Blog Archive

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Understanding Chinese characters: Components and radicals

It's common for beginners and sometimes even more advanced students to lack an understanding of how Chinese characters are structured. This includes misconceptions about radicals and other types of components. In this article, I'm going to address some of the misconceptions I have encountered as a teacher and as the "Chinese Guru" here on Skritter. What different kinds of character components are there? What's a radical?

Compound characters and character components

Most Chinese characters are compounds, meaning that they consist of several smaller characters. These may or may not be used as individual characters themselves, it differs from case to case. Characters are typically combined in specific ways and therefore you can't break them down arbitrarily.

For instance, a character like 想 (xiǎng) "to think" can be broken down first into 相 and 心. Then 相 can be further broken down into 木 and 目. The three characters 心, 木 and 目 can't be broken down further. This is the only way this character can be broken down, so there is no character that combines 心 with only 木 on top.

There are four major ways of creating compounds, but in this article, I'm going to explore phonetic-semantic compounds, which are the most common type of character (but still the least understood by the average student). Read more about the four main types here.

Meaning and sound

A character component typically has one of two functions: either it carries information about sound (a phonetic component) or it carries information about meaning (a semantic component). To give you a few very basic examples, it should be obvious that in a character like 看 (kàn) "to see", 目 is related to the meaning of the character (it means "eye").

It should also be clear that the 马 (mǎ) "horse" in 妈 (mā) "mother" probably isn't related to meaning. On the other hand, it's a good guess that it is related to the sound (the pronunciation only differs in tone). The same is true for some other examples that often occur early in textbooks, such as 吗 (ma) "(question particle)" and 骂 (mà) "to scold". These are unrelated to horses, so 马 component is included to show that the characters have pronunciation similar to 马. A component that carries information about sound is called a phonetic component.

Naturally, I have cherry-picked clear examples here. In some cases, it's not obvious what function a specific component has and you need to do research into character etymology or the pronunciation of older forms of Chinese to make sure. Perhaps they sounded the same thousands of years ago, but not any longer. Some characters are very reliable, though, check some examples here. If you want to know more about how you should use phonetic components to learn characters, read more here: Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters.


Now let's turn to radicals, which are misunderstood by a majority of students. To understand what they are and how they work, we need to look at how Chinese dictionaries are structured. Traditionally, Chinese dictionaries aren't sorted alphabetically, but instead use what's called 部首 (bùshǒu) in Chinese, meaning "section head". For some reason, this is translated as "radical" in English.

Each Chinese character has one and only one radical, and it's used to sort the character into the right section of the dictionary. The exact number of radicals varies. In the most recent edition of 现代汉语词典, there are 201. Another standard reference for radicals is the Kangxi dictionary published in 1716 which contains 214 radicals. Not all characters are sorted by exactly the same radical in all dictionaries, but most are. Within each section, characters are sorted by the number of additional strokes necessary to write the character, not including the radical.

So, a radical is a part of a character that has a special function used in dictionaries. It's not the same as a character component, it's not even the same thing as a semantic character component. A radical is the part of a certain character that is used to index it in dictionaries, nothing more, nothing less. This means that a certain character component, say 土 (tǔ) "earth", can be the radical in some characters like 境 (jìng) "situation", but not in others such as 肚 (dù) "stomach". What kind of information do you think 土 carries in 肚?

Why all the fuss about radicals, then?

If radicals are so limited, how come that everyone seems to talk about them and use them for teaching Chinese? Part of the reason is that many haven't understood the difference between radicals and character components in general, which is evident when you hear someone say that "this character contains two radicals, 木 and 目". No character contains two radicals, that would defy the purpose of radicals!

Character components, on the other hand, are very important to understand how characters are structured, but the radicals themselves aren't useful unless you want to look up characters in old dictionaries. Thus, pay attention to components and what function they have.

That being said, many of the radicals also happen to be very common semantic components, so it's sometimes convenient to use radicals as a proxy for semantic components. I have done this myself when creating a list of the 100 most common radicals. You can study this list on Skritter too:
  1. 100 Most Common Simplified Radicals
  2. 100 Most Common Traditional Radicals

The point isn't that they are radicals, it's that they also happen to be common semantic components. This is a simplification, though, and there are many common semantic components that aren't radicals. Unfortunately, there is no good overview of these, as far as I know.


