Characterless Sinitic

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Valerie Hansen is Director of Undergraduate Studies for East Asian Studies at Yale.  Yesterday she was talking to a sophomore who had taken 1st and 2nd year Mandarin online and is about to start 3rd year.  Valerie writes:

After a while, she told me that she did have one worry about taking 3rd year: she had never written a single character and she wondered if her teacher would expect her to know how to write characters.

She can read Chinese and uses the computer to write essays. So in essence she knows pinyin and can identify the characters she needs when she writes something.
Is this the future of Chinese? Only computers will know characters?

This is terrifically interesting.

Penn, and a few other schools, do have special courses that teach Pinyin only classes for Mandarin, but here in the Yale situation we have mainstream courses where the students do not have to write characters by hand.  The subject of letting students use computers to write characters for them has come up numerous times on Language Log, and David Moser has written several guest posts and comments addressing this matter in terms of pedagogical tools and practices, but it has never been broached so directly and dramatically as a matter of actual classroom procedures as in the case described by Valerie above.

Whenever possible (at Oberlin in Taiwan, Harvard, Penn, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford), my wife (Li-ching Chang) used to not only permit, but encourage students to emphasize language learning over character memorization, even for Mandarin, and the use of Romanization for learning Cantonese, Shanghainese, and other topolects is well-nigh universal.  In fact, most of my colleagues do not consider Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. to be full-fledged languages because they are taught without the use of characters.  This always rankles me, but it seems now that the growth of language learning technology is moving characterless Sinitic language learning even into the primary Mandarin courses.  In Singapore, students are permitted to use computers to write essays and exam papers.  Increasingly, the dreaded tīngxiě 聽寫 / 听写 (look at the stark difference between the traditional versus the simplified forms of this term!), i.e., "dictation", for quizzes is increasingly coming to be seen as luòhòu 落後 / 落后 ("backward; retrograde").  If the program where she was teaching absolutely required dictation, Li-ching would often tell the students, and this was already 30, 40, and 50 years ago — so enlightened was she, to just write the words in Pinyin if they didn't know how to write them in characters.

Now that the lockdowns of the last year and a half, with the consequent online teaching, are winding down, I would very much like to hear what is happening at schools other than Yale.


Selected readings


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 10:10 pm

    Personally can't imagine requiring a student in Chinese classes at any level to write a single character by hand, ever, period. That would be so… I don't know. 1995?

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 10:14 pm

    In the first-year Chinese program at Williams, we require all students to be able to recognize Chinese characters AND to handwrite them from memory — and they do it well and without complaint. We have speaking/listening classes using audio/video and Pinyin (no characters) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and reading/writing classes (with all materials in characters) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with character practice sheets to fill out as homework and a 3-minute in-class tīngxiě each time! We start out with simplified in September and introduce traditional in April; from that point on, in their readings and on tests, students must be able to recognize both forms but may handwrite the one of their choice (preferably consistently within the same piece of writing). By the end of the course, the spoken vocabulary of the students is significantly larger than the written vocabulary, which is limited to what can be written with the approx. 550-600 characters they have by then learned. Why do we make students handwrite characters from memory? It's true that most students, most of the time, will write Chinese via computer or other digital device; but to have memorized the highest-frequency several hundred characters when beginning the study of this language is very helpful for understanding how the Chinese writing system works, for learning to recognize new characters, and for distinguishing look-alike characters when reading.

  3. Karen Lofstrom said,

    September 1, 2021 @ 10:58 pm

    A quick google tells me that one needs to know two to three thousand characters to manage street signs, newspapers, etc. Necessary eventually, but probably not the best way to learn to SPEAK.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 3:11 am

    Learning to write a character certainly helps with remembering what exactly it looks like, meaning not to confuse it with very similar characters (of which there are often something like five).

    …me, anyway. I don't know how representative I am. (And I definitely recognize a few characters I've never written.)

