Lots of people when setting out to learn Mandarin wonder if they should learn to write Chinese characters or just leave them alone.
Well, it depends on your goals. If your goal is to learn a little bit about the culture and be able to say some basics, then learning to write is not too important. However, if you currently live in a Chinese-speaking environment or have plans to be in one, then learning to write is a good idea. But it’s a good idea not for the most obvious reason.
After having lived in Taiwan for 11 years, I can only think of two situations where I ever needed to put pen to paper and write Chinese characters.
-An on-site essay to enter graduate school
Yup. That sums it up. The vast majority of the time in Taiwan I didn’t need to write characters at all. Let me explain…
In an ever increasing digital world, the skill of learning to read Chinese characters in my opinion for a Westerner is a much more valued skill. It’s the ability to recognise the subtle differences rather than be able to recall characters from scratch. Since Chinese characters are pictures, I liken it to being able to identify the Statue of Liberty rather than draw it minute detail. Obviously, the former is much easier than the later.
Whether it’s reading signs, reading application forms, menus, or even typing on the computer, reading is a skill that will make your life vastly easier in a Chinese-speaking environment.
I once knew a guy in Taiwan who refused to learn to read Chinese and discovered one day through immigration that he was divorced after his ex-wife had him sign a ‘school release form!’ No joke. Thankfully, he took it to court with a good lawyer and judge revoked the deportation order.
So, I don’t mean to say writing should be neglected in favour of reading. As a Westerner, although I rarely physically wrote Chinese, I still practised it a lot. Why?
Well, writing characters allows you to become familiar with the ‘inner workings’ and parts of characters. Writing practice allows you to read better and identify subtle differences between often similar characters.
Is it 很 or 佷?
But what about emails and social media communication? Don’t you need to write for those?
Well, not really.
Typing Chinese only requires you to identify characters. If you know the Pinyin (the ABC version of Chinese words), then you can just type the Pinyin letters on the computer. The computer will then offer you a list of the most common characters to match the Pinyin (ABC letters) you just typed. From there, you just click or slam the spacebar to select the characters you want.
So, although writing Chinese is not a skill you will use in-depth as a Westerner, the benefits of practising writing are fantastic. Even if you can’t recall all the characters you can read, having practised writing characters will jog your memory more when you see them. So, while practising to write Chinese IS needed, in a digitally connected world it’s not the end application for most Westerners. It rather increases your familiarity when reading and will grow your independence ability to function in a Chinese-speaking society.