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The secret to learning Chinese more quickly and easily


Hello, it's Juliana! Just a quick interruption before you dive into Lauren's blog post on Chinese radicals. We're thrilled to ignite curiosity about a language that might not have crossed your mind before. Our goal? To make it not only possible but enjoyable! That's the magic of languages and fostering curiosity—because you never know which language might capture your kiddo's heart and become their passion for deep learning!


 


Mandarin Chinese is widely recognised as a ‘difficult language’. Mainly because, unlike other modern languages, it’s not alphabetic.

Instead of using letters to form words, sounds and sentences, it uses symbols that represent meaning rather than sound.

While this might sound super difficult, really, it’s just different. And the good news is, there’s a system of characters that makes it all easier.

They’re called radicals, and they’re the key to recognising and remembering characters more quickly and easily.

In this article, I’m explaining what they are, how they work and why you need to know them.

What are radicals?


Known as 部bù首shǒu in Chinese, radicals are graphical components of Chinese characters. They were developed during the Ming Dynasty as a way of grouping together and looking up characters in the dictionary – in the same way that we use the first letter of a word in English.

In total, there are 214 radicals, which form the basis of all 85,000 official characters.

Before you disappear in panic, note that you don’t need to know nearly that many to master Chinese. In fact, a knowledge of around 5,000 is enough to pass the HSK 6 exam (the highest exam for learners of Chinese as a second language) and converse fluently.






So, why do radicals matter?

Sure, most of us ditched the dictionary in favour of online tools long ago. But radicals still play a very important role in learning Chinese. Besides being a dictionary reference, they also help learners draw a connection between words and take an educated guess at their meaning and pronunciation. In other words, they make learning Chinese easier.

The 214 radicals work as building blocks, combining with two or more others to form what’s known as a ‘compound character’ (形xíng声shēng字zì). Around 70-80% of these are constructed by both a semantic radical (义yì旁páng), and a phonetic radical (声shēng旁páng):

Semantic: The 义yì旁páng provides all or part of the meaning

Phonetic: The 声shēng旁páng provide all or part of the character’s sound

While the majority of radicals must be combined with others to produce a meaning, others can work independently to form a complete word. For example, 口kǒu, meaning ‘mouth’ is both a radical and a character in its own right.

Learning all 214 radicals will give you a solid foundation in the language and make it way easier to learn more vocabulary.

Now, let’s look at some examples to make it clearer.

Radicals can be found either on the left-hand side or the top of a character. Once you’ve learnt a few, you’ll soon spot them easily in new words.

In these examples, we will look at青. Pronounced qīng, this is both a character on its own, as well as a radical. You’ll see it used as a radical in many different compound characters, where it’s combined with others to produce a new, but related meaning.

qīng – green

qǐng - to ask; to invite

Semantic radical: 讠yán - words

Phonetic radical: 青


qīng - clear

Semantic radical: 氵shuǐ - water

Phonetic radical: 青


qíng - sunny

Semantic radical: 日 - sun

Phonetic radical: 青


qíng - emotion

Semantic radical: 忄xīn - heart

Phonetic radical: 青



Bear in mind that radicals have been adapted and simplified over hundreds of years from their original pictorial form. So, not all examples offer an immediate logical connection.


However, many do, and being able to recognize the semantic radical of a character will help you to quickly deduce possible meanings from the myriad of options otherwise out there.


So, how important are radicals?

In short, very. Other methods of creating characters exist, but the radical system is by far the most common and therefore most important. Though it’s possible to dive right in and start learning characters without first getting to grips with them, you’ll wish you had when you realize how much quicker other people learn characters.

You only need to look at how the Chinese learn Chinese to understand the importance of radicals.

School kids begin learning their written language through this very system. They start by mastering the simple, singular radicals that act as both 义旁 and 声旁 before moving on to more complex characters.

This lays the foundation for reading more difficult texts and underpins their later knowledge of over 8,000 characters (I know, crazy, right!?).

While it’s unlikely we’ll even know THAT many characters, the fact is, this system works. And solid recognition of all 214 radicals will not only get your Chinese off to a good start, but it will make your path to fluency that bit easier.

Besides, Mandarin is already hard enough – why make it even more difficult?




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