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Is it worth learning to write Hanzi?

chris8080 (226 posts) • 0

I've been learning Chinese here in Kunming for about 6 month. Before I started, I made the decision not to learn how to write characters - only speaking, listening and reading. The reason behind this is that I want to get to the point where I can be conversational - as quickly as possible. Learning to write Hanzi is time-consuming, so I figure that by removing this component I can spend more time studying speaking, listening, reading. Also since I can easily write Hanzi using a computer or phone, I think not being able to write by hand is no great loss. My plan is, once I've reached a decent level of spoken Chinese, only at that point to start learning to write.

So far I think it's been a good decision as I've made good progress, but lately in my class I've started to feel that it would be very useful to be able to make notes in Hanzi rather than Pinyin. Also I can see that, since it's such a huge undertaking, you're better off learning Hanzi from day 1, even if it slows down your speaking a bit.

I'm interested to hear what other people think about this and what has been their experience. Is it really worth learning writing from the start?

tigertiger - moderator (5096 posts) • 0

I would say that you can start where you are.
Even if you knew hanzi, you would not be able to write cursive characters and it would take you a long time to write notes.

Now you have confidence in your progress in other areas you could start to write. You can already read which means you can recognise words, which is perhaps the biggest barrier to writing anyway.
If you then find that it is slowing you down to concentrate on writing, you can always resort to your original plan.

If the only use of Hanzi would be to take notes, you need to think of how often you will use this skill (will you take notes at business meetings? even this can be delegated) and weigh this against any disbenefits in your learning. Only you can make this call.

xjwjean (16 posts) • 0

I think if can't write Hanzi, maybe you can't reading. It's my opinion.You can learn speaking and listening very fast, because you are in China now.I don't think writing Hanzi makes your Chinese learning slow down.If you want to learn writing Hanzi be free to contact me. My Chinese hand writing is good, and I'm really good at teaching.

AlexKMG (2385 posts) • 0

I think there are apps for the iphone that chinese users can speak into and it will write the hanzi. Not sure if that's practical for taking notes in class. And of course it's for native speakers.

You can function fine in China without being able to hand write hanzi, as you are likely to always have your mobile phone, which will let you write in pinyin, and any customs, visa, and bank related stuff usually has english, or the person behind the desk will fill out anything requiring hanzi.

However, as the previous poster indicated, not learning to write hanzi does means your reading of hanzi is poor. That's a handicap, but it can be overcome if your spoken becomes very fluent.

Ideally, you excel at everything, but you've made the decision to focus on spoken fluency, so as long as that's working for you, I think it's a workable and interesting path.

Yuanyangren (297 posts) • 0

The problem with Chinese that nobody mentioned is that it probably has one of the largest number of homophones (words that sound the same but have a different meaning) of any language in the world. I believe there are only 2000 unique syllables in Chinese, whereas English could easily have tens of thousands or 100,000+ (could a linguist please confirm this number?) When I say 2000 syllables I'm talking about 400 "words" with 5 different tone combinations so you end up with roughly 2000. The only way of effectively differentiating them is using Chinese characters or Hanzi.

Without characters, your life will be a lot more difficult. Don't worry too much about being able to write them, as many locals especially the younger generation are no longer good at that either, due to technology. You want to be able to read or at least recognize them and thus avoid confusion.

While I'm making progress with my Chinese, I can tell you that it's a pain trying to distinguish between words that all seemingly sound the same - I also have trouble trying to get myself to understand that just because a word is a homonym in English doesn't imply that Chinese will use a homonym for that same word or concept. I'm much better at learning languages with more words like Thai and Lao (which I am now fluent in because both languages have a large vocabulary, despite being tonal languages. They also borrow frequently from English and other languages, particularly for technology based words, which generally come from English).

Another confusing aspect of Chinese is the logic. Electricity + brain = computer? (diannao).

The funny thing is that when I used to teach English in Kunming some of my students preparing to go overseas for study would ask me: "How can we possibly remember all these words? Chinese only has a small number of words, but English has so many!"

tigertiger - moderator (5096 posts) • 0

Chinese has lots of words. As a learner we only learn the most common.
In most languages 300 words is enough to communicate most of what we want to say.
A survey of words was done on the NYT in the 1930s. One edition contained less than 650 individual words.

