We talk a lot of varied and diverse study plans and about not wasting time by writing line after line of words in repetition, but maybe at the earlier stages of learning Chinese this kind of practice is necessary. Like grinding in a video game it’s boring and tedious, but if you want to level-up then it’s a necessity.
Starting out learning Chinese
When I first started learning Chinese we jumped right in. Spent a few weeks learning Zhuyin then gradually moved on to basic Chinese words – flashcards with the Chinese character on the front and the Zhuyin on the back. You think to yourself “I’ve spent weeks learning this phonetic alphabet, surely this enough? Why do we need this other level of complexity that is Chinese characters?”. The first homework was to write one Chinese character. I had to write the character for electricity 電（电 diàn）, it looks easy now, and depending on your level of Chinese it might look easy to you too (the simplified is actually relatively easy – but I was learning Traditional). But to a beginner it is a nightmare – you have to remember the stoke order, the constituent parts, the pronunciation – which isn’t that difficult for this word, but getting that damn fourth tone right when you first start out can be a tough one (see how many beginners can say 電腦 without botching up the fourth tone for 電 into a semi-third tone) .
In the following weeks and months the majority of time was spent learning pronunciation in class while drilling characters at home. You know, using the paper that has a square for the Chinese character and then a space for the Zhuyin or Pinyin. The drilling of characters goes on for months, and depending on your learning style it never stops – but is it worth it?
Opinions on this vary greatly, here at Chinese Hacks we are always pushing the theory that you learn Chinese by actually using it, and by learning real-world Chinese, as opposed to what some outdated textbook might suggest, you are more likely to remember and be able to recall what you have learnt. But that still doesn’t answer the question as to whether or not sitting there for hours on end with a pencil and Chinese writing paper is a waste of time or not, after all, if you chose your words wisely this might have some value.
Is drilling Chinese a waste of time?
What seems highly possible, is that the best route is to start off by grinding. That is, performing a boring task over and over that will eventually allow you to progress in what you are doing – in this case drilling Chinese. So basically, when you first start out you have to put in the hours at the desk with a pencil writing character after character, over and over, so that you’ll understand the structure of Chinese words, how they are put together and the constituent radicals that make up the words. Then once you have put in sufficient time and are at an acceptable level of understanding, then and only then can start enjoying free learning by choosing the materials that you want to learn and are more useful for your ultimate goal learning in Chinese.
There’s no definitive answer in this post, it’s literally just a brain dump about the mixed ideas and feelings about whether or not to spend numerous hours at a desk practicing writing words, or learning the sentences within which these words are used as a method to remember new vocabulary, or both?
The questions, oh the questions….
What do you think? Should we
waste spend our time drilling words for hours a day? Or is the best way to learn through actual usage?
Though, maybe the question should actually be – at the earliest stages of learning Chinese should you perform these apparently boring tasks to set yourself up with a strong base to continue your studies? (or maybe you don’t find drilling words boring?)
Let us know how you spent the first few months learning Chinese, and you spend your time learning Chinese.