How Skritter Helped Me Stop Worrying and Love Writing Characters

In Chinese, Japanese by Olle Linge

I have studied Chinese for almost seven years now, but I have only been an active Skritter user for the last year or so. Today I want to share with you the story of how Skritter helped me stop worrying about writing characters and start loving them instead, how I went from being quite sceptical about Skritter to using it on a daily basis. Even though I study Chinese, I believe Japanese learners might also find my story interesting. Let’s start from the beginning.

Chinese was the first foreign language I started learning purely out of interest. I have learnt English and French as well, but that was mostly because they were more or less fixed parts of our curriculum, and I only did what I was required to, without much extra thought going into the process of how to learn. Learning Chinese was different from the very start; I wanted to learn as much Chinese as possible each semester, so I wasn’t satisfied with just adopting any method I stumbled upon. 

Paper, pencil and spaced repetition

My approach to vocabulary learning during my first year or so was very smart and incredibly stupid at the same time. I basically came up with a spaced repetition system on my own (similar but more primitive than the one Skritter uses to determine when you should review a word), without ever having read about it. This is smart because it turned out to be quite effective for learning, but it was incredibly stupid because I could have found much better systems simply by searching online.

Of course, it didn’t take long before I realised that my manual system was limited. It became hard to keep track of thousands of words and I needed something better. This is how I learnt about spaced repetition software. I’m not going to go into details here, but for many years I learnt writing characters mostly by using free programs and ordinary handwriting on paper. When I felt lazy or had nothing to write on, I would trace characters on any surface using my index finger or simply visualise how they were written.

This works very well and is far superior to any kind of massed repetition approach where you simply write the same characters over and over again. I didn’t think that my system was perfect, but I thought that it was quite good. I had of course heard about Skritter and knew what it was about, but I simply didn’t think that it would be much different from the system I already used. It just sounded like a fancy version of a traditional approach.

Enter: Skritter

Then I arrived here in Taipei and got to know Jacob Gill, who introduced me to Skritter more thoroughly. He also sold me his old writing tablet so that I could write properly (using the mouse is pretty far from writing by hand and is quite annoying). I must admit that I was a bit sceptical, but since I’m always open for trying new things when it comes to learning methods, I decided to give it a try. That semester, I took a course in teaching methodology and language learning theories, a course mainly designed for native speakers with an in-class handwritten midterm exam.

Even though my Chinese was good enough to take active part in the course itself, expressing everything I had learnt up to that point in handwritten Chinese during a three hour test was still very scary to say the least. I had hardly written any Chinese by hand since writing the personal letter I submitted along with my application for graduate school, and that was first written on a computer and then copied to paper character by character!

An experiment in learning to write Chinese characters by hand

This was the perfect opportunity to see how well Skritter worked. I decided to divide my preparation for the exam into two parts: content and handwriting. The first part was about knowing the things I needed to pass the exam, including various approaches to language learning and how they related to each other. I decided to do this part mainly on my computer, mostly in Chinese, but also in English. The goal was just to acquire the knowledge I needed. The second part was about being able to use handwritten Chinese to show my teacher what I knew. I decided to use Skritter only for the second part.

I spent around two months doing this and it felt pretty good. I made sure to keep up with homework assignments and kept records (on my computer) of everything. I also practised handwriting using Skritter for the entire time. I didn’t spend much time writing characters by hand apart from jotting down some keywords during lectures.

How did it go?

