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Learning to write, finally.

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Along with many foreign learners of Chinese, I never really bothered learning to write Chinese by hand. I made a couple of efforts at doing so, but the non-stop scribbling of characters and the fact that I didn't actually need to write meant I never got past a few hundred characters. In all honesty it wasn't really a problem - how often do we need to write? I can remember feeling a bit daft a couple of times when I had to ask for help filling in a form in a bank or at work, and on occasions where I had to write notes for people I'd have to spend time painstakingly copying characters out of the dictionary, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn't a pressing issue. Computers, blah blah, SMS, etc, etc. Who needs pens? I learned to read, stopped.

I'm now attempting to learn to write. The main reason is that I'm trying to even out my Chinese skills. I don't want to be in a situation where I can read a lengthy Chinese report with no problems, but struggle to jot notes down in the margin; or to be able to acquit myself relatively well in an interview but not be able to write down my address on a form. Minor reason is exams.

What I'm interested in is how people have made this transition - from being a reasonably functional user of the language, with a grasp of a certain amount of grammar, vocab, etc, strong character recognition skills, but unable to actively produce those characters in writing, to being able to - well, to write things.

I've been approaching it like this:

1) Early summer I decided to learn to write. Given a preference for learning based around words rather than characters I started off on a fairly traditional copy-copy-copy-test approach, but using words (working off the HSK lists initially, on the basis that they were available). I used Plecodict's flashcards to manage the vocab items, but I was actually doing the writing onto paper.

This didn't work too well, basically because I was finding it too slow. Perhaps I was too impatient, but I felt like the characters basically weren't going in. I think there might have been a bit of psychological nonsense going on. "Hmmm, so I can learn over 8000 words or just over 2000 characters . . . . well, must be easier and quicker to learn characters." But so:

2) I started working on a character level. Again using HSK lists I basically worked though level 1, prompting myself with pinyin and meaning info and writing the character either onto paper or the PDA screen depending on where I was. Once I was up at about 95% correct for any given set of 50 random characters I moved onto testing words. Again, show the pinyin and meaning, and attempt to write. Most important thing about this stage is learning which ge is in 资格,etc, and if like me your tone knowledge is dubious in the extreme this is going to be even more difficult. But that's another long story about a different kettle of fish.

So far I've got myself through the first three levels of HSK characters, about 1600 of 'em, and am working through level three words. I'd say at this stage I could write most things I need to, but in many or most cases I'd need to be choosing my vocab carefully to make sure I used characters I can write. This is progress.

Issues that concern me are:

a) Handwriting. My handwriting in English is poor, and I have no dreams of creating calligraphy. However I think I'm doing it all a bit too quickly and working on a 'looks ok to me' basis. When I write quickly things very quickly become illegible, even to me.

B) Speed of writing. I'm still at a stage where I frequently have to stop and think the character through. Hmmm, 繁荣 de 繁. Ok, that's 每, the bottom is that horrible bit from 紫 . . top right, is it 欠 . . . no, hang on . . . etc. While that's not a major issue, I want to be thinking about what I'm writing and not how to physically put it down on paper. This will come with practice, but that brings me to

c) Practicing and maintaining. I need to be able to write more fluidly, and that means practicing. But - how? As established we don't need to write on a regular basis so I can't rely on day to day life like you might be able to do with say, listening skills. Is there anyone out there who is writing an essay a day? Transcribing radio shows? Writing letters to the newspapers? I could just revise words / characters on a daily basis, but that's going to get pretty dull pretty quickly and it's a missed opportunity to use other skills at the same time. Maybe I should just take up calligraphy.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing. Would be interested to hear from anyone who's tried to make the same jump.

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Use Wubi when typing on computers. It really helps you get to know your characters and which parts go where. It's far more interesting than writing by hand, and allows you to integrate with other computer based learning tools. At the same time it directly translates to writing skills, because you have to remember the shape of the character and how to write it before you can type it (although it won't help with your calligraphy :))

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When I was in school, we used the copy-copy-copy-test approach and it worked, I don't know why. After I left school and started working, I tried this method again but it didn't work anymore! I wanted to expand the number of words I can write but it has been futile.

Like what you said, we don't even need to write nowadays and my writing skills are getting from bad to worse. Sometimes I can forget very simple words and I can get very frustrated trying to think how the word is written.

Practicing and maintaining

I am trying to do this too but like you said, it's HARD! I used to write letters in chinese to my friends who are living in Taiwan or China (they can't read english) but the words used in letters are limited. I mean you don't get to use a great variety of words. So now I am trying out another way. I bought some vocabulary assessment books and tried doing them. These books are designed for high school students and there are various levels (2000-3000 words, 3000-4000 words and 5000 words levels). I will do some exercises in there when I am free. I think it sort of works. You can try too~

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This something I've been meaning to do, as well. I used the PlecoDict flashcards method you described for a few months and probably got about as far as you did, but I haven't practiced much at all since the beginning of the year, and I'm afraid that I've forgotten quite a bit.

