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realmayo

Can you write lots of Chinese characters?

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skylee

That is called 背默. When I was a teenager this was what we did almost every week at school. The text was usually Classical Chinese (we only did dictation on Modern Chinese). The memorisation was very helpful for learning Classical Chinese.

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AdamD

Every single character I know (around 900, I think) I've learnt by writing: pencil on paper; flashcards on my phone; post-it tabs in textbooks; dictation from audio tapes. My writing is now so solid – for my basic level of language learning, at least – that I can scribble all the characters I know at a rapid pace and read them back afterwards. I've even started to develop a writing style, although to a native speaker it's probably at kindergarten level!

Being able to write characters helps me learn new ones quickly and reliably. I think the part of my brain that remembers the spelling of English words now also engages to retain the make-up of Chinese characters, because I need to put in far less effort than I used to. New characters just seem to sink into my brain without much effort.

As with East Asia Student above, my course requires that I write exams in characters, so it's really important that I keep this up. Usually I have extra time at the end to rewrite answers and fix errors.

Re useful/fun/stimulating: This is incredibly dorky, but sometimes I race through my phone flashcards in time to drum & bass. I also smash out a load of flashcards to alleviate boredom – recently my wife spent two hours buying clothes, so I sat in a corner of the shop and worked through two thirds of my pack.

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jkhsu

However, at this point I don't think it would be worth the time, so I'm not. Maybe in a couple years I might take up the pencil again, but it would be only for fun and personal satisfaction.

Before I read your post, I thought I was the only one not learning to write characters by hand anymore (based on the other posts here). The last time I wrote characters by hand was during some community college classes I took a while back. Obviously, it's a given that if we have the time to write characters by hand, it would improve our character recognition. However, that would take a lot of time away from other activities such as reading books, writing using a computer and speaking. Anyone else in a similar situation or have thoughts about learning Chinese without writing characters by hand?

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heifeng

I rarely have the need to (hand)write in English or Chinese....but I CAN write the characters I know (even if amnesia does set in if i don't write for a while...and it definitely sets in here and there). Therefore I just set aside 1-2+ hours a week to practice my Chinese writing...basically practice my penmenship & review characters at the same time. Sure 1-2 hours isn't alot, but it's something I can do while listening to a TV series or something....and it helps me to not forget how to hold a pen.

Anyway, I've always thought practicing writing characters was both fun and relaxing. I use to spend almost too much time practicing my characters when I was in college (as a way to avoid the other homework waiting for me). I wouldn't consider NOT learning the characters. Besides your writing, sooner or later, will become a conversational piece when Chinese people see it, so you better at least know how to write somewhat decently.

I always cringe when I forget how to write something in front of other people (yes I remember once in a bank on 新街口 I wrote a character wrong on a bank account application and it is still bothering me to this day....grr) so I try to at least take some proactive measures to make it 'appear' I know what I'm doing.

Lastly, once you know a certain (insert some scientifically obtain # here) number of characters, it's just a matter of putting the right element in the right place. It's probably only the first 'N' number of characters that requires some real brain power. The rest is just maintenance....

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skylee
I use to spend almost too much time practicing my characters when I was in college (as a way to avoid the other homework waiting for me).

Ha. This is how I deal with work that I don't want to do - I keep doing other things. Do you have a name for this, besides procrastination?

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WestTexas

I never write. I used to practice every day, but now I don't. I can still write basic stuff, but slowly I am forgetting even those. I know Chinese people who are in their 20's who can probably not write more than 2000-3000 characters, just because when they graduate from school they never hand write anything again. For example, my tutor did not remember how to write 肇 or 嗜.

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OneEye

I have two separate main decks of flash cards. One is for stuff I want to be able to write, and one is for things I'm OK with just recognizing for now. The first one has all my vocabulary for class and other things that I feel would be useful to be able to write. The second has things I encounter often but don't really need to be able to write, along with things from a textbook I'm studying outside of class. It works well for me because I can learn a lot more vocab than I would be able to if I made myself write everything I learned, but I can still write everything I need to be able to for class. In a few weeks though, the vocab I have to learn each day in class is going to triple (new book), so we'll see how long I can keep this up.

