Learning to write Chinese characters is one of the most daunting parts of learning Chinese. This blog has a couple earlier posts about learning how to write in Chinese. They are here and here. Last night, in one of my adult classes, several questions about writing Chinese characters came up. Below is an edited version of the Q & A I had with my students.
Do I have to learn how to write Chinese Characters?
Nope! You do not have to learn how to write Chinese characters by hand, if you are an adult. If you are serious about learning Chinese, even just a little, you should learn how to write in Chinese. For most purposes, however, it is fine to use computer assisted methods for writing Chinese. This basically means learning how to type in Chinese. This article has more information about how to input Chinese on a computer or a smartphone. I do, however, teach all of my kids the basics os Chinese writing and expect them to practice.
Do I have to learn calligraphy?
Well, no. You do not have to learn Chinese calligraphy. That is, you do not have to learn all the different type of dots and strokes that make up Chinese characters. Students can only really capture those with an ink brush. For my kids, I focus on making sure than they can handwrite characters with the correct stroke order. We go over the rules during class and then all the practice that they do is as homework. It really does take a great deal of repetition to learn how to right fluently. We just don’t have enough class time to spend on it.
Are Chinese Characters Basically Random?
No! While they may seem just like a collection of squiggles to new students, Chinese characters really do have rhyme and reason. A small percentage of Chinese characters are pictographic. This means that they come from picture representations of the words that they mean. The vast majority of Chinese characters are formed through the combination of one part that gives the meaning, and another than suggests the sound. There are some characters that are meaning-meaning compounds, and a couple other categories of character that only include a small number of characters.
Don’t quite get how most Chinese characters work? Let’s take a look at an example. If we look at the character 情 qing2（feeling, love), the radical on the left hand side 忄suggests the meaning as it means heart. The right hand side hints at the sound: 情，请，清，晴 & 青 are all pronounced “qing” with different tones.
Interested in learning more about Chinese characters? This book is a personal favorite.
For most Americans, the words “graded readers” probably bring the Dick and Jane series to mind. Graded readers, also known as basal readers, use a very controlled set of vocabulary words to tell a story, typically in a series. While many schoolchildren in the US encounter graded readers in English, they are also available in Chinese.
How Graded Readers Work
Graded readers are a great resource for students learning to read in Chinese. Many adult students are highly motivated and want to start reading in Chinese right away. So they pull up an article in the New York Times in Chinese and try to read it. But they have to look up every other word. With copy, paste, and Google Translate, this is not too difficult, but it is not reading. Students just don’t get the fluency that comes with reading. To a fluent reader, graded readers seem really repetitive. It is this repetition however, that helps students learn. This guiding reading about Mid-Autumn Festival is an example of how repetitive a reader should be. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still see that the same characters are repeated over and over again.
Why Use Graded Readers?
In contrast, some adult students really don’t care about learning to read. This is unfortunate because it really limits their ability to learn later on and leads to misunderstandings later on. I recall one person who was fairly fluent in Chinese telling meant that the word for shark was “killer fish.” It’s not. They’re both sha1yu2 in pinyin, but shark is actually 鲨鱼 NOT 杀鱼. With graded readers, students can learn to read in Chinese as they acquire their oral proficiency. This is far less daunting than building a vocabulary in written Chinese much later.
All About Authres
So where does that leave authentic resources? Authentic resources (or #authres on teacher Twitter), are those texts written by native speakers for native speakers. Many teachers love using authres because they give students a glimpse of the target culture(s). The trouble with authres is that they are often too difficult for beginner and intermediate students. Some adults try reading children’s books only to find that they too are filled with words that they don’t know. Furthermore, children’s books often contain low-frequency words. The example below has a lot of high-frequency words like 吃 （eat), but also low-frequency words like 粽子 (a type of food).
Make it Short and Use Pictures
While it is challenging to use authres for beginner and intermediate students, it is worth it for the cultural knowledge. To work around the issue of authres having too many unfamiliar words, I usually use very short texts. This way students don’t get overwhelmed from having too many words. In an hour-long class, we definitely have enough time to go over a few short texts.
