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chinopinyin

Why Learning To Write Chinese Is A Waste Of Time

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chinopinyin

This is the certainly provocative title of a paper by Joseph Allen in Foreign Language Annals, Summer 2008, Volume 41 Issue 2, Pages 237 - 251. You can read it here or here

Taking into account that most of one's writing is electronic (e.g. email,word processor,text message), do you feel that learning to write Chinese by hand is really well worth the effort? Pinyin input methods are really convenient

Wouldn't it be better to devote that time to reading/speaking/listening abilities? Do you feel this is a heresy?

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Hofmann

Well, if you put it that way, writing anything by hand is a waste of time. Disclaimer: tl;dr.

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yonglin

I found that his article was a lot of fluff and little substance.

It is certainly nothing new that many native Chinese speakers have found handwriting skills becoming less necessary with the introduction of electronic media and input systems. The author probably downplays this a bit too much, however. For example, I would think that most university students still take handwritten notes during lectures.

What makes the article a "fluffy" opinion piece (in my opinion) is that he makes no attempt at actually testing whether disregarding handwriting skills makes for more efficient learning of other skills. As a professor in an Asian Languages department, he'd have excellent opportunity to test his hypothesis in a classroom setting.

I would think that some minimal instruction in different radicals, for example, is absolutely necessary in order to be able to recognize characters efficiently (the learner needs to take the leap from seeing the character as a "picture" to seeing it as being composed of already familiar parts). Once a few hundred characters have been internalized, I think most learners automatically extend their reading vocabulary significantly faster than their "hand-written" vocabulary. So this part of his proposal, is already happening.

Finally, I think there might be an issue with relying on "recognition only" too much as well. As a Chinese learner, my recognition lies primarily with compounds: for example, I might feel extremely confident (about meaning/pronunciation) when seeing two characters in a compound, e.g., 容易, but not having a clue how the character 易 is pronounced when seeing it on its own. Given the fact that relatively few characters (a few thousand) are used to form a great number (tens of thousands) of compounds in Chinese, not properly recognizing the characters on their own might be an impediment to learning.

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p0mmes_frites

I have also been thinking about this issue for a time. Should I really devote my time to developing hand-writing skills? Well, the answer seems to me yes. I personally believe that knowing how a character should be written is what makes us able to recognize it on computer input methods. If we quit the writing skill completely, we would end up being in a big trouble as we'll learn more and more words without actually knowing how to write them. Using only computer input to write will cause us to forget the words more easily. It will also prevent us from developing a deeper understanding of Chinese language. It just helps us to develop practical skills.

It depends on where do you want to use your Chinese. If you are looking into practical business, you may well use computer only, but to some extent. If you really want to be efficient in Chinese, I believe you should be able to use hand writing.

But here is an idea: If you want to develop quick and practical Chinese, you may use computer to write hanzi and give more importance to reading, listening etc. Then, in time, you may have time and chance to develop your writing skill slowly.

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LaoZhang

I think that writing is not completely necessary. There are a lot of people that can speak but are effectively illiterate. Grantedany of them have spoken since a very young age (I'm taking about CSL folks). There are numerous conversation courses that will never touch characters and many books even use their own phonetic system. All that aside, in my opinion, learning the characters enhances the language acquisition process because you can see the relationship between characters. Think about your primary language. How well would you function without being able to handwrite anything?

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rezaf

Waste of time for whom? Maybe for a foreigner who just wants to learn some Chinese for communicating with his ayi or buying vegetable but certainly not a waste of time for a university student like me who has to take notes in the class, write essays and lab reports in a very limited time. Anyway I just don't think that it is possible or effective to get to the level of recognising 5000 characters without being able to write them as these abilities are connected and writing is the base of reading not the other way around. It's like training someone to write music dictation without first training him to play an instrument or do sight singing. It might be possible but i suppose it's gonna be a huge waste of time cuz a lot of our recognition ability comes from our writing ability.

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roddy

Has anyone actually read the article?* Despite the title, it's actually relatively level-headed, and points out that for the majority of students learning to write by hand isn't the best allocation of time. Hardly revolutionary.

*I haven't

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rezaf

(I read half of it very fast so if there is actually something that I'm missing please point that out). The source of the article is irrelevant to his claims. He can't get to any conclusions based on some feelings that some native speakers who already know how to write have towards writing hanzi. It is very difficult to say being able to write hanzi is useful or not because it depends on what you want to do with your Chinese but it is possible to see if it is actually possible to learn recognising hanzi without learning to write them. I think you can have 2 groups of students with no knowledge of Chinese language and with similar intellectual ability and then teach them 1000 characters. I think it should be a lot of characters as the number affects the results in recognition. Forbid one group from writing anything and see by the end of the course which group is faster in reading a text within the range of those characters.

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roddy

You're missing the point. How much time will each of those groups need?

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rezaf

The same time. That's why I think we should be talking about a big number of characters. My initial guess is that it is easier for some people in the group that can't write to learn the first for example 100 characters but they will have problems as the number goes up. Another guess is that without writing the characters some people might also have problems even in learning to recognise the first 100 characters cuz they will just look like a bunch of weird lines. I think we all agree that writing helps recognising the characters faster but what we don't know is how big and necessary the help is. Only with this method the writer can prove that learning to write is not that necessary for recognising the characters.