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jkhsu

Given all that, I'm interested in fellow forumites' experiences -- are there plenty of people who've persisted with making sure they can write most of the characters they recognise? Or have most people decided there's not much point?

I hope my response is somewhat related to what realmayo's original post is asking. Below is my personal view on the importance of writing Chinese coming from someone who is self-learning Chinese, who does not live in China (and who does not plan to live in China in the near term), who is not currently in school (not taking classes in Chinese where note taking by hand in Chinese is a necessity), and who is not planning to teach Chinese where knowing how to write by hand is a must.

I believe the ability to write Chinese, whether one chooses to use a computer or by hand, is a very important part of learning and understanding Chinese. However, to me writing Chinese using a computer (or any other type of electronic input device such as smartphones, tablets, etc.) is perfectly fine and in many ways, more advantageous than writing by hand.

1. The most important part about writing is the ability to communicate one's thoughts and expressions correctly in written form. It is more important that one knows how to use the correct words / characters in context than it is to know how to write those exact characters by hand. For example, even if I know how to write (by hand) words like 情况, 情形, 情境, etc., I may not know which ones I should use correctly when trying to express something. Therefore, I don't think the act of writing characters by hand gives me much of an advantage here.

2. When writing using a computer, you automatically get practice knowing how to pronounce the character. This is really important for people like myself (living outside of China) who might not have as much opportunity to speak Chinese vs. someone who is living in China. However, I think this feature is beneficial for anyone. I know I often make mistakes when trying to remember whether a character starts with (s or sh), (z, c or zh), etc. When I use the pinyin input, I am forced every time, to get the "written" pronunciation correct (minus the tone marks of course, but that's better than nothing).

3. I think it goes without saying that most written communication is done online these days and knowing how to write well using electronic input is an important skill.

From personal experience, my guess is that most self learners don't get enough practice writing Chinese (using a computer or by hand) in general. It's important not to confuse the ability to write Chinese (as a language used for written expression) with the ability to remember how to write a character from memory. The former is where I think most self learners lack practice because most typically spend the majority of their time reading, remembering vocab and perhaps watching Chinese TV, listening to audio / music.

If I had an extra 15-20 minutes a day, during weekdays, and a couple of hours on the weekend, I would do the following to improve my written Chinese. You can do this by hand or a computer. I prefer to use a computer.

1. Pick a Chinese text at your level, read a sentence (or more if can), close the text and write out what you've just read using a computer. This is the 背默 (from post #20 and #21). It helps one to learn how text should be written and how words are used in context.

2. Pick an English text (or text in your native language) and translate it into Chinese. Try to preserve the same level of grammar and vocabulary if possible.

3. Write articles, essays and participate in forums / blogs using Chinese, etc. I've heard Lang-8 is useful for this. I've always thought that if I could have written all my posts (in this forum) in Chinese (over 300 in a couple of months), I wouldn't be worried about my Chinese at all. But I'm not there yet and will have to work up to that level though. :lol:

For #2 and #3, you should have access to a native speaker to correct you if you can.

In my view, doing 1, 2, and 3 is a better use of your time than trying to remember how to write individual characters by hand. I also feel that by doing the above, you will improve character/word comprehension because you are actually using those characters to express your thoughts vs just reading what others have written (or worse blindly writing characters by hand while your mind is on something else). One scenario I was thinking of while coming up with this post is if I worked for a Chinese newspaper company in the USA and had to write articles in Chinese using a computer every day, I doubt I'd be worried about not remembering how to write Chinese characters by hand. As a reporter in the USA, most likely, I'd use English to interview people so I could theoretically take notes in English. All I have to do is do the translation to Chinese when I'm done. I don't see how the ability to write a few characters by hand in Chinese affects my Chinese comprehension if I am already writing newspaper type articles on a daily basis.

