Take the 2-minute tour ×
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have noticed that a lot of my friends that study Chinese at university spend a lot of their time learning to write Chinese. I would estimate more than 50% of their chinese study time is spent on memorizing how to write Chinese characters.

I'm considering studying Chinese at university, but I'm unsure because I would have to learn to write, which I feel would be a big investment of my time which could be spent practicing reading, listening and speaking.

Even with English, I feel I hardly ever write anything with a pen. Everything is done on cell phones, computers, etc. now and I feel this trend is only going to continue.

So, is there a value in learning to write characters by hand, if I know how to write them via pinyin input? Or should I continue to focus my time on learning to read, speak and listen instead?

share|improve this question
5  
I would also like to make the point: You won't be able to avoid learning to write by hand at university; there are written parts in every exam you will have to do and any assignments / homework required. –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 9 '12 at 2:58
1  
I feel English is a reading language, if you are reading an English book, you watch the word and make sound in your brain. But Chinese can be a watching language, take a Chinese book, I can watch over a paragraph and get the meaning of most part. Well, you may not believe, but it's true. Compare Yahoo.com and Sina.com for example, you can see that Yahoo.com is simple and clear, but Sina.com like a mess. You maybe surprise how can Chinese find the information in this mess. Well, native Chinese will get the most part easy by scrolling down and take a glance. –  Xiè Jìléi Apr 4 '12 at 9:45
    
"Value" is subjective, but I'm interested in learning to write chinese characters because it's a very beautiful written language, and I think it improves reading to really carefully consider how each word is written. That's "value" to me. But if you're interested in Chinese say, as a business man, then you are correct. You'll probably save lots of time by not practicing writing. –  mehaase May 17 '12 at 3:45
3  
@XièJìléi, you might think that everybody goes through the cognitive process text->sound->meaning when reading English, but that is far from the whole truth. The brains of people who read often will learn to shortcut the process, skipping the sound step, thereby making the reader able to read by skimming. Whether the fact that English orthography is more phonetic than Chinese orthography makes this process rarer or less efficient, I don't know. I just wanted to highlight that the process you describe takes place in English as well. –  dainichi Feb 8 '13 at 0:58
    
It depends on the purpose that you learn Chinese. Most people learn a language for communication, but the others learn it for cultural interests. If you think that's enough then that's enough. You can learn to write some Chinese characters on demand if you find it necessary in the future. –  shuangwhywhy Oct 7 '13 at 18:52
add comment

9 Answers 9

I would like to answer this question with an analogy to English. In English,

  1. You may not learn how to spell the word, and you could only rememeber the pronunciation and the meanings for every word, so you can "speak" English,but you can't write them down or read them. I believe in old times, when few people could get well educated, this might happen (in China, it really happened.)
  2. You may only remember the pronunciation and meanings and get a blur impression of how to spell a word, so you may read texts (by guessing the words) and when you write down the words with a pen, there may be a lot of spelling errors.

This could also happen in Chinese. Furthermore, there is another disadvantage. You can get suggestion from the phone when you try to input a word in English, but in Chinese, in most cases, One pinyin (especially without the tones) could map to several characters or words, so you need to decide which word should be selected.

Every language consists of four aspects: listening,writing,reading, and speaking, I believe. It's worthy of you spending some time on writing Chinese characters. I suggest.

share|improve this answer
    
Being able to write chinese characters is not really the same as being able to spell. You can read and write chinese without needing to ever write the characters because you have plenty of electronic methods to assist and these days, that's what most people do. –  Chits Jan 8 '12 at 22:21
add comment

You're right that most of the time, you use a computer or cell phone when "writing" Chinese characters. In fact, many Chinese will tell you that - beside their own name (used as a signature) - they almost never write any Chinese characters by hand.

Today, writing Chinese characters is more for memorization than for practical purposes. You might know a few characters and you might know how to type them in your computer, but the only way to really keep them in your mind, and being able to read them fluently, is to write them. It is however rather tedious so it works better if you have some interest in Chinese characters to begin with, otherwise it might get boring.

The best way might be to just try. Write a few characters every day and you might find yourself interested in all the subtleties of Chinese characters.

