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How important do you consider learning how to WRITE specific characters?

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Hi all,

I've been studying Mandarin for about 4 months now. I come to you in a moment of frustration as I'm going over vocabulary flashcards. I can probably recognize a few hundred characters. I would say that I can actually write about half of them from memory without really thinking about it and another quarter of them if I think about it or sneak a peek at the character.

As for the rest, it's extremely frustrating to try memorize how to write out characters and words. I think I am something of a perfectionist in that I go through flashcard after flashcard trying to perfect every character, but it seems like this is a ton of effort for what is only a part of learning Mandarin. (At the moment, words and measure words for foods/drinks are killing me. It seems like none of them are sticking, even though I can recognize them.)

So, should I be killing myself trying to be able to write every character I learn, or is it okay to leave a few behind and concentrate more on recognition?

Thank you!!

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It is okay to leave a few behind. Even more than a few. Think of the natural language learning process: a child, first they understand, then they speak, and then learn to read and lastly to write. As adults with cognitive learning ability we usually can skip and combine some of the steps and we learn to speak and read and understand about the same time, with reading it can be removed completely or mostly but I do not find that a good way to learn. But writing, it will be difficult to combine that step and learn everything fully the first time around.

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Hi ezpar,

You'll probably get a lot of different responses on this, so take what everyone says with a grain of salt.

IMHO, characters are an integral part of learning Chinese, but the most important thing is that you improve your ability to communication. If you're corresponding primarily via email then you better learn as many characters as you can. But if you're speaking more than writing, then don't let the characters slow you down. I lot of people get discouraged by the complex characters. There will come a point in your studies when characters will actually become easy because you'll be able to recognize the character components (radicals) and will even be able to guess how the character is pronounced.

So characters are important for writing and passing Chinese classes, but I think becoming conversational is more important. Characters definitely can help, but in the beginning, they can be somewhat of a hindrance. Do pay attention to the pinyin and tones, though.

Hope that helps.

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Feel free to let writing lag behind if you want - it's not a skill you'll need very regularly, if at all. I can write basic stuff ok, albeit at a level far behind my reading, and once or twice a year I feel a bit frustrated filling in a form or something, but it really isn't much of a handicap.

Only caveat would be that if you want to learn to write eventually, don't let it lag too far behind - it's no fun going back to writing elementary level stuff when your other skills are already advanced. But controlled, planning leaving-behind of writing won't do you any long-term harm.

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I know study can be tough. Please give yourself some time to relax and don't over stress yourself. Take a walk on the street or outside your room.

Are you learning simplified Chinese Character or traditional Chinese Character?

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I think that it is unnecessary (in a business sense) to learn how to write Chinese. I can understand, and I can read over 1500 characters all without knowing how to write anything but my name. When I do have to write, I write with pinyin and rarely have to write real characters unless it's some important document or something. In that case, I have first type it out in the computer, then write everything out. (My writing looks below that of a first grader) I believe that after I have memorized all of the HSK characters and words will I take a stab at writing.

When I finally do decide to learn how to write, I think I will skip the tedious stroke orders and go directly to Chinese cursive writing. (Does anyone know what this is called?)

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Clearly everyone is different. I find learning to write a character an essential part of memorising its recognition (long-term recognition). When you become good at writing characters the stroke order becomes obvious and you can start writing quickly.

I think if every to arrive at the point that you have learnt 2000 characters without being able to write them it will become virtually impossible to motivate yourself to start all over again re-learning them.

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I think that opinions will vary on this topic.

Most people will have a gap between passive knowledge (reading/recognition) and active knowledge (being able to write). I think that this is fine.

I think that if you learn the radicals and think in terms of building blocks, your ability to write will improve. If you know that the character for fear (怕) consists of a "white" and a "heart", and know how to write those, then you can write it. So knowing how to write the radicals and all the common elements of more complex characters can help you along. Most Chinese characters are composed of such "building blocks".

I personally think that writing is not as important as it used to be. Today, I rarely write anything by hand, other than short notices to myself. I had to write a letter by hand recently (English) and my hand almost fell off. And for typing on a computer, passive knowledge of characters is enough. You only need writing for stroke count, stroke order, and handwriting, and the first two are relatively simple even if you can't write many characters.

If you want to learn how to write though (which is a legitimate goal), then you basically need to understand the structure, and write write write.

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If there was only some software that could quiz you in a flashcard-like manner on how to write characters. All you would need to do is buy the software, and it would come with one of those writing pads. Then the software would test your stroke order and grade how well you can write. Or maybe there is something like this out there...

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:mrgreen: wow, you guys are so smart, and so good at adjusting, when dealing with Chinese characters. Such as learn to read tons of it, and no need to write and can still get things thru.


"...I think that if you learn the radicals and think in terms of building blocks, your ability to write will improve. If you know that the character for fear (怕) consists of a "white" and a "heart", and know how to write those, then you can write it. So knowing how to write the radicals and all the common elements of more complex characters can help you along. Most Chinese characters are composed of such "building blocks"...."


This is 'kind of' why I ask if you are learning simplified Chinese characters or traditional Chinese characters? (see the quote)

There is pros and cons to both simplified and traditional characters.

Many Chinese classes, that is for teaching foreigners Chinese, teaches students simplified characters, coz it's more simplified and thus easier to pick up.

However, simplified characters are not as systematic as traditional characters. Thus, in a long run, it's hard to learn.

Traditional characters, may seems harder by impression, since it got more strokes. But it's more systematic, in a long run, it's easier to learn.

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I agree that you should be learning to write as well as read.

