Chinese writing challenge, May 10th to May 31st

writingchallengeAfter having spent two challenges on input (listening in March, reading in April) it’s time to become more active this month and improve our writing ability. I started preparing a bit earlier this week by writing an article about one of the best methods I know for improving writing ability (Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries), but that’s of course just one thing you can do during this challenge!

Hacking Chinese challenges is all about building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition. Each participate decides how he or she wants to participate, what to study and so on. When joining the challenge (see below), you will be asked to set a goal to be met by the end of the month. After that, you log how much time you spend learning each day. I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges partly because I think it’s great for increasing my motivation and staying focused. Join us!

Hacking Chinese writing challenge, May 10th to May 31st

This how you sign up and join the challenge:

  1. Sign up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the writing challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Find suitable learning materials
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others (if you want)
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on May 10th (Sunday), so even if you join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then. I post this article today so you have a few days to prepare!

What should you write?

Anything you like, the important thing is that you practice and that you get feedback on your writing. I suggest using Lang-8 if you don’t have someone who can help you already. I have written a few posts already about solving different writing-related problems, so take a look at any of the following articles:

Setting a reasonable goal

Knowing what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 5-10 hours. If you know what you’re doing, you can aim for twice that. Personally, I’m going to go for 10 hours, which is roughly 30 minutes per day.

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Preliminary challenge schedule for 2015

To make sure that the challenges cover all major areas, I have created a rough schedule of what challenges will be on for the rest of the year. I might change this somewhat and insert more specific or unusual challenges here and there (if you have any ideas, please let me know). Challenges in italics are preliminary.

  1. January: Characters
  2. February: Pronunciation
  3. March: Listening
  4. April: Reading
  5. May: Writing
  6. June: Listening
  7. July: Speaking
  8. August: Reading
  9. September: Characters
  10. October: Listening
  11. November: Writing
  12. December: Reading

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

 summaryWhat should you do if you want to improve your writing ability in Chinese? The answer is two-fold. First, you should start reading more. Without a passive understanding of the language you’re going to use when you write, it’s almost impossible to use it accurately and writing will be reduced to a translation exercise that relies heavily on dictionaries. You will forget most of the words right after you copied them from the dictionary. Not good. Don’t expect to be able to write something you can’t read.

Second, you get good at what you practice, so if you want to get good at writing, no amount of reading will take you there if you don’t also combine it with writing practice. I think these are parallel processes, so I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write anything until you’re literate. This is not a good idea for the same reason that it’s not a good idea to delay speaking until you can understand spoken Chinese. It’s not bad because it wouldn’t work (it probably would, perhaps even very well), but because it would take an awful lot of time before you could do anything useful with the language.

If you want to be able to write Chinese, you have to write. But how should you practice?

Low and high intensity writing practice

As I have argued many times before, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need activities of both low and high intensity. For casual, low-intensity writing practice, please refer to the following articles:

In this article, though, I want to look at a high-intensity activity that combines reading and writing into one. It’s the best way of improving writing ability that I know of, and can be used at any level, but works best from intermediate and up when you can read and write sentences.

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

Writing summaries of Chinese texts is excellent practice. You might think that it doesn’t sound like too much fun, but this activity is so good that you have to check it out. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Intensive reading – The first thing you need to do if you want to write a summary is to completely understand the original text. This means going through it carefully and resolving any issues with a tutor. This kind of activity should be on your weekly schedule anyway, and so getting it integrated in a more comprehensive exercise is excellent.
  • Focused reading practice – In order to write a summary, you have to read very carefully and pay attention both to the content and the language. It’s probably a good idea to read it several times, focusing on different aspects every time. I have written more about focused reading here: How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading. Underline keywords, understand what words in the text give it its structure.
  • Natural exposure to important vocabulary – If you’re goal is to be able to write about your work, your hobby or something else, by reading texts in Chinese about these topics, you are exposed to the vocabulary native speakers use when writing about these topics. Collect the words, add them to the spaced repetition program of your choice. You also have good examples of how they are used, so don’t just add words, grab phrases or sentences.
  • Making the text your own –  Just reading a text with the aim of really understanding it is a good activity in general, but it doesn’t become your own text until you do something with it. Writing a summary is one of things you can do. Other things include commenting on the text, discussing it and so on, but these require much more support than writing a summary.
  • Activating vocabulary and grammar –  Knowing something passively is one thing, but in order to be able to write well, you need to be able to use the words as well. When you write your summary, you practice using the words you have learnt from your reading practice. If you do this with several articles with a similar topic, your command of the key vocabulary will increase rapidly.
  • Preparing for exams – Writing exams are often about reading some text and then transforming it into your own. Naturally, it might not be a straight-up summary they’re asking for, but restating something you have read in your own words is common. Being able to do this well shows both that you can read well and have a command of the language that allows you to do something useful with the things you read.
  • Avoiding translation –  I think translation is an excellent exercise (Translating to improve your Chinese), especially for advanced learners, but sometimes its good to avoid translation and just focus on the Chinese. Furthermore, if you write under the guidance of a tutor, summaries don’t require that much from him or her, but discussing the finer nuances of translation is really hard and demands a lot from your tutor.

Have I convinced you? If so, let’s turn to how to write summaries.

How to write summaries for language practice

The following procedure can be changed according to your needs, but works well as a starting point:

  1. Find one or more texts about a certain topic (you should be able to read these texts)
  2. Read the text and make sure you understand everything (ask someone if you don’t)
  3. Collect interesting words, phrases or patterns from the text (learn them, review)
  4. Write a draft of a summary (length can vary, see below)
  5. Ask for feedback from a tutor (Why good feedback matters and how to get it)
  6. Correct your summary (and make sure you understand what you’re changing and why)
  7. Save your summary for benchmarking purposes (Benchmarking progress to stay motivated)
  8. Publish your summary on your blog, social media site or whatever (I publish some stuff here)

Also, don’t forget that it’s the process that matters (how much you learn), not the actual text. If you need more than one round with a tutor, that’s perfectly okay! Focusing on the process is key: Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process.

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

It’s pretty easy to get quick feedback on Chinese writing for free. I have written an article about Lang-8, which is a service that allows you to upload your texts and receive feedback. In return, you’re expected to help other students learning your language (not necessarily the same people who help you, of course). These native speakers aren’t teachers, but they can still help you out a lot. Read my article here: Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese.

A brief note about length

The length of the text you read and the summary you write are variable. You can summaries a book, but you can also summarise a short newspaper article. Furthermore, the length of your review can also vary, which is perhaps more interesting. This  is actually something which can be very difficult, even in your native language, so it’s not purely related to the language itself. Try the following:

  1. Choose a text (let’s say 1000 characters)
  2. Write a summary using 250 characters
  3. Write a new summary using only 150 characters
  4. Write a third summary with no more than 50 characters
  5. Make sure each summary is still accurate!