I hope this article has helped you to understand the difference between different kinds of character components on the one hand and radicals on the other. If you still have questions, please leave a comment!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Japanese tongue twisters (早口言葉)

Tongue twisters, or 早口言葉 (はやぐちことば), translating literally to "fast mouth words", are quite a lot of fun in Japanese and also a great way to practice speaking speed. There are a lot of common 早口 that most Japanese speakers know, much like how most English speakers are familiar with "Sally sold seashells at the sea shore", or "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." Here are some tongue twisters, along with their translations:

namamugi namagome namatamago.
Raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg. 

bouzu wa byoubu ni jouzu ni bouzu no e wo kaita.
A monk skillfully painted a picture of a monk on a folding screen.

tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kuu kyaku da. 
The guest next door is a guest who often eats persimmon.

basu gasu bakuhatsu. 
Bus, gas, explosion.

akapajama aopajama kipajama. 
Red pajamas, blue pajamas, yellow pajamas.

sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi.
Both plums and peaches are a member of the peach family.

kisha no kisha wa kisha de kisha shita. 
The reporter from your company returned back to the office via steam train.

nyanko, konyanko, magonyanko, himagonyanko.
Kitty, kitten, grand-kitten, great-grand kitten.

Got any more? Be sure to share them in the comments!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can you pronounce these Chinese words correctly?

Chinese pronunciation is systematic and relatively simple, especially when it comes to spelling (Pinyin). In theory, it's possible to teach a class of beginners almost everything they need in a week. Naturally, it will take much longer to master pronunciation, so don't feel bad  if you still struggle, but since Chinese has so few syllables and they are very regular, it's still easier than many other languages.

That doesn't mean that it's always systematic, simple and easy, though. I have been responsible for Skritter's Chinese language support for a couple of months now, and much of the feedback we receive is about pronunciation. Since we adopted an absolute standard for pronunciation, we have sorted out a few issues that keep popping up, so I thought I'd share some of them with you.

Some common questions about Chinese pronunciation

The conclusions below are based on the resources given in the article linked to above (mainly 现代汉语词典). That doesn't mean that other pronunciations are uncommon, rare or wrong, but they don't conform to the standard. If people in your area speak differently, by all means study the way they speak, but if you have no preference or care about being "correct", follow the advice here, which is also what we use in Skritter (if you find other words you think are incorrect, please report them).

If you want to check if you know the answers before you see them, write down the Pinyin for the following five words before you read on:
  1. 背包
  2. 打烊
  3. 尽快 (儘快)
  4. 下载 (下載)
  5. 一模一样 (一模一樣)

Here are the right answers with brief discussions:
  • 背包 (bēibāo) "backpack" - This word should be pronounced with two first tones. I have seen people argue that it should be "bèibāo" because backpack is a noun and 背 is a also a noun (meaning "back") when read with a fourth tone, but a verb (meaning "to carry on the back") when read with a first tone. However, 现代汉语词典 only lists "bēibāo". The standard in Taiwan is the same as on the Mainland.
  • 打烊 (dǎyàng) "to close a shop or restaurant (for the evening)" - I was a bit surprised by this standard pronunciation here myself, because most native speakers I know say dǎyáng with a second tone rather than a fourth tone. This includes speakers both from Taiwan (where it is the standard) and Northern China. Conclusion: dǎyáng is very common, but the standard pronunciation of this word is dǎyàng.
  • 尽快 (jǐnkuài) "as quickly as possible" - This word is tricky because the first character can also be pronounced with a fourth tone and has a very similar meaning. I won't go into the details here, but jǐnkuài is the only listed version. Note that it should be a fourth tone for 尽力 (jìnlì) "to the utmost" and that both are possible for 尽量 (jǐnliàng or jìnliàng), but that they have slightly different meanings.
  • 下载 (xiàzài) "download" - This word is very common with the internet invading our everyday life, but it is perhaps less obvious what the correct pronunciation is. 现代汉语词典 only lists xiàzài. It's true that 载 can be read with a third tone, but then it means "year". It's still common to hear this word pronounced xiàzǎi, though.
  • 一模一样 (yìmúyíyàng) "identical" - This is often pronounced "yìmóyíyàng" in Mainland China and Taiwan (where it is the standard), but the standard pronunciation should be mú not mó. The difference isn't very big, and as is the case with the other words on this list, people will definitely understand what you say regardless of which version you choose.
These are five of the more interesting words I have dealt with recently and I plan on sharing more later. I don't do this because I think all students have to follow the standard, I do it because I want to explain what we're doing and perhaps also clear some questions marks regarding these words. Finally, I'd like to apologise to those of you who have reported errors but still haven't been taken care of. We're doing our best to catch up, but we're not there yet!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Common mistakes when writing Characters

