Can I learn Chinese without characters?

Learning Chinese characters looks like a lot of work. Can I skip it?

You may be asking “Can I learn Chinese without characters“ because you are intimated by the task of learning Chinese characters.

Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig does not focus on learning the Chinese characters. However, that does not mean I don’t think it’s important, or that you cannot learn Chinese characters using Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig. Quite the opposite.

I provide detailed transcripts and show notes, all with Chinese characters, to facilitate the learning of Chinese characters and I will discuss how.

For any English speakers who are learning Chinese as a second language, the complex writing system no doubt looks intimidating. Learning all of those characters is a daunting task.

It doesn’t have to be. Start simple.

How many Chinese characters are there?

More than 26! 😛

According to GB2312, the key official character set of China used for Simplified Chinese, there are about 7000 distinct Chinese characters. That’s a lot of them!

Well, there are only less than 4000 Chinese characters that are considered commonly used. There is also a subset of 1000 Chinese characters that are considered to be able to cover up to 90% of texts in Chinese publications.

Now, you say, 1000 Chinese characters still sound like a lot.

Can I still learn Chinese without the characters? The answer is it depends. Let me break this down.

Can I read or write Chinese without characters? Can I just learn pinyin instead and get by?

The answer is NO. You can’t read or write Chinese without characters. The Chinese language is always written in Chinese characters, as opposed to pinyin. (There were actually various issues during the development of a romanization system of the Chinese language.)

Pinyin is the official romanization system of mainland China, however nobody writes in pinyin. You’d be kidding yourself if you think you can get by with just learning pinyin.

Furthermore, I personally think the emphasis on learning pinyin for English speakers who are learning Chinese as a second language is way overblown.

I’m not saying pinyin is not important or is not useful to learn. Rather, there is too much of emphasis on “learning pinyin” but not enough emphasis on learning what the Chinese language really sounds like.

As much as pinyin looks familiar to English speakers, it could be misleading when it comes to Chinese pronunciation and tones.

In my opinion the only good way to learn pinyin is to repeat after native speech, hear the sounds and map them to the pinyin you read. Definitely not the other way around.

Please do not read pinyin as if you were reading English. It won’t make sense!

Also, one technically doesn’t even need to learn pinyin to speak Chinese. For sure Chinese people have been speaking Chinese before pinyin was developed in the 1950s!

Alas, to learn to read or write in Chinese, you have no choice but to learn Chinese characters.

Can I speak Chinese without learning characters?

Technically, yes.

Just as one can be illiterate (as in unable to read or write) and speak fluent English, a Chinese speaker can understand and speak Chinese no problem even if he does not know how to read or write a single Chinese character.

They are living proof that you don’t need to know how to read or write Chinese, which requires knowing the characters, in order to speak the Chinese language.

Do I recommend learning Chinese without learning characters?


As you’re reading this article, I assume you are not illiterate and you have the capability to learn how to read and write. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be picking up a second language).

If you are learning Chinese as a second language, I suppose you probably have some desire to learn to read and write in Chinese.

How do I learn Chinese characters using the PPM?

If you haven’t, read about the PPM first.

Peppa Pig is a children’s show so the language used in the show is simple, common and practical, which makes it a very beginner friendly material to learn Chinese, and also learn Chinese characters.

Studying the transcripts and the show notes on Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig would be a great way to pick up some Chinese characters while you’re practicing listening and speaking.

How exactly?

I don’t recommend starting out by writing Chinese characters over and over again until you memorize how to write them.

First, I think listening and speaking are way way way more important language skills in today’s world where you have great machine translations at your fingertips. There are even apps you can use to take a photo of phrases written in a foreign language and translate them into any language of your choice.

Emphasizing too much on learning the characters may discourage people from learning Chinese. It’s a lot of work, and you may give up on learning Chinese before you even start, or before you ever experienced the joy of using Chinese to communicate.

Second, I think learning Chinese characters in silo isn’t an effective way to help you learn the Chinese language. I promise, even if you learn how to write 1000 of the most common Chinese characters, you still will NOT be able to communicate in Chinese.

You for sure won’t be able to comprehend spoken Chinese, let alone speak it. You will also not be able to read or write. Because you need to learn how the characters and words are put together, not just the characters themselves. Contexts are very important.

Third, I’ll be honest, I have forgotten how to write many Chinese characters using a pen. It’s been a long time since I had to hand-write anything in Chinese.

Remember, I am a native speaker who has strong family ties to China, has Chinese relatives who live close to me, and consumes Chinese media on a regular basis. Yes, I have not had to write anything in Chinese for a long time.

However, I can read and type Chinese no problem. That is way more than enough.

That’s what I recommend: learn to read, and learn to type Chinese characters, not necessarily how to write them. You can start with the transcripts on Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig.

To learn Chinese characters, start with typing out single characters and short words. Learn what they look like.

Do that for the words that show up in the transcripts or the show notes on Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig. You can try typing out the whole sentences if you want a challenge.

This is a good way to learn because you have to know what the characters sound like, based on pinyin, and you have to match the pinyin with the appropriate characters by selecting them, so you have to know what they look like.

Again, I want to emphasize that you should not think of pinyin as a variation of the English alphabet. Rather, you have to learn a totally new system. The sound and spelling of the new system should come from the audio input. You should first hear the native sound, and then map to pinyin!

(Multiple characters can have the same romanization in pinyin.)

Most pinyin input systems on computers also reflect how common a character or word is used. The characters that show up first in suggestions when you type pinyin tend to be more commonly used.

(Based on my experience, many pinyin input systems also learn from what words you use based on your typing history and suggest those first.)

Don’t rush into learning to write characters. Learn to type them first, and get familiar with what they look like.

I do believe there is value in learning how to write Chinese characters, learning how to use the proper stroke order, etc. Learning them can even be fun!

However, I don’t think that is what you should start with, unless you’re only interested in learning Chinese characters because they look cool.

If you can get familiar with the Chinese typing system on a computer, you’re well on your way to being able to communicate in written Chinese in today’s day and age!

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