These texts will have to be quite different to capture the gist of the article you read while meeting the length requirements. If you have never done this in any language, you will find that writing a short summary is usually much harder than writing a long one.

A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

waysofwritingI remember what it was like to write my first Chinese characters. It felt like writing runes with magical powers, they were exotic and beautiful, closer to art than language. I still like Chinese characters, so studying Chinese for years hasn’t destroyed that feeling completely. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find writing characters by hand very fun in and of itself. I prefer typing and reading.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting

If you love writing Chinese characters by hand, this article is not for you, but if you feel that you want to learn to write Chinese characters, but that you don’t want to spend more time than necessary, you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, I will discuss my minimum effort approach to handwritten Chinese. I have already talked a lot about how to learn characters elsewhere, so this is more about the bigger picture. If you want to read more about character learning in general, this article offers a good overview: My best advice on learning Chinese characters.

The goal: Legible, not beautiful

Before I go into any details about the strategy itself, there are a few words to be said about the goal. My goal is to be able to write most things by hand that I can already type on a computer. That means that vocabulary, grammar and so on isn’t part of what I’m talking about here. This is about the difference between being able to read, type and perhaps say something, and being able to write it down on a piece of paper by hand.

Why would you need to be able to do that? There are many reasons, but personally, I think that not being able to write the language you are learning is a serious deficit. How serious it is depends on why you’re learning. Your friends finding out that you can’t write is one thing, but it will be harder to convince native speakers that your Chinese is good if you struggle with filling in a simple form during a job interview. I have written more about the importance of handwriting here: Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

I also want to say a few words about what I don’t need:

  1. I don’t care about writing beautifully. That clearly doesn’t fit into a minimum effort approach.
  2. I don’t need to be able to write quickly. This is also a minimum effort consideration, I merely want to be able to write, even if it takes a little time.

The strategy: Four components

The four components in my strategy are reading, typing, spaced repetition software and communicative handwriting. I’ll discuss them one by one and explain how they help me reach the goal described above:

  • Reading ought to be the start of any endeavour to be able to write. Passive understanding of something is the foundation for active knowledge and without it, it’s hard to get a feel for how the language is used. Constantly looking at Chinese characters also teaches you what they look like and which characters belong together. You will not learn to write all characters by hand simply by looking at them, but reading is still the foundation of writing.

  • Typing keeps your vocabulary and grammar up to par. Typing basically includes everything that handwriting does, minus moving a pencil across paper by hand. This means that if you can type something, you generally only need character knowledge to be able to write it by hand as well. If you use phonetic input (such as Pinyin or Zhuyin), you also make sure that you know how to pronounce what you’re typing, which increases the chance that phonetic components will remind you of how to write the characters as well.

  • Spaced repetition software is crucial for any minimum effort approach because it’s by far the most efficient way of maintaining large amounts of knowledge. These programs will help you schedule each review, putting it off for as long as possible to save you time while not delaying it so long that you forget the information. It’s possible to build a large vocabulary this way with less effort than most other methods. I prefer Skritter because it gives me immediate feedback, but you can use any program.

  • Communicative writing refers to writing Chinese characters with real communication in mind. Most of the practice that takes place in classrooms is not communicative (such as translating sentences, doing exercises in the workbook or dictation). For writing to be communicative, communication needs to be the main purpose of writing. It can be with other people, such as leaving a note for a friend written in Chinese or chatting with someone online using the handwriting input on your phone, but it could also be with yourself, such as writing shopping lists, memos or blog posts in Chinese. The point with communicative writing is that it’s realistic and makes sure you constantly drill the high-frequency words you need to be able to write well. If you neglect this step, you will likely find that you forget even common characters when forced to write by hand, simply because you never write them and spaced repetition software isn’t very good at spotting weaknesses in knowledge you’re supposed to know really well.

By combining these four elements, its possible to reach the goal of being to write by hand most things I can already type on a computer. I haven’t found a way of removing any of these components, so this is why I call it a minimum-effort approach.

Conclusion

This strategy is the result of a lot of thinking about how to learn what I need without spending too much time. I have used a similar approach for a few years and it has served me well. I can write Chinese when required to and I seldom forget characters or words. I don’t spend much time focusing on only writing characters, it’s all integrated into other activities that are either communicative or meaningful in other ways.

Even if my typed Chinese is superior to my handwriting, that’s mostly because of differences between word processing and handwriting in general, such as speed, ease of editing and so on. This is at least partly applicable to any language, so I would find it harder to write this article by hand than typing it in a text editor. Thus, I still prefer typing Chinese, but I’m not really afraid of writing by hand. The only drawback is that when required to write something lengthy, the muscles in the hand aren’t really up to the task and get tired easy, but I can live with that.

What strategy do you use to learn to write by hand? Are you like me in that you want to learn it, but not more than necessary, or do you genuinely enjoy writing characters by hand?

How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
     
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

5 tips to help you improve your Chinese writing ability

baogaoThis month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about translation, which means that at least half the challenge is focused on writing Chinese (if you translate from your native language to Chinese). In fact, for many learners, writing texts that aren’t about everyday life is mostly a translation exercise anyway; you know what you would write in your native language, now you have to translate that into Chinese.

In this article, I will share some tips and suggestions for how to translate and/or write better texts in Chinese and learn more from the process. Please note that I don’t talk about handwriting here, this is about composing text!

Tip #1: Never translate word by word, focus on the meaning

I have taken a couple of university courses focused on Swedish-English translation, and when we do that, we can mostly stick to the same word order as the original and then adjust sentences as needed. This might not produce great results every time, but it works well because Swedish and English are close linguistically. Overlapping language is in a clear majority.

This is not the case when you translate to Chinese and using the same strategy is a bad idea. You should never translate directly. The result will either be unreadable or very awkward-sounding. That is, even if you use the right words, your text will still be bad if you write English sentences with Chinese characters. What should you do instead? Split the translation into two steps.

Tip #2: Translate general meaning first, don’t get stuck on details

It’s very hard to write a text which is both a good translation and a well-written text in Chinese at the same time. Therefore, try splitting the writing process into two steps. First, make sure you translate the meaning of the original text, without caring too much if it sounds good in Chinese or not. It’s okay to use clumsy constructions and phrases you’re not sure how they are used at this stage.

Then, when you have a text that contains the meaning of the original text, forget the original text and work on the Chinese text you have, turning it into as correct and idiomatic Chinese as you can. Sometimes you will need to deviate from the original meaning to do this, but that’s usually okay. If you really care about the translation itself and not just the final text in Chinese, you should then double-check your text against the original to make sure you haven’t changed too much, but this is not necessary if you translate for practice only.

