Should you learn simplified or traditional Chinese?

Upon deciding to learn Mandarin Chinese, you need to choose whether you’ll learn Simplified or Traditional as a writing system. Fear not – here’s a guide to help you! 

In terms of writing systems, mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia uses simplified characters. Japanese uses a form of Chinese characters in their writing system, called Kanji. These are mostly written in the traditional way, so perhaps if you’re learning Japanese as well, Traditional may be easier. The same goes for when Chinese characters are used in Korean Hanja. They are, of course, pronounced differently.

Who uses what?

Consider which country’s Chinese speakers you interact with mostly and what your availability of resources would be. Simplified is the most widely studied writing form of Mandarin China as its the standard for Mainland China.

Mandarin spoken in Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia is written using simplified characters. Most resources teaching “Chinese” or “Mandarin” will be written in simplified. It’s arguably easier to learn as it’s less complex than traditional characters. 

Mandarin Chinese and Chinese dialects from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau use traditional characters. Cantonese, another language mostly spoken in Hong Kong (and some parts of Malaysia and Singapore), also uses traditional characters. So, you can have one sentence written the same way but pronounced completely differently depending on the dialect or language! 

简体字 – jiǎntǐzì
Simplified: less strokes per character 

Simplified Chinese, as it indicates in the name, simplifies each character, so they are easier to write and memorize. It’s also easier to read in a small font or thick pen writing compared to complex, crowded Traditional characters. Simplified characters were introduced to improve the literacy of everyday Chinese people. The first round of simplifications that the Chinese government implemented started in 1956, with a goal of reducing complexity.

Some people say that because of character simplification, Chinese characters lost aesthetic and traditional values, including the meanings the base characters held. However, during the reformation, the everyday peasant needed to learn writing and practice strokes when paper was rare.

繁體字 – fántǐzì
Traditional Chinese: maintaining original meanings

Traditional Chinese, on the contrary, keeps the original forms which have evolved over the course of a thousand years. The base characters that make up a more complex character often contain key information in understanding meaning. For example, in traditional characters, love (愛)is written with the character for “heart” in it, whereas the simplified rendition of love (爱)does not contain a heart! 

TL;DR: Choose simplified if you want to go to China, enjoy mainland/Singaporean/Malaysian TV shows etc. Choose traditional if you want to go to Taiwan or if you’re studying Japanese too. Choose Cantonese if you wanna talk to people from Hong Kong and watch cool Cantonese dramas or enjoy awesome cantopop music. Speaking of, here’s my Mando/Canto music playlist on Spotify if you’re wondering what I listen to.

Click to access my list of Chinese resources to kickstart your studies!

My personal choice

This is one of my most-asked questions! Not many people know that I actually started with Cantonese before I did Mandarin Chinese, meaning I started with traditional. I had a friend from Hong Kong who did a homestay with my family and he taught me Cantonese, and therefore my first introduction to Chinese characters was through traditional forms. Only later did I pause Cantonese and decide to pursue Mandarin Chinese (Taiwanese accent). Most of the Chinese resources I could find use simplified Chinese characters. Luckily, awesome apps like Lingodeer now include settings to switch between traditional and simplified.

I switched over to simplified for a while, but then when I realized I have a big love for Taiwan and want to travel there, I chose to move back to Traditional. Most of my language partners are Taiwanese too. So you can say I’m learning both at the same time. The keyboard on my phone is in Traditional Chinese, but I’m comfortable reading simplified too. 

Since I’m learning Japanese too, and Kanji often uses traditional style Chinese characters, it’s also a natural choice for me to continue with traditional.

Ready to learn Chinese? Get started with these resources:

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Happy studying!




3 responses to “Should you learn simplified or traditional Chinese?”

  1. EA⁷ (@mygspaws) Avatar

    Hi Lindie, thank you for this post. I have been studying Japanese for a while and a few years ago I became very much interested in learning Korean and Mandarim Chinese.

    Every time I think about checking a bit of Mandarim Chinese I’m reminded that there is Simplified and Tradicional and that I have to make a choice.

    In fact, I came to your blog today precisely to checkout if you had already answered this question, before asking it myself.

    Thank you very much for your help 😊

  2. […] There are two writing systems in Chinese – Simplified and Traditional. Before you learn how to write, you need to be familiar with the differences and know which one you want to learn. Check out this guide I wrote about Traditional vs Simplified.  […]

  3. Ike Avatar

    Frankly speaking, as a native Chinese speaker, there are few differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, because native Chinese tend to read characters (words) in a “pattern recognition” way. If you are fan of sci. & tech., you may have better understanding what “pattern recognition” is. Simply put, we usually read Chinese words by patterns rather than by “subtle details of exact strokes”. So when it comes to pattern, there are few difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and any exceptions won’t affect your overall reading experience.
    Curious people may ask me about writing. I would say there are still no or few differences when writing with computers, because Mandarin share same pronunciation (regardless traditional or simplified), so a native Chinse speaker can simply use any popular input systems and choose the right characters in either traditional or simplified format.
    All in all, never exaggerate the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, there are essentially the same thing. If you are a foreigner, I recommend you to start with Simplified Chinese, because you can get used to “the patterns of each Chinese characters” much quickly. After that, you could try to read some materials in Traditional Chinese to train your “pattern recognition”, after a few weeks or even days, you would be comfortable with reading both of them.

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