Are Chinese Characters a Barrier To Fluency?

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“Yeah, I’m studying Chinese…I mean, obviously I’m not going to bother with the characters, who needs that?”

We’ve heard the above statement loads of times, even said it ourselves (rather adamantly) when we were first starting out. Oh how naïve we were! The main (and rather obvious) reason that the above statement is actually quite absurd is because Mandarin consists of around 400 pronunciations (not accounting for tones). 400 different-sounding words only. That’s…nothing. At least not compared to English (just think for a second about how many different sounding words English has!). 

Ben Whatley (the creator of www.memrise.com) put it best on one of his blog posts:

“420 syllables of pinyin represent the pronunciation of all of the characters in the entire language. Of the characters in everyday usage this means that there are an average of around 11 characters for each pinyin syllable.” 

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In other words, as your vocabulary gets higher things are going to start to get really confusing

What about if you know characters? No confusion. None. You know that you are saying (and reading) “thing” (是 -shì) and not “market” (市 - also shì), because you understand that they are totally different characters, with unrelated components.

But all of this really doesn’t matter regarding learning characters, for two main reasons: 

The first reason is that Chinese characters are by far the most beautiful part of the language. The allegory, metaphor and depth of these characters is interwoven with history and culture. English pales in comparison in this respect. 

The second reason is that no characters means no reading, and reading is an incredibly effective way (perhaps the most effective way) to acquire a second language. This is supported by a ton of linguistic research over recent decades. This suggests that if you don’t learn characters, you are cutting yourself off from one of the best ways to suck less at Chinese. 

So are Characters a barrier to fluency? Far from it, they make you love the language and acquire it faster!