Tip #3: Use what you know, avoid what you don’t

Beginners can express much more than they think. When I started learning Chinese, I remember often thinking that I didn’t know how to express myself. It was very depressing. Then I stopped caring about getting it exactly right and just tried to get as close as possible with whatever I could come up with.This worked a lot better. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons is that saying or writing something from scratch is considerably easier than translating it from your native language!

Here is a basic example I encountered with a student last week. He has studied a few chapters in a beginner textbook, and wanted to say “rooms in China are small”. The problem was that he didn’t know how to say “in” and had forgotten how to say “small”. However, he knew the basic function of 的 and remembered how to say 房间 “room” and 中国 “China”.

With the wrong approach, a student in this situation could just say: “I don’t know how to say this in Chinese, there are several words here I don’t know” and give up. With the right approach, the student could try to express what he wants to say with the words he has available. How about: 中国的房间不大?

As it turns out, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t learnt to say “in” (which would probably have created a bad sentence if he had known it anyway) and not knowing how to say “small” didn’t matter either, because “not big” is close enough to the meaning of “small”.

Tip #4: Always check context when using a dictionary

When translating between two similar languages, you can often write a full sentence save one word you don’t know how to translate, look that word up in a dictionary later and then complete the sentence. This works almost all the time when translating between Swedish and English.

It almost never works for Chinese. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to learn Chinese. Mappings between words in different languages is seldom 1:1, but it’s pretty close between similar languages. If you use a dictionary with the belief that a word means the same thing and is used in the same way as the English keyword you entered, you’re mistaken. When using a dictionary, you need to pay attention to:

  • Meaning – Does the word mean what you think it does in this context?
  • Usage – How is the word commonly used in sentences?
  • Collocations – Can the word you looked up be used with the other words in your sentence?

I’m teaching a course this semester where the students are writing reports in Chinese. Their Chinese level is good overall and most of them have reached conversational fluency some time ago, but most of them haven’t written any major text before. My main complaint with the texts they produce is that when they use dictionaries, they fail to pay attention the three areas listed above.. This produces a huge number of weird sentences, sometimes only comprehensible because I can guess what English word they used.

What you should do is look at the example sentences and see if the word means what you think it does and how it’s used in context. If your dictionary doesn’t have example sentences, you should use another dictionary. This certainly takes longer than just selecting a word at random, but your text will be better and you will also learn more from seeing the word used in context. The quickest way to check collocations is by using a search engine.

Tip #5: Don’t make your text more complicated than necessary

Some students think that they can write better texts in Chinese by deliberately trying to use more difficult words, longer sentences and so on. This almost never works. If you aren’t already good at writing Chinese, I suggest that you start by writing the way you speak. That will at least be easier to understand and you can gradually make your language less colloquial. I’d rather read a somewhat colloquial text that works, compared with a jumble of difficult words that don’t make sense. Similarly, if you can’t handle long and complex sentences, break them up and gradually increase length as your proficiency increases.

Conclusion

This article contains tips that I wish I could have given myself when I started writing in Chinese. It’s also the tips I give students who want to improve their writing. However, I have also taught enough students to know that most people don’t follow the advice I’ve given here. I realise that this isn’t only because they don’t know how to write, it’s also because they are pressed for time or don’t have the proper resources.

After teaching the writing course this semester, however, I really felt that this was a topic I needed to discuss. Next time, I will have an article I can point to which contains some of the most useful tips. Do you have any other tips? What advice would you offer other people who have just started writing in Chinese?

Translation challenge, December 11th to 31th

2014-12-08 19.55.35Two months have passed since the launch of Hacking Chinese Challenges and we have already completed both a listening and a reading challenge with 249 participants so far. I love these challenges myself because they help me spend more time learning Chinese.

Join this month’s translation challenge

Now it’s time to turn to a more active skill, namely translation. Historically speaking, language learning through translation has gone from being the point of language learning, through an era where target language communication only was the name of the game, to a more balanced view today. I love translation as a form of reading and writing practice, so that’s what this month’s challenge is about..

This challenge is presented in cooperation with the Marco Polo Project, a site that focuses on translating texts from Chinese to several other languages. The site is run by Julien Leyre, who also helped me developing Hacking Chinese Challenges. Julien has written an article about the benefits of Chinese-English translation, and it will be published here on Hacking Chinese on Thursday, so if you’re not convinced that this kind of practice is useful, you’ll have to wait until Thursday. You can also read my article, which is mostly about English-Chinese translation: Translating to improve your Chinese.

The challenge – December 11th to December 31st

The challenge is to learn as much Chinese as possible through translating in either direction (or both). I don’t want to decide for you if you should go for quantity or quality, or if you should go for English-Chinese or Chinese-English. It’s up to you. As was the case for previous challenges, the unit of measurement is time spent.

This is how you join:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the translation challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  8. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Two directions, multiple skills

Translation is useful in both directions. If you translate to Chinese, it become active writing practice in that you have to use the Chinese you know to express something you know about in English or another language. This forces you into new territories and helps you get away from the things you normally speak and write about. Read more about why this kind of translation is great in this post: Translating to improve your Chinese.

Translating in the other direction is also a good idea. It’s a form of very active reading and you have to understand the original text and think about what it really means. Then you have to use your native language to express these things in a manner true to the original. This is really hard, but in a different way than translating from your native language to Chinese. Read more in Julien’s article on Thursday!

Setting a reasonable goal

This challenge covers both reading practice (Chinese-English translation) and writing practice (English-Chinese translation). If you’re a serious student who studies full-time, you should aim for at least an hour a day (that’s 21 hours in total). People who are busy know their own schedules better than I do, but I think most people should be able to do half an hour five days a week, so that means roughly 7 hours (removing a day or two for any kind of holiday celebration you might have planned).

Personally, I haven’t written much coherent text in Chinese lately, but I really should, so I’m going to aim for 15 hours. This also stretches over the Christmas holiday when I should have more time to devote to a project like this. I started translating a short story I wrote in Swedish years ago, so my goal is to finish that project. I don’t know if 15 hours is enough or not, but it should take me much closer to the goal at least.

  • What’s your goal?
  • What are you going to translate?
  • What’s your experience of language learning through translation?

The challenge starts on December 11th, so you can’t start reporting progress before then. I will of course post notifications on Facebook and Twitter when the challenge starts. See you on the leader board!

Learning to write Chinese characters through communication

handwritingimeIn almost every modern textbook I’ve seen on teaching methodology, and not a few research papers, the importance of communication is emphasised. This is part of the core of both communicative learning and task-based learning, and has several benefits.