On your point about improving the look of your writing, you need to practice following models -- like 范冰冰; no, the other kind of models. :mrgreen: Such models are provided in writing template books (字帖).

There are basically two handwriting styles to practice: 楷书 and 行书 (sometimes called 行楷). 楷书 is the standard straight-up blocky characteres, whereas 行书 is the more sloppily written cursive version. It's usually recommended that you start with 楷书, then move on to 行书, just as you started with writing big, blocky ABC's in first grade before you learned to write cursive ones. However, since we are not in grade-school anymore and don't have all the time in the world, there's probably no harm to moving directly to learning 行书, as that's the handwriting style most adults use to write longer documents.

Check out these writing template books (字帖). There are such books with 成语 and famous sayings, as well as straight 3000 (or however many) most common characters. Using the 成语 or famous saying books might be better, as you'd feel like you are learning something beside just handwriting and you are writing in phrases, which is closer to actual writing.

Here are a few of such books. If you are in China, it's best to just go to a bookstore and browse through the possibilities.










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There are basically two handwriting styles to practice: 楷书 and 行书 (sometimes called 行楷). 楷书 is the standard straight-up blocky characteres, whereas 行书 is the more sloppily written cursive version. It's usually recommended that you start with 楷书, then move on to 行书,

After learning a bit of both in calligraphy I adopted certain 行书 methods in my normal everyday writing and that is usually just the simple ones that don't effect the look of the character to much like in 木 I just done the linked stroke for the bottom "branches" or 的 I just make the right one stroke. But now my 综合 is complaining because my handwriting is getting worse. She blames it on me studying 行书 in calligraphy but I don't know if that's the real reason or not or if it's just that I am trying to write faster.

Either way my handwriting in any language sucks so I am pretty happy that my characters look half way decent :mrgreen:

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Ok, this is just a long painful process that you just need to keep working on. inevitably you will be going uphill until you reach some sort of plateau, so I would recommend writing a few paragraphs everyday.

One way, a journal. When you get stuck at a word look it up. after a few months you'll find words you originally got stuck on are a piece of cake and your writting will slowly get better and cause you to chuckle at how your characters use to look...


if writing a journal is lame (i usualy can't do it very long b/c it just ends up being full of random rants) read something interesting in the newspaper and then paraphrase it in your own words w/ or w/o looking at the paper for reference. Try not to copy, since it'll be pretty mindless and you'll need to recall the characters not just look back and forth to copy them.

In terms of improving one's own writing, I use to pay very close attention to how teachers wrote characters on the board or how my Japanese friends or Chinese students would write. That was basically it. My writing isn't going to win any awards, but it is passable.

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One thing that kind of worked for me was printing out pages of pinyin on Microsoft Word. I'm put some of the important characters that I would want to know, or I'd copy out the pinyin from sentences that I found in books that had good vocab and great grammatical structures (with the hope that I could memorize the sentences and then reproduce and tweak them on the HSK writing). So, I'd often spend an hour listening to music and writing those characters out.

Another thing that helped was getting a cell phone that enabled me to handwrite characters. Then, for about two months or so, I only sent Chinese texts messages by handwriting, often having to look up characters. This made a two minute text turn into a ten minute text. Nonetheless, that helped with speed, and I think my handwriting went from horribly ugly to just somewhat ugly.

One interesting thing, though, I made most of the pinyin pages in September and October of 2006 to prepare for the HSK. After a while, I could easily write out all the characters on the pages. But by April 2007, I found that I had forgotten how to write about half of them. :help Although, it was quicker to re-learn them than it was in the first place. I guess that means that one really needs to practice often.

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Well, I still can't write but now I don't feel so alone :mrgreen:

Wubi I've looked at in the past and always thought 'I should use that'. I guess this might be the time to bite the bullet and get on with it.

I have 常用字行书速成 by 钱沛云 as a result of this topic, I'll take a look at your other recommendations Gato. I'm kind of concerned that given my 楷书 is still a mess moving onto 行书 is just going to end up with bad habits being made worse. But as you say, time is limited. And like I say, I write ugly in English. I'm not sure there's any point in striving to be beautiful in Chinese.

Heifeng, you say "your writting [sic:twisted:] will slowly get better and cause you to chuckle at how your characters use to look..." Did that actually happen? I guess if you have the discipline to write slowly and carefully it would, but I'm not sure I do.

Handwriting input for SMS is a good idea. My current phone can't do it, but it does have stroke order input, and I've been thinking of splashing out on a new device lately, so . . .

Thanks for all the pointers folks.

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natives also face the issues (a) and (B) in #1, which are why students need to do a lot of practice, calligraphy / composition homework, dictation, etc.

I don't really have much chance to write in chinese any more. So I have started to forget how to write certain characters (issue B). But since I started to write my blog in Chinese on my pda using handwriting input method (as metioned by wushijiao and heifeng), I've improved a lot.

As to ugly handwriting (issue a), I wouldn't worry too much about it. Few people can write beautifully. As long as the writing is legible it is ok.

