How I use speed to teach Chinese characters
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
“Laoshi I’m FINISHED!” - one of the students shouts out as he throws his pen on the table in victory.
I laugh as the other students catch up.
One by one they throw their pens down and shake out their hands, flexing their finger muscles.
In many ways, they have just been doing a workout.
But it is a workout that involves the muscles of their fingers and hands - they are learning to write Chinese characters.
And what they were just doing was a race to see who could finish filling a line of 10 boxes most quickly.
This is typical of one of the first few lessons of orienting students to being able to write in Chinese. In this part of the learning process, I usually do 3 things:
Firstly, we look at a character together. I give tips and stories about it. We break it down. We analyse the stroke order.
Secondly, we ‘慢慢来 - manmanlai - take it slowly’. We write the character correctly, deliberately and most importantly - slowly, around 10 times.
We get familiar with the technique and the order.
I watch out for any mistakes and help correct and redo - slowly.
And then, finally: we speed up.
This part is the race I described above: everyone fills 10 more boxes with the character as quickly as they can, following the exact stroke order technique we just learned.
Aside from this speedy set of 10 being great fun, if I ask students to write the same character a few minutes later, they can generally do it with ease.
And that usually means if they see the character later, they’ll be able to read it. Magic!
When you’ve taken something slowly, you can often do the same thing more quickly later, with greater quality.
You slow things down, to be able to speed up.
When I reflected on these steps I teach to write a character, I realise it applies to a learning strategy in general.
Running. When learning to run, I used to walk slowly for 10 seconds, then sprint for 20. I did it over and over until I could hold a run for 1 kilometre, then 2km, then 3km… and later 10km, even 20km, all the way to marathon distances. But it started with slowing down, and then speeding things up, again and again. The same principle applies to HIIT workouts.
Drawing. When I was learning to draw, we had several weeks of assignments where for one week we would draw slowly, taking care of every circle and shape. In the second week, we’d do ‘speedies’: drawing the same things at great speed, focusing on volume and producing lots at pace.
Driving. When I was learning to drive, I had to change the clutch really carefully, driving very slowly. Only until I could do it slowly, could I start to practice it more quickly at traffic lights and in situations where I would need to make quick changes.
Martial Arts: I found another example of speeding things up in Pamela Slim’s book, ‘Body of Work’, where she talks about the same process she learned when doing a Kickboxing class. Look at how her teacher describes it:
“First, focus on technique. Do the movements very slowly so that you get a good feel for the correct movements. Then, when you feel confident in the technique, add speed. Do the movements more quickly. Finally, add power. Pay attention to the force that comes through your body, and direct it to your target. The technique, speed, and power together will make you a great fighter.”
The way she describes this, it could easily be talking about learning to become a great writer of Chinese characters - if I replace adding 'power' with 'mental' power, perhaps. :)
So, next time you’re trying to learn something - first, take it slowly.
Get the technique down.
And then speed it up.
Produce whatever you’re trying to do more quickly.
Repeat fast-slow a few times, and enjoy knowing that you're letting the skill settle in.