Communicating is the real goal of language learning, so it makes sense to practise in a way as close to the goal as possible.

However, as we saw in last week’s article (Focusing on communication to learn Chinese), focusing only on communication is an approach that might work well for children, but it’s definitely not the best way for adult learners.

Communicative handwriting

In this article, I want to talk about communicative learning and writing Chinese characters. This is an area where I’m convinced that everybody’s doing way too much studying and way too little communicating (i.e. the opposite of what I talked about last week). Proportionally speaking, how much of your character learning is communicative?

This isn’t communication

In most classrooms and courses, learning to write characters by hand is often far removed from any kind of communication. Here are a few examples of what doesn’t count as communicative:

  • Reviewing characters using flashcards of any kind
  • Writing characters during dictation in class
  • Copying a text already written in characters or Pinyin
  • Creating mnemonics for characters you want to be able to write
  • Practising calligraphy on paper

All these are useful activities in certain contexts, but they aren’t communicative! You’re writing characters only to write characters, there is no goal of conveying meaning or information to someone else in a meaningful way.

As I pointed out in last week’s article, studying has its role and you do need to study a lot to learn Chinese characters, but I also think you should include communication as much as possible in your character learning. This is more fun, makes learning meaningful and a natural part of your life, not a chore you have to get through.

Use handwriting input on your phone

This is the best advice I have to offer. Even though it’s definitely quicker, don’t use a phonetic input method on your phone, use handwriting instead. This means that when you write something in Chinese, you’ll review characters at the same time. You’ll get very good at common ones and you will occasionally need to think about how to write less common characters as well.

If you think this is too hard or takes too much time, you can set a limit of some kind. You don’t have to write all characters by hand, just do that for the first X minutes or Y characters. Then you can switch to some other input method. This ensures that you practice writing characters but avoids the problem where you stop writing altogether because it’s too annoying.

Communicating with your future self

Modern people typically don’t write that much by hand, but we still do sometimes. You should start doing this in Chinese as far as it’s possible. For instance, you can write shopping lists and to-do lists in Chinese. Take notes in Chinese when you can. Of course, you can always skip characters you don’t know and just write Pinyin (or even English) if you don’t know them. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The point is to communicate with your future self successfully and that should be the main goal.

What is communication anyway?

I plan to write an article about communication and language learning later, but I still want to include a brief discussion here. One might think that anything related to language learning is communication because that’s ultimately what languages are about.

This is not what the word means in a language learning context, though.

Instead, communication means genuine exchange of information in a meaningful way. Thus, if you read a dialogue in a textbook, it’s not communication because your partner learns nothing new from what you say (it’s already in the textbook).

In fact, many common classroom activities are not communicative! An example of a real communicative exercise in a beginner classroom might be to exchange phone numbers using the Chinese numbers you just learnt (if your partner doesn’t already know your phone number).

Communication should also be meaningful, although this is harder to achieve and, in my opinion, of secondary importance. For instance, it’s extremely hard to communicate something of genuine interest as a beginner. You only have one phone number and I might not ever be interested in writing it down!

Therefore, we sometimes opt for communication with simulated meaning, such as using a made-up phone number that could have been your own or answering questions about a made-up schedule to practice time words and school subjects. The point is that these exercises still have real-world relevance and could take place outside the classroom.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese

Using communicative handwriting is not only more natural, more effective and more fun, it’s also a cornerstone of my minimum-effort approach to learning to write Chinese characters. You can read more about that here: A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters

waysofwritingI think that anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should learn to write characters. This isn’t necessarily because you will be required to write a lot by hand (that almost never happens to me), but because it will teach you a lot about how characters work. This will help you recognise characters as well, which is truly essential once you get beyond everyday conversations.

I can (and probably will) write several articles about writing characters, discussing questions like when you should start, how many and which characters you should focus on first. I think all these questions are up for debate and in general, I think Chinese second language education today is focusing way too much on writing characters, routinely requiring students to be able to write all characters by hand (this isn’t really necessary).

Different ways of writing characters

Let’s just assume that we have decided to learn to write characters. You could be a beginner working through the first words in a textbook or an advanced learner like myself expanding beyond what’s actually necessary to know.

How should you write the characters? I don’t mean what the strokes should look like or in what order they should be, I mean how do you practically go about writing them?

There are many ways of writing characters, all with their pros and cons. Below I’m going to discuss some of them. I will discuss all of them in terms of their major advantages, how close they are to actual handwriting, how easy it is to cheat and some other factors I find interesting.

Seven ways of practising Chinese characters

Here we go:

  1. Writing on paper – This is the most obvious way of writing and has been around for a while. The main advantage with this method is that if being able to write Chinese on paper is your goal, it makes sense to practise just that. Compare this with if you want to learn more about the structure and composition of characters when it doesn’t really matter what your strokes look like. Of course, you need paper and pencil to do this, so it’s a bit inconvenient. Unless you have a teacher to check, you also don’t know if your writing is good or not. Still, it’s hard to cheat with this method, if you don’t know how to write something, it will be quite obvious, at least for yourself.

  2. Writing with your finger – This is the natural extension of the above method to be used whenever you don’t have paper and pencil around. For some people this becomes the main method, especially when combined with spaced repetition software. You skip the paper and pencil entirely and just write with your index finger on your palm, a flat surface or even in the air. This is obviously more practical because you always have your index finger with you (hopefully). The drawback is that you don’t see the result, which comes with two problems. First, you don’t practise the actual strokes and your handwriting will probably be very ugly if you only practise this way. Second, it’s easier to cheat by being too quick and just saying to yourself that you actually knew that character. If you made a minor mistake, you’re less likely to find it out, too, even if it’s an honest mistake.

  3. Writing in your mind – This is the next step in the abstraction process and it works even if your nemesis captures you and cuts your hands off. Simply imagine writing the character on the canvas of your mind. If you’re not very familiar with character components, you might have to do this stroke by stroke, but as you learn more about characters, it works best with just imagining the different components being put into place. , makes , add and you get . Since all these components are common, imagining the writing of this character is pretty easy. The downside with this method is that you’re not actually writing anything, so this helps you remember the composition of the character, but it doesn’t help you actually write it. I’d say this is very good if your handwriting is already acceptable and your main goal is to expand your vocabulary. The method is very quick and it’s probably the one I’ve used the most over the years.

  4. Writing on screen without feedback – There are several programs for mobile phones and computers that allow you to write either directly on a touch screen or by using a stylus or writing tablet of some kind. Most of these programs don’t offer you any feedback, so in a sense, it’s just a very expensive kind of paper and pencil approach. However, this is not entirely true, because writing on the screen allows more direct comparisons to model characters and will thus improve the chances of spotting errors. A smart phone is also something most people carry around all the time, which isn’t the case with paper and pencil, so I think these programs are quite good. The most common example of this is Pleco, which offers on-screen writing when reviewing characters. The disadvantages are mostly the same as for paper and pencil.

