What Do Students Need from a Writing Curriculum?
Learning how to write Chinese is intimidating to many students, especially if they start learning the language later on in life. Most students find the prospect of learning how to correctly write several thousand Chinese characters extremely daunting. Like language itself, writing is highly complex. Learning how to write in another language is not just a process of learning how to write words and then stringing them together on a page. In order to understand how to best learn how to write in Chinese, we should take a look at the different types of writing that we need to do.
Everyday Writing Purposes
What kind of writing do you do every day? Be honest. Texting, emails, maybe a grocery list, a to-do list? That is pretty much it, right? This type of writing is pretty straightforward. To do this kind of writing in Chinese requires knowledge of how to input Chinese in a phone or computer (i.e. pinyin). You could do this type of writing without even knowing how to form characters, especially if you use an app on your phone for things like lists.
Writing emails and texts doesn’t come with high standards for beauty and a clever turn of phrase. Writing emails for business has a little more pressure than writing emails to friends, but generally you don’t have to be Hemingway or Yu Hua to write a good one.
Writing and Register
Writing for work is more demanding than writing for everyday purposes. Writers need not only to know how to convey their meaning, but also the knowledge of how to do so in a way that it is appropriate for work. The technical word for this is register. In a nutshell, we use different registers for different types of communication. It is generally accepted that different registers coordinate with different levels of formality.
Like writing for work, writing for academic purposes also requires a different level of formality than writing a text to a friend. Academic writing is probably more formal than writing for business. Writing for art, that is writing something like a novel or a poem is probably the most demanding type of writing. Very few people are good at it in their first language, and even fewer can write beautifully in their second language. Vladimir Nobokov comes to mind as a great writer of English, although it was not his first language. He might be the exception that proves the rule.
What does this all mean for language instruction? Many language classes have writing for academic purposed as one of the goals and requirements. There is nothing wrong with wanting students to be able to write a good research paper in the target language. Most of the writing that people do however, is the simple stuff, like texts, emails and grocery lists.
This is good news for a proficiency-oriented curriculum. While I do think it is important for students to be able to properly handwrite characters, that skill is not necessary for 95% of the writing that most people do. Academic writing is pretty difficult, but it is just not something that the vast majority of language students will be expected to do. A better use of students’ time is focusing on the everyday types of writing they will actually need.
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