The Benefits of Learning Chinese Characters with Outlier

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This article is aimed at beginning and intermediate learners of Chinese characters.


Learning Chinese characters the Outlier way, i.e., by way of understanding their functional components and how those functional components represent sound and meaning, is the optimal way to learn Chinese characters. Bold claim, right? I’m going to back this claim up without getting into the details of how functional components work. Instead, I’m going to show you what the benefits are:

  • Benefit #1: Clears up confusion caused by similar-looking components, such as vs. 
  • Benefit #2: Helps you to make intelligent predictions about characters you have not yet learned
  • Benefit #3: Helps you remember how to write characters (like a virtual input method)
  • Benefit #4: Opens a whole new world of sound connections
  • Benefit #5: Gives you more bang for your memory buck

What are functional components anyway? They are the parts of a character that have a function in that character, usually representing a sound or a meaning, but what really makes them important is – they are also powerful tools for recalling character forms!

Understanding functional components helps both with learning individual characters and understanding how Chinese characters work as a system, by enabling the learner to use the sound and meaning of the word they want to write to help them remember how to write a character. Let’s see how that works in practice.

Benefit #1: Clears up confusion caused by similar-looking components, such as vs. 

Many learners confuse similar-looking components, such as vs. . When writing a character with one of those components, they ask themselves, “Do I put that dot here or not?” Learning via functional components clears up issues like this. Knowing that gèn and良 liáng often act as sound components is the key. If the character you are trying to write is pronounced gen, ken, or hen, then it’s . If the character you are trying to write is pronounced lang, liang, nang, or niang, then it’s . This is quite useful when faced with pairs like 狠 hěn “ruthless” or 狼 láng “wolf”! This is not an isolated example. I have collected at least 33 such pairs of similar components that can be distinguished by using sound. Here’s four more: 廷/延; 卯/卬; 免/兔; 專(专)/尃.

Don’t lose your head over Chinese characters!


Benefit #2: Helps you to make intelligent predictions about characters you have not yet learned

Understanding how characters work as a system can also be used to help you intelligently guess sounds and meanings of characters that you come across in a meaningful context. We call this predictive ability. Say for instance, you come across this sentence: 他用脸盆洗脸 (他用臉盆洗臉) and you haven’t yet learned the character 盆. Since you know the rest of the characters, you read the sentence as: He used a face-盆 to wash his face. From context, you know that a face- is something people use to wash their face with. If you understand functional components, you know that 皿 mǐn is a type of container and that fēn means “to divide”.

Since 分 is a common sound component, and 皿 is not, you might surmise that the pronunciation of the this character is fen, ben, or pen and it refers to a type of container. Of course, without looking it up, you don’t know for sure. All you can do is make an intelligent guess. If you looked up 盆, you’d find that it is pronounced pén and means “basin”. Knowing that b-, p-, and f– are very closely related sounds, you could happily accept 分 as the sound component for 盆. Being able to make intelligent predictions like this is a very useful skill to have indeed and the fastest way to obtain it is to have a good understanding of functional components and how they work. Seeing these connections also makes it easier to remember new character forms via the following aspects of effective memorization: meaningfulness, association, and organization.

Benefit #3: Helps you remember how to write characters (like a virtual input method)

Why can people type characters that they can’t write? Because when typing, you see a list of possible characters that help jog your memory. What if you could access this type of power when writing by hand? If you learn using our system, you can. Think about it. When you type, you’re using the sound of a character or word to get a list of possible matches. Say you’re trying to write bǎng, meaning “to tie”:

Here, the user types bang in order to see a list of characters that have that pronunciation. In other words, they are using their knowledge of a character’s pronunciation in conjunction with the aid of software in order to create a list of possible characters. Then, the user scrolls through the list until they find the one that they recognize.

A learner who has a more advanced understanding of functional components can do something very similar to this without the aid of software. Say you want to write the word bǎng “to tie, bind”, but you can’t remember how. If you don’t understand functional components, the story ends with a trip to the dictionary. Using an understanding of how characters work as a system, however, you can use the sound and meaning of the word to trigger your memory:

Which sound components can represent the sound bǎng? 封 fēng, 邦 bāng, fāng, etc.
Which semantic components can express the meaning “to tie”: 巾 “cloth belt”, 帛 “cloth”, 纟silk”, 衤 “upper-body clothing”.

Usually, people can recognize many more characters than they can write, because seeing the character itself triggers the memory of its sound and meaning. This ability to recognize in combination with seeing 纟+邦 is very likely to trigger the learner’s memory of 绑 bǎng “to tie, bind”. (By the way, this is not a made up example! It comes from personal experience.) While this may seem complex, if you use our system to learn Chinese characters, each character you learn will bring you closer to having this ability yourself.

