She squinted her eyes, cocked her head sideways, and said, “That makes no sense.”

As I used my iPhone to show my friend from the Mainland how to type the word 院 using a rather non-intuitive 25 radical system developed in the 1970s, she asked, “Why not just use Pinyin?”

My question exactly. If a native Chinese speaker thinks it’s nonsense and you should just stick with Pinyin, who am I to argue? I definitely don’t need to bother with it either, right?

Of course right.

At least, that’s what I thought for over a decade. Then all of a sudden, my friend Dave did something harder than learning 1,000 characters: He convinced me to give Cangjie (仓颉) a try.

When learning a foreign language, you face the fact that there are certain things that you will never do as well as native speakers. So how can you compete? You have to find ways that you can learn the target language better than the average native speaker, and leverage that knowledge and ability. Learning Cangjie can be one of those tools.

In order to input characters on a keyboard with Cangjie, you have to learn how to think, not in phonetic Pinyin, but in character components. Chinese children can do this instinctively from their youth, but us adult Westerners find this transition almost impossible.

This barrier significantly hinders reading: The decoding process is so memory-intensive that it’s hard to suck any meaning out of a text. After exhausting the brain cells recalling all the Pinyin that’s hidden behind those characters, there simply isn’t much brain power left to decipher overall meaning.

If, however, the brain can be trained to think in terms of the visual components rather than hidden Pinyin, there could be considerably more brain power available during the reading process.

How to get started? The first and easy step is to memorize the keyboard layout (pictured at the top of this page), and I’m already almost finished with that. Half of the “alphabet” is pretty solidly in my head, and the other half should come along soon.

In my learning process, I’m putting the radicals in keyboard alphabetical order, then I’ll mix them up daily to quiz myself.

The next step is harder: There are 128 correlations to learn (Chart 1, Chart 2, Chart 3), matching the 25 radicals on the keyboard with 128 corresponding pieces that commonly show up in characters. To a Westerner, these charts just look like random nonsense, but years of experience with characters has gotten me past that point.

The final step is to learn all the rules and tricks to getting it to actually work. And, of course, since nothing can be simple, Cangjie was designed for traditional characters, not simplified. I’ll have to wrestle with that bear as well.

This definitely won’t be easy, and will certainly take time, but I began noticing a payoff literally within hours of starting this process. During my tutor sessions, I was noticing character components I had previously paid no attention to. I think this exercise will indeed prove useful.

To paraphrase Solomon: Smart friends and dumb friends both end up in the grave, but before then, the smart friends can be quite helpful.

Chart 1 of the 128 correlations
Chart 2 of the 128 correlations
Chart 3 of the 128 correlations

Featured Image: Copyright 2007 – Sakurambo; modified by Cangjie6 under CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL