Mandarin on Your Terms: Is It Possible to Skip Learning Chinese Characters?

I’m Jennifer Zhu from eChineseLearning, a teacher with 17 years of experience teaching Chinese to adult learners. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of instructing a diverse range of students. Interestingly, many of my friends often approach me with a common question: Can we learn Chinese without learning to read and write? In response, I’d like to share a true story that provides valuable insights into the practical aspects of using Chinese. Daniel, one of my students hailing from Canberra, Australia, is a university student who’s absolutely passionate about surfing, skiing, and traveling. With an inherent curiosity for exploration, he traveled to China twice, and those journeys presented two remarkably contrasting travel encounters. First Trip to China: A World of New Discoveries In 2019, Daniel set foot in this mysterious land of China for the first time. Before his departure, he received a free one-on-one Chinese trial class from me, where he learned some basic oral Chinese vocabulary and pinyin. He thought this would be enough to get by in his travels.   He chose Shanghai and Nanjing as his destinations. After the trip, he enthusiastically recounted his adventures to me. He was completely astounded by the swift progress and convenience in China. The cities were filled with bilingual signs and announcements, and they had a modern atmosphere while also exuding a captivating blend of history and culture. I asked him if he encountered any difficulties. “Most of the time, everything went smoothly, but I did face some minor hiccups,” Daniel replied with a smile.   One day, he planned to visit the Shilian Tower (石莲大厦 Shí Lián Dà Shà) in Nanjing for an exhibition but got lost along the way. Fortunately, he met two friendly Chinese girls who helped him out. Using pinyin and spoken Chinese, he tried to convey that he wanted to go to the “ShiLian” Tower. However, they ended up taking him to the another Shilian Tower (世联大厦 Shì Lián Dà Shà), a place with a similar pronunciation but a different meaning. That was when Daniel first realized that Chinese words can have homophones, only by reading Chinese characters one can differentiate them. Excitedly, he told me that despite these small setbacks, his trip went smoothly, and he even made two friends from China. Daniel firmly believed that speaking and listening were the most practical skills. Over the next two years, he continued his one-on-one Chinese lessons with me to strengthen his speaking and listening skills while eagerly looking forward to his next trip to China. Second Trip to China: A Series of Challenges With significant progress in his speaking and listening abilities, Daniel embarked on his second trip to China in 2023. This time, he accompanied his father, David, on a business trip and played the role of a semi-translator, while also gaining valuable business insights.   During three days of negotiations, Daniel found that his command of spoken language and listening skills were adequate for most business discussions and social gatherings. His fluent spoken Chinese earned him the nickname “China expert” from those at the table. The business experiences with his father boosted his confidence and ignited his spirit of exploration. He was eager to witness the differences between China and Australia. After David returned home, Daniel chose to stay in China and embarked on a journey to Daocheng Yading. Located in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, it is a breathtaking natural paradise adorned with majestic snow-capped peaks, pristine lakes, and lush meadows.   However, this trip brought about a significant challenge! Initially, everything went well as he departed from Chengdu, but trouble arose once he left National Highway 227. The Ganzi area, where Daocheng is located, is a third or fourth-tier city in China, rarely visited even by foreiners. Daniel realized that all the signs were in Chinese, which he couldn’t understand. He found himself wandering on the roads and eventually got lost. Luckily, Daniel encountered a group of herders while he was lost. “How can you dare to come this far without knowing how to read?!” one of the herders exclaimed in astonishment, impressed by Daniel’s fluent speaking and communication skills but bewildered by his inability to read. “I thought all places (in China) had bilingual signs!” Daniel chuckled, scratching his head. “In China, someone like you is called illiterate (文盲 Wén máng)! It’s been twenty years since we’ve had someone like that in our village,” the herder teased him, both amused and bemused by his lack of reading ability. After receiving warm hospitality from the herders that evening, Daniel finally made it to Yading the next day, where he marveled at the majestic mountains of China.   This experience really helped him grasp the intricacies of the Chinese language. When I inquired, “Are you still considering visiting China in the future?” “Definitely, teacher!” he respon

Mandarin on Your Terms: Is It Possible to Skip Learning Chinese Characters?

I’m Jennifer Zhu from eChineseLearning, a teacher with 17 years of experience teaching Chinese to adult learners. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of instructing a diverse range of students. Interestingly, many of my friends often approach me with a common question: Can we learn Chinese without learning to read and write? In response, I’d like to share a true story that provides valuable insights into the practical aspects of using Chinese.

Daniel, one of my students hailing from Canberra, Australia, is a university student who’s absolutely passionate about surfing, skiing, and traveling. With an inherent curiosity for exploration, he traveled to China twice, and those journeys presented two remarkably contrasting travel encounters.