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rezaf

The point is that you can't conclude anything from the feeling of some people who know how to write hanzi. The study groups should be clearly devided.

(This is a guess) I think that recognition ability of hanzi mostly comes from our visual memory which means that we have to have an image of the hanzi in our brain. I do think that writing the hanzi will make this abstract image more and more clear and therefore increases the speed of recognition. On the contrary not being able to write leaves a blurry image in the brain that can't be recognised when the number of characters increases.

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elliott50

I have read the article and agree with the author.

I notice that in Singapore the Ministry of Education has made changes to the school curriculum to downplay the need for students to memorise how to write characters. In 2004 the most advanced learning objective for writing was proposed to be:

"Able to compose a 450-500 word narrative or expository essay with the help of a dictionary and/or assistive computer tools". (see here, page 45).

Implementing the new policy has met resistance though:

"Currently, the position of Chinese in Singapore is still controversial as frontline teachers have different interpretation on the position of the “Higher Chinese” course" (see here, page 49).

This is a hot topic for me personally. I passed written exams in Chinese at elementary level (c. 800 characters) whilst at university, and I think that level of learning to hand-write characters was very helpful to me. But I have carried on studying, and I can now read well over 2000 characters and can produce sensible written chinese communications using a computer. I am studying at "advanced" level evening classes in London, and coping with the spoken language required. I want to carry on my studies, with the objective of being able to operate in a chinese-speaking environment and understand chinese media.

I would like to formalise my future language achievement, and would therefore like to pass the new HSK (levels 5 & 6), but this would require hand-writing skills in chinese. Unfortunately, I can see little practical benefit to me as a business man in being able to hand-write chinese. After all, I almost never hand-write english in either a business or a personal context. I also notice that, other than professional chinese language teachers, most chinese people who live in the UK and western graduates of chinese language programmes quickly forget how to hand-write chinese characters.

So I am in a quandary, do I "waste my time" learning to hand-write over a thousand new characters in order to pass the HSK exams and get some external validation of my language achievement; or do I spend that same time improving my reading, listening and speaking, so that my actual practical language level is higher?

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gato

While calling it a "waste of time" is an over-generalization (done to attract attention, most likely), there probably should less emphasis on memorizing how to write characters for foreign learners, who can then used the saved time to work on their reading and speaking, which are much more important in the real world.

Even the Chinese educational establishment has recognized that there should be different standards for reading and writing, so their expectation are still very high, maybe too high.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/21172-does-it-take-longer-for-chinese-children-to-attain-reading-comprehension/page__p__171668#comment-171668

The requirements set by China's Ministry of Education for elementary schools (see below) show that a student:

- by the 2rd grade, should be able recognize 1800 characters and write 1200

- by the 4th grade, should be able recognize 2500 characters and write 2000

- by the 6th grade, should be able recognize 3000 characters and write 2500.

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Scoobyqueen

In my experience most people still take notes by hand when in meetings. If the meeting is in Chinese, it is quicker if you can write down using hanzi: learning hanzi in this context is a good use of one's time.

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elliott50

In my experience most people still takes notes by hand when in meetings. If the meeting is in Chinese, it is quicker if you can write down using hanzi: learning hanzi in this context is a good use of one's time.

Thank you Scoobyqueen, that is really helpful. Especially as I know from your other posts on these forums that you are actively doing business in Europe using Chinese.

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Scoobyqueen

Thank you Scoobyqueen, that is really helpful. Especially as I know from your other posts on these forums that you are actively doing business in Europe using Chinese.

Cheers Elliott. In fact I work in communications and faciliate interviews with the media. In these cases I have to note down what is being said so that they quote correctly. Additionally, often in China, when attending meetings I find it useful to be able to jot down what is being said using hanzis (rather than translating it into English first).

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Shi Tong

Just one thing I have to say about this is that, personally I think you must at least know how to write the character in order to read it.

There aren't many characters that I can read without being able to write it too (or at least having learned to write it before), because I find it impossible to read something I've not written before.

I dont think it's "necessary" to write it "prettily", provided that you can write it and know how it's written because this will lead to being able to read it.. IMO.

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rezaf

Just one thing I have to say about this is that, personally I think you must at least know how to write the character in order to read it.

There aren't many characters that I can read without being able to write it too (or at least having learned to write it before), because I find it impossible to read something I've not written before.

I dont think it's "necessary" to write it "prettily", provided that you can write it and know how it's written because this will lead to being able to read it.. IMO.

It's so obvious that you need to learn writing characters(even if you forget some of them later) at some point in order to be able to read them that I don't know why someone might want to waste his time writing 16 pages to prove it wrong.

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Shi Tong

Glad you agree rezaf.

I cant even remember that amount of times I've looked at a complicated character and not recognised a lot of elements in it until I've actually broken that character down into it's parts and thought about putting them back together again. It's like engineering. How can you understand the car unless you've actually tinkered with the engine? You might be able to drive it, it doesn't mean you can fully understand it.

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skylee

There aren't many characters that I can read without being able to write it too (or at least having learned to write it before), because I find it impossible to read something I've not written before.

On the contrary I think there are many characters that I can read but can't write. Not sure if it is that you know a lot more characters than I or the other way around. :P

Re the car analogy. I think most people just need to drive the car. They don't need to fully understand it.

But I think that it is absolutely necessary to learn how to write Chinese characters by hand.

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