When you’ve just started learning Chinese, you realise that there are characters, and then there are ‘words’. For example, you might learn that 学 as a character means ‘study’ and 学习 is a word or a verb meaning ‘to study’.
But not all Chinese words are two characters put together. In some cases, a single character can also be a ‘word’.
To give you another example, 锅 is a character meaning a ‘cooking pot’, but it’s also a ‘word’ in its own right, so in this case, if you’ve learnt the character then you’ve also learnt a ‘word’ at the same time.
In fact ‘words’ in Chinese can be just one character, or they can be made up of two characters, or three or four.
So how are you supposed to deal with all of this? Are you supposed to learn characters on their own, or just as part of words?
It doesn’t hurt to learn characters on their own
I just mentioned that not all characters are ‘words’, but it’s still helpful to know what they mean on their own.
In most languages, I would never normally suggest that people learn single words on their own, because you still wouldn’t know how to use them in context.
And it’s the same with Chinese characters and words.
So why is it useful to learn characters as individual units?
It’s because of the way Chinese works. The character is the smallest unit of meaning, and characters are put together in different combinations to make different ‘words’, and then a sentence.
And you can sometimes guess what a word means just by knowing the characters in it. In fact, I was able to use this technique when I was learning Chinese on a lot of words, before I knew what they meant.
For example, you might know that 考 means ‘consider’ or ‘inspect’, 古 means ‘ancient’ and 学 means ‘study’, so you might be able to guess that 考古学 means ‘archaeology’, even though this would be a very advanced word to just learn on its own.
You also have to learn ‘words’
The problem is, though, that just because you know the meanings of characters on their own doesn’t mean you know or can guess all the words they’re used in.
But the good news is that if you already know the characters, then a word becomes much easier to learn and remember, so the characters can be a ‘stepping stone’ to help you pick up more words quicker.
Through listening and reading, you can quickly pick up different combinations of what you already know, and learn them as well.
And you can also learn new characters by learning them in the context of words, (it gets easier if you know, say, one of the characters in a word).
Characters and ‘words’ complement each other
Familiarising yourself with more individual characters will help you to pick up more words more quickly and vice versa, so really, it’s a good idea to learn both.
The best way to go about things is to start by learning the words in your Chinese course, and at the same time, try to learn the characters within the words, and understand what they mean, then try to pick up more words as you continue to read and work through other material.
At the same time, you can give your learning a bit of a boost by learning additional characters from the ‘most frequently used characters list’, which will help you to fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge and recognise more characters in words and texts.
Know that over time, you will find it much easier to make connections between the different parts of the language.
You will see how different characters are put together to make words, and what the different parts of words mean.
You don’t have to learn every character or word you come across if you think it’s not really relevant to you, but mostly you’ll find that whether you’re picking up characters or words, it’s all good!