Having struggled to learn Chinese for a few months, I was delighted when our teacher recommended a site that really helps learn the characters. Memrise has many languages on it but it will be most helpful for when you’re learning a completely new alphabet or different script. It works by an electronic equivalent of flashcards but what makes it really effective is the way it forces you to revise characters you learned earlier. The idea is that you “plant” characters in a greenhouse (short term memory) and when you’ve been tested successfully on them enough times they go into the garden (long term memory). But you must keep “watering” the plants in the garden to make sure you don’t forget them.
When added to the site’s helpful user-generated mnemonics (memory tips) it works really well and even becomes slightly addictive. I don’t know if the science it’s based on is well known but it seems to work for me and other students of Chinese I know. It’s not a substitute for the hard work of learning grammar and practising whole sentences but it’s a life-saver for reading Chinese characters. Understanding the way they’re built up also helps understand the language. So the character for noodles is made up of “face” and “twigs” which makes sense. Others are more opaque: “rice (cooked) – fàn” is made up of “food” + “rebel”, where rebel in turn is a combination of “slope” and “right hand”. But the very oddness makes it easier to remember (at the moment any way – ask me again in a week).
And it’s free.