Your first step of writing good Chinese is to copy good writings of Chinese

A metaphor that people love to use when describing how children learn their first language is that their brain is like a sponge, absorbing all the language inputs quickly and naturally. When saying that, what they really mean is that children learn very well by copying others. 

When it comes to adult students learning Chinese as a second language, hardly anyone uses this “sponge” metaphor, as if adults no longer learn by copying others. That is completely false. Adults’ imitating ability plays a key role in language learnings. How to pronounce a word, how to write a Chinese character, everything starts with copying others. 

In this article, I’d like to talk about how copying others can develop student’s Chinese writing skills.

The ability to write a good story or an insightful analytical article in Chinese is something that, unfortunately, many students do not even think about. Many students spend their whole career in writing proposals or reports, but they have never believed that they could write anything good in Chinese. Their writing exercises often stop at writing characters. It doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone is capable of writing good Chinese texts. And copying is the first step to develop good Chinese writing skills. 

Copying texts character for character

From beginners to higher level students, everyone benefits from copying Chinese texts character for character, i.e. write down whatever you see without any changes. 

For beginner students who are working on Chinese Reading and Writing series, they can copy all the texts in the Exercise section of each Lesson, including all the sentences, conversation, and narratives. It is guaranteed that they know every single character appeared in this section. By copying, they will practice all the learned characters, words and expressions, and grammars, and become familiar with how Chinese characters are stacked up and how meanings are expressed in the simplest way. 

For higher level students, their copying range is widened. Not only can they copy their textbooks (if they like them), they can also copy some other texts which they really enjoy reading. If they copy enough texts, they will have a chance to write nearly all the Chinese characters which will appear according to the statistics of character occurring frequency. And they will be able to tell the subtle difference between synonyms because their brain can pick up, subconsciously, that this word shows up more often in this context while the other word in that context. They will become really familiar with the sentence structures.

We learn very well by copying others.

Still copying but with some minor changes

This is the second level of copying which makes good writing exercises.

For beginner students who are working on Chinese Reading and Writing series, they can use the Exercise section as examples and write their own versions of conversations or narratives. Indeed, once they have seen that it is possible to write something meaningful and nice using as few as 70 Chinese characters, everyone becomes creative. 

For higher level students, the space for their copying creativity is limitless. They can change a conversation into a narrative, or a narrative into a play. They can juxtapose several stories together and create a “master” piece. They can also replace the characters’ names of a story with their own, or move the place to a different one, and write something very similar to the original story. 

The better the sample texts are, the better we write.

Nothing can replace the act of writing

Copying texts is a real and fundamental writing practice of learning Chinese. 

Many students like to watch the stroke order animation of a Chinese character. But if they do not actually write a few times, they won’t be able to learn it. Many students like to read some stories in Chinese. But if they do not actually write a few of their own, they won’t be able to develop their own writing skills. Smartphones, Apps, computer softwares, or Chinese Learning Pen, all these digital tools are of great help to learn Chinese. But none of them can replace the act of writing. 

Copying other texts, the simplest form of writing, is easy to do and very effective to deepen students’ understanding of Chinese, and to develop students’ writing skills. 

Copying from the best makes us better.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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