It’s easy to go to extremes with Chinese or Japanese. I’ve met people studying Mandarin who refused to study characters and only studied pinyin. In China. And I’ve met people who can read ancients texts and can write recognize and right nearly 10,000 characters, but can’t speak to save their lives. It’s important to find the correct balance between time spent reading, writing, speaking and listening.
When I first started studying Japanese kanji, my teacher Mrs. Wu gave the following prescription: To master a kanji, one must write it 36 times a day. I remember the gasp that escaped my lips.
36 times was a lot. Every stroke I penned took precious seconds to craft and shape. And some kanji had more than 10 strokes. And now I needed to write each kanji 36 times? This was not going to be fun.
Years later, I started studying Mandarin Chinese. When my classmates had to learn to write 20-30 new characters a week, I only had to learn half as many. I had time to spare, so I decided to write a character at least 50 times a day.
A study abroad trip to China increased my work load. I was studying 30-50 new characters a week and still writing each one 50 times a day. I even increased the load, writing some characters up to 100 times in a single day. I filled notebooks. I was a character machine! During this phase, 36 times a day seemed like too little.
Isn’t it funny how some things return to the beginning? Now, more than a decade later, I believe writing a character 36 times a day is just right. This method won’t allow you to master every character you practice that same day, but it’s repeatable; it builds good study habits. Language skills are gained over periods of weeks and months, not days.