Now, if I lived in China, that's a different story. I do believe one has to know how to write at least some Chinese characters by hand just for practical purposes. One should at least know how to write their names (in Chinese), address and anti-fraud numbers (I don't mean 〇, 一, 二, 三, ... I mean 零, 壹, 贰, 叁, ...). One should also be able to write simple letters and thank you cards by hand as well. I still don't think one needs to be able to write essays and newspaper level text by hand. But this is really a personal choice based on one's situation of course.

Disclaimer: I want to state that the point of my rather long, detailed post is not to re-start the debate on the pros and cons of hand writing Chinese characters. It's just my personal view based on my own situation of living outside of China and given the limited time I can devote to studying Chinese. I also don't plan to or need to achieve "near" native level fluency.

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realmayo

Interesting responses, I'm actually a little surprised that in lots of people's eyes it seems quite normal to keep plugging away writing the characters -- I had assumed that the consensus here was that there's not much point, at least not beyond a certain level, and so I'm encouraged that people seem to think it feasible. For me I'm doing it because I'm only getting a limited exposure to Chinese these days and find myself forgetting how to *recognise* lots of characters, so I figure the best way to feel like I own these characters again is to get myself in a position to be able to write them from memory. But in a different situation I might well decide otherwise. Although echoing an earlier comment I must admit that I am finding again that the process is really quite enjoyable! Anyway, everyone and every situation will be a bit different so I definitely don't think there's a case to say everyone must, or everyone must not, memorise how to write thousands of characters -- and thanks jkhsu for the link to the older thread where the pros and cons of doing so were discussed & I'm sure that's as good a place as any to contine that particular debate if people feel the need.

For those who are spending time to memorise writing these things, are you aiming to be able to write from memory pretty much all the characters that you can recognise? From the earlier responses it also seems that people generally expect to spend a certain amount of time every day practising.

skylee of course your response was not irrelevant, a native-speaker (native-writer!) point of view all part of life's rich tapestry. And you know, much of what you said is exactly the same for me when writing English: I used to write essays and so on years ago but for more than 10 years I hardly ever have to write presentably by hand and when I do my hand hurts, and the writing looks really ugly and I constantly have to cross words out ... although unlike with Chinese of course it's much rarer that I'd forget how to write a word.

I might add that going back to learning and testing myself on writing characters, after doing so religiously for a year or so and then completely stopping for the last two years, it's obviously much easier second time around: part of that will be because many characters are ones which I used to know how to write three years ago, but another part is because there are characters which I'd not learned to write before but which I can now already recognise and will have read many times in context. It now seems less like an abstract mental exercise and more a natural, rounded or wholesome process. :)

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Olle Linge
Interesting responses, I'm actually a little surprised that in lots of people's eyes it seems quite normal to keep plugging away writing the characters -- I had assumed that the consensus here was that there's not much point, at least not beyond a certain level, and so I'm encouraged that people seem to think it feasible.

Couldn't this be because people actively writing on this forum is not representative for the average learner of Chinese? I mean, obviously we think studying is important and/or interesting enough to hang out here, and I think it's reasonable to assume that there is at least some correlation between this behaviour and a more rigorous approach to learning Chinese in general. If you asked everyone currently studying Chinese in China, I do indeed think that you would get the answer that you expected. Just a thought, what do you think?

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realmayo

Well actually, not really: people here are always swapping ideas about the best way to study, and from reading and participating in that process I'd got the impression that most people on the forums don't find it beneficial to spend so much time on writing (for, of course, perfectly reasonable, er, reasons). Conversely, if I'd have been stuck at home with a Chinese textbook and no internet access, well, naturally I'd have got a lot more studying done! But also maybe be reluctant to do anything different to what the book told me, and if the book (or, say, teacher) said you should learn how to write, I'd learn how to write.

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chaiknees
1. Pick a Chinese text at your level, read a sentence (or more if can), close the text and write out what you've just read using a computer. This is the 背默 (from post #20 and #21). It helps one to learn how text should be written and how words are used in context.

