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Explaining Chinese Writing to Kids: It’s Not an Alphabet

Cover page of the Shuo wen zhen ben, a dictionary dedicated to etymological descriptions of Chinese characters.

Author’s Note: If you’re looking for a Chinese alphabet that resembles English, check out our article explaining Pinyin.

Many parents who visit our website are looking for a guide to help explain written Chinese to kids, often searching for information about a “Chinese Alphabet.” But while English speakers are used to writing using a phonetic system, written Chinese is not an alphabet, but instead a vast set of distinct characters that have an assigned pronunciation (or sometimes more than one pronunciations, based on usage and meaning).

In other words, you can’t sound out a Chinese character based on it’s parts, the way English words have phonetic letters that hint at the pronunciation of the word and comprise the alphabet.

Another important point is that not each Chinese character equates to a word — another common misconception. Instead, while some Chinese words are only one character, most words range from one to three characters in length.

Does this mean Chinese is a difficult language to learn? For kids who begin learning Western languages only, it may not be as intuitive, but if you start early, it can come quite easily. Remember that kids in Chinese speaking countries learn Chinese at a young age with great ease, so there’s nothing inherently impossible about it. If anything, don’t start with the mindset that Chinese is a harder language to learn — attitude is important, and kids typically don’t think twice about how the language is structured rather than simply diving in and learning through Chinese immersion.

To help you cover a lot of ground quickly, here are some other quick facts that can help you explain Chinese writing to kids:

• Chinese is one of the oldest continually used writing systems still in use
• Chinese characters of the current variety have been traced back to about 1200 to 1050 BC during the late Shang Dynasty — more than 3,000 years! By contrast, English originated around 500 AD and written Latin originated around 700 BC
• Educated Chinese adults typically know about 4,000 individual characters
• Less than 5% of currently used Chinese characters originated as pictographs (they visually closely resemble what their meaning is, almost like a basic drawing) — the vast majority of characters are recombinations of meanings and phonetic subparts known as ‘radicals’
• The process of creating and using Chinese characters is thought to have started centuries earlier than 1200 BC
• Written Chinese has been used in many Asian countries outside of China such as Korea and Vietnam, and continues to be used in Japanese which borrows Chinese characters to comprise parts of its written language
• There are eight categories of brush strokes that are a result of early writing using brushes and ink
• Older Chinese was written right to left and top to bottom, but lately it has been more popular to publish left to right, similar to English
• Mainland China (People’s Republic of China) uses “Simplified Chinese”, which leverages shorter forms of characters to simplify writing, while Taiwan (Republic of China), many expat communities, and some other regions use “Traditional Chinese” which includes fuller forms of characters which arguably contain fuller visual meaning (you may want to steer clear of some of the heated debates about this)
Pinyin is a Romanized phonetic alphabet used to teach Chinese to Westerners because it more resembles Western languages like English

Got more questions? Leave a comment or write in to us and we’ll be more than happy to answer!

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