Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese character learning for all students

Learning to write Chinese characters by hand takes a lot of time. In today’s digital era, is it necessary to learn handwriting? Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages for second-language learners and discuss what an effective curriculum that caters to all students might look like!

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This is a reflective essay I wrote for an upcoming publication called Transforming Hanzi Pedagogy in the Digital Age 电写时代的汉字教学, where researchers and educators resent a rationale for a shifting focus from handwriting to e-writing in Chinese pedagogy for second-language learners. While the book has not been published yet and I therefore can’t comment on the other parts of the book, I here present my contribution with permission from the publisher. For more information about the book, including how to pre-order, please visit the publisher’s pre-order site or Amazon. For more pedagogical insights, you can also visit this website, or talk to Matt Coss, who is one of the editors and invited me to write this text. Naturally, you can also discuss this topic in the comment section!

Here is an introduction to the book by the publisher:

This volume argues for a pedagogy based on the 21st century communicative needs of L2 Chinese users, grounded in empirical research as well as practical and lived experiences. The authors propose an “e-writing as primary” (电写为主,手写为辅) framework for L2 Chinese instruction in the 21st century, a transformational proposal which will fundamentally shift the pedagogical focus of L2 Chinese instruction globally towards more learner-centered, research-informed practice. This volume includes three theoretical foundation chapters, four empirical studies, three descriptions of program-level implementation, and ten expert L2 Chinese user vignettes, which, taken together, offer a thorough introduction to e-writing for the future of L2 Chinese teaching and learning.

Chinese character learning for all students

The purpose of language is communication. We learn languages to be able to express ourselves, to understand others, and to exchange ideas, even though our specific goals vary from person to person. Language learning also has an important function in society, as it enables people to participate in new social, cultural, and professional contexts, which leads to deeper cross-cultural understanding.

Handwriting Chinese characters is disproportionately demanding

In this light, it is surprising that the teaching of Chinese as a second language has focused on communicative ability to a lesser extent than many other languages. When I started learning Chinese in 2007 here in Sweden (my home country), we were given a chapter’s worth of vocabulary to memorise each week, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing by hand from memory.

At first glance, this looks like a balanced approach, but it is not. While the outcome is balanced in the sense that students can write what they can say and understand both written and spoken Chinese, this approach is not balanced when it comes to how students spend their time, because in order to be able to write everything by hand, from memory, students must put more effort into that than all the other skills combined.

Learning Chinese was, in a practical sense, largely about learning to write characters.

Writing by hand is rarely necessary outside classrooms

The problem here is that knowing how to write Chinese characters by hand is not required to communicate in a modern, digital world. Even when living in a Chinese-speaking environment, handwriting is only a must in a small set of specific situations, such as filling out forms or writing simple messages.

Do you have to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

In these cases, we can rely on digital dictionaries to look up characters we do not know how to write, much like native speakers do when they forget how to write a character (i.e., 提笔忘字). It goes without saying that we still need to be able to read characters, but written communication is almost exclusively digital these days, which only requires us to know how a word is pronounced and what it looks like. Recognising the correct character in a list is significantly easier than writing it by hand.

Still, for most students learning Chinese in classrooms, the curricula they are taught cause learning Chinese to remain largely about learning to write characters by hand. The main motivation for learning this is often to pass exams or to advance to the next institutional level.

How I learnt Chinese characters

As a student, I have spent countless hours preparing for different tests, big and small, usually in the form of 听写 , or dictation. Almost all the exams I sat for were written exams where handwriting was required. The peak for me was in grad school, where I studied teaching Chinese as a second language alongside native speakers in Taiwan, and had three-hour exams about language pedagogy and Chinese linguistics, written by hand. This required good knowledge of many thousands of characters.

What strikes me in hindsight is that in the fifteen years I’ve been learning and using Chinese, I have never been required to write Chinese by hand outside a classroom without having access to a dictionary. Not a single time. This does not necessarily mean that writing by hand is not useful, but it does mean that if we are serious when we say that the purpose of language is to communicate, we need to think hard about the role of handwriting in modern written communication.

Do you want to learn to write 6,000 characters or speak decent German and Spanish?

I have kept a detailed record of my character learning and knew almost 6,000 characters in grad school, even though I have since abandoned the rarest thousand characters or so. While I have not recorded exactly how much time I have spent on characters since 2007, I can estimate it based on statistics from apps I have used (such as Skritter) and language logs I have kept.

A conservative estimate is 2,500 hours, which only includes vocabulary-specific activities (so not reading texts in Chinese, for example). Learning to write by hand certainly takes up most of that time, but it is hard to be precise, so let us say that 1,500 hours were spent on handwriting specifically.