Thank you so much for this great idea! As for my skills, reading is ok and becomes better and better, but when it comes to producing (speaking and writing) I am still far behind. I tried writing essays, but it always ended up in overly simplified bla as if I only know 50 Chinese words. More complicated vocabulary and structures just don't come to my mind :(

Your mentioned method sounds really good and helpful to improve production skills and the abillity of expressing oneself. You really need to concentrate on the word usage and are forced to use the grammar constructions correctly. As well, no native speaker needed for correction which is convenient when you're alone at home.

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rezaf

@chaiknees: If you are gonna use this method my advice is that you should memorize texts that are worth memorizing. Also try to collect them in a notebook or something so that you can review them every once in a while.

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jkhsu

If you are gonna use this method my advice is that you should memorize texts that are worth memorizing.

Rezaf's points are good, however, I should clarify that what I mentioned about memorizing a sentence or two and transcribing is simply for short term memory and transcription practice. This is something you can do everyday for 10-15 minutes just so you get used to using text that is propery written (assuming you are using a textbook or something written by natives). If you want to remember text for long term memory, then definitely choose more worthwhile text that you can refer back to later.

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Olle Linge
But also maybe be reluctant to do anything different to what the book told me, and if the book (or, say, teacher) said you should learn how to write, I'd learn how to write.

I did say people who study Chinese in China! :) I think the incentives to prioritise speaking over writing are much more prominent when living in China and I think few people who do that stay in their homes and only use their textbooks to study. However, I'm not trying to say that your impression of the community of learners was incorrect, I merely tried to provide an explanation. :)

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Hofmann

What's "a lot?" 90% of what you can read? 50%?

I'm probably closer to 50% than 90%.

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Altair

I learn Chinese as a hobby. I am self-taught and live outside of China without much exposure to Chinese.

I began my odyssey with characters by studying Japanese and learning to write about 1500- 2000 characters. I then started learning their traditional Chinese equivalents. I then started reading predominantly simplified-character texts and stopped learning how to write or practicing writing. My skills began to deteriorate. I went from knowing how to write thousands of characters to hundreds and then to only a few score that I could write confidently without hesitation. I began to fear that I would end up in single digits. I even forgot how to write 你 and 的, but somehow 龍 has always stuck with me.

At this stage I thought I did not really care much about writing and concentrated on other things. As I read various online things for content, I basically was able to understand most of the characters I read by mere context. Then I realized that I had no idea what the difference was between 没 and 设 and that my "reading" was far too dependent on context. I was making almost no progress in reading names or texts with a heavy dose of formal Chinese or classical expressions that have many one-character words .

I have rededicated myself to writing and have tried to use Skritter regularly. Although I write Chinese very infrequently, I have tried to make Wubizixing my main input method to force myself to recall character shapes and make the typing experience more like what I have in writing English. My main limitation using Wubi is my poor ability to recall the character shapes, but this is improving.

I think of learning to write characters like learning to spell words in a language like English or French. Spell checkers can take you pretty far, but some ability to spell is simply the mark of an educated person. I have a decent proficiency in spelling both English and French and can no longer imagine not having a similar goal for Chinese. Although I despise writing out lines of characters by hand, I actually find the ability to produce single characters quite cool and enjoyable. Chinese without characters would seem somewhat boring, and taking away writing them "stroke by stroke" by hand (or at least in the air, in my head, or by computer) seems to head down that boring road. At least for me.

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anonymoose

I used to practise writing characters quite a lot, especially for the first few years of learning when most of my time was spent outside of China. Now that I am living in Shanghai, I use written Chinese on an almost daily basis, so I don't spend any time specifically practising any more, since I have enough exposure anyway.

I still feel I need to boost my vocabulary in order to be able to express myself more accurately or more elegantly, but in most cases, any new vocabulary consists of characters I already know, so learning new characters does not take much effort any more. I estimate I am able to write in excess of 4000 characters.

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