  5. Ye Tian said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    Very interesting topic. Many Chinese classes in elite schools require everyone to write by hand in the first year Chinese course, and then computer typing is gradually introduced in the second and third year level. Meanwhile, Chinese classes in many less resourceful universities have to let students use computers to type in the very beginning. Most of the time, instructors have to choose which is more important in a limited time, spend more time learning to write Chinese characters, or introduce more grammar and vocabulary. Ideally, students should learn how to write Chinese characters by hand, but teachers and students often do not have so much time now.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 8:14 am

    Obviously not the same, but now I'm wondering if students (especially in an online/distance-learning environment) learning e.g. ancient Greek or Russian are these days obligated to write by hand rather than type in the non-Latin script and if they can get away with typing whether they are obligated to use the sort of keyboard setup standard for that language/script or some sort of hack that automatically transliterates as you go.

  7. Valerie Hansen said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 8:34 am

    Thank you, Victor, for writing about this topic, which I find fascinating. Let me add a little bit to what I originally wrote to you:

    You better than anyone know how much I benefited from Li-ching's instruction as a 2nd year student at Harvard. I have no memory now of endlessly practicing characters; I'm sure that I did, but her emphasis on language set my own personal goals. I still think in pinyin, not characters.

    Now I'm curious: do young Americans going to China have to write anything by hand at all? Are there any paper forms still being used?

    That's one of my clearest memories (even in 2018, when I was joining the pool at XiaDa (Xiamen / Amoy University) I had to fill in a form, which attracted a whole audience of onlookers curious to see what the characters I wrote looked like.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    In my case this is largely hindsight, "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" stuff, but —

    The simple argument against writing by hand is the colossal opportunity cost — and this is before accounting for the fact that the most efficient means of getting better not only at speaking and listening, but also at reading and writing (the latter in the broad sense of "composing text"), is to listen and speak at your personal Level 11 as much and as often as humanly possible. This is perhaps counterintuitive but becomes glaringly obvious as one goes along…

    Consider speakers of Mandarin who approach learning Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc., in a serious manner — do you suppose they spend a great deal of time practicing writing the many hundreds of vernacular characters employed within these lively Baihuawen traditions, mutatis mutandis no different from the tradition associated with MSM? Obviously not — what could be stupider? That this is obvious (I think) in these cases suggests that here, away from thrall to Chinese Culture or Tradition or Something, it is simply easier to perceive that deep competence in the vernacular is the real desideratum and more-or-less immediately transferable to competence with whichever script one happens to encounter.

  9. alex said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 12:44 pm

    @Ye Tian said,

    "Many Chinese classes in elite schools require everyone to write by hand in the first year Chinese course,"

    "Ideally, students should learn how to write Chinese characters by hand, but teachers and students often do not have so much time now."

    Having lived in Shenzhen in the past 14 plus years I think the majority of the kids do not write much until 5. For the first 5 years of their life/learning Chinese they learn to speak and read, most without pinyin. What's interesting is most learn pinyin in first grade. They easily accumulate hundreds if not thousands of words in their reading vocabulary before learning how to write.

    It would seem the more natural way is to just to read more and leave writing until later.

  10. alex said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    @Valerie Hansen said,

    "Now I'm curious: do young Americans going to China have to write anything by hand at all? Are there any paper forms still being used?"

    I have lived here for 14 years and never learned how write by hand. There are forms for banks and some other government entities but usually its only the address that needs to be filled out. Its easy enough if you speak Chinese to ask them to help you write the address.

    Many apps require one to know how to input Chinese characters via pinyin input.

  11. Terry K. said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 1:34 pm

    I wonder (coming from someone who doesn't know Chinese in any form), is there a benefit to having the experience of writing some characters, even without trying to memorize to write 100s of characters?

