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Completely Separating Writing From Reading (and listening and speaking)


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Hey everyone,


I feel like I've read a lot of stuff about writing, a lot of stuff about reading, and a lot of stuff about if one should learn to read without learning to write - as well as stuff about using frequency lists to learn writing, and the differences of character frequency lists to word frequency lists (or at least HSK lists), etc. But I can't find anything about learning to both read and write, but separating them... But I feel like someone must have tried this (or maybe it's just such bad idea that no one bothered :D), so feel free to direct me if I missed anything.


I'll give some background first...


I started off with ol' Heisig. I forget how many characters I got though, but I stopped using it after a few hundred... Then I decided I hated writing characters and I’d just learn to read them and use phonetic input on the computer... I used Pleco flashcards and went from Character on the front to having the pinyin, audio and English meaning on the back. Then I found two months in that I was mixing up a terrible number of characters, and characters that I knew in my flashcards, I would see on the street and not be completely sure if I knew that character or not... So then I went back to writing. I’ve toyed with the idea of frequency lists (both character frequency lists, and word frequency lists, or at least HSK lists which seem to be pretty frequency based, or so I’ve read on the forums here) which has the advantage of teaching one stuff that is the most frequent, but then there’s the whole problem of context. So then I’ve also had the completely opposite method, of just learning what I come across, so then I get the context, but what’s missing is the frequency....

But what I’m realizing is that with all the methods I’ve ever used, I’ve always (except for the few months I decided not to write at all) learned writing alongside of reading. My reading has always been a bit above my writing, just because it’s a lot harder to forget how to recognize a word than how to write it, but I’ve always kept them together as much as possible.

Then lately, I’ve read on the forums a lot of the stuff about extensive reading vs. intensive reading, and I’ve realized heck, I spend so much time writing, but so little time reading, and my grammar is pretty terrible, and studying just isn’t that fun. I know not all studying has to be fun and I’m totally willing to grind though a lot of un-fun stuff, but I feel like this whole writing thing is seriously holding back not just my reading, but as a result, also my listening and speaking, because not only do I spend most of my time writing, but also I can’t use reading as a way to learn new words, different word usage, grammar, etc.


As Icebear said in this post (http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/43611-reading-pain-or-reading-gain-reading-at-the-right-level/page-2):

“Recognizing 1500 characters is something every learner is capable of in the first year.”


And as Renzhe said in another post (well, spread out between two posts in the same topic) (http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/26359-why-learning-to-write-chinese-is-a-waste-of-time/page-2):


“I can read around 4000 characters, but only write around 1000. I have only started learning to write characters after having read several full-length books...I can read Lu Xun and Eileen Chang and Jin Yong. What exactly am I sacrificing? When it comes to learning to read as such, I don't think that I'm missing anything. Of course, my writing is spotty. But it will be hard to convince me that I'd be reading much better now if I had copied thousands of characters over and over. Better at writing, yes, but not better at reading.”

So now I’m wondering, what if I just separated my reading from my writing? What if, for recognizing characters I just learned it as I went along, and did a lot of extensive reading, so I’d get the advantages of (1) actually being able to incorporate reading into my studying - which is a lot more fun, and therefore easier to keep going, than a mainly flashcards diet, (2) giving me context for the word, (3) gives me a lot of exposure to different ways of using words, as well as grammar and all that good stuff. For character recognition then, it wouldn’t be at all hampered by my wanting to learn to write everything.


Then, for writing, I’d learn characters from a character frequency list, but in the definition section, also have quite a few words with the example of the character being combined with different characters. This would give me the advantage of a frequency based approach, and the drawbacks of no context wouldn’t apply because I’d be getting my knowledge of how the character is actually used from my reading, whenever I came across it.


