It is not necessary to spend too much time studying radicals

There was a time when studying radicals was necessary to learn Chinese. But things have changed greatly. 

Let’s start with how students used to learn a new Chinese character. 

Before the advent of smart phones and Chinese learning Apps, when there was a Chinese character students did not know and there was no Chinese teacher around, there were two ways for them to look this character up in a dictionary. The first one was that, if students knew the sound of the character but not the meaning, they could use pinyin, an alphabetical method, to locate this character in a dictionary. The second one was that, if students did not know the sound of the character neither the meaning, they had to use “bushou” (部首) method.

“Bushou” is a term specific for dictionary consultation, and it is closely related to radicals. And we will explain why the material ground for studying radicals is no longer there.

Consulting a dictionary using “bushou”

Below is a step by step procedure of the “bushou” method.

  1. Determine the “bushou” of the character and count its number of strokes;
  2. Turn to the “bushou” catalog in a dictionary, find the correct number of strokes and locate this “bushou”, it will give you a page number in the index pages;
  3. Go to the page in the index pages and find this “bushou”;
  4. Count the remaining strokes of the character (i.e. leave out the “bushou”);
  5. Find the character below the corresponding number of strokes. It will give a page number in the body of the dictionary;
  6. Go to the page, and find out the meaning and pronunciation of this character.

It takes six steps to locate a Chinese character in a dictionary using this method. And the first step is vital for the success of the entire operation. And this is also where the trouble begins, because sometimes we cannot tell what the “bushou” is in a given character. If we can not determine the “bushou”, we can not find the character.

“Bushou” and radical

“Bushou” and radicals are two different concepts. 

As we can see from the above procedure, it is “bushou” that indexes all the Chinese characters in a dictionary. Before pinyin was invented, this indexing system was the only system and had been very effective and successful for a long time. The only debate was the exact number of “bushou”. Some had more than 200, while some had less. 

Different from “bushou”, the concept of radicals comes from describing the picto-phonetic characters. If we take a look at the “bushou” page of a standard dictionary, we see a small portion of “bushou” are radicals, such as 口, 讠, 氵, while some “bushou” are just strokes and some others are characters.

Reasons for not spending too much time with radicals

Before, learning radicals was an effective way for students to understand the “bushou”, which is the common part of many Chinese characters. And the “bushou” was the only way for them to look up a character when they knew nothing about it. Nowadays, students can use their Chinese learning Apps to quickly find the sound and the meanings of a character. 

Before, learning characters according to their radicals is one of the popular methods used by beginner students to learn Chinese. Nowadays, we have better ways for beginner students to learn Chinese characters.

Also, it is often claimed that, learning radicals helps students understand the meanings of characters, such as イ relates to people, 口 relates to mouth, or help them guess the sounds of characters. However, it is only true to a small portion of radicals. The majority of radicals can not explain the meanings of Chinese characters, neither give clues to the sounds. Read Chinese radicals - a fact sheet for details.

Recommendation

We acknowledge the historical role radicals have played in learning Chinese. We also need to recognise that learning radicals for the purpose of learning Chinese no longer makes any sense. Students are able to achieve greater learning results without learning any radicals. 

We recommend that Chinese teachers spend a few minutes introducing radicals, and students read some facts about radicals. After that, if students are interested to know more, they can continue to explore the ideas of radicals, “bushou”, and components.

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