Should I learn Simplified Chinese or should I learn Traditional Chinese? Every student or parent of a student planning to learn Mandarin Chinese will have to answer this question. Those new to the Chinese language often have that decision made by the school or online course they take. While we don’t see an issue with focusing on one character set and we propose this same method, we do notice that most schools and Chinese learning programs do not expose students to the other character set. Our view is that students need to be exposed to both Traditional and Simplified characters early on and throughout their learning process.
When deciding which character set to focus on, it’s important to understand how often the student may encounter written Chinese. Currently, China and Singapore use Simplified characters while Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau use Traditional characters. As a general suggestion, if you have relatives or friends in China or Singapore, consider focusing on Simplified characters. On the other hand, if you have connections to Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau, you may want to focus on learning Traditional characters. Keep in mind that this is just a general suggestion and students can choose to focus on any character set.
What about students who don’t fit the scenarios above? Which character set should the student choose to focus on? Our suggestion is to flip a coin or use any reason that you’re comfortable with. Why? It’s because regardless of which character set students choose to focus on, they should always learn to read the other character set at the same time. This is the method we suggest and that is how we’ve structured the Mandarin Reading Club. In fact, the only wrong choice you can make is to exclusively learn Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese.
You may wonder if it’s too difficult to learn Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese at the same time? The answer is that it does take a bit more time but the way that students should approach this is to learn the words in one story and then immediately learn the same words in the other character set from the same story. This way, they immediately learn two characters that have the same meaning but are written differently. The Mandarin Reading Club enables students to learn both character sets easily.
So why is it important for students to learn both character sets? The reason is because people living outside of Asia will often see both character sets in the sources of written Chinese they encounter. For example, most written Chinese accessible to people around the world is through online media such as news articles or subtitles in music videos, movies, and TV shows. The menus from Chinese restaurants and signs or product packaging in Asian grocery stores are other sources of written Chinese that people are often exposed to. All of these sources may use Traditional or Simplified Chinese characters.
Another assumption to clarify is that some people may think they should learn Simplified Chinese characters (and skip Traditional characters) because there are over 1.4 billion people who use Simplified characters in China. While there are technically more people who use Simplified characters in the world, students need to think about where they themselves may be exposed to written Chinese. In online media and in written Chinese sources outside of Asia, the proportion of Simplified vs. Traditional character usage does not reflect the population living in China vs other places. In fact, from our observations, the use of Traditional Chinese characters is very common in online media and among Chinese restaurants and stores in the USA.