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Archive for July, 2007

Stroke Order

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Stroke Order

My first lesson in Chinese characters came early on - during my first day at the high school I would be working at, soon after I had come to Taiwan. All of the teachers had to be present for a morning meeting led by the principal. Like anyone on their first day on the job, I showed up on time ready to begin my new experience. However, I soon found that since the meeting was conducted entirely in Chinese, I had to find a way to occupy the next few hours. I noticed that there was a pen and paper placed in front of each person to take notes. I also noticed a card placed in front of each person with Chinese writing on it. I asked the person next to me what was written on it, and he explained that it was my name written in Chinese - “亞當老師” (Adam Teacher). I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to write my name in Chinese (after all, I had a few hours to kill with lots of paper in front of me to practice on). So that’s exactly what I did. By the time the meeting was over, I was pretty proud of myself as I seemed to do a reasonable job of copying my name exactly as it read on my name card.

The next day in class, I decided to impress my students by showing them that I knew how to write my name in Chinese. As soon as I had placed the chalk on the board and began my first stroke, I heard a few “wrong!” choruses from the students. “How could this be wrong if I haven’t even finished?” I retorted. That’s when I learned my first lesson in writing characters. Since Chinese characters were initially written with paint brushes back in the day, the order of strokes used to write the character made a big difference to what the end character looked like. Nowadays, even when using pens and pencils to write characters, it is still possible for the trained eye to tell when a character is not written properly because of the wrong order of strokes used to write it.

There are rules for stroke order. In general, top always comes before bottom, and left always comes before right. So horizontal strokes are written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. Where there are multiple elements like in the example picture above, there are rules for which components are written first.

Rather than memorizing these rules, I found myself a dictionary that listed the stroke order for each character. I followed this order to practice the most commonly used characters. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself automatically figuring out the stroke order for new characters just by looking at them.

Future posts will detail how I went about figuring out which characters to learn first.

When Should Students Learn Chinese Characters?

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Chinese characters

This is a question that many students ask when learning Chinese. When is the best time to begin learning how to read and write characters? Should I focus just on speaking? Should I learn to read without writing? Is it even possible to begin learning how to read and write before learning how to speak?

At first glance, Chinese characters can present quite a mystery to foreigners. There is certainly an awe to them. How on earth are we expected to learn how to read several thousand characters, leave alone learn how to write them? Well, in this blog, I hope over time to reveal some of the secrets behind the process of learning how to read and write characters. Just make sure you don’t go around telling all your friends how it works. It’s a lot like learning magic - if you start telling everyone how you do it, that takes away a lot of the fun, right? Why make it less impressive that you can read and write Chinese? Learn the secrets, enjoy the process, then wow all your friends!

I’ll use today’s post to answer one of the questions above. Is it ever too early to learn to read and write characters and is it possible to learn them even before you can speak? The answer here is no, it’s never too early to learn. In the current university class I’m in, there are several foreigners with a remarkable ability to read and write but who lack experience in their listening and speaking skills. The process to learn to read and write can be taught separately from the listening and speaking process, and with time, anyone can learn how to do so in a reasonable amount of time. Having said that, having a command of Chinese characters can aid greatly in vocabulary building, especially if you are living in a Chinese community, since you now have the ability to acquire knowledge from reading the vast number of signs around you, and being able to read books and stories at your level, that will aid in recognizing grammar and sentence patterns.

In future posts, I will provide more of a background on Chinese characters and how to demystify them, while outlining some of the steps needed to learn how to read and write in Chinese, along with techniques that can greatly reduce the amount of workload required so stay tuned!