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Week10.Why_Learning_To_Write_Chinese_Is_a_Waste_of_Time -...

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FOREIGN LANGUAGE ANNALS • VOL. 41, NO. 2 237 Why Learning To Write Chinese Is a Waste of Time: A Modest Proposal Joseph R. Allen University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Abstract: This article argues that for students of Chinese and Japanese, learning to write Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji) hy hand from memory is an inefficient use of resources. Rather, beginning students should focus on character/word recognition (read- ing) and electronic writing. Although electronic technologies have diminished the useful- ness of Chinese character handwriting, its cultural importance remains. This leads, to a hegemony o/hanzi/kanji through which the assumed primacy of the written language is reinforced. After reviewing these conditions, strategies are offered to integrate handwrit- ing skills with the new electronic writing technologies, creating an efficient and cultur- ally sensitive program of instruction in hanzi/kanji writing. The article concludes with suggestions for further research needed to explore the theses of the essay. Key words: Chinese, Chinese characters, electronic writing, hanzi/kanji, writing instruction Language: Chinese Introduction The title of this essay is perhaps unnecessarily provocative. My thesis is quite simple: Learning to write Chinese characters (hanzi, or in Japanese, feanji)' from memory is an extremely inefficient use of time for students of Chinese as a foreign language—and this may he even more so for students of Japanese as a foreign language. It is inefficient for a very straightforward reason: The time necessary to learn to write the characters is inversely proportionally to the usefulness of that skill. The inefficiency is twofold. First, learning to write Chinese characters con- sumes an extraordinary amount of time, particularly at the early stages of language learning when the student has no linguistic frame onto which to attach the rote memory; at the same time, opportunities that students will have to practice this skill in any natural fashion are extremely limited in the early (and mayhe most) stages of language learning. As Walker (1989) writes: Chinese orthography is a major factor in the difficulty of learning to func- tion in Chinese. That being so, writing is the most time-consuming activity for the learner. . . . For reasons too diverting to explore now, the return to the learner for the hundreds of hours spent writing characters has a smaller payoff in terms of functioning as a participant in a Chinese society than the work she puts into any other of the skill areas, (p. 65) Joseph R. Allen (PhD, University of Washington, Seattle) is Professor of Chinese Literature and Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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238 SUMMER 2008 The second contributing factor in this inefficiency is that in almost all Chinese social settings today, the need to write the language by hand is rapidly declining. This is even truer for Japanese, where both kanji and the kana syllabaries are fully integrated into electronic media. Electronic writing,
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