Just starting to learn how to write Chinese characters? Or thinking about taking up the brush and starting to learn? Then this article is just for you!
We asked Cōngmíng, one of our most experienced 汉字 teachers at Hutong School about her experiences teaching 汉字 to total beginners. And here are her findings and useful tips.

Carefully read through them and you’re already better armed in starting this learning journey!

1. What are the most common mistakes students make when starting to learn how to write Chinese characters?

This is an easy one! Most mistakes beginners make are with stroke order and stroke direction. As the structure of Chinese characters is totally different from the Roman alphabet for instance, students very easily mix up the rules of the strokes.


  • piě: down stroke to the left
  • tí: upward stroke
    How to distinguish them?


    Calligraphy allows you to see much clearer how a stroke has been written. As the ink is much thicker where the brush first touches the paper (the start of the stroke), you clearly see what direction the calligraphy master has used to write this particular stroke.


    2. What tips you always give students learning how to write Chinese characters?

    Tip #1: Start with the right tools!

    The first thing that’s really essential when learning how to write Chinese characters are the textbook and software you will use.

    At Hutong School, we have carefully selected textbooks specialized in teaching 汉字 for each level and furthermore simply love Skritter, as we find it the best app to learn how to write characters.

    Whatever you choose, here’s a list of aspects I strongly feel every good learning tool needs to have:
    • detailed explanations on the rules of the strokes
    • introduction of the origin and development of characters
    • examples of common words and phrases
    • information on radicals and the meaning of radicals
    Choosing the right book and software is the first step, if not the most important one, in learning Chinese characters. They are as essential to your learning process as weapons are to a war.

    Tip #2: Follow the instructions carefully!

    Your textbook is king. Follow the instructions on stroke order and direction very carefully. As we like to say, writing Chinese characters is actually not difficult, it just comes down to copying. As a student, you don’t need any creativeness. The hardest part is remembering how to write it, that’s it.

    I often need to tell my students they can’t just change the way of writing characters to their liking. It’s a fixed science so to say, just like math (2+3 will always be 5).

    Common mistakes

    niú牛 (bull)
    • mistake: The vertical stroke doesn’t cross the upper horizontal one
    • memory trick: Cutting off the head, will kill the bull
    shēng 生 (life)
    • mistake: The vertical stroke doesn’t cross the upper horizontal one
    • memory trick: It’s like the head, you can’t cut it off, or there’s no life anymore. 
    ge 个 (measure word)
    • mistake: all strokes touch
    • memory trick: Your character can simply not look like an arrow
    Tip #3: Love characters!

    Lastly, love characters. Students who use their heart, don’t find writing characters difficult. The hardest part is simply to remember how to write them.

    The four essentials of remembering:
    1. understanding
    2. association
    3. practice
    4. love/affection
    I always say: Chinese characters are the world’s most beautiful characters. The beauty of it lays in the wisdom and cultural changes of this nation embodied in them.

    What mistakes are you encountering when first starting to learn how to write characters? Or do you have any other questions you would like to ask the team of teachers at Hutong School? Write it in the comments!

    About Hutong School

    With over 10 years’ experience, Hutong School is one of the leading Chinese language schools in Beijing and Shanghai and offers language programs for everyone eager to learn Chinese Mandarin. Their Chinese classes are characterized by their small group size, individual attention to students’ needs and highly qualified and motivated teachers.

