Hanzi: How to increase patience?
January 19, 2013 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Hello, I am currently studying Chinese. I'd be interested in any advice people could give me with regard to making my Hanzi practice more productive.

I remember in one Chinese class a while ago that the teacher mentioned that professional calligraphers (correct term?) use special breathing techniques to steady their hands when they write Hanzi. I'm not looking to write Hanzi as a job, but I would be interested in any techniques I can use to improve my form.

Also, can anyone suggrest any motivational techniques I can use to improve my patience as I'm practising writing Hanzi? What would you say is the limit to how many characters I could learn in one sitting? How many times should I practise writing each character, how often should I revise them?

posted by Musashi Daryl to Education (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard of people using Heisig's Remembering the Hanzi (which involves separating characters into their component parts and then using mnemonic techniques to learn the composition of each character -- so, 休 is person + tree, and you make up a story about a person and a tree -- blitz-studying 100 characters per day. (But, that's studying for several hours a day, and using SRS software like Anki to reinforce each character).

I'm not personally a fan of RtH, but Anki IS really useful for hanzi study -- it wil show you a flash card at gradually increasing intervals (say, 1 day, then 4 days, then 7 days) until you get it wrong, so you're not continually seeing cards that are easy for you.

I've only been studying Chinese for about six months, but I studied Japanese for a long time, and I think I really hit a road block by studying characters in isolation, especially as I moved into the more advanced characters. I might be able to drill into my head how to write 罐, but if I never see it as part of a word, and I never see it when I read things, then I'm just going to forget it right away. So my advice would be to do something reasonable, like 5-10 characters a day, and to make flash cards out of easy sentences. Like:

你要不要 _yīqǐ_ 去?goes on one side, and the answer is 一起

(Even 10 characters a day is a bit high as a long-term goal, because as you get past 2000 characters each character starts getting much rarer, and you won't see many of them until you get more advanced in grammar/vocabulary/general reading comprehension).

I don't have any good advice about penmanship; I find it's really just a matter of getting used to the components of the hanzi and the way they're put together.
posted by Jeanne at 4:42 AM on January 19, 2013

The way to remember hanzi/kanji is to write them over and over again. To this end, I cannot recommend Skritter enough. It is an SRS (spaced repetition software) program like Anki, but in addition to quizzing on reading, tones, and meaning, also tests you on writing. If you have an iPhone/iPad, you can write your hanzi on the screen. If not, you can use a tablet. I used to use the tablet until the iOS app came out. Now I can practice my kanji/hanji anywhere I am, even for a few minutes at a time whenever I am waiting in line or otherwise not doing anything useful. I study using Skritter for an hour each day and it has been great. Sometimes I have a great day where I learn 8 or so characters, but usually it is mroe like 4-5. I think the higher days are when they are characters that I already know how to read and write. Five or so characters per day is on the high but realistic side.

Penmanship comes in time. I agree that it is about writing the component radicals of the characters.

I have praised Anki on AskMeFi a number of times for learning vocabulary, but I think where it is lacking for Chinese is that it is passive.. It will not reinforce the writing of characters. The reason I use Skritter for Chinese and Japanese is to remedy the problem of not being able to write as many characters as I can read. Any Chinese or Japanese native speaker will tell you that hey can read more characters than they can write. This is just how the brain works; we always have larger passive than active knowledge. However, computers and cell phones have really compounded the problem. I've been speaking Japanese for about 20 years, but am back to doing writing drills because I was embarrassed by forgetting how to write some kanji that are pretty basic.

Do not study hanzi in isolation. For example, don't learn 一 and say "ok, that is read 'yi' and it means 'one'." That doesn't tell you very much about how the character is used. Knowing that it means "one" doesn't help you when faced with 一味 when you might think means "one flavor/taste" if you are piecing together hanzi but in fact means "persistently/stubbornly/blindly". When learning a character, you should learn it as part of compounds. For each character, I recommend learning at least five words that use it. That way, you learn at least five new word as well as any other hanzi in those words. It is about context.