To be honest, I don’t recall the exact score, but it was around 85/100, which I was very happy with indeed. Now, I don’t think you’re very interested in knowing about the score, but I think you might find the result of the handwriting experiment more interesting. On the whole, it went very well. I learnt many things that semester:

  • Reviewing characters can actually be fun – The most important advantage with Skritter over my previous method probably isn’t that Skritter is more efficient , but that it’s more fun and not a little addictive. Perhaps this is because I’m old enough to think that writing things on a screen is cool, but it really is more fun to receive immediate feedback from a program than to write the same characters on an uncaring sheet of paper.
  • Learning stroke order has never been easier – Even though the most important thing is to write clearly, following a standard stroke order is important. Writing on paper, I received no feedback at all, so by using Skritter, I sorted out hundreds of small stroke order inconsistencies. Some of my previous errors were acceptable, but others were not. In cases where Skritter and I didn’t agree, I learnt a lot by looking things up..
  • Writing on a screen is closely related to writing on paper – As I have described above, I didn’t write much on paper at all during the experiment (and I haven’t done that since then either, for that matter), but I still managed to write almost everything I wanted on the exam. I wrote neither quickly nor beautifully, but I wrote legible characters that communicated what I wanted to say. In other words, my practice with Skritter transferred very well into the real world. Of course, my hand hurt quite a bit after the exam, but that’s only to be expected.
  • It’s important to learn to write both characters and words – This ought to be obvious for most people, but I focused mainly on writing single characters, combined with a fair amount of writing on a computer and reading related books and articles. Still, what I found hardest on the exam wasn’t how to write a certain character, but rather figure out what character was part of a certain word (I knew how to pronounce it and would have recognised it easily). I sometimes needed to try several options or think for a bit before finding the right answer. Words are the main carriers of meaning, not characters.

More than a year has passed since that exam and I still stick to mostly the same strategy, which means that Skritter is now part of my daily routine and has been so for some time. I think I have already mentioned the most important reasons why I use Skritter, but there is one more thing I’d like to bring up. I have a confession to make.

I don’t like writing characters by hand

I remember what it was like when I wrote my first characters seven years ago. It was magical. It was exotic. I loved it. Now, I regard characters mostly as a tool for communication and I think that typing does the job so much better than handwriting that I really don’t want to spend much time writing by hand. However, since I’m a teacher, I think I ought to aim for a knowledge level similar to that of native speakers (not in terms of writing proficiency or penmanship, but in terms of being able to recall how to write characters and words). I think Skritter is the perfect tool for me.

My current system

I’m very happy with the system I use now and it looks essential the same as the one I designed for the experiment discussed above. I mostly use Skritter for single character writings (I’m around the 5000 mark now and have set 5775 as the goal for the 2014 character learning challenge). This isn’t because I don’t care about words, but because I want to spend as little time as possible while still retaining the knowledge of how to write all those characters. I immerse myself enough in written Chinese outside Skritter (I read 25 books in Chinese last year, for instance) to take care of the bigger picture (words, sentences), so I think studying single characters suits me best. I get exactly what I want by spending as little time as possible (I’ve spent on average less than two hours a week on Skritter this year).

因人而異 – We’re all different

This is my personal story and the method I described above works for me, but it’s probably not the best way for everybody. I think most people would benefit from using Skritter more than I do, but very few would benefit from using it less. The only situation where you don’t really need Skritter is if you don’t care about characters at all and decide to go completely oral. I won’t discuss such as an approach here, though.

If you read less than I do or spend less time typing, you can expand the way you use Skritter to cover what you need. The most important step is to add words rather than just characters. The only exception is when you see characters popping up in several different words, then it might be a good idea to learn those characters even if they aren’t common words in themselves. Still, simply adding words from a list you’ve found might not be the best way to learn.

Beyond words, it all depends on what your study environment is like. Add anything that you don’t think you will learn automatically by studying and using the language. If you want to improve your reading, focus on learning definitions. Tones are also important (much more important than you think, in fact). If you don’t know what you need, you can just go all in and focus on definitions, readings, tones and writing, but if you do that, don’t forget that Skritter is a tool. Chinese and Japanese are real languages used by real people, so go out there and communicate, either online or in the real world.

Stop worrying and start loving character writing

Now you know how I ended up being a dedicated Skritter user, but I’m interested in your story as well. How did you end up reading this article? I don’t direct this question only to dedicated Skritter users, but to everyone. What is your method like and why does it look like that? Please leave a comment!

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