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Should you learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters?

A common question I get asked by beginner Chinese learners is: should I learn simplified Chinese characters or traditional Chinese characters. Do I need to learn both? Should I learn one type first and then the other?

Before I answer the question, let me start with some facts.

1. Simplified Chinese characters are mainly used in Mainland China, and also in some overseas Chinese communities.
2. Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they don’t use simplified characters there.
3. Traditional Chinese characters are the ‘original Chinese characters’, the ones that were used throughout history.
4. Simplified Chinese characters were introduced in China in the 60s to make it easier and quicker for children to become literate.
5. Simplified characters are usually easier and quicker to write.
6. Traditional characters are often regarded as more beautiful and sometimes more logical.

Therefore, the simple answer to the question is:  if the place you are interested in is Mainland China, you should learn simplified Chinese characters, whereas if your places of interest are Hong Kong and Taiwan, then you should learn traditional Chinese characters.

What if you want to learn both? When I was studying Chinese on a university course, I actually learnt to write simplified characters but was exposed to traditional characters at the same time, which was highly confusing at the start, although it is possible. My advice would be to start with one set, based on your place of interest and try to learn to read and write that type first, and don’t move on to the other type until you get the hang of the first type.

I would also advise learners to stick to learn to write only one type of characters, otherwise it will get very confusing. I can only really write simplified Chinese characters, but I can recognise and read traditional characters without any problem, because I am completely familiar with both sets. It is much easier to recognise a character than write it yourself, that is why I would suggest you stick to writing only one type.

It is in many ways more logical to move from traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese characters, however it is perfectly possible to go the other way round. If you are determined and motivated enough, you can learn as much as you want !

And one more thing, don’t worry if you constantly forget how to write characters: it’s completely normal. I have been studying for almost 7 years and I forget how to write the ones I don’t write much. But, it’s ok, because I can still recognise all the characters I am likely to see, and that means I can type and send text messages without a problem, and if I have to write by hand and I forget a character, I use the same trick that Chinese people themselves use: I copy it off my phone.

So pick one set of characters to start you off, and keep it up! You will always be able to learn to recognise characters quickly, that is most of what you need, just take the writing slowly, you’ll get there!

  • allen

    My primary focus is to be able to read websites or text online. I am not too concerned about not being able to physically write since I rarely do that in English. I am assuming learning simplified would be best for this task, but obviously I want to be familiar with both. Do you see a trend where one is used more online than the other?