I share Jeanne's sentiment of not being a fan of Heisig. I know that people love it but I think it is pretty useless. I think the idea of learning a little story for every character is pretty silly. For example, there is no point in learning the little story of "Stop! It’s a small slide. We will walk from here" for 歩 (walk) when it tells you nothing about reading or usage. One of the Heisig stories is something about getting stuck in the anus with a needle. I am not making this up. Pepople say they plow through the 2,000 joyo kanji in a few months, but I have yet to see one of them show the high school-level literacy that would be. They can't handle menus let alone newspapers, and I find it telling that AFAIK there is not a single educational institution in China or Japan that uses this method.

I have spoken about motivation for language learning on AskMeFi before. I am one of those people who people say is "good" at languages. Well, wrong. I am a person who loves studying languages and it is a lot of hard work - blood to the end. Motivation for you ultimately has to be that not learning Chinese and hanzi has to be worse (for you) that the status quo. The natural inclination of people is not to learn language unless they have to. This is true even for children, who are incorrectly thought to be miracle language learners. I think this essay covers the topic nicely. Your motivation has to be to think about how your life will be worse if you don't learn hanzi, or conversely, how much better your life will be if you do learn hanzi.

Best of luck!
posted by Tanizaki at 5:36 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

In addition to Skritter, FluentU is a neat site for learning vocabulary and pronunciation. I use Anki for vocabulary, but I agree that learning words in isolation is really hard---both for individual characters and multi-character words. I use the Mandarin Top 1500 Characters deck and the HSK words deck, but the latter has so many words that if you're relying on Anki to decide which words you learn, you're going to learn all kinds of random things that you never have a chance to use.

Reddit's r/ChineseLanguage is also a good place to ask questions.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:39 AM on January 19, 2013

You're almost certainly going to forget how to write them anyway, so please don't waste too much time trying to remember every single stroke in every character.

Certainly, you should study writing characters generally – that is, you should get to the level where you are able to copy a character put in front of you with the right shapes and something approximating the correct stroke order – but being able to write at length without consulting dictionaries is honestly not a very useful skill considering the insane time investment. This is a trap into which many Chinese learners have fallen, never to climb out again.

DO practice reading Chinese. And then, do not practice individual characters. Practice words. If you have a smartphone or a tablet, get Pleco, buy the flashcard add-on, and add all the words you come over that you would like to learn. Then you can review these at your leisure; repetition-spacing ensures that you will be drilled on the words you need to work on.

If your teachers are forcing you through daily tingxie practice, please slap them for me.
posted by Aiwen at 8:15 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Look into expanded rehearsal. It's a brilliant memory technique and can help you get around patience issues because it actually requires you not to focus for long periods of time. It requires that you do something else between learning and retrieving.
posted by srboisvert at 8:46 AM on January 19, 2013

I think the breathing techniques are more for Chinese brush calligraphy than writing characters with a pen/pencil...

Learning the system for the order of the strokes might help (if you don't already know this)? There is a standard system/order in which strokes should be written. When I was a child learning how to write Chinese characters, the teacher would also make our class recite the stroke names as we wrote/air-traced them. I guess it's like the equivalent of spelling out English words as you write them.
posted by aielen at 8:51 AM on January 19, 2013

It's good to understand the strokes and stroke order so there's proper form and system to what you're writing. Otherwise you'd just be practising drawing pictures instead of writing words. "乛" is to be written as one stroke, for example, and not a "一" and a "㇀". Like aielen, I learnt written Chinese in school by reciting the stroke names for each word, like "横,横,撇,捺" while air-tracing "开". You can do that while practising your writing, though I don't think that would help if you don't already know the stroke names.

