learning Chinese radicals

I’m (re)learning Chinese and I’ve decided to do it the right way this time, i.e. to start by learning the list of radicals that make up Chinese characters. For those unfamiliar, here’s the list:

https://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/radicals.php

Can anyone suggest any strategies for learning this information? I would like to be able to recall the pictograph itself, its pronunciation, and its meaning. There is also an ordering which, as far as I know, is superfluous information (or might it be useful to know? I’m not sure). At any rate, I’m interested to hear how you all might approach this. Please don’t assume any knowledge of mnemonics; I’m a complete beginner.

I did the same thing about 15 months ago. At that time there was a website called SinisterKey whose author made some really helpful little drawings to remember each character. I put most of them in an Anki deck and studied them along with other Chinese content until I’d learned them. Unfortunately that website shut down but if you PM me I can send you my Anki deck. You’re doing the right thing to learn the radicals!

When it comes to learning, generally speaking, there is usually not one right way. But getting organized sure is important, and getting to know the radicals is a very good approach.

Make sure you really need to remember all this info.
Keep in mind that many radicals are not encountered by themselves, so pronunciation would be useful only when orally trying to describe a character (which would be a nice occasion, albeit not that common).
Also, keep in mind that the meaning of the radical is often bent to suit the overall meaning of the character, sometimes it is not even a good hint for a character’s meaning (unless you’ve made up a good enough link/story/etc).

An example that pops to mind is: 准 (zhun3) which can mean “accurate, allow”, and several other things based on the context; note the ice radical- while you can make up some way to link ice to those many meanings, you can’t easily deduce that it’s definitely got something to do with ice. If you can find the actual connection, then great. But always read and interpret radicals in an open and broader sense; that way, when the radical’s meaning is quite relevant, the characters will be even easier to remember.

Look up the different memory techniques out there. If you think you’ll enjoy using memory techniques on radicals, then go ahead and use whatever best works for you. You could separate, for instance, the list in 20 small groups (20 memory rooms/ palaces), each containing about ten radicals (loci). You can find many ideas in the Resources (accessed from the corresponding button above).

From my own limited chinese learning, I’ve found that frequently encountering certain radicals always reminds me of their meaning (provided I’ve already looked them up at least once). That way, one can gain more vocabulary while revising the radicals; two birds with one stone. So, I might use a mnemonic device as I learn of a radical for the first time, but then it’s a matter of spaced repetition, which you can get an enormous amount of by just reading chinese texts of any kind.

So, list or impromptu approach, I’d say make sure you 1) enjoy the process of learning them (1.5 use mnemonics for some/ for all, or none at all), 2) remember the caveat of their flexible application, and 3) review them frequently enough for retention (which, again, you can do by revisiting your memory palaces/ journeys/ whatever, or by reading material where those characters can often be encountered again and again).

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I have been considering a range of methods for Chinese. I am a beginner in Chinese, but not a beginner in memory methods, so please listen to people better qualified on the language than me.

I eventually came to the conclusion that radicals were the way to go. I love memory palaces and set them up on pathways around where I live so I revise them on my daily walks. I have over 10 km in palaces now for a whole swag of different topics! The biggest is the Chinese radicals, at 5 km, but there is no need for it to be so physically big.

I am doing the 187 radicals in my dictionary because I am sure I won’t use those which aren’t in the dictionary, and can always add them in if I do. I use one house or shop per radical - hence the distance. But that means that at walking pace, I encounter them at a reasonable speed, slow enough to recall without pausing. Most people need less size because they can visualise the locations better than I can.

I also wanted to allow lots of room to add in the vocabulary associated with the radical. So the house or shop for a given radical will end up surrounded by vocabulary as I add it. I find parts of the house or garden which reminds me of the radical shape and then add in the meaning, giving me the start of stories.

The memory palace is in order because that gives me an idea of the number of strokes. But I am not memorising them in order of the palace, but adding in the radicals as I come across them. So a few houses (I am still beginning!) have the radical and some words added, others are just locations and I don’t even yet know the radical, just the approximate number of strokes.

My memory palaces for French and other topics work really well, but I am new to Chinese. I’d love to hear how you go and adapt when better ideas are posted.

Thank you for the topic!

Lynne

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@Bezarius I agree with your approach, it is very practical. I did make an effort to hammer the radicals into my brain, but the most efficient method is probably to learn them in context of common characters. And as you mentioned, some radicals are seldom encountered.

An analogous concept is learning characters in context of vocabulary words (usually two characters together) or phrases/sentences. I find it much easier to remember characters, pronunciation and tones when they’re in context of complete vocabulary words or phrases, because their sound sticks in my brain like the line of a song.

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