Are Chinese characters that difficult?
Our brains often struggle when faced with things outside our own experience; a person who accustomed to the English alphabet may find it very difficult to read the Chinese characters for the first time. That is why in some expressions, Chinese is used as a metaphor for difficult things. However, different does not mean difficult. Are Chinese characters that difficult? The answer is no.
Where do characters come from? As a famous scholar once said, “The earliest character is not a well-invented invention, but a by-product of a strong awareness of private property.” Ancient languages are hieroglyphs, so there is a strong likelihood that you can guess what they mean from their appearance. For example, the very first Chinese character, which meant “sheep,” looked like this:
It is like a sheep’s head with a V-shaped face and curved horns. Nowadays it is written like this: 羊. You can still tell that it’s a sheep’s head. Let’s see another example:
This is the earliest version of the Chinese character for “rain”; it is like rain falling from the clouds above. The current version is like this: 雨. You can still see the original idea from the oldest version.
Chinese characters simply describe and express things about our world and life in the most natural way.
How to get children interested in Chinese characters?
Usually, children are interested in the oldest version of Chinese characters, which are called “甲骨文（jiǎ gǔ wén）”, or Oracle bone script. Why? Maybe because “甲骨文” are a kind of symbol between images and modern Chinese characters; each character is like a painting. The original idea in “甲骨文” is quite clear, which matches up with children’s cognitive thinking style. In addition, these ancient Chinese characters are formed with hard lines and have a special sense of beauty, which is close to young children’s art style. It is pure and vivid. And the way children observe things may be very similar to the stage when our ancestors created “甲骨文”, as children often do what comes naturally to them.
Therefore, we can show “甲骨文” and the Chinese character’s evolution to children because letting them see the natural beauty of Chinese characters will make them more interested in characters.
Take the character “山(mountain)” for example:
Children can see where the characters come from and how they changed little by little from “甲骨文” to modern characters, as if they are growing up. They can easily understand, recognize and memorize characters with this method.
How to practice writing Chinese characters?
For the first step of practicing writing Chinese characters, it is recommended to use an exercise book specifically for Chinese characters, called “田字格( tián zìgé).” It looks like this:
Because Chinese characters are made up of strokes instead of an alphabet, they are like buildings. So when you write them, you need to keep the “building” stable and balanced, otherwise they’re going to fall down. That is why at the beginning, we need “田字格” to help us learn the structure of Chinese characters. For little kids, parents can also make a tracing book with the “田字格” format, so they can trace the characters before writing them on their own.
Secondly, parents and teachers need to teach children to follow the correct stroke order when they write characters. Again, it is like building buildings, and the stroke order directly affects the final result. We should help children get used to always following the correct order from the very beginning. If a child forgets the order and there is no teacher around, parents can look it up on the internet for them.
Parents can also show their children good writing examples, let them see, practice and write more.
What other things can you do with Chinese characters?
Chinese characters are also an art. Chinese people say that a person’s handwriting reflects their personality and attitude. “书法(shū fǎ)”, or Chinese calligraphy, is an art form with a long and rich history. Chinese calligraphy is written with Chinese ink and a writing brush. Calligraphy has also led to the development of many other art forms in China, including seal carving, ornate paperweights, and ink stones.
In order to let the children see Chinese characters as art, you can take them to museums or share books of calligraphy with them. It will show them the different penmanship, introduce them the distinct style of calligraphy, and introduce them to the story and history behind it. Also, they can learn about it and then try writing it by themselves. It will be an enriching experience for them.
With these activities, I hope more and more children will be exposed to Chinese characters and know, love, write and enjoy them!