  5. Writing on screen with feedback – This is an approach that has only been around for a few years and the only program I know that does this well is Skritter. I don’t say this because I’m a part of the Skritter team or because I like Skritter in general, I simply haven’t seen any other program that can recognise your strokes one by one and offer feedback on stroke order, stroke placement and even stroke direction (you wrote that backwards). The advantage here is obvious, it gives you feedback on your writing, which makes it both more fun and more effective as a learning method. The downsides are that it costs money. This is by far the best alternative to maintain writing ability, save for having a teacher looking over your shoulder all the time, correcting your writing, but that’s bound to be prohibitively expensive and not very practical.

  6. No writing, just looking – This isn’t a method as such, but it’s something many students, including myself, sometimes revert to when too tired. Instead of actively checking if we can write a character, we just look at the answer and try to answer the question: “Would I have been able to write this if asked to,?” The problem with this approach is that your answer is likely to be inaccurate. It’s extremely hard to determine if you knew something after seeing the answer, so you’re likely to overestimate your ability to write the character. Don’t do this! This method has no advantages and it’s only mentioned here so that I can point out that if you want to remember the character, simply looking at it isn’t enough, you need to actively process how the character is structured and written. Use method #3 above instead.

  7. Only reading and typing – Many native speakers mostly read and type Chinese rather than write it by hand. Still, we shouldn’t compare ourselves with native speakers. They’ve had a lifetime to practise Chinese characters and even if they don’t practise much writing actively, they can still write most characters. There will of course be exceptions, native speakers forget characters all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t write Chinese by hand if asked to. Even though I haven’t seen any research on this, my own experience tells me that as second language learners, simply reading and typing is not enough, you have to combine this with at least some writing practise. I read 25 books in Chinese last year and probably typed a few hundred pages of text, but even that isn’t enough, I need about 20 minutes per day to maintain and expand my handwritten vocabulary.

The best way of writing Chinese characters by hand

I think the first five methods mention above all work pretty well, but they yield slightly different results and demand different things from you as a learner. It’s easy to cheat with some methods, but if you’re vigilant and strict when grading yourself, this isn’t a big problem. Some methods are less convenient than others, but that also depends on habits and routines.

I personally use mental writing and Skritter the most. I use mental writing because it’s really quick and I feel that I already know how to write the components, I just need to remember how they fit together to form a character. I use Skritter because it’s fun and because it stops me from cheating when I’m lazy. Thus, they complement each other quite well.

What method(s) do you use?

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements

This article about handwriting Chinese characters is written by Harvey Dam, currently enrolled in the World Language master’s degree program at the University of Utah. He’s a prolific poster on Chinese Forums (user name Hofmann), which is where this text was originally published as a series of blog posts. It is published here with permission of the author. I wanted to publish this article here on Hacking Chinese because I think it contains unique and useful material. I find it particularly useful because it focuses on actual handwriting and contains lots of real examples with scanned handwriting samples rather than typed characters. The “minimum requirements” in the title doesn’t mean that all students of Chinese need to know everything here, but if you care about handwriting, you probably should.


Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 1

This post is meant to provide a clear-cut standard for beginners regarding Chinese handwriting using common hard-tipped writing instruments like pencils and pens, focusing on regular script (楷書). This is necessary because commonly available materials provide inaccurate information or stray too far into aesthetics too early, while neglecting the basics. My goal here is not to get you to write well, but to write correctly. The examples I show are made with a pencil, only caring to ensure that things are correct where they should be, with no attention paid to aesthetics.

First, some axioms.

  • Writing is a form of communication through symbols. Recognition of these symbols without distraction requires them to adhere to certain rules. These rules are called 書法, “writing rules.”
  • Characters in regular script are recognized based on the length, direction, and placement of strokes. Stroke thickness is not essential. Therefore, regular script can be written correctly with a monoline writing instrument. However, an atypical scheme of line thickness variation that becomes distracting is still wrong.

With that, your goal when writing (regardless of writing instrument) should be to communicate without distraction. The most common potential distraction when writing is producing wrong characters. In general, writing something that has not been commonly employed in exemplary pieces of writing for that particular morpheme will probably result in a wrong character. More concretely, the difference between a right and wrong character can depend on:

Substitution of one character for another, e.g.

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Substitution of one component for another, e.g.

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Absence of a required stroke (which may result in a substitution), e.g.

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An extra stroke, e.g.

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Stroke placement is incorrect, e.g.

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Substitution of one type of stroke for another, e.g.

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Width relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

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Height relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

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Width relationship of certain components are incorrect, e.g.

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An opening where there should be none, e.g.

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Lack of an opening where there should be one, e.g.

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Visibly incorrect stroke order, e.g.

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I think that about covers it. The first piece of homework you have to do, then, is to learn to recognize and reproduce the basic strokes of regular script. They are most reliably recognized by their orientation and curvature. The number of different strokes varies depending on how you count. I only include those which I think differ significantly in technique.

A horizontal stroke, commonly called 橫, is written from left to right. It can be truly horizontal or tilted up at the right a bit. It rare cases it can be tilted down, but not doing so in such a case will not make the difference between a right and wrong character. It may bow up (most commonly) or down in the middle, but not extremely. If you vary the thickness, it must be thick on both ends.

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A vertical stroke, commonly called 豎, is written from top to bottom. It must not curve. In most cases it should be ideally truly vertical. In some cases such as in the second stroke of 五 it can slant and still be a vertical stroke as long as it does not curve. When written with line width variation, both ends are usually thick, although in some cases it can end in a point, and sometimes it must end in a point.

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A positive-sloped stroke, commonly called 撇, is written from the upper right to the lower left. Lengths and curvatures of these strokes vary greatly. It usually bows down in the middle. In rare cases it must either be completely straight or bow up, such as the second stroke of 為 (examples). If you vary thickness, in most cases it must start thick and end thin. In some cases, such as in the third stroke of 鹿, it may start with a point, however not doing so will not result in a wrong character.

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Dots, commonly called 點, are short strokes going in some downward direction, written from the top. When writing with varying line thickness, start with a point and increase thickness until the end.

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The dot to the right can be lengthened using the same technique, resulting in a straight or upwards-bowing negative slope stroke, called 長點 or 反捺.

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A negative slope stroke that bows down in the middle is called 捺. At the top, if it is closer to horizontal, there is initially a rightward motion. If it is steeper, it starts directly in the downward bow. If it starts in the middle of another stroke, it starts with a point. If not, it likely must start thick, as in the last stroke of 之 (examples).

