The Simple Characters Around You

In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)

Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.

Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,

> I learned the character a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!

One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.

Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:

小大人 (“Little Adults”)

Restaurant: 饭店
饭店 (“restaurant”)

Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.

Remember: start with the simple ones. They exist.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “little adults”在英文中指成年人吗?

  2. 在英语文化圈里,与“小大人”对应的我觉得似乎是“young man“或者”young lady“。比方说一个七八岁的小朋友拿着一块钱来到了卖冰淇淋的小车前,然后老板会说:”Hey~ young man, how can I help you”。“young man”和“小大人”这两个词,在我的理解中,都有点对小朋友略开玩笑的感觉。

    • 其实“young man”和“young lady”没有你说的那种开玩笑的语气,而是一种比较礼貌的说法。可能跟中文不太一样。

      • 这个视频中,在26秒处,有“lovely layd”一词。在你的理解中,有没有一种为了和小朋友拉近乎而半开玩笑的语气?

  3. 挪威语有一个词语应该比较接近:veslevoksen. 不是名词,是形容词。Voksen是成年人的意思,而vesle是小的意思。说一个人是veslevoksen就是说一个小孩,也许用的词汇比较复杂(或者用一些刚刚在书本看过的单词,但是用的不太合适),就很希望别人当他作为大人。我小的时候可能有点veslevoksen,周边的孩子还教我”小教授“ :)


  4. I was about to leave a comment saying that for a learner the characters in “小大人” might be easy to recognize but the meaning might not be so obvious. But the comments above seem to have already covered this in some detail 🙂

  5. Being in China and surrounded by characters was a huge compliment to studying the characters, in particular when I would see a certain character used under different contexts, as well as in different words. The changing context, in particular, helped to gain a more rounded understanding of the meanings.

  6. In terms of characters you’ll see on the street,

    烟酒 – cigerette and booze,
    足疗 – foot massage/pedicure, and,
    药店 – pharmacy

    all have to be right up there – ones I got my character recognition high on early on in my studies while in China anyway. I hope thats not a bad reflection on my lifestyle here, though in my defence they seem to make up half the shop signs around where I live 😛

  7. benjicaine Says: August 6, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Learners who avoid studying the characters, are these the sorts of people who are learning Chinese largely for business reasons? As somebody who’s learning for Chinese firstly to simply learn it, I love the characters and they were a huge reason why I undertook the language to begin with. I’ve always felt that learning Chinese sans the characters would actually be more difficult, it likely produces faster results in terms of certain facets of raw speaking and listening ability, but I imagine in places, such as distinguishing between 凌厉, 伶俐, 凌轹, and 灵利 on context alone, without knowing the characters, could be frustrating. I live in Beijing now and having characters surrounding me everyday is a huge boost to learning them.

    • Yes, many of them are learning Chinese for “business reasons,” which typically means they ended up in China because of their work situations. Many of them at first only wanted to learn enough “to get by,” which is OK at first, but when a year in China becomes two or three years, and begins to become woefully inadequate. That’s when they really need to start learning the characters.

  8. Since reading and writing are different skill sets from speaking and comprehension, I can’t see the link between recognizing written characters and being able to increase fluency in the spoken language.

    Did you intend to say “if you’re serious about wanting to read Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” ?

    • By “Chinese,” I was referring to the Chinese language as a whole, which includes the writing system.

    • jen_not_jenny Says: August 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm

      Although reading and speaking do indeed require different skill sets, I would still argue that increasing character recognition builds fluency in the spoken language. In Chinese, there are so many composite words (two or three characters) or phrases that you learn as linguistic chunks. These are basically just a sequence of sounds that add up to one thing. Once you start learning characters, though, each sound/symbol has an individual meaning, and it helps to make connections between composite words with a common character. For example, Beijing and Nanjing are just cities until you learn the characters 北 and 南. Now they are North Capital and South Capital, and it’s much easier to remember words like 北方,东北,南边,西南.

  9. Yes the characters around me really do help with studying. Every day I learn something new and then after a while notice that characters being used in signs, menus etc. It is like reviewing what you have learned every time you go out. At this point I also send text messages in Chinese almost every day. It is not as good as writing by hand but still helps.

  10. How many characters would you say that you “know”? I’m probably around 900~1100 that I recognize and can read, but I haven’t had much chance to do much studying over the past few months, so I’ve probably forgotten a fair amount. How many do you think that one needs to know in order to read and understand say 95% of a novel? I can read simple-ish dialogues and short passages, but there are too many unknowns for me to get through a novel. What do Chinese do when they come across a character that they don’t know? How do they know what it means (through context, I guess?) and how do they know how to pronounce it (or do they?)?

  11. dmh. I read my first novel after learning Chinese for about a year. Just pick wisely when you feel ready to take the plunge, and you should be OK.

  12. […] while back I did a post on the simple characters around you. I’ve been slowly collecting some other simple signs. Here are three […]

Leave a Reply