To grind or not to grind – that is the question

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.

Writing Drills

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the theory that you learn Chinese by actually using it, and by learning real-world Chinese, as opposed to what some outdated textbook might suggest, you are more likely to remember and be able to recall what you have learnt.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

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.


11 responses to “To grind or not to grind – that is the question

  1. I’m not a big fan of doing things, just for the sake of doing them. So, grinding is not exactly a nice approach to anything really. Even WoW. I despised getting 10 boar tusks. It’s just not a nice way of progressing. However, people still play WoW. Grinding is part of the process, but while grinding you experience the progression that you’re making and get see a wonderful landscape and interact with others.

    This is the kind of way that grinding is for language learning and how it should be. But we have more difficulty in actually seeing concrete evidence of our progression. It’s all up in the air.

    Chinese, in a way needs a lot of grinding, especially if you’re reading and writing characters. It is very arbitrary. Thus, I think it is needed. However, if you try and fit it into a context or at least in a place where progressed is tracked better, it will aid your motivation and aid the language learning journey. But sometimes, you need the decontextualised grinding to aid a basis to enjoy the contextualised content. Thus, an initial foundation would not hurt. Finding that initial foundation and where to stop however is up for debate.

    Interesting topic though. Would love to hear other comments on this.

  2. The advantages of grinding is to appreciate the differences. For example, to emphasise the subtle differences for the four tones in ma, one could think of 妈,麻,马,骂. So to be aware of the subtle differences of Chinese writing, one could think of 我 and 找. It is only through grinding that one could avoid the mistakes of writing 错别字in future. Perhaps the language teacher could point out the differences so that students would be aware that an extra dot or stroke could mean a lot of difference in Chinese e.g. 本and 苯, two-similar sounding words with subtle changes in tones that also happen to look alike.

  3. I think at first grinding out the same word is essential so that you get a feel for stroke orders which are so so important in chinese. Being able to write with speed is also essential. Nothing more embarrassing that causing a queue at the post office because it takes you 5 minutes to write your address.

  4. My method is to grind the new charecters in the lessons of my textbooks and then type them to Skritter and continue there. I think grinding is important if one want’s to write Chinese and especially to be able to write fast and with nice (readable) style.

    It’s quite boring to write same characters over and over again, but I also think that it’s needed. And it’s also important to have the context so one actually learns how to use the characters and words.

    Besides grinding it’s also useful and essential to write essays or stories. It’s more fun, can practice grammar and characters at the same time. Just have your Chinese teacher or tutor to check your works.

  5. I think there’s often an illusion effect for people giving advice on how best to learn Mandarin. They’ve gone through a long process to get to the stage where they really can acquire new stuff, but it’s easy to forget the foundations that take you to that stage. The grind often feels slow and crap, and then you move on to this fluid acquisition and it feels great so you think “Oh I was wasting my time with all that grind.” But I think it’s actually the grind that gets you to that later stage.

  6. Well, I self-study Japanese. I think the most “grinding” was writing a symbol out twelve times. This is not for memorization, but rather improving on my penmanship. I learn the symbol and words through sentence usage. In the end, using Anki for long time review… until, I get bored of the words. I do most (if not all) of my learning from a dictionary. I get most of my fun from other things.

    Such as:
    “I listen to music, almost all the time. Sometimes, I attempt to play a video-game. Maybe, I’ll watch a show or movie. I even type up my lame sentences on Social Networks, such as Facebook. I read a few ‘tweets’ from friends, even though I don’t use Twitter.”

    So, my tip for memorizing tones of Chinese is to listen to more sound. It wouldn’t matter if it’s dialogue or music. One may even want to take up an instrument or two. People who have musical know how, tend to learn faster than those without. Also, just learn enough to leave room for exploration. This will leave tons of motivation.

    The bottom line is, learn what’s comfortable. If it isn’t, look for a way until it just clicks. While you’re searching do fun things.

    1. Oh, and it took me ~4 months to learn basic grammar. I didn’t have enough vocabulary to understand all to much. So, I decided to learn from 800~1200 words. I probably can only use a third of the words I learned. Can read two thirds of them.

      “The more words I learned, the more grammar made sense. The more it made sense, the more I wrote sentences. The more sentences I wrote, the more words I could learn.”

      This cycle is perpetual, indeed. –More, fun-fun-fun.

  7. When I started learning to read and write grinding was the only way I could do it. Now that I have around 3000 characters (all simplified) I spend a little time during study sessions to copy texts from whatever book I’m working on. Ensures I don’t forget how to write simple words and reinforces the study material. I try to do it in chunks without looking.

  8. Unfortunately, grinding is the only way I can remember written words as of now. So I can’t really escape from it yet.

  9. The type of drilling the author describes in the post is ABSOLUTELY necessary. It’s not to be viewed as a preference or choice. In fact, I find it very curious why a foreigner would even spend time pondering whether to do it or not: Just do it! During the first year or so of being exposed to Chinese, I was so fascinated and motivated to learn that it never even crossed my mind to not put the pen to paper and write until I could reproduce the characters without effort. Just do it!

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