Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning To Write Chinese Characters

Richard went to a Chinese primary and secondary school where he learnt to read, write and speak Mandarin. I am extremely envious of this because my reading, writing and speaking is probably at the Grade 1 standard. Even my parents regret it a little that they didn't send us to Chinese schools.

So, we're trying to have Richard speak only in Mandarin at home. It will help me as well as allow Aaron to grow up hearing the language whenever Richard is around. Recently, we've seen a slight surge in Aaron's speaking with Richard. At least he no longer answers in English whenever Richard says something in Mandarin.

Richard spends around 3 to 4 hours with Aaron each day and a lot of that time is spent playing or out on walks. This has left very little time for any sort of writing or even introduction to writing Chinese characters.

I think Aaron is pretty good with the pencil now and can do all his English alphabets and numbers decently. I've started trying to teach him how to write some simple Chinese characters but this is so hard!

The problem isn't so much recognizing the characters. At his age, I think everything still looks like a picture. But, learning to write them is a whole different story.

Each character has a number of strokes, the strokes have to be written in a certain order, and each stroke needs to start at a particular point. Take the character for hand for example.

It looks simple enough. Yet, you have to remember to do the three "horizontal" strokes first before the "vertical" one. And, the top most "horizontal" one needs to go from right to left, whereas, the other two go from left to right. Oh, you also can't life your pencil when moving from the "vertical" stroke to that slight up tick.

Thankfully, there are quite a few simple characters I can go through with him before I reach something like "dog" which is not terribly complicated but still hard for a 3 year old:

I know that in the Chinese schools, children are made to write a page or more of each character. I have one of those exercise books here and there are 195 squares to a page! Its not the most imaginative way to interest a child in Chinese but I guess those that went to Chinese schools had no choice and knew no better.

Bilbo has a post today on the dying art of handwriting. Yesterday, I read an article on how the number of internet users in China is more than the entire population of the US. I wonder if writing of Chinese characters will one day also become a dying art. Its not unthinkable since keyboards can be used to type out characters. All you would need to do is remember what the radicals look like and where they are on the keyboard (and maybe make a selection from proposed characters). So, you'd still need to be able to read and recognize characters but maybe one day, people won't remember which strokes come first or which direction they go in. I think there is an even simpler way too where they do it by typing the pinyin which is basically Romanized Chinese. So, I think its unlikely, but not completely unthinkable that people may eventually forget how to write the characters. Or at least forget how to write them correctly.

I get really frustrated trying to teach Aaron how to write but I think its something thats worth persevering with. I'm not giving up yet but I've told Richard that he's the Primary Chinese Tutor in the house!


Bilbo said...

Chinese characters are a complete mystery to me, and your description of how precisely they must be done (order and direction of strokes) just makes it that much more difficult. The only other alphabet I can sound out (as opposed to actually reading it, which I've lost the art of over the years) is Russian (Cyrillic), which baffles many people but is at least "alphabetic," and in that sense more understandable for an English speaker. I wonder if native speakers of Chinese have as much difficulty with the concept of learning an alphabetic, rather than an ideographic writing system.

I used to know one phrase in Chinese, but it isn't one that could be used in polite company. Oh, well...

Mike said...

Good for Aaron learning a second language. They say (whomever they are) if kids learn a language before they are 10 they will remember it better.

tikno said...

Good to knows western people want to learn Chinese characters. Even me as Chinese can not write Chinese characters at all.