Edit: There's a related question about the relation between writing and memorizing on the Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange - http://cogsci.stackexchange.com/q/68/63

share|improve this answer
    
+1 I liked your last sentence. :) Sometimes "thinking about it" is not enough, but as soon as you try writing it's a whole new experience. :P Or maybe I'm just talking like this because I like it eheh :P I wish I had 12 extra hours just for languages. –  Alenanno Jan 8 '12 at 13:58
2  
The gist is that people (starting from their time as children) write them to either increase muscle memory or character memory. It is still good for a short note or a greeting card. –  prusswan Jan 9 '12 at 3:45
    
I think you're confusing memorization (learning how to reproduce something) and recognition. The question is not whether writing will help you memorize. It seems pretty obvious that it will. It's not even whether writing (compared to doing nothing) will help you recognize. It seems pretty obvious that it will too. The question is: Given that your main goal is NOT writing (by hand), is your time better spent writing or doing something else? –  dainichi Feb 8 '13 at 1:18
add comment

I think you are right in your desire to put as much time as possible into the speaking and listening aspects of Chinese. But there are various reasons why it's important to put in the effort to learn Chinese characters, even though the initial investment of time is quite large.

  1. As others have explained, passive recognition is no substitute for active production. Having a vague sense of the general look of a character is no match for knowing how to write it down correctly.

  2. Given the large number of homophones among Chinese morphemes, characters give you an important leg-up in learning vocabulary, especially more difficult vocabulary. Again, it's important to have more than just a vague impression of the character.

  3. China is a literate culture that accords great respect to the written word. Chinese people will be very impressed if you can speak Chinese, but their respect will be doubled if they know you can read and write it, too (conversely, you will be regarded as a light-weight if you can't). Good knowledge of the writing system will be (correctly) interpreted as a real commitment to the language and culture.

Of course, it all depends what you want the language for, but if you are in it for the long term, I would strongly urge you not to think of taking the 'easy way out' (tempting as it may be) and put in the necessary effort to learn all aspects of the language. In fact, the characters are fascinating in their own right and you may find them more interesting than you thought. (On the other hand, I might mention that getting too hooked on Chinese characters has its own perils, since they form such a vast and interesting field that you could easily become distracted from learning the actual language :))

share|improve this answer
add comment

You are right, from a practical standpoint, spending 50% of your time (as you say, I haven't measured it) might seem a little too much.

Although as it was said, practicing writing not only improves your writing but also your reading as you record the characters' forms in your subconscious (so to speak)

In my case, writing is what I like most of Chinese, as it's an art in its won right, I feel every character is a drawing, and I enjoy drawing a lot, so to me writing is the most important part of my study.

share|improve this answer
    
That's funny, I frequently the word "draw" instead of "write" when referring to Chinese characters. –  mehaase May 17 '12 at 3:47
add comment

There is nothing in the linguistic research that proves that writing the characters physically improves one's ability to recognize them in context (as in reading). If that were true, physically handicapped people who cannot write or speak would not be able to read or comprehend language, and clearly that is not the case.

Virtually all of the "evidence" presented in support of "you must write to remember the characters" is based on the personal experience of individuals. Most individuals who have been successful in learning Chinese to date are analytical thinkers who do not mind repetition, because the methods used to teach Chinese are largely based on memorization and analysis. If, however, we look at the broad mass of all students who begin first-year Chinese, the picture changes, and clearly the methods being used are not succeeding with every student who embarks on the study of Chinese, so we should be examining these assertions more closely and separating what is generally good for most from what works for a small minority of the "talented". Language is not something that should be limited to "the talented" or "the hard workers"; it's a natural human ability.

If a student enjoys writing by hand, likes calligraphy, or otherwise derives pleasure from the mechanical reproduction of Chinese characters, that has value. If, on the other hand, the student is being asked to spend many hours memorizing the mechanical reproduction of characters solely for the reason that "he will have to write them in school" but will never have a practical use for that skill in the real world, it is time to re-evaluate what school is teaching and how Chinese programs are preparing people for real life.

share|improve this answer
    
Hmm... this is an interesting answer though not sure I agree with it. I know nothing about linguistic research but the fact that physically handicapped people can comprehend a language doesn't mean that writing doesn't help (or that it's not more difficult for them to learn). I've asked a question on Cognitive Sciences about this. There's an interesting answer although it doesn't include direct references to linguistic research articles - cogsci.stackexchange.com/q/68/63 –  this.lau_ Jan 24 '12 at 14:18
add comment

If you actually write out Chinese characters, you will get a better feel for the "structure" of the language. That's because they can be grouped in "families."

For instance, this word 妈 means "mother," and is pronounced ma (first tone).

Take away the woman radical to the left, and you get ma (third tone), which means "horse," which is the phonetic, or "root" word.

Place the mouth radical to the left of the phonetic and you get ma (unaccented), which is a word that makes a sentence a question (equivalent to the French n'est pas?)

Other variations of this word, take the meanings "to scold," "docks," "agate," etc.

Most other Chinese words are members of "families" (of varying sizes) of this sort.

share|improve this answer
add comment

One advantage of learning how to handwrite characters is that it makes it easier to distinguish similar-looking characters in unfamiliar contexts. If you can't handwrite you might still be able to correctly read known words like 快乐 and 决定, but if you encounter a new word such as 决心 it's sometimes hard to tell whether the first character is kuài or jué (especially if both of them would be plausible).

