To learn to write or not to write Chinese?

A week ago, I printed out 1200 characters or so.  Thumper and I highlighted the characters she recognized.  Close to 800!  When did that happen?  A lot of it was through reading apparently.  Because she’s telling me left and right as we go through them which book she picked it up from.

With 800 characters down, suddenly I’m not so stressed about learning 1200 characters this year.  And I’m casting my eyes on the question of To write or not to write…..? 

I will sum it up first to save you reading a long winding post:  We need to separate writing curriculum into handwriting and composition writing.

Arguments for Writing

Now a days, I find that I have a lot of problem with knowing how to write emails, FB posts, etc.   I often write emails back to Taiwan to make inquiries to booksellers.  They need to be in a more polite form than normal speech.  On FB posts, same thing.  If I type the way I speak, then it comes out sounding very unschooled, very elementary Chinese level.

My sister the ESL teacher tells me, writing is not the same as speaking.  It’s a separate skill you need to teach.  Just because you can speak does not mean you can write.  Her ESL students speak fine, but they still have trouble with writing.

As of now, there are still instances when I have to handwrite.  Unless I always have technology with me, I cannot take notes, make a todo list, write a grocery shopping list, in Chinese, on a scratch paper.  And I already use technology way more than most.  More importantly, when I go back to Taiwan and I have to fill out official documents or or take notes, I always have to ask others to write it down for me.  It’s so frustrating on my end when that happens.  I also get embarrassed that my writing looks like an elementary school child’s.

Arguments Against Writing

I’ve been reading FB posts of other parents’ experiences and most people concentrate on reading.  The typical experience is that a child forgets how to write easily.  And that they don’t expect their children to write because we’re in the U.S.  The kids already have enough to preoccupy them in their English curriculum and to add the usually painful experience of learning to write as well is too much.   The typical Chinese writing curriculum consists of writing many times a single character.  Muscle memory and all that.

I can totally vouch for the forgetting to write.  I could write in Chinese till I was 12 or 13, then I stopped writing letters back to Taiwan.  I’ve forgotten how to write most characters.  In fact, my siblings who have much lower levels of Chinese than me remember how to write more because they went to Saturday Chinese school for a year as teenagers.  Now a days, I can type in pinyin and it really doesn’t stop me from communicating.  My mother herself cannot remember how to write sometimes.  So, writing requires continual practice.  Will my kids still be writing as teenagers?  Not sure.

Of course, another argument is that my Hapa kids are not going to have the same experience as me.  What is the likelihood that they will go back to Taiwan and live there like I do?  Or that people expect them to write?  They’re considered 外國人 (foreigners) to the Taiwanese people we meet and people are already surprised and happy they even speak Chinese.

Lastly, if you tie your writing curriculum with learning new characters, then your child will not progress fast enough in the reading department.  This is an especially important point for kids in the US, where you want them to read before their English reading skills catch up.

The verdict? 

As I was mulling over the pros and cons, I realized that I need to treat Chinese writing curriculum much like the English writing curriculum.   In order to write their thoughts down, children actually have seveal options: typinghandwriting (cursive and print), and probably in the future, dictation.   This is separate from the writing curriculum in elementary where they learn to write reports or do creative writing.  Though my hand writing is terrible, ultimately I can get by.  The real pain I have in writing is mostly about my ability to communicate in the written format.  The tools for writing should be separated from the skill of writing.  Knowing how to write is more important than remembering how to handwrite.

Since Chinese is not phonetic, learning to read should happen at a faster pace than learning how to handwrite.  To help them hand write before they learn all their characters, zhuyin/pinyin need to be taught, at the latest, when you introduce the writing curriculum.  Thumper uses zhuyin when she writes, and will need to use zhuyin when she learns how to type.  We will switch over to pinyin when she gets better at her English phonics.

Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are the four areas that make up language fluency.  Having a writing curriculum will aid the children in reaching that fluency.   Writing should not be dropped altogether.

So really, when I ask should children learn how to write, I should be very specific and say should children learn how to handwrite.  

For now, my answer is YES.  I’m treating Chinese handwriting like learning English cursive writing.  It is to practice writing beautifully.  In addition, Thumper is at a point where she cannot do creative writing or report writing because she doesn’t remember a lot of characters.  I want her to enjoy expressing her ideas in Chinese.  So we’re going with a three pronged process, teaching her how to typeand allow a lot of zhuyin in her writingwithout asking her to then go back and fill in every unknown word with Chinese character, and learn to write Chinese characters.

In terms of curriculum, if I take the super long and ambitious view and say Thumper needs to learn how to write 1800 characters by 8th grade, that works out to only 225 characters a year.  Given that we school year round, that works out to about 5 characters a week, basically 1 a day.  When I think of it that way it isn’t too bad at all.  Or, alternatively, I could randomly say that I want Thumper to be half behind Taiwnese grade level, so 150 characters a year.  Because 1200 characters already give you 90% frequency and 1800 gives you 96%.  So if we learn to write 150 characters a year, that’s only 1200 by 8th grade.  It’s not too bad given that she will be typing for sure by then and I don’t expect her to remember to write most of them eventually.

Suddenly, with this long view, 1 character a day or 0.5 character a day is super doable and manageable than the 6-15 that a child needs to learn to write if they want to do 300 characters a year with only 190 instructional days.

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