This article was published in partnership with Skritter: the "write" way to learn Chinese and Japanese. Skritter is kindly offering a special deal for italki users, read below for details.
Learning by doing is a motto that serves language students well. Studying words, grammar and theory is important, but if we want to be able to use the language we need to practice actually using it. This is why people say that it's essential to go abroad for learning a language, which is really another way of saying that you have to use the language a lot to master it.
With the internet, computers and phones, you don't really need to go abroad to learn a language at all, you can interact with speakers of many languages without even leaving home.
Thus, a service like italki is great for learning the spoken language, and even for improving your reading skills. In most languages, online lessons work very well for writing as well, because typing something and sending it to your teacher is more or less equivalent to writing it by hand. If you know how to speak and how to read, you can also write decently.
This is not the case with Chinese! If you learn at home, you can reach a decent level relying only on the internet, but one area that is very hard to cover is handwriting. Do you have the patience to look up the stroke order for every single character? Do you know if you're writing the strokes in the right direction? Do you know the correct position of the components or what those components mean?
Why writing characters correctly matters
Knowing proper stroke order is important, because it will make your writing smoother and the result will also look better.
If you think about it, we do care about stroke order when we write by hand in English too! For instance, you would probably not write an “E” with the horizontal strokes first, right to left and then the vertical stroke bottom-up, or write “S” starting from the bottom-left corner, and for good reason. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to produce a very good looking “E” or “S” by doing so, but it would be awkward and difficult. It would also be slower.
The same is true for Chinese characters (hanzi), the only difference is that instead of just having an alphabet and letters with stroke order you learnt so early that you probably don’t even think of it as stroke order now, we have hundreds of character components that have their own stroke order. This stroke order is there for a reason; it makes character writing more systematic and easier to master.
Learning to write characters
Learning stroke order can be a pain. You either have to find exercise sheets that list the correct stroke order, use an online or mobile app that shows you animations of how to write.
That is cool when you study your first characters, but really, how many of us have the patience to look up the stroke order of all the characters we don’t know? Wouldn’t it be great if you could review characters in such a way that stroke order was automatically included?
Do we really need to be able to write characters by hand?
If it’s so hard to write characters by hand, can’t we just do away with that and just type characters on our computers or phones instead? Do we really need handwriting in this digital era? It's true that it’s much easier to type, but in order to really know Chinese, you do need solid knowledge of how to write the characters as well, at least for a basic set of perhaps a thousand characters.
Knowing this is useful beyond the fact that it will allow you to write by hand.
For instance, you will learn a lot of things about how characters are structured and how they work, something that is much harder to get at without the active processing that comes with handwriting.
When you write a character by hand, you have to consider the composition of the character, which components it consists of and how the strokes are written. This kind of knowledge can only come from active practice, simply looking at the characters isn't enough. Writing it on paper without someone checking your writing isn't enough either.
How to commit characters to long-term memory
There are many ways of practicing writing characters, but one thing that we know for sure is that active recall works much better than passive recognition. In other words, if you want to remember what a character looks like and how it’s written, you need to actively try to recall that information from memory.
It is not a good idea to simply copy characters over and over again.
‘Copy’ means looking at a model character and then writing that character immediately. This might be good for penmanship (if you want your writing to look beautiful), but it’s not an efficient way of learning to remember how to write the characters, especially if you’re trying to commit them to long-term memory.
To learn that, you need to actively recall the information.
For instance, you should ask yourself, “How do I write the character that means “fire” and is pronounced huǒ? Now you’re actively trying to figure out how to express this with a Chinese character. This is the kind of practice you want.
If you’re a beginner, you could create your own paper flash cards and write the character on one side and the pronunciation and definition on the other, and use these cards to check if you can remember the characters you have learned, but this system comes with many problems: How do you know when to review a character? What happens when you have thousands of characters and words? How should you deal with characters you forget?
Spaced repetition for more efficient learning
These are all serious problems that language learners face. How do you continuously acquire new information while retaining things you’ve learned a day, a month, or a year ago?
One of the best solutions for this problem is spaced-repetition, a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between reviews of previously learned information. Rather than focusing on things you’ve already mastered, spaced-repetition allows you to spend more effort on things that might be causing you problems.
But how does one keep track of what’s easy and what’s difficult, and when is the correct time to review something?
Learning characters with Skritter
There is actually one simple solution to all these problems!
Enter Skritter. Instead of scanning your handwriting and sending it to a tutor or using some kind of awkward webcam setup (does anybody actually do that?), you can now write characters whenever you want, wherever you want.
Spread your learning out throughout the day, study five minutes before breakfast, ten minutes on the bus to school/work and then a few minutes in the queue in the supermarket. Learn to write Chinese (or Japanese, Skritter has both) and on your own terms.
Skritter is unique because it offers you genuine feedback on your character writing. You write the characters on the screen of your phone or on your computer, and Skritter offers you feedback. If you draw a stroke incorrectly, it will tell you. If you forget a word, it will schedule new reviews to help you recover it. If you remember words, it will only remind you of them occasionally to make sure you still know them.
In short, just tell Skritter what you want to learn and it will take care of the complicated parts, everything you need to do is to study diligently. That might still not be easy, but at least it isn't complicated!
Try Skritter for free and get 50% off
Using Skritter alongside italki is a great idea. italki provides you with ample opportunity to practice speaking, listening and also reading to a certain extent, while Skritter helps you learn characters.
You don't have to take our word for it, though, Skritter is free to try! We also offer italki users a special deal if you sign up for Skritter using the the coupon code ITALKI (just click the link).
Apart from the seven day trial, you will also get 50% off your first six months with Skritter ($7.50/month instead of $14.99/month). The code above is available for new member signups on the website only. If you want to use our iOS or Android app, first click the link above to set up your account, and then download the app through the Apple Store or our Google Community page.