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A stroke that is written from the bottom left to the upper right, and tilts up more than a horizontal stroke, is called 提. These are never the last stroke of a character. They start thick and end thin.

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A round curve of about 90 degrees is called 彎. They are usually a transition between a vertical and horizontal stroke.

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Hooks, called 鉤, are short attachments to major strokes. Most of them are very straightforward. On horizontal strokes, hooks can only go down. On vertical strokes, hooks can only go left.

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One stroke only occurs with a hook. I don’t know what it’s called, but it occurs in the last stroke of 子 and the second stroke of 狗. It is rather vertical but bows to the right, starting thin and ending thick (where the hook starts, which ends thin again).

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Hooks attached to rather steep 捺 are likely called 斜鉤. However, there are steep 捺 where you must not hook, as in the 4th to last stroke of 國 (example). The hook should point straight up or slightly to the right, even if the next stroke occurs left of it, except in 心 and 必, where it should point left.

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Corners are the end of one stroke and the beginning of another. Corners can be correctly made by lifting your writing instrument up and starting a stroke that covers the end of the previous stroke. However, if at the end of one stroke you feel that you are prepared to start another, then go ahead and connect them. Note that stroke counts for dictionary classification are made assuming cornered strokes are connected into one where possible. Therefore, while I would write 幺 in 5 separate strokes, a dictionary would say it has 3 strokes.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 2

Now that you can identify and reproduce all strokes in regular script, it’s time to learn to use them correctly. When looking at an example character, observe the writer’s intent regarding:

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

A note about stroke order: the tl;dr about it is to memorize this list and use Japanese standard stroke order references like this in order to produce correct stroke orders. For more details, read this.

Now I will elaborate a bit about intent. When you try to write 10 of the same character the same way, they will all be different because of human imprecision, although you have the same target character in your mind. The character in your mind is a grapheme (underlying form), and what is written is the surface form. By observing multiple surface forms, you will get a better idea of what the grapheme must be. For example, observe the 1st and 2nd strokes of the many examples of 月 here. In most examples, both of them touch to form a corner. In some examples, they don’t touch or almost touch. In even fewer examples, they pass through each other. By observing these examples, one should conclude that they should be ideally touching to form a corner, although if you write 10 of them, and 2 of them look like this:

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…and one of them looks like this:

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that’s OK. However, no amount of technical deficiency would produce something like this:

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Therefore, when writing Chinese characters, it is necessary for your intent to be correct, even if your rendition in some instances is not.

Now let’s practice our observational techniques on another character. Look at 大 here. Only look at regular script examples. Here is what I see stroke by stroke:

  • In all examples, the first stroke is a 一. I conclude this is the rule.
  • In all examples, the second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left. In most examples it is obviously to the left. I conclude that ideally it is obviously to the left, although not quite getting there is OK.
  • In all examples, the third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke. I conclude this is the rule.

Now I try to reproduce it.

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  • The first stroke is a 一.
  • The second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left.
  • The third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke.

If I break the last rule one way or another:

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…I will produce wrong characters. On the left I wrote the first stroke too long and/or the last stroke too short. On the right I replaced the last stroke with a 丶, which was in none of the regular script examples.

Now that you know how to write 大, you can use it to learn other characters that contain it, like 天 or 太. Let’s look at 太 here.

  • The majority is written like 大. Since you know that already, there is no need to relearn.
  • There is a 丶 placed between the 2nd and 3rd strokes. Most examples place it directly under the intersection (and not halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes).

More on that last point, observe this. The dot is placed under the intersection. If it were halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, it would be to the right of the intersection. Technical imprecision can produce a dot that goes anywhere in the area between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, but most examples seem to aim directly under the intersection. Also, some learners who are used to looking at modern typefaces will likely have a grapheme in their heads with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke, even if it ends up left of the intersection. This is because modern Chinese regular script typefaces render it so. Here is DFKai-SB:

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Compare with a Japanese typeface Epson 正楷書体M:

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Although technical imprecision could cause someone meaning to put it under the intersection to attach it to the 2nd stroke, an intent to do so is inaccurate. One can avoid this by always using good examples. Unfortunately, the best examples are rarely presented to beginners. The tl;dr about good examples is go to a 書法字典 like 9610.com, search for what you want (in Simplified Chinese), and prioritize 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, and 柳公權, being careful not to learn a wrong character because they are misclassified. This might seem like a lot of work, but if you do it, you will find that you will only need to look up simple characters, as complex characters are made of simple components. Furthermore, it isn’t much additional work if you are learning characters, as observing example characters in detail only strengthens your character memory.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 3

In part 2 I introduced to you some things you should look for when observing example characters. To review, they are

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

Now we will do some further exercises in observing examples such that good graphemes make it into you head.

First, let’s do one exercise regarding length of horizontal strokes. Do you know how to write 三? If you’re like most people you probably think the first stroke is longer than the second. Look at these. You should see that they are actually pretty much the same length. If there is any significant difference, then the second stroke is longer. But most importantly, the third stroke is still much longer than the first two. And so here I give you a rule about regular script: In any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right, and if it’s a horizontal stroke, it likely starts on the far left, spanning the whole character. Everything else should usually be much narrower. Therefore, when a character has many uncontained horizontal strokes (i.e. not in 目 or something), pay attention to which one is longest. It will be much longer than the others. Let’s examine this in a few more characters.

A close call is not acceptable:
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The difference between the longest horizontal stroke and the others must be obvious:
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(Verify on 9610.com: , , , .)

And remember, use good examples to make sure the long horizontal stroke is the right one.
華 ←What does that look like to you? Does it look like any of these? Or is it more like this?

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If that looks wrong to you, then you’re in good shape, because it should be like this:

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Now, remember that the rule says “in any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right.” This thing doesn’t have to be a horizontal stroke. It can be a ㇏ or any hook to the upper right, like ㇂ (or 乚). In any character there will be at most one of ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 or long horizontal strokes. This rule has a name in Chinese: 一字不二捺. You should remember from before that 捺 refers to ㇏, but in this context, it refers to all of ㇏, ㇂, 乚, and long horizontal strokes. If you find yourself writing ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 and it isn’t the rightmost thing in a character, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Observe the following wrong characters:

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林 contains two 木. You know that 木 ends with a ㇏ but if you write 林, the first one has to change to 丶. If not, two problems will arise: (1) there are more than one ㇏ and (2) there is a ㇏ that is not the rightmost thing of the character. In 疑 there is the ㇏ at the end, but many people like to write a hook on 匕, and if you don’t kill it in 疑, you’ll end up with both a 乚 and a ㇏. Remember that there can be at most one of these. 輝 has 光 on the left. 光 ends with 乚 when written alone, but because it isn’t the rightmost thing in the character, the hook must come off, which results in a bare horizontal end, and because there is more stuff to write to the upper right, this bare horizontal end becomes a ㇀. In 七 there are both a long horizontal stroke and a 乚. Furthermore, 乚 isn’t the rightmost thing. And you should remember 大 from Part 2. The problem in this context is that there are both a long horizontal stroke and a ㇏. Observe these characters corrected:

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Next, I will show you more rightward-extending things that can’t contend for rightwardness with anything else: components like 宀 and 皿.