I also like to make sure that my authres have a strong context. If there are accompanying photos/illustrations it is so much easier for students to figure out the meaning. Remember, students need to connect the words that they see and hear to meaning if they want to acquire language. If they don’t “get” what they are reading, it just will not sink in.
Two is Better Than One
In order to acquire reading proficiency in Chinese, students should use both graded readers and authres. Graded readers help non-native speakers read fluently (without checking the dictionary every other word). Authres give students a view into the target culture and by their very nature, are interesting to students.
Handwriting is Different than Listening, Speaking and Reading
Learning to write Chinese characters is a different endeavor than learning to read or speak. Some students want to study Mandarin Chinese without learning how to read Chinese characters. I do not recommend this approach as it is nearly impossible to progress past a certain level without knowing how to read Chinese. Handwriting is a different story however. Students can “write” in Chinese via a smartphone or computer without ever really knowing how to handwrite Chinese characters. While handwriting Chinese characters is a beautiful thing, in the 21st century it is not necessary to have this skill in order to communicate.
First graders in China learn to write Chinese characters by writing on paper called tian zi ge. The paper has a grid pattern for students to practice writing their characters. The grid pattern looks like the character 田 （pronounced “tian”) hence the name of the paper. There are plenty of options for students who want to buy practice notebooks like the ones that kids use in China. Or you can just print off a free version from the internet.
Learning Stroke Order
Before students start to practice writing Chinese characters, they need to understand stroke order. Each unit of a Chinese character is called a stroke (think brushstrokes). Each character has a prescribed order with which to write each stroke (generally speaking we go top to bottom, left to right.) There are many websites that feature little videos that show stroke order. I like this one. Look up a character or word and you will be able to see a video that shows how to write the character.
Start with the Most Frequently Used Characters
The process for learning how to write Chinese characters is not that different from how kids in China learn how to write. Students need to write the characters over and over in order to build up the muscle memory of writing each character. Often practice books for writing Chinese characters start with the simple, pictographic characters, like 木 （wood, tree). I suggest that if adult students want to learn how to write Chinese characters, that they instead focus on the most frequently used Chinese characters. These include 我，想，是，有，在 etc, to start with. This poster can be a useful guide to the most commonly used Chinese characters. Adults who are interested in handwriting Chinese characters often enjoy the process of learning how to write them.
Handwriting for Kids
Kids are a different story to adults. While adults have the intrinsic motivation that they need in order to sit down and practice writing, young children generally do not. In order to teach young children how to write Chinese characters, I borrow from the Montessori method. Little kids like the tactile sensation of using the sandpaper characters pictured below. They practice with these until they are old enough to be able to concentrate on writing using a pencil and paper.
Older children, especially if they have chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese, often have the motivation to practice writing Chinese characters on their own. For these students, it is important to keep encouraging them in their writing so they don’t get frustrated. Learning to write Chinese characters takes time. It is okay for students to write the pinyin while writing a longer passage in Chinese. They should keep up their momentum so they don’t get frustrated.
There are two types of Chinese characters because the Chinese government started a project in the 1950s to simplify the written form of Chinese characters. The aim of this project was to increase literacy rates. As a result, people in mainland China use simplified Characters, while folks in Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters. Mandarin Chinese is also an official language of Singapore, where they use simplified characters as well. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of how simplified characters came to be, for those interested in reading it.
Which type of characters should my child (or I) learn?
If you have a strong preference for either traditional or simplified characters, you should stick with that. Learn traditional characters if you think that is the best choice for you. If you think that simplified characters are the wave of the future and that your child should learn simplified instead of traditional characters, then do that!
You can also decide by not deciding. If you send your child to a local Mandarin immersion program, odds are he or she will learn simplified characters. According to this list (from the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council), the vast majority of Mandarin immersion programs in the US teach simplified characters. There are however, many schools that use traditional characters.
Okay, so I don’t have strong opinions, but what are the pros and cons of each system?