    Find out more on learning Chinese in China on their website.

    Friday, February 13, 2015

    Standard references for Skritter Chinese

    Even though Skritter is mainly a language learning tool and not a dictionary, we still run into the same problems that dictionary editors and compilers do. There might be many different ways of writing, pronouncing or defining a word, but to make the learning simpler for you, we need to choose one.

    From now on, we're going to use the following references whenever we encounter problems:
    1. 现代汉语词典 - For most character and word references, including pronunciation. This is the major reference work that most native speakers use when preparing for exams or when determining what is "correct".
    2. 新华大字典 - For more detailed character references. The above is a word dictionary and sometimes lacks on character information. In case we need to, we'll use this dictionary for single characters.
    3. 國語辭典 - For traditional character references. This dictionary is available online and is published by Taiwan's Ministry of Education.
    The reason why

    Now let's look at our reasoning for choosing some references over others. Why not use all available data? Why not trust what "people actually say"? In essence, there are two approaches one can take when compiling a dictionary (again, Skritter isn't a dictionary, but the same applies to Skritter):

    • A descriptive approach strives to describe the language as it is used. It doesn't matter what someone thinks is correct or what textbooks say, if native speakers use a certain form, it's part of the language and ought to be described that way. Correctness, in this case, is a majority vote cast by all native speakers.
    • A prescriptive approach strives to prescribe how the language ought to be used. This can be done on a number of different grounds, such as historical (etymology) or communicative (writing in this way decreases the risk of communication problems).
    Even though I personally prefer a descriptive approach, there are numerous reasons Skritter can't be a reflection of how Chinese is actually used. First, including multiple versions of all the vocabulary would be very confusing for students. Second, keeping everything updated would require massive amounts of work, something we could never hope to do well. Skritter isn't meant to be a perfect map for how Chinese is spoken or written, it's meant to be a tool to help you learn. Again, Skritter isn't a dictionary.

    With that in mind, using more authoritative sources has two advantages. First, by using an absolute standard, students know that what they learn is officially sanctioned and should be fine on exams and proficiency tests. Second, by using an absolute reference, the task of keeping Skritter up-to-date becomes manageable. We no longer need to argue if 小姐 should be written xiao3jie5 or xiao3jie3 (it should be xiao3jie3) and so on.

    Going forward

    We're fully away that our current approach is not perfect. For instance, we're currently using Mainland references for pronunciation, which isn't optimal for students in Taiwan. We're working on addressing these issues! Still, it should be noted that this post doesn't change anything in this regard, we've always used Mainland references for pronunciation, the only difference is that now we'll do it consistently and systematically.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2015

    JLPT N5-N1 Lists

    The JLPT N5 through N1 lists are now updated and available for study! These together cover a total of roughly 8,500 words and 2,200 kanji, guiding you all the way from the easiest exam (N5), to the hardest (N1).

    The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test is held (in Japan and abroad) to evaluate and certify Japanese-language proficiency of non-native speakers. Before 2009, there were just 4 exams, JLPT4 through JLPT1. The new format adds an additional test.

    N1: Approximately the same level as the JLPT1
    N2: Approximately the same level as the JLPT2
    N3: Positioned a level bridging the old JLPT2 and JLPT3
    N4: Approximately the same level as the JLPT3
    N5: Approximately the same level as the JLPT4
    As of 2010, the JLPT no longer publishes an official list of words, which means these lists are an approximate guide likely to match the vocabulary and kanji requirements.

    If you do find any words that should be listed that aren't, please let us know at

    The last sections of each list contain the individual kanji "comp" writings. If you would rather only study kanji in actual words, be sure to disable these sections by using the "Edit study settings" link from within the list's page, after selecting it for study. 

    (Next to come are the grammar points for N5-N1)!

    JLPT N1 (Hardest)
    JLPT N2
    JLPT N3
    JLPT N4
    JLPT N5 (Easiest)

    Wednesday, January 21, 2015

    Confusing Mandarin pronunciation, part 1: The final "-ing"

    Learning to distinguish and pronounce the sounds in Mandarin can be difficult, even more so if you rely too much on transcription system or don't learn them properly. In some cases, there are also variations among native speakers that confuse second language learners.

