“A Radical Discovery”–The Day I Learned Chinese

“Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23). On a day that might have been used otherwise, this verse made me think that it might be more wise to take some time and study. I needed to bring together the things I was learning about spoken and written Mandarin.

The inspired Word is inspiring even in another languageUp to that point I had been able to listen to spoken Chinese, read and memorize Scripture in Chinese and simply take notice of the Chinese characters I saw by the roadside. However at the same time I was realizing more and more how valuable it would be simply to understand the Chinese radicals: 207 “characters within a character” that can portray its meaning or phonetic pronunciation. They often double as complete words themselves and so account for about 20% of the first 100 most common words, 10% of the first 1000, and 4% of the first 3000. I had spent what time I could getting familiar with the list in the dictionary and making a chart that could include all of them on a two-page spread. Along with each one that Even in Yuli there was time for some study on the Chinese radicalsdoubled as its own word, I put some of their simplest English equivalents, their abbreviated forms and their frequency number. Writing it in my own format was enjoyable and a giant step in comprehension: it helped me begin to think in Chinese.

Then came yesterday. In one afternoon I almost completely remade my radical chart. This time I excluded radicals that don’t occur as words (65 of the 207) as well as a few that are less frequently used, included all the radicals that do occur as words and then went on to include a comparison of the now-standard-in-China Simplified Characters. Most importantly, I wrote down for the first time the phonetic pronunciation for each one. Rather than seeing strange characters, they’ve come alive with meaning. I can almost see them the way I see my students at school: This one has a particular face and his name is _____. Seeing them, or beginning to see them, that way was rewarding. I definitely don’t know Chinese yet but at least it’s not a foreign language any more!

“My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste: So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward, and thy expectation shall not be cut off” (Proverbs 24:13, 14).


  1. E. Ko May 31, 2008 at 7:14 pm #

    Wow, Donald! I commend you for your diligence in searching the meaning of those words out! Both of my parents are from Taiwan, and I can speak and understand the language well enough to follow a converation and get around with a lot of pointing and gesturing, 🙂 and yet, I still don’t know how to read all those characters.

    Keep up the good work! Chinese certainly is a rich language, and arguably the most-spoken language in the world. The figures I’ve read have 8-27% of the world’s population speaking Chinese; in America, it’s about 1%.

  2. Robert and James June 1, 2008 at 9:50 pm #

    Go Donald! We can’t believe you’re actually learning Chinese. That is such a difficult language but the method you are using looks like it is very creative. Keep persevering!

  3. What a rewarding study! That’s a great way to get familiar with the Chinese characters. We didn’t realize there were radicals as well as characters. May wisdom continue to be sweet to thy soul!

  4. Michael Potter July 20, 2008 at 7:39 am #


    Looks like you you’re doing the work of a real linguist! I haven’t undergone the labor that you have committed to studying the radicals, but I can certainly agree with you about the importance of being familiar with them. Having to commit so many different symbols to memory is made easier when one recognizes and understands their different parts. In addition, a radical plus the context of a script can often reveal the meaning of a character one has never studied before.

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