But I think you've got unrealistic expectations -- and very unrealistic expectations -- if you think that you're going to be able to write "several hundred" characters from memory after just four months of study.

I don't think it's a process that can be pushed too fast in the beginning; your brain needs to develop some sort of new mechanism for sorting out characters, and that takes time, at least for most people it does. Once that mental process for dealing with characters is in place -- and it may take a year or more -- you'll find that learning to write and read moves at a much faster pace.

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If there was only some software that could quiz you in a flashcard-like manner on how to write characters. All you would need to do is buy the software, and it would come with one of those writing pads. Then the software would test your stroke order and grade how well you can write.

You can use PlecoDict to test you on writing characters. See the thread below.


Poll: Amount of time to learn a Chinese character

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As others have said each and everyone to their own. Personally although I've been studying at a Uni for 3 semesters in China I have not bothered to learn how to write. Due to time constraints and my personal goals I don't think writing Chinese is necessary. I want to use Chinese to work in the future. People hardly ever write letters nowadays by hand. So if you type e-mails you just need to recognise the characters and pick the correct one when typing on a computer. At the moment I'm not interested in getting a high mark in the HSK exam, but I'm interested in being able to communicate effectively in Chinese and also be able to write e-mails and conduct research on Chinese websites. As for me these are the skills that I think I need to be able to work in Chinese. It just depends on your goals.

I agree that if you learn to write characters I'm sure they will stick longer in your memory. But I'm too busy with working etc, don't enjoy the writing and don't see any value in me learning to write. I just focus on the speaking, listening and reading and send my Chinese friends e-mails as often as possible to practice typing in Chinese. But if you want to learn the writing good for you and good luck!

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Wow, thanks for all the responses. It's nice to see other people's perspectives on this.

I think I will definitely tone (haha) it down a little bit with trying to write out all of vocabulary I learn. Eventually I'd like to become literate in Mandarin, but I will probably focus more on speaking and listening and a little less on writing. And thank you, 889, for pointing out that my expectations might be a little lofty. Sometimes it seems like going through flashcards consumes all of my study time when I enjoy listening to podcasts and CDs and stuff a lot more.

FYI, I am learning Simplified Characters. I'm currently taking time off between undergrad and grad school, but I eventually hope to work with (but most likely not in, at least full-time) mainland China, so simplified made the most sense to me.

Thanks again!

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  • 2 weeks later...

worst come to worst if you really need to write down something on a piece of paper and you're not sure you'd manage 'spelling' out the characters correctly, you can always type the text out using pinyin and then copy it :wink:. of course that won't work for an exam.

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I'm in the "not worth worrying about" camp myself. How often do I need to write a character by hand compared to listening, reading, speaking, or writing with a computer? So that's how I appropriate my study focus/time/

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I take learning characters in two phases. The first is to learn to recognise by sight, the second is to know how to write it.

As I progressed through New Practical Chinese Reader, I typed the word lists into my computer. From those lists, I can do several things. One is to generate web pages with links to dictionaries, etc.


Another is to make my own flash cards. I bought index cards and cut them in half. Then I bought a box of labels. Using the cards and labels, I made cards where one side has the hanzi and pinyin, and the other side, the English. The chapter and list number in NPCR and what part of speech it is, is printed in small type on both sides.

Each time we started a chapter, I'd make a new set and use those to memorise the characters. One chapter will fit in your palm, and you can put an elastic band around the cards for each chapter.

I generally learn to read them by covering the pinyin on the flashcard with my thumb and looking at the hanzi. If I can say it and know the meaning, I put that card down. If I can't say it or don't know the meaning, I uncover it, turn it over, say it a few times, and put it to the back of the pile. I repeat this until I'm not holding any more cards. I can learn 40 new cards in about half an hour, and by holding the two piles in my hand, separated by a finger, I can do it anywhere, such as waiting for a bus.

To practice for writing, I do it in reverse: Look at the English on each card, and see if I can write the hanzi. Then I'll turn it over and see if I was right. If I was, I put the card down and keep going. If not, I write it three times and put that card to the back. Again, I repeat this until I don't have any more cards.

Here's an old picture of me doing the writing. You can see the mistakes and where I write it out three more times:


I've found this works really well for memorisation for both reading and writing. One problem is that after many chapters, you get quite a bag of flashcards, and it's a bit hard to lug around. So I've been wanting to write some software for it for quite some time.

ABCinChina wrote:

If there was only some software that could quiz you in a flashcard-like manner on how to write characters.

I have written a Java program (called "Chutor", for "Chinese Tutor") for my phone that does this. It's not going to tell you if you got a word right (you're capable of making that assessment), and it doesn't have stroke order, but it works pretty much the same as my flashcard idea above. You can set it to show hanzi->pinyin->english or english->pinyin->hanzi, and from a list of NPCR chapters, you can choose a set of characters you want to work on. It also remembers the set you're working on, so if you exit and come back, you've still got the same characters left in the pile.

Now that I have it on my phone, I can do my practice anywhere. It's very convenient.

All you would need to do is buy the software

My software program is FREE. The only catch is that I haven't created the website or put the software up for download yet. Part of this is finding the time, part of this is I would like to get some people together to do some testing first.

(If anyone here knows J2ME/Java, the source code can be fetched using SVN from http://www.sf.net/projects/chutor. I'm considering asking for help on chinese-forums in the computing forum)

Anyway, I guess the purpose of my post is two-fold. The first is some ideas on how to make memorisation easier (hope this helps you), and the second is to motivate me to make that website and release the software!


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