Why You Should Learn to Write Chinese Characters by Hand

I’m not writing this because I am an expert nor because I have been terribly successful with characters. I also don’t have a magic system for memory that will instantly let you read a Chinese newspaper.

I just have a warning for those starting out with Mandarin about my experience and why I really would advise everyone to avoid the ‘penless’ approach that has become somewhat popular.

I’m not a traditionalist and pretty much anytime technology can make something easier, I am all for it. But the reason that I’m writing this is because I actually went through the penless approach in a classroom setting and wanted to share my perspective.

The class was not teenagers but ranged from college-aged to early 30s and I started from scratch. The path the class took started with a ‘survival’ introduction course that covered a lot of the getting around basics, pinyin and basic dialogues. After about 6 months we started learning characters by just diving in & not studying radicals nor stroke/writing order.

My teacher started the pen less approach, focused on reading & using our mobile phones to do typing exercises etc. Her argument was basically that we’d never hand-write characters anyway so learning all the strokes & spending so much time learning how to write by hand was not a good use of our time.

At the time I thought it made complete sense and I was glad that she was taking such a practical approach. I had been secretly hoping to avoid characters altogether because I was dreading the pages of written sheets I’d seen elsewhere. I thought for sure that the rote “write-every-character-10 times” was a silly way to learn.

After about 6 months though, I became extremely frustrated. Any words that weren’t used frequently simply would not stay in my mind. I would have an idea that I studied but not enough information to actually be sure what the meaning was. I was studying every day, using flashcards, reviewing at night & reading in class but no matter what, my long-term retention was just terrible. It got so bad that I was close to quitting.

Then I saw this article, ” Better Learning Through Handwriting ” which I thought was very applicable.

After that, I read a short book that teaches the basics of radicals and strokes. I then switched all my review time to include some form of physical movement. Sometimes that was handwriting but I wasn’t doing just rote repetition. I usually wrote each a few times slowly then would start trying to make a visual image of the character’s meaning in my head while still moving my hand. (even with pen cap on to make it faster).

The result was complete night & day – my reading sped up, my recall dramatically improved & even the process of learning new words felt much faster. The whole thing was a vastly more enjoyable experience because i wasn’t constantly forgetting / frustrated & having to continuously review.

I’m not a teacher & can’t tell you what to do but I would highly, highly advise friends to always learn handwriting for basically 2 reasons:

1) Learning the strokes & writing by hand helps you to recognize the pieces & shapes. Instead of a big complicated character, you start to see it as 2 or 3 pieces that combine into one, which made recall easier for me.

2) The process of handwriting makes you focus on individual words & the physical process helps store the memories. I’m convinced of its importance for me personally, without a doubt.

I think that handwriting, concentrated ‘visualization’ & spaced-repetition software could all be combined to be the most effective solution. But for me, they are far less effective when used separately.

If you’re frustrated with retaining new words, spend a couple weeks incorporating handwriting & I bet you’ll see a difference.