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Mastering the Radicals to Learn Chinese!

by Chou Sing Chu Foundation

Over the years, students in Singapore have remained less enthusiastic towards the learning of the Chinese language. Although it is one of Singapore’s four official languages, the standard of Chinese among many students is worrying. The status of Chinese as a mother tongue has also been precarious. In this light, Chinese should no longer be learnt as a mother tongue, but as a second language. Depending purely on the everyday use of Chinese, conventional integrated Chinese teaching methods, or the “Teach Less, Learn More” approach may no longer be sufficient for even the Chinese examinations.

Language learning requires a systematic grammatical structure. Building a vocabulary is foundational, and students have to do so through extensive reading in a targeted and systematic way.

Learning New Words Through the Dictionary

In traditional language learning, the dictionary is an essential tool. No matter the language, developing the good habit of looking up the dictionary will aid in increasing exposure to new words and knowledge, allowing learners to draw parallels and connections, learning by inference and analogy. Nowadays, many will check an electronic dictionary or the internet when they encounter a new word, but retention is less likely without the writing practices.



Chou Sing Chu Foundation has published the Practising Your Way to an A*: The Student’s Guide to Chinese Vocabulary series of study guides, aiming to help parents and primary school students organise in a more systematic fashion the most basic Chinese words in learning the language. This series of three workbooks includes a list of 40 common radicals. In the learning process, the radicals are often overlooked, but they can be key to making learning more efficient.

Deducing Meanings from Radicals

In a Chinese dictionary, radicals serve as the basis for looking up words. By the same token, the dictionary cannot function without the organisation afforded by radicals. The Chinese term for radicals, “部首”, literally means the primary (“首”) component (“部”), and refers to the simplest component that characterises words that are structurally similar. Understanding this categorisation of Chinese words and the significance of the radicals can help improve the efficiency of learning. Most Chinese words contain special meanings through evolution, and radicals can help students identify the meanings from their origins, or even to guess the meanings of new words. Further, mastering the radicals can help students in writing Chinese words correctly. For instance, while many students struggle to tell “虎” , “虚”, and “虑” apart, if they can identify the “虍” radical common to these words, they will be able to spot the similarities and differences, learning three words from one radical.

At the same time, while “偏旁” and “部首”  are often mentioned in the same breath, the fact is they represent two different concepts. “偏旁” refers to any component that forms part of the compound whole of a Chinese character.

Radicals allow learners to trace words back to their origins, as many radicals evolved from root words in Chinese. For instance, the “月“ radical typically indicates a connection to the body when on the left of the character (such as in “脸” and “脚”), and generally refers to time when found on the right of the word (for example, in “期” and “明”), although there are exceptions (in the four words of “朦胧朓朏”). On the other hand, the “木” indicates the word is related to plants (“树”, “森”, and “林”), while the two easily confused radicals of “衤” (from “衣”) and “礻” (from “示”)  refer to clothing and worship respectively. Understanding the meaning of the radicals can aid in word recognition.

By making the radicals a part of the process, learning Chinese can become simpler and more interesting!

Source: Practising Your Way to an A*: The Student’s Guide to Chinese Vocabulary

Source: Practising Your Way to an A*: The Student’s Guide to Chinese Vocabulary