  12. Neil Kubler said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 2:27 pm

    Some comments on the comments: Spoken language is primary and speaking and listening must receive emphasis at the initial stage for everyone and always for many learners. Many learners don't need to study characters; for them, Hanyu Pinyin is all the written Chinese they will ever need. Yes, most forms (for walk-in customers at hotels, post offices, banks, etc.) in China and Taiwan are still filled out by hand and there are occasions in daily life when one needs to take or leave handwritten messages, e.g., 來訪不遇 "stopped by but you weren't in." Having some writing ability demonstrates cultural sensitivity and is appreciated (writing characters beautifully even more so). Not being able to write any characters because "it's too hard" or "I don't have the time" can come across as arrogant; after all, Chinese learners of English can all handwrite English (sometimes more elegantly than native English speakers). However, these issues don't exist without a reason: while Chinese characters are not without advantages, overall they constitute a problematic, outdated writing system not well adapted to modern times (they don't provide systematic phonetic information, can't easily record colloquial speech, are hard to look up, may have variant pronunciations and variant forms, may be hard to recognize when handwritten, may have so many strokes they end up as a blob of ink when printed in a small font, are inefficient for computer processing and, most of all, because of their large number and complexity, are hard to learn and easy to forget. Native users of Chinese will in the future (once again) have to decide whether or not to reform their writing system along phonetic lines. But until that happens, for foreign learners of Chinese for whom reading and writing are part of their learning goals, learning how to handwrite the highest-frequency 500-600 characters has numerous advantages and can be achieved without unduly detracting from a basic Chinese language training program that is fundamentally spoken language-based.

    Yes, in the initial stages of learning Chinese there is benefit to handwriting characters, even if one doesn't learn to write them from memory.

  13. Phil H said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    I (Brit, learned Chinese as an adult, live in China) did a professional qualification at a Chinese university ten years ago, and one of the problems I had was inability to complete the exams because my handwriting was just too slow. In real life now, I occasionally handwrite forms, and use my phone to check the characters by typing in the pinyin.
    I did learn to handwrite, 20 years ago, and I still feel like it helped me with reading and writing, but that may be just a psychological tic.

  14. Nick said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 7:11 pm

    Sort of related, I went to China a few years ago and the immigration officer at the airport required my to write my name in Chinese before letting me through for whatever unexplained reason. Being unable to write by hand would have had me on the next flight out of there.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 7:30 pm


    Reminds me of once when I was flying out of Israel, I was stuck in an interminable baggage check line that stretched on for hundreds of feet. Although I had come to the airport three hours early because I was told that such scenes were common at the Tel Aviv (Ben Gurion) airport, I would definitely have missed my plane unless I did something radical. So I asked the immigration officer who was policing the line what I had to do in order to make my plane.

    She said, "Do you speak Hebrew?"

    I didn't really know Hebrew, but I had picked up a few words and phrases during the week I was there for a workshop. I showered her with "roof", "store", "beautiful seashore", etc.

    "Excellent!" she exclaimed, and took me right to the head of the line.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 8:01 pm


    Surely 99% of the foreign passengers flying in and out of major Chinese airports must not know how to write a single Chinese character, so how could they have expected it of you?

  17. alex said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 11:43 pm

    @Victor Mair

    "She said, "Do you speak Hebrew?"

    Does Yiddish count? LOL

    "so how could they have expected it of you?"
    you would be amazed because I am Chinese and look Chinese they expect you to have a Chinese name even though I was born in the States. Sometimes they even insist as I was given a Chinese name from my parents. I tell them it is not a legal name so I shouldn't use on gov documents.

    That said I cant image them asking a non Chinese looking person to do that. I've seen them ask my Korean friend here the same. What's weird is he can say in Chinese 'I am Korean I don't have a Chinese name' which confuses the issue even more.

  18. Pamela said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 7:45 am

    I plead guilty to this. I was taught to write Chinese characters but I don't think I could write them now –it's a theory, since I don't try, I use the computer. And by the way it is exactly the same with English –I don't write it, and signing my name to anythnig is a chore (fortunately the computer also does that). My dyslexia is only a contributing factor –nobody could read by characters or my English when I did write them. It is more just the technology shift. Computers are faster, more likely to be correct (for me), and don't give you hand cramps. I would say I still "know" Chinese characters, since I read them and do, in fact, compose with them. This seems to be true of Valerie's student as well.

  19. alex said,

    September 3, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    On another note, the crackdown on afterschool education is real. Many English centers are closed now. They closed quickly after the new policy came out. I do think its good 'if' parents actually let kids play. A little over a month ago I bumped into a neighbor's 3rd grade girl who I know very well at a bookstore. She was taking a class and was on break. I asked her how her summer was going and she says she misses school. I asked her 'is it because you miss your friends?' She said no, its because she has less homework. The ban is not limited to English, its all subject that are taught in school.
    I guess the government wont take the step that will free up the most time which is to change tingxie to show the character and write the pinyin. When asked the kids consistently say they hate writing Chinese characters more than any other subject at school.

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