That is about twice as much time as I spent learning French in secondary school, a language I became relatively proficient in. If I had cut down on writing by hand in Chinese, I could probably have learnt German and Spanish in the time I saved. Or I could have made progress in other areas of learning Chinese much faster.

Writing Chinese characters by hand: The opportunity cost

This is the crux of the matter. If we require students to learn to handwrite everything they learn how to say, they will spend most of their time on handwriting. While we might want to keep our students for ourselves and not have them learn French, Spanish or German, we certainly want them to progress faster in Chinese.

By shifting the focus from handwriting to literacy and digital, written communication, students would become both more proficient and more confident. This has obvious benefits for the students themselves, but also for Chinese as an educational subject.

Writing by hand can allow for deeper processing of Chinese characters

Is the solution then to remove handwriting from the curriculum? No, I do not think so, and there are two main reasons for this.

First, writing a character by hand can allow for deeper processing than simply selecting the same character from a list of candidates, provided that attention is directed to the composition and logic behind the character. If this is not done properly and characters are merely copied stroke by stroke, handwriting offers no significant benefits at all.

Still, there is a case to be made that writing by hand is an effective, albeit inefficient, way of committing characters to memory, even if your goal is only to be able to read and type. However, as discussed earlier, the effort required needs to be taken into account, so learning to write a core set of characters and functional components by hand would be enough.

This is also the approach taken in the new standard for the HSK (a Chinese proficiency test) that took effect in July 2021.

The new HSK 3.0: What you need to know

Chinese characters are not merely for communication

Second, many students enjoy writing characters, and some even start learning Chinese because they are attracted to the beautiful script. I was such a student, which is why I do not regret spending so much time on characters over the years. Chinese characters are not merely for communication, they are also an integral part of the culture.

Still, it seems odd to single out Chinese as a language where it is normal to focus so much on writing to the detriment of the other skills, even if some students enjoy writing characters. I maintain that language is for communication, and that Chinese as an additional language needs to be aligned with that. Those who wish to master writing by hand are free to do so, but it should not be something we force all students to do.

Implementing a sensible approach to handwriting in a national curriculum

In recent years, I have been involved in national curriculum design for Chinese taught in Swedish lower and upper secondary schools, so I have had the opportunity to think thoroughly about these matters and how they can be implemented in a national curriculum.

In my opinion, two principles underpin character learning for all students: sequencing and scope.

  • First, the spoken language should precede the written language. In the Swedish curriculum, students are expected to progress roughly twice as fast in spoken Chinese as in written Chinese. This means that teachers are free to put more emphasis on the spoken language and introduce characters gradually at a slower pace.
  • Second, when it comes to the written language, students are only required to write by hand to a certain extent, meaning that their full ability in written production and interaction is assessed with access to digital tools (typing). Only a subset of characters and words need to be mastered by hand.

Should you learn to speak Chinese before you learn Chinese characters?

Conclusion: Chinese character learning for all students

To summarise, as long as we use an approach for teaching Chinese that forces all students to spend most of their time writing characters by hand, only those who truly love doing so, or have the discipline to force themselves to do it, will succeed. For the rest, Chinese will appear to be an impossibly difficult and tedious subject.

We know that’s not the case, and that learning Chinese is not only possible, but can also be fun and enriching. By setting realistic requirements based on communicative needs and limiting the amount of characters students need to write by hand, we allow more students to reach further, with benefits for them, their teachers and society as a whole.

For more information about the book, including how to pre-order, please visit the publisher’s pre-order site or Amazon. For more about my thoughts regarding the benefits of handwriting, please check Do you have to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

Do you have to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?


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  1. 大鱼 says:

    Obviously it takes a disproportionate amount of time to learn to write Chinese characters compared with learning to write in other languages, but I think it is a mistake to underestimate the advantages that a learner who can handwrite characters has over one who doesn’t. Imagine you didn’t know how to write or pronounce the letters of your own language. What would reading be like? Would you be literate? The advantages may seem small, but they multiply. Learning how to write a character, knowing its components, is an extremely effective way to reliably distinguish characters when reading. This also makes learning new words more efficient. These abilities allow one to read faster and learn better. I sincerely doubt that you would have been able to become a Chinese teacher without having put in those grueling hours learning how to write.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I agree that handwriting has benefits! However, I’m not sure if your analogy is accurate. I can definitely learn how to read Chinese characters aloud without knowing how to write them by hand. I also think that it’s possible to know a lot about components and the composition of characters without knowing how to write by hand. These are not the same thing. You can also spend hundreds of hours on handwriting without knowing much about components and composition too!

      I think being able to write decently is a requirement for most teaching positions (if nothing else, it’s very practical to be able to write on a whiteboard), but 99.9% of students who study Chinese don’t do so to become teachers.

      In summary, I agree that all the things you mention are useful, but I don’t believe handwriting is the only way to learn them!

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