The main problem I forsee is that I do enjoy from time to time actually using my writing, to write postcards and things. What I will be able to say/understand/read will be a lot higher, I’m hoping, than my writing (that’s the whole point of doing this - not letting my writing hinder the other aspects of my language learning). Well, for this I’d just have to grin and bear it or just spend a bit more time looking things up in Pleco when I choose to write cards to people. I’m not in the situation of having to write things quickly, so while annoying, this won’t be too bad, especially as I can already write a few hundred characters...


So basically, I’m wondering if anyone’s done this before, and what everyone (even if they haven’t done it) thinks about it... Any advantages/disadvantages that I’m totally missing?

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Learn characters for recognition as you go along, but when you do that, also pay attention and learn to break down each character in to its component parts.


For writing, if you are spending enough time breaking down each character, it probably won't be such an issue if you leave this for a while.  Or just take a random selection of new words that you've learnt and spend a few minutes writing them down - even better, writing down full sentences from the native content that you are learning from.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks, imron! The post which you linked to is really interesting! A while ago, I toyed with the idea of just drawing characters in my mind, to see if they'd be easier to remember... I'm gad you've done it before me and seen that it actually works! I'll try out your suggestions...


By the way though... Do you just learn simplified, or also traditional? Up until now, I've learned both for every character I've studied, but I tend to be more comfortable with traditional... Because you get most of your new words and come across new characters while reading, do you then look up to see if there is a traditional variant, (or if you're reading traditional, a simplified variant)? And then do you go along the same process with this character too? Or do you do something else?

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I just learnt simplified initially. The differences between the two are only several hundred characters (not including standard/easily guessable ones) and once I was familiar with one set it was relatively straightforward to learn the other just through exposure.

Unless you particularly want to develop both equally, my advice would be to focus on whichever one you use/need most. Then pick up the other gradually as you go.

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Also, with regards to looking to see if a variant exists, I use pleco for my main dictionary. This automatically shows the variant and also allows me to change my flash cards from simplified to traditional at the press of a button.

You could either mix up the testing between simplified and traditional, or you could keep separate profiles for each set and test once with traditional and once for simplified.

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I kind of do want to use develop both equally - I have host families and friends in Taiwan, as well as other fellow exchange students that I enjoy using Chinese (once in a while) to write letters to them, however my classes that I'm in now in college are in simplified. Of course, the texts are offered in Traditional as well, but not the whole book, just the extensive (which is really actually very intensive) reading portions... Also, I kind of just thought I should learn them both at the same time, so I didn't have to go back... I don't know, maybe this is less efficient...

Ah, from your post I assumed that you didn't use flashcards for the words you came across and just did a lot of extensive reading? Or do you you use flashcards with just a Chinese-Chinese dictionary after you come across them in reading? Or do you use the sentence from the actual reading?

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This post describes more or less what I do for vocab learning.


The previous post described how I go about memorising characters - which is just one part of learning vocabulary.  It was also a method I started using sometime around 2002 - long before I started using Pleco and long before I was doing any sort of intensive/extensive reading.  The skill I gained from that is being able to visualise and break down characters which makes the process of vocab learning go that much more smoothly.


My vocab learning is still driven by reading though, and when I am in vocab learning mode and I see a word I don't know, I'll look it up in Pleco and add it to a flashcard list (up to a certain number of words per day) and then keep reading.


Once I'm done reading, I'll go back and drill those cards - sometimes with SRS, sometimes with plain drilling.


For this, I have three profiles in Pleco - one which shows words that are newly added - it only has a front card with the Chinese word, the pinyin and the Chinese definition.  I drill this by looking at the card, reading the definition and the pronunciation, and then visualising the character using the previously mentioned method.  I do this until all the newly added cards are firmly in my short term memory.


Then I have another profile 'Revision' which has the Chinese word on the front and the pinyin and Chinese definition on the back.  As I review these cards, if there were any cards that took more than 'instant' to recognise, then I spend a few moments going through the above visualisation process until I'm happy with it.  If it took too long to recognise, I might even fail it.


