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.
When people talk about language classes, they often reference building up four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the early days of Lotus Chinese Learning I used to talk about the language skills that my students would learn. I did this because I thought that was what people expected. While we often put our languages in the skills section of a resume or CV, language is not a skill. Language is a complex and abstract system. It is not a skill that you learn like knitting.
But wait! Many students say, language is a skill that you can learn. It is exactly like knitting. You learn the rules, then fill in sentences with the vocabulary words. Rules are great for textbook publishers, but they don’t adequately describe language. I promise you that you know more about English than what you could put in a textbook about English grammar.
Language is a Complex and Abstract System
Say that you want to paint your house. You paint it and decide you hate the color. Can you repaint your house? Yes, of course! Then, you go inside and you decide you hate how your living room looks, can you redecorate it? Yes, of course! Then, if you go into the kitchen and bake a cake that doesn’t taste good, can you rebake the cake? Nope! Reading that last sentence, I’m sure your brain protested the use of the word. I’ll bet $5* that no one ever taught you that you can’t use the word “rebake.” But you knew this anyway. That is what we mean when we say that language is more complex and abstract than rules in a textbook.**
Can We Work on Skills in Isolation?
Furthermore, it is not really that useful to separate language into the four skills or speaking, listening, reading and writing. This implies that in a language class, we spend some time working on our speaking, some time working on listening, some time reading and some time writing. This is not how a good language class works. Teachers should know that it takes a long time before students are really ready to speak the target language beyond a few words or phrases. This does not mean that they won’t be communicating from day 1. Rather, they will start with a few yes/no type responses, nodding, etc., before they are ready to speak in full sentences. Especially at the beginning, students need to spend far more of their time listening than anything else.
Language is too complex and abstract to be described as a skill. Speaking, reading, listening and writing are also not really discrete skills that students can work on in isolation. We learn to write from reading and listening and we learn to speak from listening and reading. A language is not a pie that you can slice into four equal pieces called speaking, listening, reading and writing.
One more thing
World language classes often also focus much of their “speaking practice” on presentational speech. Presentational speech is basically when students stand up in front of the class to talk about something. Students can often do fairly well at this, even when they are beginner or intermediate students. They can memorize chunks of speech and just get through whatever they have to do. We already know that memorization is not really language learning. But there is a different reason to do less presentational speech in a language class. The reason is that we don’t just do that much presentational speech in our lives. Teacher do lots of presentational speech… but everyone else, not so much.
*If you can honestly remember someone telling you that “rebake” is not a word, I will Paypal you $5. Email me.
** Hat tip to Bill VanPatten for inspiring this example
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.
It can be challenging for parents who do not speak Mandarin to understand their children’s progress in the language. Teachers also need to check in with students frequently, in order to understand what the students “know.” School administrators also require teachers to give grades. We need to do periodic assessments for all of these reasons.
What kind of assessment works with TPRS?
Lotus Chinese Learning classes for upper elementary and older students use TPRS. TPRS is a language teaching method that uses storytelling and reading to help students learn second language. TPRS is different from “teach and practice” language teaching methods because students actually hear and use the language. The TPRS method does not use a traditional textbook, so there are not pre-packaged tests for teachers to use.
In TPRS, students make up stories with the guidance of their teachers. The students later read the stories that they created. Since the students created the stories themselves, they are naturally more interested in them than anything that comes out of a textbook.One type of assessment that works with a TPRS class is story writing. With this type of assessment, students have 2-4 minutes to write down a story. They can re-tell the story that we are working on in class. They can also go in a completely new direction with their story.
What counts as “good”
A good piece of student writing shows that the student can use the words and structures we have learned so far in class. The writing is a snapshot of what is inside the child’s head. If I am doing a good job helping the students acquire Mandarin Chinese, then the students should feel like writing is natural and fun.
Writing in Chinese is a different challenge than writing in the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German and Spanish). Chinese characters are more complex than letters. When handwriting Chinese, students must write each character in the correct order. Students (and sometimes even native speakers!) can often read a character but still be unable to write it from memory.
Caveats for Chinese
There are a few suggestions for how to deal with this issue in assessing progress in Mandarin Chinese. One is to let the students write in pinyin if they cannot remember the characters. I think that this is fine, since 95% of any Chinese writing that the students will do in the future will be using pinyin to type on a computer or phone. Another idea to have the most frequently used characters on display in the classroom so that the kids can refer to them. In any case, the mechanics of Chinese writing should not get in the way of an assessment of what the kids know how to say in Mandarin Chinese.