Optimal Order to Learn Chinese Characters

To become literate in Chinese, one must first learn over 3,000 Chinese characters. Learning them all is hard enough, but finding the best order to learn them in is a challenge in itself.

HanziHero is a Chinese character learning application that leverages spaced repetition and mnemonics to make learning Chinese characters as easy and efficient as possible. More than that, we also teach Chinese characters, character component, and vocabulary words in an optimal order!

Let’s go into depth about what we need to take into account when making an optimal order, and how HanziHero’s own optimal order algorithm works.

Ordering Chinese characters principles

We believe an optimal order is one that is in accordance with a couple of simple principles.

The more common characters should be first, and visually simpler characters should be prioritized when possible. For each character, the component and sounds within it should be learned before it itself is learned. Afterwards, we should learn a couple of words each character is in to make sure we understand how it is used in practice.

Let’s cover each of those in depth.

Start with the most common ones

Learning all of the Chinese characters takes even the most dedicated student a year or longer. Unlike the English alphabet which one can learn in an afternoon, it is not feasible to learn all Chinese characters first before learning Chinese itself.

Instead, one should try to learn the most common ones first, so that they can begin to understand simple phrases of Chinese as soon as possible. Then one can continue to learn more and more advanced characters while simultaneously going through textbooks or consuming Chinese media.

Prioritize visually simpler ones

Some characters are more visually simple than others. For example, 我 wǒ and 子 zǐ which mean “I” and “child” respectively, are both quite important, but the former has seven complicated strokes while the latter only has two!

Assuming two characters are of equal importance, we should try to learn the more visually simple one first. Simply because it will be easier to remember, and will require us to learn less related components first.

Character’s components and sounds first

One of the keys to remembering a character is knowing all of the components within it. It is similar to how knowing roots or suffixes within an English word make it easy to remember and understand its meaning.

Likewise, we must learn the sounds that make up the character before we learn it, or we have no way of accurately pronouncing or hearing it!

For each character we learn, we should first learn its components and sounds if we have not already, as that will help us with learning and remember the character.

In order to reinforce our understanding of a character, and to have a better grasp of how it is used in practice, it is important to know a couple of words it is in. Chinese characters are rarely used by themselves, but instead within their word forms.

Not only will the extra words we learn be useful in our Chinese learning journey, but those extra connections between the character and the words it is in will help us remember the character better too.

HanziHero’s curriculum ordering algorithm

Our curriculum consists of a single ordered list. That list contains components, sounds, characters, and words.

With these principles of ordering and sources of data in hand, we can now cover how HanziHero order’s characters within its own curriculum.

Ordering the characters

To find the most common and essential characters, we use HSK Chinese Proficiency Test guidelines which has 3,000 characters organized in seven levels of importance, from the most basic to the most advanced.

First we take the HSK characters and sort them in ascending order according to their level. We want to study the more essential ones first.

Then within each HSK level, we sort characters in ascending order of the number of components they have. If two characters are within the same level, we will teach the more visually simpler one first.

Adding the components and pinyin first

Once we have the characters ordered, we then begin to build up our curriculum order. Going through the characters in order, we add each of its components and sounds to the curriculum list if they have not been added already. This way our students can learn the components and sounds that make up a character before the character itself.

After adding the components and sounds, we add the character itself to the list.

After adding the character to the list, we check if there are any words that contain that character that we can add to the list. We go through our own curated list of words, and find any words that contain the character we are processing. If that word has all characters within it within the curriculum already, we add it to the list.

Bringing it all together

In psuedocode, the algorithm looks something like this:

curriculum = []
SORT characters BY level THEN BY num_components
FOR EACH character IN characters
	FOR EACH component IN character.components
		IF component NOT IN curriculum
			ADD component TO curriculum
	FOR EACH sound IN character.sounds
		IF sound NOT IN curriculum
			ADD sound TO curriculum
	ADD character TO curriculum
	FOR EACH word
		IF word NOT IN curriculum AND word.characters ALL IN curriculum
			ADD word TO curriculum

HanziHero - more than just optimal order

Learning Chinese characters in an optimal order makes learning Chinese more enjoyable. It allows you to more quickly start reading Chinese books or watching Chinese shows, which is the key to achieving and maintaining fluency.

At HanziHero, we have developed our own optimal learning order to help you spend less time studying and more time using Chinese. It’s the same learning order we ourselves use to learn Chinese!

More than just having our own optimal order, we also leverage mnemonics and spaced repetition to make learning the characters themselves is as easy and efficient as possible! Best of all, we have a generous free tier to allow anyone to try our method and see if it fits their learning style.

Ready to start learning Chinese characters today? Create a free account and give it a whirl!