Then I have another profile 'Pronunciation' which has the pinyin on the front and the Chinese word and definition on the back.  When I see the pinyin then I visualise the character by its components.  Similar with the above, anything less than instant visualisation and I'll pause for a few moments to visualise it again and get it firmly in my memory before continuing.


I then periodically delete my decks once they start to take more than about 30 mins to revise, and regular reading ensures that any useful words I hadn't learnt properly will get added again over time, and if not, then by definition they were not useful to me and so I don't care.


I don't specifically use the sentence from the actual reading in my flashcards because I don't like to spend any time on flashcard creation and maintenance, relying exclusively on Pleco's automatic flashcard creation for meanings.  When memorising a word, I often still think about the context and meaning from where I read it, and that also helps me remember it.  For many words I've learnt I can still remember the book where I first encountered them.


In summary, the majority of vocab learning I do is driven by reading.  That involves flashcards because thanks to Pleco that's the easiest and most convenient way to have and drill the list of words I've looked up (before I started using Pleco I used to underline words and then look them up in a paper dictionary afterwards).  Definitions and words are almost exclusively Chinese, except for when the definition doesn't exist in the C-C dictionary I have for Pleco (Xiandai Guifan) and then I fallback on the ABC C-E dictionary.  When going through flashcards I use the previously mentioned process for memorising and visualising words and characters and meanings.  I don't make flashcards the main focus of my learning however, and regularly delete decks that get too large.  Regular reading means this is never a problem.


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Ah, I am curious about this too...Since I am studying on my own and have decided not to use textbooks and the like, I've been trying to find a way to separate everything...Right now the only 'real' studying material I use is the HSK word list, and it is proven itself to be very useful so far~ I've read lots of imron's posts so far, but I still have some questions about the visualisation technique...I understand the idea behind it, but how does it translate into real life situations? I mean even tho you know all the strokes and everything, in the end it is the hand that writes the characters and u want to be able to write automaticly without thinking at all (ah I'm asking this from a beginners perspective, as i feel that us beginners should under no circumstances neglect writing by hand...). About a month or two ago I've decided to switch to traditional characters...As it is said, it takes about a month to get used to the switch, and even tho I want to use the traditionals to write, I want to keep reading both systems. I've been using the hsk list and anki, but when i see the simplified version word, i would write it using traditionals and would also find some example sentences from the online dictionary and write does down, also in traditionals...And I've noticed that my hand is getting more and more used to writing, like it's becoming more and more automatic. Like the other day, when my alarm went off after only a few hours of sleep and i decided to just do the revision part, i was still laying on the bed, the notebook far in front so i could reach, i was too tired to even raise my head, but surprisingly i could write everything easily and correctly (even tho when I checked it later it was really messy hahaha). So that means that to some extent those characters that I keep rewriting have become 'automatic'. Could the same thing happen with visualisation? Also, is there a way to make both simplified and traditional writings automatic? Even the simplest examples, like 來, I instinctively need to write in in traditional, if i had to use the simplified for a moment it would feel weird...My mother tongue uses two writing systems, naturally we can read and write both, but it is phonetic and extremly simple, so even if you normally use one to write, after a moment or two of blinking, u could start writing using the other one. But chinese is so much more complex, what to do?