There are lots of pros for both traditional characters and simplified characters. In the spirit of a lively debate I will present both. Traditional characters are more connected with Chinese culture and history. If you are interested in reading the inscriptions on ancients steles, or practicing Chinese calligraphy, then traditional characters might be the best fit. Learning traditional characters is also a bit like learning to drive a stick shift first. If you can drive a car with a manual transmission, you can drive an automatic easily. But the reverse is not true. People who learn traditional characters first have an easier time with both systems than folks who learn simplified characters first.
Simplified characters on the other hand, win the numbers game. There are 1.3 billion people in China (maybe you’ve heard that before 🙂 ). They use simplified characters. While Taiwan, with the traditional characters, only has a population of about 23 million. Simplified characters might also be easier to learn. After all, the Chinese government created this system with the goal of improving literacy rates.
No matter which you choose, it will be fine
In some sense it does not matter which system students learn to read and write in Chinese. One of the tasks of learning a language like Mandarin Chinese, is learning to deal with the issues that come with the regional variations. That includes a wide variety of accents, and it also includes the writing system.
This is an imperfect analogy, but say you were on vacation in some exotic locale. A person comes up to you on the street and asks you for directions. You start telling her where to go, but she suddenly turns on her heel. She explains over the back of her shoulder as she walks away, “Sorry, I only speak British English.” If this happened to you, you’d probably think that this person is a pretentious clown. Also, most people don’t like to give rude strangers helpful directions.
So often, language learners do try to limit their scope to only one part of a language. Some students don’t want to learn how to read and write Chinese at all. Some students want to only learn Mexican Spanish or Spanish from Spain. Teachers can be weirdly selective, too. In the one Spanish class I have ever taken, our teacher didn’t use tu, just usted. We completely skipped the informal you! It was a strange thing to leave out!
Once a person knows one system or the other, it actually is not that difficult to move between one system and the other. I once worked with a Taiwanese lady who wrote all her stuff in traditional characters and then ran it through Google translate to get the simplified character version. Sure, it was a couple minutes extra work, but no big deal! I’ve spent more than a decade using and learning simplified characters. Yet, when I am in Japan (where the kanji are almost identical to traditional characters), I can read* their characters just fine. My friends from mainland China all insist they can read traditional characters with relative ease.
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. My advice to parents and students is to not get so worked up about choosing traditional or simplified that you stumble at the starting line. As long as you stick with it, it will be fine.
*I can read in the sense of knowing the meaning, but I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation. I don’t speak Japanese.
Further reading and information
For a lengthier discussion on traditional vs simplified, and a handy flow chart , check out the Mandarin Mama blog.
People in Western Countries Love Chinese Characters
Walk into any home décor store and you are sure to find a throw pillow or some wall art with Chinese characters on it. Usually there is an English translation somewhere too. While it is nice that people are interested in Chinese culture, this is not really how written Chinese works. It is very common to see a character like 爱 on its own and then the translation “love” written in smaller font.
… But They Usually Don’t Understand How They Work
This is misleading to anyone who does not speak or read Chinese because Chinese words are usually the combination of two characters. So while 爱 does in fact mean love, we have many words that are love-related that use the character 爱. For example, the word for romantic love is 爱情. The word for patriotism is 爱国. Just translating 爱 as love on a piece of wall art misses a great deal of the richness of Mandarin Chinese.
There are also cases in which the translations written on a candle holder is wrong or misleading. It took me .000235 seconds of Googling (okay, maybe a little bit longer) to find the below image. It is a pillow with the character 牙 on it and the English translation is “fang.” The word for fang in Chinese is actually 獠牙 (like a monster’s fang). On its own, 牙 can mean tooth, a tooth-like thing, or even ivory. Without the addition of the character 獠 in order to clarify the meaning, 牙 does not translate to “fang” at all.
Don’t Trust a Pillow to Tell You What a Character Means
It is great that people appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. I would not, however, trust anything that you can buy at Target. Just like any other language, Mandarin Chinese is complex. A piece of wall art with the character 静 on it and the word “tranquility” below does not give the full picture of how the character is used in context. It may look cool, but there is a lot more to it.
For a laugh, the blog Hanzi Smatter is devoted to “the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” There are lots of embarrassing tattoos! (Some content is adults-only).