Geezer (1952 posts) • 0


You forgot to mention characters changing meaning, while retaining the same sound, when used in a different context. This is a cultural dimension as the contextual situation may be clear to a Chinese but requires a Westerner to recognize and think in a Chinese context.

I strongly recommend learning to write 汉字 for the reasons Yuanyanren states. And it is confusing to start but you soon begin to see a lot of repetition as characters are composites of repeated elements.

A handy tool, good dictionaries and a handwriting recognition feature is Pleco Chinese Dictionary and for Android, the basic stuff, including the handwriting module is free.

chris8080 (226 posts) • 0

yeah i definitely agree that learning to read hanzi is absolutely essential from day 1. i used flashcards when i started learning (i recommend 'chinese in a flash') and i found it definitely helped my spoken chinese because, apart from the reasons already stated, understanding the meaning of the individual characters helps you learn new words much more easily and gives you a greater feel for the language. but i think learning to write characters is only necessary if you're planning to study chinese for a long time and to a deep level; if you just want to be able to speak chinese i think it's a waste of time to learn writing.

Yuanyangren (297 posts) • 0

@tigertiger, Chinese does NOT have a lot of words and nearly every foreigner that starts studying Chinese complains that everything sounds the same. What you probably mean is that is one word with a distinct meaning, while is another, which I recognize. However, both words sound the same except for differences in tonality. The only way to recognize the differences is a keen ear, or failing that, being able to read the characters.

A better example would be where you have words that have the exact same pronunciation and tonality, but have very different meanings. In that context, sure Chinese has plenty of "words" but it doesn't have plenty of distinct, non-homophones. As mentioned, Chinese has a mere 2,000 distinct words. I'm not sure how many distinct words English has, but it could easily be in excess of 100,000. Even Thai has 20,000-40,000+ distinct, individual words, because unlike Chinese, Thai is at least able to borrow freely from foreign languages for loanwords.

Although my Chinese is still rusty, I am fairly certain that there are only a minimal number of loanwords in Chinese because the limited number of sounds means most loanwords would be impossible to transcribe. Even the loanwords that Chinese has taken on don't really sound like the original. It had to be pointed out to me by my Chinese teacher that the Chinese word 幽默 (you mo) comes from the English word "humor" or "humour" (British spelling). To me, youmo sounds nothing like humor whereas even somebody with no knowledge of Thai would be able to recognize that คอมพิวเตอร์ (com pew toer) means computer just by listening to a Thai speaker say this word.

I therefore strongly suggest at least getting some knowledge of the most common Chinese characters (perhaps the 300 most common should do). Learn to recognize them, but if you don't want to spend time writing them, then don't. However, don't make the mistake of assuming it's easy to get by in China illiterate in the Chinese writing system. Given Chinese is perhaps the most homophonal language in the world, great confusion and difficulties in communication can occur if you just rely on the spoken language. Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, English, German, French, Spanish etc. can all be spoken and understood without an absolute need to be able to read or write them, but using the same approach for Chinese is difficult to say the least.

Yuanyangren (297 posts) • 0

Oh and when I said 2000 distinct words in Chinese, I already accounted for the 5 possible tones, so there are really only 400 distinct words without tone markers. These 2000 words are merely monosyllabic words, meaning that if you put any combination of one of these syllables together with another one, you get a new word. This concept accounts for the perception that tigertiger must have about the "many" words in Chinese, which of course don't exist in the context that I've explained. While there could well be 50,000 unique words if you account for all the possibilities (this includes both mono and polysyllabic words, although in Chinese few words have more than 2 syllables), it still causes confusion for learners from languages that have more sophisticated vocabularies such as English.

This is because in English, we rarely think of our words as being able to be broken down into syallables with individual meanings. In Chinese, the word "meiguo" carries the meaning "America" but it can also be broken down into "mei" meaning beautiful and "guo" meaning country. Thus three words are created with three distinct meanings. In English you can't do that.

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