June 3rd, 2011
So one thing that has frustrated me about my Chinese study – and it is all entirely my own fault – is the sheer amount of writing I’ve done on cellphone and computer using pinyin input instead of with pen and paper the old fashioned way. It’s frustrating, because the result is I can read a lot, but when I’m in, for example, a post office and need to write my own address, I have to whip out my cellphone and type it out so I can copy it down. This strikes me as being utterly absurd. Also, and this is in large part a function of my age, the time I was studying those other languages, and the comparatively undeveloped technology available back then, I never had to face such a huge divergence in my French, German or Russian reading and writing abilities. Well, ok, there are pretty huge differences in script to take into account with that comparison, too. But even so, it’s frustrating. Basically, I feel like a language is not properly learned unless the learner can write it, too. And no, I do not have any rational defence for that statement. Let’s just say I’m mostly pretty old fashioned in my language learning attitudes. All my dictionaries are dead tree editions, for example, and I only use online dictionaries because I do a lot of my reading online, the stuff I translate is most often emailed to me, and the online dictionaries can keep themselves more up to date more easily with neologisms.
And so I decided a long time ago that my next cellphone would have handwriting input and I would bloody well use handwriting input for Chinese, at least. And about a month ago my wife and I came across that magic convergence of a valid excuse and a way to upgrade cheaply and got ourselves new matching his and hers Nokias with handwriting input. And for me, so long as the phone had all the same functions as my old one, all I was worried about was that handwriting input.
And it’s hard. I don’t think it took terribly long to get the muscle memory back, at least for those characters I use often, after all, I’ve studied them all with pen and paper. It’s hard because you have to keep constant adequate pressure on the screen, write the strokes quickly enough so the phone interprets them as all part of one character and doesn’t separate your intended character into two or three nonsensical characters, and your handwriting has to be clear enough for the phone to read. And to make matters worse for me, my handwriting (in any language) was never great to begin with, but somehow it’s much, much worse with stylus and touchscreen than pen and paper.
And for all that, and although on several occasions I’ve had to write a character several times over, concentrating ever more each time to getting the strokes as close to perfect as I am capable of, the phone can be surprisingly forgiving. Somehow the phone’s logic is fuzzy enough that the chaotic mess of dots and squiggles my attempts to write turn into suddenly become exactly the character I wanted. But that in itself is a frustration, considering the logic is also fuzzy enough that an attempt at writing looks very much like the character I wanted in the input field, but the suggested characters are a series I’ve never seen before.
The big plus I’ve found, though, is the ease of switching between alphanumeric (i.e. pinyin) input and handwriting. Yes, this could be an excuse to be lazy, but so long as I’m being stubborn about handwriting, it’s a quick and easy way to check up on a character I may be unsure about, and there are many ways and many reasons I may be unsure about a character, from momentary lapses in memory to the sudden need for a character I know passively but very rarely have reason to use. So quickly flip to pinyin input, study the structure of the character, flip back to handwriting. I’ve found this approach surprisingly effective for moving characters I’ve known only passively into my active vocabulary.
A side benefit is the massive increase in ease of incorporating arabic numerals and latin characters into Chinese text. Really. The handwriting input has buttons to go in to arabic numerals or latin characters without changing over to English text input, but they’re completely unnecessary.
So for all the difficulties, I’m getting good value out of this handwriting input. My next challenge is shifting this handwritten Chinese from that basic and very repititive every day stuff to the kind that requires a much greater range of characters.