First Trip to China: A World of New Discoveries

In 2019, Daniel set foot in this mysterious land of China for the first time. Before his departure, he received a free one-on-one Chinese trial class from me, where he learned some basic oral Chinese vocabulary and pinyin. He thought this would be enough to get by in his travels.
 

 
He chose Shanghai and Nanjing as his destinations. After the trip, he enthusiastically recounted his adventures to me. He was completely astounded by the swift progress and convenience in China. The cities were filled with bilingual signs and announcements, and they had a modern atmosphere while also exuding a captivating blend of history and culture.

I asked him if he encountered any difficulties. “Most of the time, everything went smoothly, but I did face some minor hiccups,” Daniel replied with a smile.
 

Shilian Tower

 
One day, he planned to visit the Shilian Tower (石莲大厦 Shí Lián Dà Shà) in Nanjing for an exhibition but got lost along the way. Fortunately, he met two friendly Chinese girls who helped him out. Using pinyin and spoken Chinese, he tried to convey that he wanted to go to the “ShiLian” Tower. However, they ended up taking him to the another Shilian Tower (世联大厦 Shì Lián Dà Shà), a place with a similar pronunciation but a different meaning. That was when Daniel first realized that Chinese words can have homophones, only by reading Chinese characters one can differentiate them.

Excitedly, he told me that despite these small setbacks, his trip went smoothly, and he even made two friends from China.

Daniel firmly believed that speaking and listening were the most practical skills. Over the next two years, he continued his one-on-one Chinese lessons with me to strengthen his speaking and listening skills while eagerly looking forward to his next trip to China.

Second Trip to China: A Series of Challenges

With significant progress in his speaking and listening abilities, Daniel embarked on his second trip to China in 2023. This time, he accompanied his father, David, on a business trip and played the role of a semi-translator, while also gaining valuable business insights.
 

Business trip

 
During three days of negotiations, Daniel found that his command of spoken language and listening skills were adequate for most business discussions and social gatherings. His fluent spoken Chinese earned him the nickname “China expert” from those at the table.

The business experiences with his father boosted his confidence and ignited his spirit of exploration. He was eager to witness the differences between China and Australia. After David returned home, Daniel chose to stay in China and embarked on a journey to Daocheng Yading. Located in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, it is a breathtaking natural paradise adorned with majestic snow-capped peaks, pristine lakes, and lush meadows.
 

Signs in Chinese

 
However, this trip brought about a significant challenge! Initially, everything went well as he departed from Chengdu, but trouble arose once he left National Highway 227. The Ganzi area, where Daocheng is located, is a third or fourth-tier city in China, rarely visited even by foreiners. Daniel realized that all the signs were in Chinese, which he couldn’t understand. He found himself wandering on the roads and eventually got lost.

Luckily, Daniel encountered a group of herders while he was lost. “How can you dare to come this far without knowing how to read?!” one of the herders exclaimed in astonishment, impressed by Daniel’s fluent speaking and communication skills but bewildered by his inability to read. “I thought all places (in China) had bilingual signs!” Daniel chuckled, scratching his head.

“In China, someone like you is called illiterate (文盲 Wén máng)! It’s been twenty years since we’ve had someone like that in our village,” the herder teased him, both amused and bemused by his lack of reading ability. After receiving warm hospitality from the herders that evening, Daniel finally made it to Yading the next day, where he marveled at the majestic mountains of China.
 

Yading

 
This experience really helped him grasp the intricacies of the Chinese language. When I inquired, “Are you still considering visiting China in the future?”

“Definitely, teacher!” he responded resolutely. “I’m determined to keep learning from you, work on my reading, and eventually support my family in expanding their business in China!”

So…should a student learn to read or write Chinese characters? It all depends.

Listening and speaking., When you’re on short trips or living in major cities in China, where bilingual signs and announcements are widespread, having basic listening and speaking skills can meet most of your needs. However, in some specific cases like business negotiations and attending conferences, it’s necessary to consider further building your vocabulary. Still, you may occasionally run into trouble with the homophones in Chinese.

Reading Chinese Characters., In some situations, it can be essential to possess the skill of recognizing and comprehending Chinese characters. For example, when traveling or residing in third or fourth-tier cities in China, where bilingual signs is not well-established, it becomes necessary to acquire basic Chinese reading abilities in order to avoid difficulties such as getting lost or misunderstanding signs and names. Also, if you want to chat with Chinese friends on instant messengers such as WeChat, or read news or messages on social media, you need to learn to read Chinese characters.

Writing., It can be categorized into handwriting and typing. The ability to write Chinese characters by hand may not be necessary in today’s digital age. If you wish to connect with friends or acquaintances using Chinese characters, you should consider to learn the skill to type Chinese characters using Chinese input methods.

Of course, if you have intentions to engage in academic research, pursue advanced studies in China, or undertake Mandarin exams such as HSK, you need to acquire all the skills above. Consider your specific needs and circumstances when selecting your Chinese learning path!

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