The reading part I try to do seperately, like I've found manga that I like and can follow, but this time I've decided to completely ignore the words and stuff I don't understand, and just go on and read...My spead is improving and it's getting easier and easier, ah and also if there are some parts where the writing is blurry, i can still read it~ Ah, that really makes me happy hihihi~ As for the simplified, hmm the chinese apps I have are all from china (r there taiwanese apps?). Also, when I'm reading translated cnovels, if I find a part that seems easy, I would try reading it in chinese too. Again, I would completely ignore the unknown words, since i study my vocab from a list, and I could basicly get the meaning because I just read the translation lol~ Also, I do the same thing for listening, i play the audio book where I already know what is going on, and just focus on listening. Also, I try to watch subbed dramas, but focus a lot on what I hear...Somehow, I feel like my listening ability has actually improved, even tho I'm taking a very passive way to do it...But I'm still a beginner and have a tiny vocab, so doing actual extensive reading/listening is a bit hard (tho i feel that the manga i'm currently reading is ok). Ah, I can't wait to be at a level where I can easily read novels and listen to audio books *.* I've been a bit lazy with my study recently, and I will deffinitely work harder, but I still feel that separating everything is the best way to go~ It's also the most fun, and, for me personally, I feel it has given me some results and never once did I find it boring (unlike textbooks, eww)~

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in the end it is the hand that writes the characters and u want to be able to write automatically without thinking at all

Rather than being a single skill, in my opinion writing is actually made up of two separate but equally important skills.  One is active recall, and the other is fine motor skills.


Active recall is the ability for you to recall the appearance of a word from memory without any prompting or hints (as opposed to passive recall, where you only need to remember it after seeing it, e.g. reading).  Active recall is what my visualisation technique helps develop.


Fine motor skills is then the ability for your hand to write nicely and neatly within a confined space.  This skill only comes about from practising writing by hand with paper and pen.


You won't be able to write well by hand if either of these skills are lacking and you need to practice them to the point where they are both automatic.


The thing is, if you concentrate only on writing by hand then while it can help with active recall, what I found tends to happen is that after one or two characters, the hand goes on auto-pilot and your brain disengages from what you are doing, so you end up with motor skill practice but not active recall practice (one way to mitigate this is to write a character only 2-3 times before moving on the next one, and then coming back to the first one later and repeating the process).


If you only concentrate on active recall, then you'll be able to recall characters well, but your writing will look like a 7 year old's.

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Thanks for replying~ Ah I am confused by the auto-pilot part you mentioned...Do you mean like when someone keeps writing the same characted on and on? In that case, I agree it is bad. I remember my first time ever trying to write a chinese character, I also tried this way and it was very hmm painful? It didn't help at all and was very annoying. I now practice characters by writing entire sentences with the new word and stuff, so I also get useful examples and context like that. Later on, when I got more familiar with them, I found all the 'parts' actually helpful. I assume that is sort of what you want to make use of during the visualisation. But, isn't there such a thing as motor memory or something like that? I'm not talking about making your characters look prettier which of course can only happen with time and practice, I'm talking about automatized movement. I feel like it happens to me with the characters I'm more familiar with, the hand writes it even before my mind can register what it looks like and consists of. Kind of like when I was really really small, and found the letters d and b weird, because well basicly one is circle line and one is line circle. Later, when we learned how to write in school, it wasn't weird anymore, and my hand naturally writes d and b differently. But either way the visualization helps a lot in more ways than one, so I will try to practice it regularly from now on~

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Ah I am confused by the auto-pilot part you mentioned...Do you mean like when someone keeps writing the same characted on and on? In that case, I agree it is bad.

Yes.  If you are writing out sentences, then you probably won't have this problem.  Depending on how you are writing sentences, you may have another problem - if you are simply copying from somewhere (a book, a newspaper, your computer screen), then you will be relying a lot on passive recall and may not be developing enough active recall that you'll be able to write these characters by yourself and without the aid of some prompt.  Muscle memory might help to a degree, but it's not as important as developing active recall.


If you are writing sentences through dictation, e.g. listening to a sentence and then practising writing that, then you will be developing active memory.  Here visualisation will also be useful for you.


Remember also that the end goal with visualisation is not to be able to draw each character bit by bit in your mind, but to be able to visualise it instantly and automatically.  How it applies in real-life is that you hear a word and you automatically and without thinking are able to see that word in your mind.  Or you want to write something and you can see in your mind the way the characters look before you need to write them, and fast enough that you don't need to think about it and it doesn't interrupt your writing at all.

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