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yes, your Chinese 'writting' (hehe) will get better . The longest duration of my actual 'journal' writing (or at least a notebook with somewhat frequent entries) lasted for over a year. A year or so after graduation I realized that I had forgotten so much of what i had learned. After writing for a while I saw some improvements and after more than a year I looked back and could see very significant overall improvement and was able to correct my millions of cuobie zi and grammar, and a bunch of other thing I had written incorrectly before. (Although I did learn characters the old fashion, actually writing on paper way during my elementary Chinese classes, we were usually encouraged to type our papers in Chinese, so I definitely ran into problems later on b/c of this) However, keeping a journal and looking back did indeed cause me to chuckle...

and one day I hope I can say the same for my English:mrgreen:

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What counts as legible????

I think it'd be very hard to say in words, but you'll know when you see it. What would say if you are asked what's considered legible handwriting in English?

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It's boring as can be, but writing out text over and over and over seems the best way to automate those hand and finger movements.

And have someone look over your shoulder from time to time before any bad habits become ingrained.

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(Although I did learn characters the old fashion, actually writing on paper way during my elementary Chinese classes, we were usually encouraged to type our papers in Chinese, so I definitely ran into problems later on b/c of this)

What I do especially when I was first learning and having to write a paper I would type it first so I wouldn't lose my train of thought as I struggled through characters or if I completely forget on all together...Then I would copy it onto paper (my teachers would prefer it written to help my writing but there is only ever a max of 2 people in my class besides me so it's not a problem). I found this worked in 3 ways: 1) Helped me get my thoughts down 2) Rewrite helped me with the characters 3) Rewrite also let me find my mistakes and places where it just wasn't well written...

I still use this method now but mainly for reason 3...

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was able to correct my millions of cuobie zi
How do you do that, when you are writing for yourself? I would imagine that you just keep on using them. Or is your diary publicly accessible? I quite enjoy those random rants you post on here :mrgreen:
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Handwriting input for SMS is a good idea. My current phone can't do it, but it does have stroke order input, and I've been thinking of splashing out on a new device lately, so . . .

You can do this on the PC, too, when you are writing the odd email in Chinese or posting on 中文角 here.

This free Windows-based handwriting recognition IME that I mentioned in another thread seems to be very good. I have a graphics pad. It might be harder with a mouse. But give it a try. It's free.


飘雪智能手写辨识系统 V3.0

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Or is your diary publicly accessible?

omigod, I tore up and flushed my old diary after my first year in China once I got passed that writing 'hump'. The writing was so bad I didn't want anyone to see it's contents. Although I consider that journal the dark ages of my Chinese writing it did serve it's purpose.

On as far as how to correct cuobie zi, later on, when you are no longer completely 'guessing' you'll discover you either had no idea what you were writing or mindlessly wrote the wrong character. I personally had some crazy cuobie zi so later on it was easy to find them...I mean I literally made up how to write characters or left off radicals, (or even worse only had the radical correct), added or deleted the dian stroke somewhere, or wrote another character with the same pinyin.

OR you can get a friend to look at your writing and circle the problem characters. It will also cause him or her to chuckle. So don't be shy go ahead and make someone's day:)

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Roddy, thank you for your post. I now know what it feels like to experience schadenfreude.

Like you, somewhere along the way I quit trying to remember how to write the characters. This happend to me when I stopped formal study in the classroom and started working full-time. In formal classes all essays and assignments had to be handwritten but in the professional world everything is done with a computer. And like you, I tried intially by using words rather than characters. I ended up not being able to continuous with this way for the same reason--it was too time consuming. So I ended up following a character list (the JLPT for me since I'm based out of Japan). I practice writing the traditional form of the character, and then remember the pronunciation in Mandarin and Japanese. It is slow when I go by characters, but I don't get as tired of it. When I was doing it with words it was just getting overwhelming.

For handingwriting, I gave up on ball pens. I recommend getting the "brush" style felt pens that a lot of people use for writting addresses on envelops and what not. With those pens you have to force yourself to be a little more careful. At first it was not going well because it took longer to write, but after I became used to writing with these pens, as well as correctly following stroke orders, I feel more comfortable.

As for writing speed, I honestly haven't found an answer to it. I don't think I'll ever write as fast as I can in English, and I'm not sure how to quit thinking about the shape of the characters that are more than the basic five hundred or so. This is something I guess I have just taken for granted. When I watch my Taiwanese friends or Japanese coworkers write they use a shorthand to make it quicker. I guess that is really the only way to speed things up.

As for practicing, I can't think of many ways. For me the only way I get regular practice is when I take notes. I have always prefered paper and notebooks to computers, so when I am reading reports or books for work, I take notes in a notebook. The only other way I can think of is writing letters. But then again it is hard enough to get replies to e-mails these days, letters would probably take even longer! :)

The wubi input method also seems like a really good idea though. Seems tough to learn at first, but it does seem like a good reinforcement method.

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