Friday, December 19, 2008

Learning to Write Chinese

Writing Practice with Traditional & Simplified Characters

A Copy Book to Practice Writing

As hard as it was to learn the tones in Chinese, I think that learning to read and write was even harder. Chinese characters are not phonetic. You have to memorize what they mean and how they sound. Some of them are easier because they are pictographs; if you squint, you can see what they represent, like the character for person: 人.The character has two legs like a person walking. But when you look at it, there are no clues to tell you that it is pronounced ren and that it is said with the second rising tone. You have to learn all those things by rote. And you also have to watch out for similar characters with different sounds and different meanings like: 入, which means to enter and is pronounced ru with the fourth, falling tone. All you can do is spend hours and hours practicing reading with flashcards. Then you have to spend an equal amount of time writing the characters over and over, while repeating them aloud to yourself, until you learn to write them from memory.

The two stroke characters like 人 and 入 are not so bad, but most of the characters are made up of many more strokes. You have to learn to write the strokes in the proper order. If you get the stroke order wrong, the character looks out of balance, and you might get it wrong on a quiz. We spent part of every class period writing characters in our copy books as our teacher wrote them on the white board. We would count the strokes together out loud to memorize them in the right order.

There were a lot of other picky rules about how to have good handwriting in Chinese. You have to sit square to the table with good posture and both feet flat on the floor. You cannot tilt your paper; it has to be straight in front of you. The characters need to be aligned in little boxes, and they can’t be slanted. More than 15 years of writing cursive English script with my paper at an angle gave me very bad Chinese handwriting. My roommates kept telling me that if I didn’t practice my writing until it was beautiful then people would think I was of poor character, and I would never be trusted in life. My friends took me to the stationery store and bought me piles of copy books with square boxes so I could practice my handwriting. And I wasn’t even learning artistic calligraphy with a brush!!! I was just learning ordinary penmanship.

My roommates told me that they had spent hours and hours practicing their writing when they were in elementary school and junior high. Most elementary school students had to write several pages of characters per day so they would firmly fix the characters in their memory. Beside each character they had to write the bo, po, mo, fo phonetic symbols with the tonal markings and read the character aloud. My friends insisted that I use this same method to learn all my vocabulary words. At first, I resisted doing what we Americans consider “busy work”, but eventually, I was having so much trouble learning the language that I decided to try it their way. It worked; I learned to read and write better than most of my Western classmates, but my Chinese writing still has its English cursive slant and at best can only be considered “legible.”


Peggy said...


Teresa said...

Hi Peggy,

過得好嗎? 妳沒想到阿姨還常常練字. 現在也學會寫不少簡體字. 下個目標要學會用簡體字打電腦.