What Do We Need to Learn When We Learn How to Write?

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.

Conclusions

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.

More on learning to write in Chinese:

Making sandpaper characters

Where to start if you Want to Learn How to Write Chinese

 

Making Sandpaper Characters

Making Sandpaper Characters

Parents and teachers familiar with the Montessori approach probably know about the sandpaper letters. Sandpaper letters are exactly what they sound like. The letters are formed out of sandpaper and glued to small boards. Students trace the letters with their fingers as they practice their sounds. They build up a muscle memory of how to write the letters as well.

Are there Too Many Characters?

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but many thousands of Chinese characters*. This sounds like bad news for making sets of sandpaper characters, but I will argue that using sandpaper characters in Chinese class is still doable. Firstly, students do not need to learn all the characters at the same time. For a one hour per week Chinese enrichment class, a reasonable goal is learning about 50-100 words per 14 week semester. Even if we used sandpaper characters for each word (which we might not), that is only 50-100 for a whole semester. Seems much more manageable, right?

We can still use the sandpaper technique with Chinese, even though we are dealing with many more characters than letters. Making these things, however, is still not easy. It is pretty time-consuming, so I no longer lend out my materials to students and their families. So here is a step-by-step guide to making sandpaper letters at home. You don’t even need to speak Chinese in order to make these for your kids!

The Step by Step Process

Step 1: Get the materials.

Everything that you need to make sandpaper characters you can get at Michaels or similar crafts store. You will need: graphite paper, stiff paperboard that is still thin enough to cut, a list of characters that you want to make (with pinyin), glue (Elmer’s is fine), scissors, sand, a paint brush, a marker, a computer and printer.

Step 2: Trace the characters to the paperboard.

I type up the characters I want to make on a MS Word document. If you don’t know Chinese, ask for a list of characters from your child’s teacher. The font that I prefer is ST Kaiti because it shows the way the strokes look when they are written with a brush and ink. I print them out with just the outline (to save on ink) in 200 point font. With the carbon paper, I then trace the characters to the paperboard with the graphite paper., leaving about an inch of space between each character. I also like to color in the characters with a gold Sharpie.

outline of character "zhong"
Printing out just the outlines of the characters saves on printer ink.

Step 3: Write in stroke order. 

This is the really time consuming part. Each character needs to be written in a certain stroke order. On the sandpaper characters, I write in arrows with numbers next to them to show the order. This is important to show the kids that they have to follow the stroke order. If you don’t know Chinese, you will need to look up the stroke orders for the different characters on a website like this one.

photo showing process of making sandpaper characters
This is the most time-consuming part of making sandpaper characters, writing in the stroke order.

Step 4: Cut up the characters.

At this point, I cut up the characters into individual cards.

Step 5: Glue and sand.

With a paintbrush if you need it, make sure that the characters have a thin coating of glue. I do about 5-6 at a time, any more than that and I find that the glue starts to dry before I get to the sand. I put the cards on a piece of tin foil so I can easily pour the excess sand back in the bag and reuse it.

photo of sandpaper character "我"
The finished product!

Step 6: Let dry and use!

Again, this process is incredibly time-consuming, but it is not exactly difficult. It can be done without any knowledge of Chinese, but writing in the stroke order will be extra tedious. Doing about 20 characters takes me several hours. On the bright side, they last a long time. So far, I have been using my first sandpaper characters for 2 years.

More on Chinese and Montessori tools.

Mandarin and Montessori (one of my most popular blog posts, ever).

*Most sources agree that there are about 20,000 characters in modern use, with about 2-3,000 needed to read a newspaper in China.

Revisiting Chinese Hand Writing

More on Writing in Chinese

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.

photo of child doing Chinese calligraphy
This is a fun activity (writing Chinese with water!) to introduce children to Chinese Characters.

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.

Where to Start if You Want to learn Handwriting in Chinese

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.

Materials

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.

still shot of video from Line Dictionary
Videos like this one show stroke order for Chinese characters

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.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

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.

More on writing Chinese characters

Choosing Which Chinese Characters to Learn

Why are there two types of Chinese characters?

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.

photo of traditional vs simplified Chinese characters
The traditional character is on the left and the simplified character version is on the right

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.

More on the fascinating world of Chinese characters.

Lotus Chinese Learning uses simplified characters. For more information about classes, check out the classes page. If you have a question, get in touch via the contact page.

 

photo of simplified vs traditional Chinese characters
The traditional character version is on the left and the simplified version is on the right