the low intermediate to high intermediate level.
Another good resource is Glossika, which is basically a massive sentence bank for learners of all levels. All of their sentences have audio as well as pinyin.
The case for learning characters
Even though I've just explained why learning Chinese characters from the very beginning may not be the best idea if your main goal is to speak fluently, I believe there is a lot of value in learning characters. Chinese is not like other languages that are primarily spoken—the writing system is a core part of the language, and its history. Linguistically, learning characters will help you distinguish words that have the same pinyin pronunciation. Intellectually, learning a character-based writing system is a fun challenge--imagine yourself reading a book in Chinese... doesn't that just seem really cool? Socially, learning characters will help you appreciate Chinese names on a deeper level. Culturally, learning characters will open up new doors to engage with the Chinese-speaking world.
My name is Akshay Swaminathan, and I'm interested in finding the most efficient ways to learn languages. Take a look at my website and YouTube channel for more language-related content.