Say It Right Series
speak chinese like a native

Importance of handwriting

Posted by tingyun October 9, 2012 in the Group General Discussion.

I've been gone from the boards for the past few months (adjusting to the new PhD program) - but earlier today while checking the pleco board for new dictionary releases, I ended up posting on a discussion, which led to feelings of guilt for then not coming back to Cpod and posting ;)

I have a few thoughts on handwriting's importance to learners of Chinese - I was wondering how people approach this problem, and what places I may be off in my analysis.

I think handwriting for foreign learners of Chinese should only cover two things (1) basic characters and radicals that make up parts of many others, and there only aiming at structurally correct rather than pretty looking handwriting; and (2) characters you are likely to use when filling out forms or short notes, ie 男 女 for the gender blank when you try to open a bank account, and stuff you would use to say 'I went to the store' and the like. (2) probably covers most of (1), but best listed separately because (1) should probably be a priority early on, done quickly at the start of reading (probably 200 characters/radicals is enough), and (2) should await a rather advanced level, more or less when oral daily communication no longer poses a challenge (though it too shouldn't include much, probably 600 or so characters can handle it pretty well)

In addition to the begining learning stages (with too much handwriting), I think the problem reemerges, in a more absurd form, in the advanced stages. Take the 5th year course at my university, where (at least when I took it a couple years back) nearly half of study time was not spent on reading the articles, mastering the grammar, or oral practice, but rather on practicing how to write the vocab lists from each lesson. Given it was a 5th year course, it is pretty much a guarantee that you will never have occasion to handwrite any of these new characters (yes, you might type 孽 as you discuss Buddhism in an email or article, but the chances of being in a situation to handwrite it...even a more generally used character like 咎 is almost guaranteed to never be handwritten, as one only uses fancy expressions like 归咎于 or chengyu like 既往不咎 or 咎由自取 in the kinds of writing that are done by computer (unless you are rather 迂腐 and love 文绉绉 expressions for filling out bank forms, to mention 迂 and 绉, two other characters advanced students are forced to uselessly learn to handwrite)

So really the handwriting should stop after a very basic level is achieved...and more or less this becomes true by default for even well educated native speakers, who learn to write an enormous amount, and then gradually forget all the complicated characters that they never end up handwriting (though, as note-taking and other activities tend to be done in one's native language, they seem to have a broader scope of what they handwrite and thus will usefully maintain likely several thousand...but in my experience, even though native speakers are likely to type or read, say, 睿 in the expression 睿智 or names like 曹睿 somewhat regularly, they will never handwrite it, so many native speakers will eventually forget how exactly to write characters like this, though exactly which are forgoten or retained probably depends on the person and their personal habits) I imagine technological innovations would eventually lead to more notetaking and the like with computer, narrowing the scope of what is retained.

I regret all the time I spent memorizing the writing of characters I would only ever type (and thus promptly forgot), and I also sympathize with native Chinese students, practicing how to write words like 魑魅 and 饕餮 and a host of characters even less likely to be handwritten....

It really seems the desire to teach loads of handwriting by teachers is based on the rigid idea that 'language should consist of the four skills of....and if you are missing a skill you have not mastered a language" "you shouldn't be dependent on a computer" and all that silliness. Language instruction should consist of whatever skills are important for your goals - which for most people is communication and access to a culture - and not bowing to some accepted pronouncment of what literacy entails. If one is inclined to follow some such rigid conception, communication and cultural access would likely be better served by adopting ideas of educated literacy from a few 100 years and go memorize works like the 三字经 - certainly would aid in pronunciation practice. And why is there something magically self-reliant about writing with a pen or pencil - unless you know how to manufacture these devices yourself, it seems under this logic you should feel a certain shame for not learning how to use a quill and inkstone. I can't manufacture either a pen or an ipad, so I feel equally justified in being dependent on either, and I'm not planning to get stranded on a desert island away from electric power....

I've also heard the "you don't know a character unless you can handwrite it" - which is of course exactly the opposite logic to what everyone accepts for the standard of knowing classical/literary Chinese. Tons of people achieve a high level of literary chinese, use it in research involving ancient documents, and yet have never tried to really express anything in it (or have only done so as part of a drinking game, and probably not successfully), and certainly there we have a much stronger argument of intellectual importance to the productive act, when compared to making scratches on paper. But productive ability really is wholly unnecessary to even reaching the deepest levels of comprehension of these texts. Though of course people in the 1800s would probably be convinced that none of us count as truly having mastered literary chinese (except those who write scholarly modern 注释 to 中华书局 editions of old texts and the like, where it seems more of an aesthetic preference to use literary chinese in the notes), just as I'm sure plenty of people would consider my writing ability as embarrassingly limited (I've forgotten some 60-80% of the characters I once knew how to write)

This is one of the main reasons I'm glad I'm not taking formal classes any longer. ;)

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