Even if you’ve never studied Chinese, I’ll bet you can claim to know a few Chinese characters right after reading this post. Take a look at these three characters: 一 yī , 二 èr , 三 sān.
They stand for “one”, “two” and, “three”. No kidding. However, unlike the sticks and slashes tally system, this logic does not carry to the higher numerals in Chinese. For example, the number “four” is presented by: 四 sì . This still makes sense as you can count a total of 4 corners in this character. Doesn’t this character look like a window with the curtains gathered to the sides? Here is a video of kids showing you how to count to 10 in Chinese along with the hand gestures used in Taiwan. And here is blog post that shows you how to write the Chinese characters that represent the numbers from 1 to 10.
Now, look at this character: 人 rén. Imagine the two slanted strokes being the legs of a walking human being. That’s right. This character stands for a “person” or a “human being”.
All right! Now you know 5 Chinese characters. But how many characters does one need to learn to be able to read a typical contemporary Chinese novel? There is not a consensus, but the answer lies somewhere between 3000 and 5000.
Please don’t let this large number overwhelm you. You will be able to work with many documents after you have learned the basic set of about 2000 Chinese characters. In fact, you should be able to compose a simple letter after learning just 1000 characters. How to get from 5 to 1000? My calculator tells me that if you pick up 3 new characters a day, you will reach this goal in 334 days, i.e. within one year. What’s more, the learning process will get easier and easier as you become more and more familiar with the Chinese characters. This is because many Chinese characters actually share some easily recognizable parts, which are referred to as the “radicals”. For example, do you see the 人 in the following two words?
仁 rén means “kindness”, and 你 nĭ means “you”.
The shared “人” radical is compressed somewhat to make room for the other part of the character. Yes, each Chinese character in a normal string of Chinese characters occupies roughly the same amount of space no matter how many strokes it contains. This adds to the challenge of writing those complex characters that contain more than, say, 16 strokes.
Of course, if your objective is to just learn how to speak Chinese, then you don’t need to worry about reading and writing the Chinese characters. A good audio instruction program plus classroom interaction will suffice. Still, it will be advisable for you to learn the pinyin system so that you may be able to sound out the words in other helpful printed instruction material that provide the pinyin phonetic aid.
For the rest of you, maybe you will add this to your 2011 New Year’s resolution: Learn 3 new Chinese characters every day.