Which to learn, traditional or simplified Chinese characters?

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The debate over the superiority of either traditional or simplified Chinese characters has been ongoing since the latter were first introduced. There are ideological, esthetic, historical, and cultural arguments on each side but here I will take a practical approach from the perspective of an American studying Chinese, having been taught both writing systems throughout the course of my studies.

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I began studying Chinese at my public middle school in sixth grade. The district had only one Chinese-language teacher. who traveled back and forth between the middle and high schools to cover all of the grades. This teacher was from Taiwan, and she taught the writing system she grew up with: traditional characters. I used this system for seven years until I got to college, walked into my Chinese class, and discovered that everything was in simplified characters.

Fortunately, adapting to a whole new writing system proved easier than expected, even while simultaneously adapting to college life in general. Many of the changes from traditional to simplified characters were systematic, so it became merely a case of applying a rule rather than relearning a bunch of characters.

For example, the radical for “speech” on the left of the traditional characters 謝, 說, or 話 becomes merely a dot and a hooked line on the simplified versions: 谢, 说, and 话.

There are some characters that I continued to miswrite as their traditional version or a weird mix of the two for years after, but for the most part, the switch was fairly seamless. Now I write exclusively in simplified, though I can still get by when reading traditional characters.

I am glad that I learned traditional first and then simplified, as I feel the switch may be easier in that direction. I have found it very useful to know both systems.

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Why choose traditional?

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Why choose simplified?

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Conclusion

First and foremost, you will probably have to go with what is available. If your neighbor from Hong Kong offers to give you lessons and is more comfortable with traditional characters, then that is what you will learn. If your college or university teaches simplified, then unless you have a really strong opinion the other way, that’s what you should go with. Most college or university textbooks I’ve used offer both traditional and simplified side-by-side, so you may be able to focus on traditional if your professor approves.

If you do have a choice, consider your purpose for studying Chinese. Is it so you can read a menu in Chinatown? It will probably use traditional characters, though you should check. Plan to visit Beijing to see the Great wall and Xian to see the Terracotta Army? Learn simplified. Have dreams of becoming a calligraphy master? Go with traditional.

Whichever you choose, you can always pick up the other system later. After several years, you will begin to recognize at least a few characters through exposure and similarity to the system you do know.

Now that so few people hand-write characters after the advent of computers and smartphones, character recognition is more important than knowing exactly where every dot and hook goes. You are likely to have tools right in your pocket to help you convert a character from one system to the other.

In sum, the choice you make now is not the be all end all when it comes to your Chinese literacy. It is only the beginning.

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