But for this to work, it’s not simply enough to know what the functional components are. You also have to know how they work. One of the keys to understanding the above example is understanding how 封 fēng can represent the sound bǎng. 封 actually is the sound component for the traditional character 幫 bāng “to help”. Even the simplified character for 幫 has 邦 bāng as its sound component: 帮. And guess what, the sound component for 邦 is 丰 fēng! Not only that, but the 圭 in 封 is actually a corruption of an earlier 丰 fēng.

Benefit #4: Opens a whole new world of sound connections

I have also developed a system that explains complex sound relations with easy to understand sound patterns. I can’t show you those just yet, but here’s a teaser: the sounds b-, p-, and f– are very closely related. Just knowing that fact alone, allows you to see sound connections that you may not have noticed before, like:

  • 甫  in 铺/鋪 “store”
  • 反 fǎn in 板 bǎn “board” and 版 bǎn “printing plate”
  • 分 fēn in 盆 pén “basin”
  • 非 fēi in 辈/輩 bèi “generation”, 悲 bēi “sad”, and even in pái “to arrange”

There are a lot of other easy to understand sound relations that reveal how sound is expressed in Chinese characters. Once you know them all, you will literally see sound connections all over the place. Because Mandarin is so different from the language at the time characters were invented, there are a significant number of sound connections that even native speakers miss, like the sound relation between 监/監 jiān and 篮/籃 lán; 蓝/藍 lán, and 览/覽 lǎn. The better you know these rules for sound variation, the more effective your virtual Chinese input method becomes, i.e., the better you’re able to use functional components to recall character forms, even ones that you haven’t written in a long time.

Benefit #5: Gives you more bang for your memory buck

Functional components can even be combined with mnemonics and memory stories. Additionally, they give you the power to trigger your memory of character forms. Because they are part of the system of Chinese characters, you can use your knowledge of how that system works to help with recall, even after you’ve forgotten your mnemonics and memory stories.

The reason this works is because it gets you away from learning characters as isolated individuals and helps you to see each character as part of a larger, logical framework. In turn, that larger framework can be used to recall individual characters as demonstrated above. The more accurate your knowledge of this system is, the stronger your long term recall and predictive ability. In the same way, inaccurate character form explanations and mnemonics or memory stories that are not coupled with a knowledge of functional components actually hide the logic of the Chinese writing system and keep learners from quickly obtaining long-term recall and predictive ability. They may eventually obtain those skills, but it will be a longer, more painful struggle. It’s not hard to imagine that the fewer characters you know, the more useful those skills are. So why wait until after you’ve learned thousands of characters to acquire those skills when you can get them very early on through functional components?

In summary

Above, I claimed that functional components are the optimal way to learn Chinese characters. I say optimal, because you get the most bang for your memory buck. Simply by knowing that b-, p– and f– are closely related sounds, a whole new set of sound connections become obvious. Those sound connections in combination with knowledge of sound components can be used to learn new characters more easily, make intelligent predictions about the possible sounds of unknown characters and to trigger memory for writing character forms. In the same way, understanding semantic components and how they express meaning also adds to this bottom line.

Also, please note that the above list of the benefits of functional components is not at all comprehensive. Making such a list would turn this post into a book chapter. It’s always a challenge to keeps these posts short!

If you like this idea of functional components and want to know more, you can check out a demo of the dictionary we are developing, which is centered around the concept of functional components and aiding learners in understanding sound and meaning connections.

Note: We still have 2 days left on our Kickstarter campaign. It’s already fully funded, so if you back us now you’re essentially reserving a copy of the dictionary at a discount! Make sure to check out our stretch goals and other rewards as well!

16 comments on “The Benefits of Learning Chinese Characters with Outlier”

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Took me a while to figure out that was in reference to the comic! Good quote!

  1. 朱真明 Reply

    There is quite an epidemic in the academic study of Chinese arts and sciences at the moment where teachers will try to break selected characters down into their radicals and then proceed to make up stories on why these radicals are put together that way usually to justify their own beliefs. I am learning Chinese medicine at the moment and one of the teachers there describes how the Jia Gu Wen were used by the ancients for the purpose for of “communicating with the spirit world”. It is quite funny that this teacher doesn’t even know basic modern Chinese let alone properly understand Chinese history and culture. This is also supported by many resources published in English like;
    Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, Chineasy, Remembering Traditional Hanzi, Learning Chinese The Easy Way and many more. It is good to finally see some opposition to this trend especially with proper academic references.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Well, that is somewhat true. They would write on turtle shells or ox bones and then place them in a fire. They would then interpret the cracks (caused by the fire) and their relation to the words written on the shell/bone to see what will of Heaven was. From what I read, it seems the wikipedia article has some decent, general info. There’s a rather comprehensive book in English by David N. Keightley on the oracle bone script. I’ve not actually read it myself (I use Chinese sources for this kind of thing), but I did look through the table of contents and he seems to give it a rather thorough treatment.

