Are you writing enough Chinese?

Since stopping going to Mandarin classes I’ve become quite lazy when it comes to writing in Chinese. That’s when listening to one of the many podcasts that I listen to every week the following quote jumped out from episode 57 of Triangulation:

If you want kids to be good writers, then they need to be writing about 2500 words per week

The quote was in reference to data mining algorithm that could be used to mark students essays.

I think the reason this stood out so much is that it put a figure on the amount of writing that one might have to do to become a good writer, rather than saying something non-specific like ‘to become a good writer you need to write more’. Having a definitive goal to work for makes it feel more attainable. Just like if you want to get fit you shouldn’t say ‘I’m going to exercise more’, but instead say something more specific like ‘I’m going to go to the gym twice a week’.

You still might be saying to yourself ‘2500 words is still too many’, and for those who aren’t in full time language study is most likely is.

How much is enough for you?

If we continue with the logic that having a specific goal to work to makes it more easy to accept and attain, then all you need to do is decide how much you want to improve and how fast. Obviously the more you write the better you’ll become, but if 2500 words is too much, then break it up into sets of 500 word essays. If 5 essays is too many, then write three. There’s no doubt that if you wrote a few 500 word essays every week your Chinese would greatly improve within just a matter of weeks/months. The best thing to do is set a goal, see how you fair, then tweak as necessary.

Are you writing enough Chinese?
If you’re not sure what to write about then try copying some text to get you started. Image courtesy of Selly of Selly’s Little World

Feedback

Something else of note that was mentioned was that ‘there’s no point in writing if you’re not going to get any feedback‘. Very true – how will you be able to improve if you don’t know what mistakes you are making. This is where your Chinese teacher comes in handy, or if you’re not taking Chinese classes then get your language exchange partner to help you review your writing. Failing either of those, have a native speaker skim over it, or at the very least a friend who is at a higher level than you. The main objective is to get some form of constructive criticism that you can take away and improve on for your next piece.

How much do you write?

What do you think is enough writing per week/month to keep your Chinese up to scratch? Or do you not bother with writing and prefer to focus on speech and other areas of study?

  • I can’t say I write regularly or stick to any kind of pattern when writing but I follow loads of Weibo-ers who post lovely little paragraphs and if I like one then I like to write it. Sometimes I just scribble random things or write my friend a letter. It really helps that my teacher likes my handwriting so I give her little handwritten notes every so often. I try to mix it up do that I don’t get bored… great article on the benefits of handwriting Chinese, mine isn’t great but I do try to keep it up for practice and improvement.

  • Chris

    For Chinese (and Japanese to a similar extent), I think writing exercises are even more important than for alphabet languages. In particular, handwriting. A handwritten essay serves the dual purpose of teaching you how to write characters and improving your active vocabulary. That said, I very rarely write any texts by hand myself.

    I used to chat with Chinese friends on MSN a lot and wrote emails every now and then. In my eyes chatting and email have the advantage that as a form of communication, they are much more fun than plain exercises and the feedback is sort of built-in. Compared to oral conversation, they can help a lot with vocabulary since you can usually spare a few seconds to look up that character or word you don’t understand. If you spend an average of 30 minutes per day chatting or writing email, you might already get to those 2500 the podcast recommended.

    For handwriting practice, all I do is write characters down by hand when studying with spaced repetition. It’s far from ideal and I’m a pretty slow handwriter in Chinese.
    If you have the time and motivation to write longer texts by hand, it will surely help you a great deal. But for those who don’t want that, I think chat or email are excellent alternatives for all but the handwriting part.

  • First, I’d like to point out that it’s very easy to misunderstand this article because of the picture. I looked at the picture, the headline and then read the article very fast… and thought you talked about handwriting. Just a thought.

    Second, I also think writing is really important. This semester, I’ve kept count of how much time I’ve spent writing and it turns out to be an average of roughly one hour per day (including weekends, holidays and so on). Still, that’s quite a lot, and I think that one or two longer sessions per week would be enough.

    Using my experience from learning to write in English, I wrote a few hundred articles/blog entries before I started feeling confident. Of course, I started from a very high level compared to my current Chinese, but I do think that volume matters a lot.

    When learning Chinese, I’ve always tried to understand what mistakes I’m doing, so using sites like Lang-8 has been essential. Generally speaking, the more time I spend writing, the more I realise how important writing is.

  • I just published a fairly long article discussing some practical problems with improving writing ability and how to overcome them, perhaps someone here will find it interesting. Knowing that we should write more is important, but what should we write and how?


    Improving writing ability: Common problems and how to tackle them

  • Ken

    I write short bits of Chinese periodically on iOS devices, which allows me to practice character strokes with my pointer finger on the screen. That’s been a huge character-learning improvement over the PC-based software I have used, for which I never had hardware to actually *write* characters (e.g., with a stylus) — I was always typing in Pinyin, entering tones as necessary, then selecting a character from options (the final selection process is also part of the process in iOS).

    On my multi-theme recreational blog I often write about varied Chinese language topics, but I’m generally targeting a lower level of Chinese than this blog (based on my limited reading of several entries) does. Writing the blog gives me ongoing reason to write just that little bit more of Chinese, which is good for my language learning.

    I found my way to your http://chinesehacks.com/vocabulary/usage/chinese-traffic-signs/ when I was doing some background research for one of my own entries. Thanks for your articles, your site is now one of my Opera Mini Speed Dial targets. Dave, I feel we have rather similar interests in Chinese language learning, although I think you’re far ahead of me on the trail.

  • Copying articles to begin with sounds like a good idea. Sometimes I use really small pencils so I feel like a giant.

  • lj

    I am almost like a possessed person when I practice my writing lol. When I learn a new word I carefully go over the order of the strokes, memorize it, then graffiti it everywhere I can. I’m writing it at odd times, in odd places, and when I’m talking to someone I’m thinking about the stroke order in my mind.

    Is this normal? I love learning a new word. I appreciate the logic behind the characters and the flowing precision it takes to get them right. I’m only a few hundred words in and I’m sure it will get even more challenging but the writing aspect of Mandarin is perfect if you have OCD tendencies lol.

    Keep writing!

  • Ken

    @lj:
    Whether that is “normal” is irrelevant, I think. Your habit should help you learn. Back when I was first learning how to type, I remember practicing typing the letters without a typewriter (yup, not a keyboard) at random times, and that helped reinforce the necessary memorization. Continue as you’re doing!

    If you later end up using any kind of stroke-based input device to enter Chinese (such as an iPhone), you should have fewer problems than I had (and still have, sometimes). Using the wrong stroke order can prevent the software in such devices from recognizing the character you are trying to write, so learn the order correctly now!

  • I know my writing gets really bad really quickly, so I try to do a little bit every day. I did my own website as I couldn’t really find what I needed.
    The flashcards on http://www.wohok.com contain all 5000 HSK words and have one deck (English – HSK) particularly suited for writing.
    I worked hard on it now for one term and it does pay off. But maybe the best thing is that the flashcards make me study every day, I think that’s what helps me the most.