Should you learn traditional or simplified characters?
First of all I want to congratulate you for deciding to take on the challenge of learning Chinese! (I say Chinese as I don’t know which type you have chosen). Chinese is a beautiful language, that opens doors into a fascinating culture and I could not recommend learning it more.
I’m assuming you’ve already decided whether you want to learn Cantonese or Mandarin so now comes the tricky part. Do you choose to learn simplified characters or traditional characters? Don’t worry, this decision isn’t actually too difficult once you look at who uses what and why you’re learning the language.
Let’s break down some of the common differences between both systems and the benefits of each and see if that can help you make a decision.
The Chinese writing system
First of all, regardless if you’re learning traditional or simplified characters, it’s important to know that Chinese does not use letters. Their writing system is not an alphabet.
Instead they use characters, where each character represents an idea or word, and a sound. Each sound in monosyllabic, making speech sound short and sharper than a language like Japanese that may have many phonemes per word.
There are approximately 50,000 different characters. Although in modern use, around 20,000 are known and studied. But don’t worry! Although that may seem like a lot, you only need approximately 3,000 to read a Chinese newspaper.
Why are there two different systems?
A lot of people don’t understand why there are both traditional and simplified characters and not just one writing style. As usually in a language, speech changes more naturally between groups of people than writing systems.
The reason for this could be that the change from traditional to simplified characters wasn’t a gradual evolution but a conscious decision and effort. The majority of simplification to the Chinese writing system came under Mao’s party during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The objective of this was to increase literacy levels across mainland China, but this was never stretched to other Chinese speaking regions like Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Literacy rates in China increased dramatically over the following seventy years but it’s unclear if this is completely to do with the simplified writing system or the increase in education standards.
Regardless, it has made it easier for foreigners to learn how to write Chinese. Therefore making Chinese a more accessible language to learn.
What are the differences between traditional and simplified characters?
The clue is in the name. The simplified characters are more simple than the traditional characters. They tend to be easier to write and the character is easier to recognise.
Some characters are the same but there are a lot that differ. This is the Chinese for how are you, as you can see the first two characters are the same, but the last character is more complex when written in traditional.
Who uses what?
Mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters.
Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong use traditional characters.
Simplified vs. traditional can’t be divided into Cantonese vs. Mandarin either. There are speakers of both types of Chinese who use both types of characters.
For example in Southern China there are lots of Cantonese speakers who use simplified Chinese and in Hong Kong, they speak Cantonese and use traditional characters.
On the other side you have Taiwan who speak Mandarin but use traditional characters, then you have the majority of mainland China who speak Mandarin but use simplified characters.
However, if you are learning Cantonese then I would probably recommend you learn traditional and if you’re learning Mandarin. The reason I say this is that if you’ve chosen to learn Cantonese then although this is spoken in mainland China, Mandarin is much more widely spoken and can be understood in Cantonese speaking areas. Therefore, I would probably assume you’re more likely to want to spend time in Hong Kong, in which case go for Cantonese.
Why are you learning?
Every time we get into one of these sessions, it’s important to ask ourselves why are we learning?
- If you’re learning because you want to work with Chinese markets, then unless you want to work specifically in Hong Kong, I would recommend learning simplified characters. As that is what they use all over mainland China, where nearly 1.4 billion people live.
- If you’re learning because you have one of those places in mind then I would choose the writing system that matches that area.
- Similarly if you’re learning for a spouse or partner, then I would recommend learning the writing system that they know.
- If you’re not sure which one to learn and you’re just learning Chinese for fun, then if I’m completely honest I would probably learn simplified. It is simpler, it’s easier to learn and more people use it.
Simplified vs. Traditional
So let’s look at the benefits of each writing system to help you decide if you still haven’t.
In favour of simplified characters
- Some traditional characters look too similar, as they often have lots of lines and are very detailed. Simplified can be easier to identify because the design is a lot clearer.
- A lot of foreigners claim that simplified is easier to learn.
- Simplified is easier and quicker to write than traditional.
- More people use simplified characters than they do traditional.
- China is quickly becoming a more prosperous and wealthy country meaning simplified could be more useful to you in the job market.
In favour of traditional characters
- Literacy rates are higher in Taiwan and Hong Kong where they use traditional characters. However it’s important to remember that other factors may influence this.
- More areas outside of mainland China use traditional than simplified.
- It’s easier to learn simplified from traditional than it is to learn traditional from simplified.
- It’s the oldest still in use writing system in the world. For me that is an amazing thing to be a part of.
- The characters were formed through very old concepts and ideas. So learning the traditional characters can help you learn more about the culture and history of China.
- Mainland China tend to have quite closed social media outlets, so you’d probably have more people to practise with if you chose traditional characters as they tend to have more access to similar platforms.
My personal recommendation on whether to choose simplified or traditional characters would be, if you’re not learning Chinese specifically to go or live in Taiwan, Macau or Hong Kong, I’d probably learn simplified. More people use it and it’s easier. But that’s just my opinion. Language learning is different for each person and you should choose the writing style that works for you and you find interesting.
And regardless of whether you choose to learn simplified or traditional characters, good luck and keep learning.