Quiz: The building blocks of Chinese characters

Making sure you know the basics

This is a quiz to see haw much you know about the building blocks of Chinese characters. If you haven't read the main article (Learning the building blocks of Chinese characters), you can either do so before you take the quiz you can start with the quiz and see what you need to read up on. The answers are provided below each question, so avoid peeking or scrolling too much!

Quiz: The building blocks of Chinese characters

Question 1: Roughly how many characters do you need to learn to be literate in Chinese?

This depends on how "literate" is defined, but any answer between 2500 and 4500 characters is okay, although I would say that anything towards the lower end of this spectrum doesn't really prepare you for reading in Chinese, even if you know all words based on the characters you know and the relevant grammar. Please note that literacy is to a high extent the result of these two (grammar and words) and not just how many single characters you know. If you're not sure about the difference, check this article.

Why is it a good idea to think of Chinese characters as being built out of smaller components?

This is a good idea because it decreases the number of units you need to memorise and also the complexity of each unit. There are only a few hundred components that are then combined into thousands of characters.

Thus, if you use this approach, learning characters is mostly a matter of learning simple components and then combining them. The alternative is to learn thousands of complex characters, which is a lot harder!

What's the difference between a component and a radical?

A component is any part of a character.

There is no fixed list of these and you can break some characters down in many different ways. Components can carry information about meaning, sound or sometimes nothing at all (because they have been changed so much over the ages). Radicals are a specific set of components used in dictionaries to sort characters. Thus, each character only has one radical and is then listed under that radical in the dictionary. Radicals aren't useful in themselves in modern Chinese, but many of them are very common, so they are worth learning. Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals!

Which are the two main functions components can play in a Chinese character?

The can carry information about meaning or information about sound. Take 请/請 (qǐng) "please; to ask" as an example. The left part, 言 means "word" and gives the meaning of the character (it's related to language and speaking), whereas the right part 青 (qīng) "blue; green" is just there to show pronunciation (the tone has changed, but they initial and final are still the same). Note that it's not always apparent what part a component plays because thousands of years might have passed since it was created and the language has changed a lot since then.

Spoken language naturally changes much more than the written one!

Give an example of a semantic component (other than the one above)!

There is no exhaustive list, but there are many beginner friendly ones, such as 氵(water), 木 (tree) and 口 (mouth).

Give an example of a phonetic component (other than the one above)!

One of the most obvious examples that work for all levels of learners is 马/馬 (mǎ) "horse". It occurs in many basic characters that have nothing to do with horses, but which are pronounced the same but with different tones (sometimes). Here are some examples that are typically found in beginner textbooks (in simplified Chinese here): 吗 (question particle for yes/no questions), 妈 (mother), 码 (nunmber, code, weight), 骂 (to scold).

Can you train your memory?

Yes, you can! While it's true that some people are better at remembering things than others, it's also true that this is a skill you can learn.

First, you get better at remembering things simply by doing it more. Second and more importantly, there are many tricks  you can use to drastically increase your ability to remember things, both short and long term. If you're completely new to this, I suggest you check this TED talk by Joshua Foer, which should give you a glimpse of what is possible. The implications for learning Chinese are important. Memory techniques are great for combining different items, which is basically what you will be doing if you follow the approach described here for learning Chinese characters.

What's the best way of remembering combinations of things?

What works best is individual, but things that stand out are usually good. Exaggerated and bizarre things are a good place to start, but you can also try embarrassing, scary or other emotions. The most important thing when it comes to memory training is that you have to look at it like training any other skill. You will see results very quickly, but you will not learn it perfectly at once. It takes time to try and figure out what works for you (and perhaps more importantly, what doesn't work for you). Trial and error is the name of the game.

Should you learn every component of every character?

No, or at least not at once. The problem with this approach is that you will be overwhelmed by the number of things you need to remember. If you're studying entirely on your own and can set your own pace, it's certainly possible to learn fewer characters, but learn them more thoroughly, but if you're enrolled in a course, you will have twice or even three times as much to learn and that will be difficult. The fact that this will pay off in the long run doesn't necessarily make the situation better now! I suggest that you use the rule of three, meaning that you look up and learn anything that appears three times. This makes sure you only learn common components and avoid spending time on the rarer ones. You need to rely on rote memorisation for rare components for now.