On the other hand, if you can handwrite both characters there's a much stronger link in your mind between the character and its component radicals, so you'll instantly know which one it is.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I'd say to be pragmatic, you should learn it to an extent, but not to the degree that a University will force upon you.

Chinese characters are composed of radicals. There are relatively few radicals, compared to the sheer number of composite characters. And that makes sense, from a mathematical point of view. You have radicals x, y, and z, now how many permutations can you create from them?

So the question is, should you memorize those permutations, or just the components? I contend: just the components.

I assume your goal is to be fluent in the language, be able to read and write in a meaningful way, and to handle yourself in any situation in a Chinese speaking country. If it's calligrapy, sorry, better get memorizin'. I know Chinese who have been honing that fine skill for decades.

The point of learning the radicals is pragmatic: to be able to look up words in a dictionary quickly. And when you're learning a language in any way that's not electronic, you'll be doing that. For example, you're on the street reading a menu for tea. You saw an appetizing character. Well, the fastest way to look up what that is to write it in a character-recognizing dictionary using Google's Pinyin input or Pleco on your phone.

And to write that character and have the software actually recognize what you're scribbling, you should help it out by learning to write those radicals in the proper stroke order. Then, a few swipes of the finger, and done.

I used the Tuttle Beginning Chinese Character (or whatever it's called) book, which contained a few hundred characters and by proxy I learned all the radicals I ever needed.

Producing characters from memory, by hand, is useless. I live in Taiwan and have never, ever had to write a character by hand. I also know Taiwanese expatriates who have since forgotten how to write a large number of characters from memory, but this does not hinder their ability to read. Recall and recognition are different things, and although the ability to recall does aid in recognition (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0) I cannot say from experience that the effort required to do this for Chinese is worth the benefit.

I remember the characters I've looked up just fine. The reason I believe I'm successful at it is because I'm conscious about analyzing a character for its radicals at the moment that I look it up. The first time I looked up ma 嗎 I thought, huh, that's a horsey-looking picture on the right, and a little box on the left. And the dictionary says it's a grammatical particle.

Later on when I looked up ya 呀, I thought, that's a toothy-looking picture on the right, and a little box on the left. And it's a grammatical particle. And then I looked up ba 吧. A bun-looking character on the right, and a little box on the left. And hey, it's a grammatical particle.

At that point my brain said, "You know what? I think that little box on the left, that I see every time I look up a grammatical particle, probably means, grammatical particle."

And because you were conscious about seeing a character's forest for its trees, your brain formed patterns. You'll get better at deriving the meaning or pronunciations of new characters because your brain formed patterns about those radicals. Life will be swell. New characters will be a treat.

But memorizing every picture by rote just so you can never use the skill in a real-life situation? No, thanks.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Some reasons I'm surprised weren't mentioned above:

1) Written stroke order is still the primary system for looking up characters in a dictionary! Yes, you can break them down by radicals & composition, but if you don't know stroke count/order (because you've never written them yourself) you'll likely fail to find what you're looking for.

2) If you live in China/Taiwan, you will fill out paperwork by hand (bank forms, visa applications, rental agreements, post office, hospital forms, school papers). Even if it's just your name & address you need to know how to write it properly. If you live there and have never done this, it's probably because somebody else did it for you.

3) If you always write in pinyin, you probably think in pinyin, which isn't 100% accurate for pronunciation and isn't helpful for differentiating new homophone vocabulary. Using Taiwan's Zhuyin phonetic system (BoPoMoFo), you see that "wen" and "lun" actually use the exact same vowel sound, not different ones as shown in pinyin. Do you think seeing 'e' vs. 'u' might subtly affect your pronunciation?

4) If you always use computers, you'll rely on computers. This is tough to avoid as apps like Pleco make real-time look-ups almost effortless, and phones/laptops show a convenient array of options to jog your memory. Convenient, but this also means you're not really literate - you're just good at looking things up (see #1 above); also you're screwed without your gadgets.

5) Lastly, as has been said, writing by hand has been shown to help with recall. It adds a kinetic component that your brain can hook into for added context. It also forces you to more deeply process the information than you do when merely transcribing. Research has shown recall and conceptual understanding isn't as strong with keyboard typing alone.

All that said, you can always learn to read/write on your own. If you want to focus on speaking & listening, focus on that - those are much harder to do w/o partners & teachers anyway.

...After typing all this, I see the OP was from 2012 :\ Zombie thread necromanc'd to the top of the pile today. Meh, I stand by my opinions - Yes, there's necessity & value learning to write Chinese :)

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.