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Posted by Hollie from WrittenChinese.Com
Recently, we’ve had lots of visitors at WrittenChinese.Com asking ‘Where do I start?’ ‘What should I do if I want to learn Chinese from the beginning?’ And these are great questions, because unless you can speak another Asian language such as Japanese or Cantonese, there are very few similarities, if any between Mandarin Chinese and most other languages. So, it’s more difficult to relate to and make connections between Chinese and your own language, which is often how people begin to learn.
Although I can speak some Chinese, I have only just began to learn to read and write Mandarin, so I’m in the same boat as many of you, and I’ve also asked the same question ‘Where do I start?’
Since I began to recognise characters my Chinese learning has become so much more interesting. Even with a few basic characters under my belt, I can catch the meaning of a text message, or messages posted by my Chinese friends on WeChat. I can even feel my way around a bus schedule so I don’t end up on the other side of the city, and let’s be honest; it’s happened to the best of us.
I started by making my own flashcards, I was writing the Chinese character on one side and the pinyin or English on the other. But sometimes my handwriting was sloppy and I couldn’t recognise my own characters, or I would go a long time without making new ones and my learning would get left behind.
But then I started to use the Learn Chinese Bigrams app.
Since I wrote this article, Written Chinese has released the WCC Dictionary mobile app, which also has Bigram flashcards. To study a bigram, you just need to add them to your Quick List or custom flashcard list and hit the ‘study button’ to get learning!
Now I know you’re probably asking: ‘What’s a bigram?’
Bigrams are groups of 2 letters, 2 syllables or 2 words that are commonly found together. So for example in English, the most frequently used bigrams are ‘TH’ and ‘ER’.
Here are a few reasons why bigrams are (in our opinion) a better ways to learn characters are:
- 2 characters together (a bigram) make an actual Chinese ‘word’. ‘Words’, except for some verbs are rarely single characters.
- You’ll see certain characters repeat over and over again in different bigrams, which must be the ones you should learn, right?
- Bigrams make a lot more sense together than an individual character does. The meaning of a character can sometimes be vague, difficult to explain and often have multiple meanings.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of Bigrams also found within the Chinese language, and if you’re living in China you will certainly have heard and maybe even seen many recurring bigrams. When I first arrived in China, all I could hear was “mayo”, “mayo”, “mayo”. I wondered why Chinese people liked mayonnaise so much until I was told that ‘没有’ (méi yǒu) means ‘to not have’.
And by the way, 没有 ranks at #3 in the Bigrams application.
We also have some cool digital and physical bigrams posters you can purchase here!
The Learn Chinese Bigrams app ‘ranks’ bigrams in order from the most commonly used characters. This gives you a starting point from a learning perspective, but is also really practical because these are the characters you need to learn in order to begin reading and writing.
The first ranking bigram is 一个 (yí gè) which is the equivalent of ‘a/an’ in English and more literally ‘one of’ something and you will see this bigram everywhere.
The first 30 bigrams feature characters such as 中国 (zhōng guó) – China, 我们 (wǒ men) – We, 工作 (gōng zuò) – Work, 知道 (zhī dao) – to know, 不是 (bú shì) – No, are all commonly spoken and written Chinese characters. Not so scary right?
By the time you have learned 100 characters you will recognize and read signs on buildings and public transportation. At 200, text messages. As you continue through the rankings you’ll be able to read more and more.
You can learn at your own speed and create a loop so you can learn however many characters you want. I usually set mine at 10 and unless I’m being particularly clever and get it correct the first time, after 4 times of reading correctly, it drops from my set and adds another 1. Of course you can go back from the beginning or from whichever rank number you want to review.
Now, 100 characters seems a mile away when you’re just starting out. I felt like this, because they just looked like funny squiggly pictures. A few years back I was part of a training session with other foreigners in China, and the trainer showed us a group of Chinese characters. One of my colleagues said the connection was that all of the characters were animals. I just sat and thought, “But, HOW can you know that?!”
Once you begin to use bigrams to learn Chinese, read common characters and learn about radicals, you (and I) will also know and understand more about the Chinese language!
I’m not a super student though, and because I live in China, I have the option of having classes with a Chinese teacher too. If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity of a teacher, you should take it and use the application as a support tool in your down time. I use the Bigram App when I’m commuting to and from work, or during my lunch break.
If you’re interested in learning Chinese, you can check out our WCC Dictionary! You can learn more about our Chinese Learning Toolkit here! You can also click on the links below to download it for your iOS and Android devices!
If you can’t access the Android market on your phone, you can just click here to download the WCC Dictionary APK file!