    In this article I will first share my thoughts on variations in pronunciation and then discuss an example, the Pinyin final "-ing". These observations are gleaned from teaching experience as well as error reports here on Skritter. I call this "part 1" because I intend to write more about this later! If you have a specific sound you find confusing, please leave a comment and I will consider talking about that sound in future posts.

    The importance of mental categories

    Before we start talking about specific sounds, let's talk about mental categories. Our brains sort language sounds into different categories formed by earlier exposure to languages, both native and otherwise. If our categories aren't aligned with those of native speakers', we will make mistakes. Similarly, if we're not aware of natural variations in the language, we might mistakenly separate two sounds that for a native speaker are actually the same.

    Thus, we can either fail to separate two sounds that ought to be distinct or fail to merge two sounds that to us are distinct, but mean the same thing for native speakers. In this article, I'm going to give two examples of the latter case: the final "-ing".

    The final "-ing"

    When I teach pronunciation, I always stress the importance of thinking in terms of initials and finals rather than looking at the Pinyin spelling, which is full of traps and pitfalls most learners aren't aware of.

    The most common mistake is to think that by adding a letter in Pinyin, you just change that particular sound. For instance, the "-in" in "pin" is not the same sound as the "-in-" in "ping"! Thus, "-in" and "-ing" should be treated as two different sounds, not as the same sound with an added "g".

    I'm going to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) here, but don't worry if you're not familiar with it, I will explain. There are slight variations for how "-in" and "-ing" are transcribed by different scholars, but these are from Duanmu (2007) The Phonology of Standard Chinese. 
    •  "-in" is simply written as [in], which should be self-explanatory. It's a normal "i" as in Pinyin "pi" and a normal "n". No surprises here. You can listen to the recording we have here on Skritter by looking at a character such as 贫 in the scratchpad.
    • "-ing" is written as [iəŋ], which requires some explanation. The first sound, [i] is the same as above (one sound, one symbol). The second sound [ə] is the central vowel also found in English "the". The third sound [ŋ] is a merge of "n" and "g", a back nasal similar but not identical to "ng" in English (it's farther back). Check for instance the recording for 平 via the scratchpad.
    If you listen to the two recordings one after the other, can you hear that the difference between them extends beyond just "n" and "ng"? The first sound, "pin" doesn't have the [ə], but the second sound "ping" does.

    The problem is that since "in" and "ing" are spelt almost the same way, many students assume that the sounds must be similar as well, but this isn't really the case. If we take the two example syllables "pin" and "ping", the first is pronounced as most students would expect, but the second is not.

    If I had to write that sound closer to how it is pronounced, I would write "-ieng", so "ping" would be spelt "pieng". This is not a valid Pinyin syllable, so never write this, I just show you how it's actually pronounced.

    Local variations

    As I mentioned in the introduction, there are local variations. I haven't done enough research into this particular final so I can't tell you for sure where it's pronounced in what way, but there seems to be a difference between southern and northern China, or at least Beijing and Taiwan standard.

    In Taiwan, it's not uncommon to actually pronounce "pin" and "ping" almost the same way, some people even merge these finals completely so they are pronounced exactly the same way.

    This typically does not happen in northern China, where the central [ə] is clearly audible. This means that the difference between "pin" and "ping" isn't just about "n" or "ng", but about the vowel sound(s) as well.

    This can lead to the error I brought up earlier, of thinking that the same sound (phoneme) is actually two different ones, whereas that wouldn't be the case for native speakers. For instance, a student might mishear "ying" for "yong" or simply failing to understand that a sound that contains an obvious [ə] can still be "-ing".

    Learning the sounds of a foreign language

    Hopefully, you won't make those mistaken in the future! The way towards understanding sounds in foreign languages is mostly about listening very closely and paying attention to detail, mixed up with a small amount of theory, such as reading articles like this. Listen to the "-in" and "-ing" around you and see if knowing about the difference makes it easier to understand and/or pronounce them!