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…the key word being “contend.” Notice 宀 being most rightward in 寶, but giving it up in 安 to the 一 in 女. In 孟, there is 子 and 皿, both having long horizontal strokes when written alone, but when written together 皿 dominates. In 盡 we have 聿+火+皿. 聿 and 皿 have long horizontal strokes when written alone, but in 盡, 聿 dominates.

Below I have written the 266 most common characters in Mandarin as further demonstration of this rule. I have circled the rightmost extender in each character if there is one. Sometimes the character doesn’t have one, such as when the rightmost thing is a vertical stroke, as in 個. There will be no ㇏, ㇂, 乚, or long horizontal strokes that do not have a red circle (except in 心), unless I have written incorrectly. A blue asterisk means that there are other correct ways of writing the character where a different stroke or component is extended to the right.

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Finally, I will show you some characters straight out of my computer that break this rule:

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This is DFKai-SB, or 標楷體, which exhibits the standard character forms of the Republic of China.

Quiz question: Do you know how to correct them?

Answer:

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Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 4

Let’s start with a…

Warm up:
Kenny asks Eric how to write 春. Eric says “Write 三, then write 人 centered on that, then write 日 under that.” If Kenny follows Eric’s instructions exactly, will he write 春 correctly?

Answer:

Perhaps you have heard that mnemonic before, and while it might produce something that people can recognize, it will not be without distraction. Take a look:
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There you go. A 三 squished vertically but preserving the long 一, and then a 人 written directly onto that, and then 日 under that. And yes, 人 does start with a rather straight 丿 (source). I hope you see the problem here. There are both a long 一 and a ㇏. There is no problem with the 5th stroke starting above the 3rd stroke (source) although it is better if it doesn’t touch the 4th stroke. Now see this character corrected:
 
The major problem has been corrected. The 5th stroke ends far to the right of the 3rd stroke, as in all examples. It is more tempting than one might think to write that 3rd stroke long. Also, although not critical, the 4th stroke should start more steeply and curve more. I also start the 5th stroke from the 3rd stroke, as is more common.

Moving on. In this post I want to go over gut feeling. I hope over this series you’ve developed some. Here are some more weird things you might encounter that, like wrong width-relationships, should make you feel like something’s off.
One thing is the ㇀ (提) stroke, or rather misuse thereof. This stroke usually comes into being as a modification of some other stroke, usually to ease transition into starting the next stroke. Think of all the ㇀ in the characters you know. Likely there is something following it to the upper right. This is also why ㇀ is never the last stroke of a character. If you find yourself writing ㇀ as the last stroke of a character, then there are two possibilities:

  • It should actually be some other stroke, this stroke being what became ㇀.
  • You have written in the wrong stroke order.

As an illustration of number 1, here are a few characters in DFKai-SB:
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In 羽, there should only be one ㇀: the 3rd stroke. This is only a ㇀ to ease transition to the next stroke that begins to the upper right. The last stroke should be a 丶 just like the 5th stroke. To make it ㇀ would point it at nothing. In 將, the 8th stroke should also be 丶 because the next stroke starts below it. There is nothing right of it to write. Observe these characters written correctly in Epson 正楷書体M:
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This is also the case with the ice radical 冫 as in 冷. The underlying form should just be two 丶, one on top of the other. However, because it is often followed by something to the upper right, the bottom 丶 becomes ㇀. This leads to such hypercorrections as:
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That would be Adobe 明體 Std L. Observe this corrected:

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As for number 2, let’s say you think the stroke order of 耳 is 一 丨 丨 一 一 一, and let’s say you look through examples of 聞 because you can’t find any 耳 in regular script, and it seems to end with ㇀. You feel like something’s wrong here. Actually 2 things: (1) the stroke order is wrong and (2) you probably extended the wrong horizontal stroke. Here I give you Epson 正楷書体M:
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…and here is 耳 correctly written with stroke order from black to red:
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And as you can see, the last stroke is actually 丨. Enough about ㇀.

Next, a bit about 又. This is very a common character building block. In many typefaces you’ll see the 2nd stroke starting where the 1st stroke started, forming a corner:
Posted Image
If your gut feeling has developed sufficiently, you’ll find it quite awkward to do so, i.e. to write such a long 一 before turning a corner into a 丿. That is because all of these instances are short, e.g. in 夕, or it’s actually a ㇀ like in 水, and so 又 written in this way is wrong. Let’s look at the etymology. You should see that this was a picture of a right hand, and likely the original character for 右. Look at the etymology for 右 and you should also see that it’s just 又 with 口 under it (which should also explain the stroke order of 丿一 for the tops of 右, 有, and 布), and finally look at examples of 又, and you should see that in all examples, even that first one that’s usually wrong, there is an opening in the upper left. And you should also notice that in anything that looks like 又, such as 攵 or 夂 or 夊, the last stroke doesn’t start at the beginning of the 一.
Next, I will talk about variants. The Chinese call these 異體字, although this term implies something nonstandard or unorthodox. I consider two characters variants if they differ in stroke type or placement. That means 太 with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke and 太 with the dot centered under the intersection are different variants. The ROC’s MOE variant dictionary doesn’t even differentiate them. And of course, not all variants are correct.

So, here you are, probably not too experienced with writing Chinese, faced with so many variants and big bad me, who can pick wrong characters out of computer fonts. What do you do? The short answer is: pick one way to write your entire vocabulary and stick with it. As for which variant to pick, pick the most popular among the best examples of regular script. Again, these are 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, 柳公權. Avoid obscure variants. They hinder communication among those who are not well read, or are distracting to those who are. Furthermore, if I see an obscure variant in your writing, and I also see wrong characters, that will not leave a good impression. And remember, only wrong learning and/or carelessness can produce wrong characters; technical deficiencies cannot produce wrong characters, as I illustrated in Part 2 using 月. Also, if you feel like there is a character that is just too awkward to write in its orthodox form, there is likely a common variant that is easier. Examples I can think of are 骨, 斷, 節, 乘, 夷, 皆, 鬼, 策..

