How Writing Chinese Promotes Thinking

Two months ago, we started a new Linguistic Series based on one of our Chinese blog posts. You can read the original here.

This post discussed our children’s innate ability to learn new languages and offered many ways we parents could help our kids in this process. The article was very dense so we split each point into their own piece.

This week, we will discuss how writing is an extension of thinking and how teaching your child to write Chinese helps them develop various approaches to reasoning.

Incidentally, this post is not written to shame or cajole already stressed out and anxious parents if they choose not to have their children pursue writing Chinese characters and/or essays in Chinese. There are many ways to help your child develop logic and reasoning, and writing Chinese by no means holds the monopoly on these processes. We recognize that every family has different needs and desires, of which writing Chinese may or may not be one.

 The Two Different Types of Writing and Why Parents Choose Not to Teach Them 

Before we delve deeper, let’s differentiate the two types of writing we will be examining. The first is the actual physical writing of Chinese characters (and the bane of many a child’s Chinese learning process). The second is writing in order to formulate thoughts and ideas in a coherent, logical argument.

Just as many parents choose not to teach their children “non-fiction” vocabulary, many also do not teach their children how to write Chinese characters. In particular, for parents in an anglophone country, teaching our kids to speak Chinese is hard enough. Why add this extra pressure of writing characters to our children? Plus, many of us who are second or third generation remember the futility of writing characters 10-20 times for Chinese homework. It didn’t matter how many times we had to write the characters, they just did not sink in.

In fact, even native Chinese people have a hard time hand-writing Chinese characters due to the prevalence of typing and using smartphones to send emails and texts. What hope can we who are not in a Chinese society have for our children?

As for writing essays, one would think that would be contingent upon handwriting Chinese characters - but in today’s technological age, that is not necessarily true. If your child can type via pinyin or zhuyin keyboards, then really, they just need to be literate enough to recognize the character they want to use among the suggested characters.

The main barrier then is forming cogent, grammatically correct thoughts in a persuasive and compelling manner. As with the first form of writing, many parents are relieved if their children can have a basic understanding and speaking of Chinese so formulating complex, layered writing pieces in Chinese is far from their list of priorities. As a result, both forms of writing are often shunted to the wayside due to restraints of time, resources, and utility.

 How Learning to Write Chinese Promotes Different Types of Thinking 

For the majority of Chinese learners, we associate writing Chinese with endless repetition, frustration, and drilling. We rarely think of writing persuasive arguments or essays (if at all). Here, we proffer an alternative approach that might open our minds to both different means of teaching our children how to write as well as taking advantage of the elasticity of their brains.

A deeper understanding of the Chinese writing system
Writing Chinese characters helps your child recognize symbols and understand how they work together to encapsulate the ideas or beliefs within the Chinese language.

Ideally, your children will also associate these same symbols as they are learning to read, but part of learning to write is breaking characters into radicals, sound components, and stroke names. Deconstructing a character into its symbolic (whether visual, radical, or sound) pieces is a common way Chinese people explain a character or clarify which specific character they are referring to.

Furthermore, understanding how these symbols work in conjunction to conveying the meaning of the word will deepen your child’s ability to associate symbols with different things. It’s subtle work but very powerful.

For example, the word 囚/qiú/ (prisoner) is literally a 人/rén/ (person) in a box. If that’s not a prison, I don’t know what is. You can have discussions about why the Chinese originally decided to use those particular symbols, what it means to be imprisoned, whether that box has to be literal or metaphorical, as well as possible other ways they could have chosen to represent the concept of a prisoner.

Another example is the word 明/míng/ (bright). It is composed of the two brightest things in our Earth’s sky: the sun (日/rì/) and the moon (月/yuè/). Again, you can delve deeper into the meaning of this word, but practically speaking, it makes it very easy for your child to remember how to write as well as read the character.

For less literal readings, you can also discuss how similar sounding words also become symbols. For example, how the Chinese word for the number eight (八/bā/) sounds like the first character for 發財/fā cái/ (fortune) so 8 has become associated with good fortune.

This eventually will allow your child to make the leap from symbolism in a character to symbolism in thoughts and ideas such as how stars can seem like diamonds in the sky or how a candle in the darkness can convey hope. They will begin to see how even space, shapes, colors, and sounds can stimulate associations with layered and complicated concepts.

Writing to enhance speaking
Teaching your child to write pieces in Chinese will refine their abilities to comprehend and speak Chinese as natively as possible.

Writing is an extension of thinking and good writing is often derived from good speaking. It is an easily accessible way to teach your child to crystallize their thoughts as well as emphasize logical thinking and proper grammar. In addition, there are many types of writing (eg: business communications, informal notes, persuasive arguments, legal texts, etc.), which ultimately will help your child to become more fluent and agile in Chinese.

If you are ambitious and have your child learn how to emulate more literary Chinese writing, you will also expose them to classical Chinese texts, idioms, and a more formal way of speaking classical Chinese. This will help them better understand Chinese culture, as well Chinese movies and dramas! All in all, it helps in cultural literacy which inevitably helps with fluency.

Finally, teaching your child to write different types of Chinese writing allows another way for you to stretch their thinking. Kids are used to vertical thinking, which is solving problems in a conventional manner. However, when you ask them to look at a situation and dissect it from different angles, we create opportunities for reverse thinking, which looks for a solution to an opposite problem, and horizontal thinking, which finds indirect and non-traditional solutions.

Again, by no means does writing in Chinese have the monopoly in helping your child find creative fixes for all of life’s problems. Rather, these methods are utilized in writing whatever language is being used. The additional bonus of doing so in Chinese merely allows your child’s Chinese fluency to become increasingly lithe and incisive.