      However, there certainly is a tendency for people to interpret characters according to their own beliefs. The truth is, though, we can’t really know anything for certain about a character by just looking at the modern form. You really have to delve into its origin and evolution to understand it. I’m not saying that’s something a learner should do (which is why we’re doing it for the learner). A lot of the resources you mention do tend to put their own stories (or traditional stories) onto characters rather than studying them from the view point of historical evolution. That has the unfortunate side-effect of hiding the actual logic behind the Chinese writing system.

      • 朱真明 Reply

        Although there was a level of superstition regarding the use of ox bones and turtle shells, but if you look at it from the lens of history it actually was quite rational. At that time they didn’t have much knowledge to compare their actions against, to the point that you can consider what they were doing as an scientific investigation. Also when they wrote down the question and then got the answer from the crack, they would then record down what the answer was and also record down what the actual result was regardless of whether it confirmed or denied what the ox bone said. This seems to me to be quite rational, after the Shang and Zhou dynasty you see this practice completely disappearing because they already had enough evidence to know that this method is based on luck and by that time most people believed that Heaven(Sky,cosmos) had no conscious role in the development of social life.

        • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

          I think another aspect to this is that the 易經 came out during the Western Zhou and it was originally a divination manual, so they switched over to using the methods laid out in there. I don’t really know much other than that, because my focus is only paleography and Old Chinese phonology.

  2. Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

    Good question, Margaret! i would suggest doing what you can to understand characters in terms of how they represent sound and meaning, as well as look for sound and meaning connections between characters. Most sources out there now interpret almost everything in terms of meaning components (like the first explanation by the guy in the comic strip). Sound representation is often ignored completely, which is also unfortunate, since most characters are sound-meaning characters. You can use tools such as or wenlin to try and find these things yourself. Try to find the parts of each character that have a function in that character. For a list of things you might come across using, see my reply to a comment at the bottom of the blog post Liushu: Categorically Speaking.
    We explain the different types of functional components here:
    And you can use that to help you know what to look for. Hope that helps! We’re going to try and get this out as fast as we can while maintaining excellence!


  3. Sean Reply

    This seems like a really good reference. Is a distinction made between learning chinese characters the outlier way and using outlier to look up characters you’ve come across?

    To be more specific, is there a systematic approach you can use to learn characters the outlier way (like starting with the first entry and learning them in order) or is the outlier dictionary designed to supplement other character study materials?

  4. Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

    Thanks for the comment, Sean. This is actually quite a complex issue. For the dictionary, we purposefully avoided sticking to any specific order for learning. The main reason is to keep the dictionary compatible with other courses. Also, the needs of learners at the various stages of learning are quite different and we want the dictionary to be useful to everyone.

    Understanding how characters work as a system (like, really making an effort to understand the various types of functional components and connections between characters) is more important than the order of learning. Wherever you start, it’s an entry into the system of Chinese characters.

    Having said that, of course it’s better to start with the most common characters, the most common components and the most common words, but those 3 are often radically different. Personally, I would learn the most common spoken words first (since you’ll be able to make immediate use of them).
    We’re going to be doing a workbook, which will walk you through the system and expose you to things like memory techniques, using spaced repetition software and any/all strategies that you can employ to make your character learning more effective. It will most likely focus on the most common 200 characters or so (it hasn’t been officially determined yet).


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  6. James Koch Reply

    The things you write about your dictionary coincide with my expectations. It pleases me to know that you work with the Pleco group, whose dictionary (and efficiency) I have been admiring since 2008, when I was introduced to the system at a Mandarin Chinese beginner course at the East-West Connection language school in Beijing.

  7. daal Reply

    These are indeed benefits, but can you tell us how you envision that the dictionary will help a learner in the above manner. Will it tell us that a character is most frequently used as a sound component and should be distinguished from a similar-looking component? Will it tell us which sounds a sound component might suggest ? Will it tell us how a particular semantic component is related to the modern meaning of a word? It makes sense that knowing such things is beneficial, but it also seems that a lot of explaining is involved that isn’t necessarily part of a dictionary.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Similar looking components will be pointed out, yes. There will be sound formulas that succinctly show what sounds each sound component represents. The meaning trees show the relation between a character’s original meaning and its modern meanings. But, to answer your initial question, you obtain those benefits by understanding what the functional components in a given character are and how they function as well as understanding sound and meaning relationships between characters. These relationships will be explicitly pointed out in the Essentials and Expert versions, but understanding each character’s functional components and how they function will making seeing those relationships on your own much easier.

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