However, if/when you get a feel for what is legal and what is not legal, you will find that there is quite a bit of freedom in Chinese writing, and it will feel easier than ever before.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 5

This is both a review and a quiz. There are no new ideas here.

1. What is 語, with 忄 in place of 言?

a. 誤
b. 吾
c. 情
d. 悟

2. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

3. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

4. Observe the characters , , and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

5. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

6. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

7. Observe the character . Choose the correct stroke order, from black to red.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

Answer key:

1. d
2. c
3. a
4. a
5. a
6. b
7. a
 
If you want to discuss the contents of this article with the author or ask questions about the review questions, please do so in the thread created on Chinese Forums!

Why good feedback matters and how to get it

Feedback is an integral part of learning a foreign language and there is no doubt that we need it to improve. While it’s certainly possible to learn a lot with simply a lot of exposure to the language, both when it comes to spoken and written language, it’s very hard to increase accuracy in speaking and writing without feedback.

wrongAs adult learners of Chinese, we have experience with at least one other language and that means that we constantly make assumptions about how Chinese works which might be incorrect. We need feedback from other people to correct these problems. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to pronunciation (it might sound good to you, but not to a native ear), but it’s also true for speaking in general as well as writing.

However, giving good feedback is not easy and it’s perhaps even harder to receive feedback it well. I have already written about the art of being corrected, so now it’s time to write about the other end of the exchange and discuss how to give feedback. This article isn’t meant for teachers only, though, because as a learner you can use these ideas to increase the quality of feedback you receive from your language exchanges, class teachers or private tutors. The quality of the feedback can be improved tremendously by following a few easy principles, but let’s look a little bit closer at the problem first.

What bad feedback looks like

When I was an upper-intermediate learner, I took a course in written Chinese that was awful in many regards, but the worst part of the entire course was the feedback we received from our teacher. I usually spent more time trying to understand what I had done wrong than I spent writing the essay in the first place.

Now, if this time was well spent trying to figure out good ways of expressing myself in Chinese, fine, but I actually didn’t understand what I was doing wrong at all or why the teacher wanted me to change something, so I ended up giving the essay to other native speakers for feedback. They sometimes didn’t understand either, but they still managed to help me improve the essay.

The reason the feedback was so bad was that the teacher didn’t use a sensible notation system. If something was wrong, she underlined it with a red pen and that was it. That meant that the only thing you knew when you saw that read line was that something in that sentence was wrong. Syntax? Vocabulary? Collocations? Logic? Something else? Does the sentence just sound a little bit strange or was it completely wrong? I didn’t even know where to start.

Why good feedback matters

Misunderstanding feedback is catastrophic, because it might lead to the unlearning something which is actually right, while ignoring the actual problem. For instance, I might think that the teacher don’t approve of the verb-noun choice in the sentence, and then make a mental note not to write that again, whereas it is in fact the word order of the sentence that is wrong, which I might fail to notice entirely.

One very common problem is not indicating if the sentence in question is just plain wrong or of it just isn’t very idiomatic in Chinese. This matters because if you (incorrectly) think that what you wrote is totally wrong, this might screw up your mental representations of Chinese grammar and syntax. If it were clear from the feedback that you sentence is actually quite good, albeit rarely used by native speakers, your confidence for grammar and syntax might actually be reinforced by the correction.

Some guidelines to use for more useful feedback

Instead of complaining about bad teachers I’ve had, I’m going to share with you some easy steps to take to improve the feedback you give (if you’re a teacher) or that you can try to persuade your teacher to use (if you’re a student):

  • Different shades of wrong – There are numerous different ways of being wrong and knowing which one it is helps quite a lot. Let’s look at three of them, in decreasing order of seriousness. First, your teacher might not understand what you’re trying to express at all. This is typically marked with a question mark and usually requires a discussion. Second, the sentence might be understandable, but obviously wrong in some way. This needs to be clearly shown, preferably using a special colour like red. Third, a sentence might be technically correct (i.e. follow syntactic rules and be sound in general), but simply not part of what Chinese people say. Use another colour to mark this, perhaps blue.
  • Writing too much or too little – The theory of how context and language interact to form meaning is called pragmatics. Among other things, pragmatics cover how people try to hit the sweet spot between saying too much and too little when communicating with others. If you say too much, you will come across as verbose or boring: if you say too little, people won’t understand what you say. The tricky thing is that this is different in different languages. You might think your paragraph is perfect, yet your teacher thinks it lacks certain things and contain too much of something else. The language might be correct and idiomatic, but you’ve missed the third level of communication: pragmatics (the first tow being semantics and syntax). Use another colour to indicate this kind of problem, like green.
  • Don’t correct everything – If you’re a teacher and are dealing with average students, don’t correct too much, because nothing is more depressing than receiving a paper where the red ink used exceeds the black ink used to write the essay. Instead, focus on systematic and serious errors. Leave the fine-tuning for later. For some students, it might be okay to correct more, but I doubt that it’s beneficial even if the student is mentally strong and won’t feel depressed. There’s a limit to how much we can take in anyway.
  • Don’t always give the right answer – The  teacher shouldn’t always give the right answer, at least not immediately. If the student makes a mistake the teacher know that he can actually correct himself, there’s no need to spell it out. Thinking about a problem and solving it leaves a much deeper impression than just being fed the correct answer. However, it should still be clear what the problem is, we don’t want to end up in the situation I described in the introduction to this article.
  • Be aware that there are different kinds of mistakes – This requires that the teacher knows the student fairly well, but knowing what kind of mistake the student has just made is crucial. The main distinction between mistake (the student actually knows the right answer, but failed this time anyway) and error (a systematic problem that will occur in all such situation because the student doesn’t know what is correct). I’ve written more about this here: Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis.
  • Give positive feedback and praise now and then – If you encounter a sentence which is really good compared with the average level of the text, the teacher should let the student know. Personally, I’m very keen on learning what I do wrong and don’t mind heavy criticism on things I say or write as long as I’m given a reasonable chance to know what I should have said or written instead, but even I think that receiving praise now and then feels great. Don’t overdo it, though, and never praise erroneous sentences. Use a pretty colour like pink and add a short, personal comment.

Naturally, I have only given examples here. It doesn’t really matter exactly what method the teacher uses to let the student understand where the mistakes are and what to do about them, as long as the student can understand without spending hours and needing to consult other native speakers. Colours are perhaps most suitable for digital correction, but special symbols or coloured pens should do the trick on paper.

Feedback is precious

When reading your essay, the teacher might understand very well what you have done wrong and might know how to help you. It’s a pity if that potential help got lost on the way because of bad standards for giving feedback. If you follow the guidelines in this article, the quality of the feedback will increase, and, as a result, the amount of Chinese being taught or learnt will increase as well!