Question from Out There: Is written Chinese easier if you’re fluent first?

I would say it’s easier to learn to read if you are reasonably fluent. Writing involves two “strands” or competencies, if you will. I call them “mechanical literacy” and “compositional literacy”.

“Mechanical literacy” means being able to remember how to write the darn character when you need it, and knowing which one you need in a given situation. It’s straight memorization, aided (we hope) by appropriate mnemonics.

“Compositional literacy” means the ability to put together words in Chinese to form a piece of writing. IMO it would be fine for a student to demonstrate compositional literacy in Pinyin (although there should be some component to assure that he would know which characters to pick, or to have the writing-through-Pinyin have a computer file in characters as the ultimate product).

But the two types of literacy are, and should be, completely separate. (And IMO literacy of any kind should be completely separate from fluency/acquisition for greatest efficiency). You can become fully compositionally literate without having any mechanical literacy other than recognizing which character needs to be used. You can function VERY well as a fluent user of Chinese without hardly ever needing to write by hand. If classes would recognize this, and focus handwriting efforts on memorization and production of the relatively small pool of characters that realistically need to be written by hand without any sort of aid of any kind (and most Taiwanese look up forgotten characters on their cell phones, BTW — I have the results of a survey I did of 150 people in Taipei) much more time could be devoted to teaching learners to compose good prose and use a computer efficiently.

Of course, that is turning one’s back on 5000 glorious years of Chinese history. But handwriting is truly never needed for anything longer than a phone message or a form — outside of classes. And if classes only prepare you for more classes, I think that needs to be addressed seriously.

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