If you see hanzi anywhere, you can also try mentally breaking it down into the constituent strokes, figuring out the order of the strokes. It somehow calibrates the way you think about word forms and makes your own writing come more naturally.
posted by hellopanda at 8:26 PM on January 19, 2013

I agree with Aiwen. Even in China, young people sometimes forget how to write a character because they are used to just picking out proposed characters on their smartphone or computer using pinyin input. I think your time would be better spent learning to listen, speak, and read. Many years ago I learned to write Chinese. Now it's a struggle, but I can still read, and I can easily select proposed characters using pinyin input. If you learn to write, you will not only easily forget how to write if you don't continue to practice, but also realistically, for what purpose these days do you really need to know how to write characters by hand?
posted by Dansaman at 9:55 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Aiwen and Dansaman. I took Chinese classes from 1997-2003, before Anki or Pleco or Perakun, and have lived in Taiwan since then. I read the newspaper for 15-30 minutes and watch one of the inane news channels for 30-60 minutes a day, and those abilities have slowly improved. On the other hand, I have so few opportunities to write Chinese by hand in my daily life that my ability to write characters from memory has deteriorated quite a bit. Show me the character on a screen or page and I can write it out smoothly, but otherwise I blank out for an embarrassing number of words. Even if I had a job where I had to write pages and pages of Chinese a day, I would be writing it all with a pinyin IME and being able to recall the pronunciation for the word depressed (and not even needing the tones!) seems to be filed in my mental cabinet in a different place than where the stroke order for 憂鬱 is stored.

It really depends on your goals. If you goal is to pass a bunch of tingxie quizzes, the only thing to do is to put on some techno music with a steady beat and write each one out 30-50 times every day until you stop taking classes. If your goal is general fluency, writing out the same characters every day is probably near the bottom of the list of what you should do. The one thing I wish I had focused on more in my first couple of years was knowing every tone to every word I knew STONE COLD.
posted by alidarbac at 4:34 AM on January 20, 2013

I disagree with the advice that word processors and smart phones make learning how to write irrelevant. Would anyone advise a person learning English, "don't bother learning how to spell because Word and iPhones have auto-correct"?

It is certainly true that IME have contributed to a decrease in writing ability just as spell-check has had a deleterious effect on English spelling. However, that doesn't mean that no one writes by hand anymore. I participated in your last question regarding if knowing Chinese/Japanese could help you with employment. Let's say you get that job. Relying on smart phones sounds like it might be good advice until you end up having to write a note to a coworker or better yet, your boss.

As a more general matter, increasing your writing proficiency will lead to be reading proficiency (and general language proficiency overall) because it solidifies the connection between spoken words and their written representations. (the linked study is about English spelling but I think the principle holds) Learning characters with their compounds is really going to increase your vocabulary. To use myself as an example, my self-prepared vocabulary list for the 1006 kanji that Japanese students learn in primary school is over 5,000 words long. Learning five words per hanzi could develop a large vocabulary very quickly.

I do not understand the advice of not learning every stroke of every character you learn. How else could you identify them? 幸 and 辛 are only one stroke apart, but their meanings and usage are quite different. There is a big difference between characters and you need to know it even if you are using an IME for characters that have the same reading and bear a strong resemblance such as 複,復, and 腹.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2013

Just to be clear, in case anyone thought I said learning to write is irrelevant, that is not the intention of what I said. Rather, I just think you shouldn't spend a huge amount of time on it relative to the amount of time you spend learning to listen, speak, and read. And the reason I said that is because it sounded like the OP was intending to spend a ton of time on learning how to write.

One other point I'd like to make is it's not that common for an ex-pat in Asia to have to write the local language a lot. Most ex-pats work with lots of people who speak fluent English. If a company wants someone who writes a local language highly competently, they'll hire a local person for that. It would be very hard and time-consuming, if not nearly impossible, to get your writing proficiency up to the level of a local native speaker.
posted by Dansaman at 4:07 PM on January 20, 2013

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