Handwriting and little ones

The photo on the right is one of three seen in the subway in Shanghai. They’re advertisements for Phillips appliances. The image shows a young child chillaxin’ as a breeze goes by. The caption, in childlike handwriting, says 我家的房子会呼吸 wǒ jiā de fángzi huì hūxī, “my family’s house can breathe”.

Another in the series has a kid freaking the heck out at the shadow of a dinosaur and the caption, which I’m sure I don’t remember perfectly, says something like 哇!恐龙来啦 wa! kǒnglóng lái la, which translates as “holy crap! there’s an effing dinosaur!”

And a third, some girl, looking into a mirror, and thanks to a lightbulb, something, I don’t remember. It’s been a week since I saw these. Give me a break.

Here are my questions that those of you with young children in the Chinese education system may be able to answer.

First, how old is the kid in this picture? Sorry it’s from my phone through multiple panes of glass. However old he is, which I’ve never been much good at determining with children, all three ads show kids of about the same age and about the same handwriting style.

Second, would a kid that age be able to write those characters? There’s a chance that if pressed to do so, I wouldn’t be able to without some serious thought. I just don’t handwrite beyond the most common 100 characters. According to Jun Da’s frequency list, frequencies for these characters are…

我 – 9th
家 – 55th
的 – 1st
房 – 512th
子 – 37th
会 – 29th
呼 – 843rd
吸 – 924th
哇 – 2433rd
恐 – 891st
龙 – 696th
来 – 15th
啦 – 1194th

I admit 房 might give me pause, though only because I’d need a minute to remember which thing I need to add to 方. That’s if I were pressed to write it by hand. I just don’t write. And I gotta say, for some of these the frequency may be misleading. 乎, without the 口 radical, is ranked 408th and 及 is 113th. But whatever.

I’d guess the average kid that age couldn’t write those sentences, and might not be able to even read them. Again, lacking children, I can’t be sure, but I’m darn pretty sure.

So what does it really do to have characters that a kid could never write be done in kid handwriting? As a designer, which I haven’t been for years, I get that it conveys voice. But it feels disconnected to me in this instance. Maybe I’m just too aware of the difficulty of writing characters. Maybe I’m just threatened that this ___ year old kid can write better than I can when I’ve been here almost as long as he’s been alive. Whatever it is, I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on this. And if you have kids about that age, quiz ’em! Let us know how they do. Gold star stickers to all Sinotots™ who take the quiz. XXS t-shirts to the winners when we ever get around to making them.

And while I’m on the topic of handwriting, here’s a sign that was in the cafeteria near where I live, which I’m sharing simply because I can appreciate the laziness of the writer, who after writing 19 other characters in an obviously intentionally stylised manner, couldn’t be bothered to write 谢 again, using ” in it’s place instead.

[Update: Syz’s third grade daughter’s rendition when he asked her to write the two sentences above:


19 responses to “Handwriting and little ones”

  1. Aaron says:

    In Japanese they frequently use 々 to indicate a repeated kanji (人々, 日々, 重々しい), and I’ve always found it interesting that they don’t do this in Chinese despite the (probably) increased incidence of repeated characters.

    Regarding the kids and their characters: In Japan, kids would learn those characters in the following grades:
    我 – 6th
    家 – 2nd
    的 – 4th
    房 – high school
    子 – 1st
    会 – 2nd
    呼 – 6th
    吸 – 6th
    哇 – not used
    恐 – high school
    龙 – substitute 竜: high school
    来 – 2nd
    啦 – not used

    房 is a little misleading since it wouldn’t be used in an equivalent Japanese sentence. But there’s no getting around the fact that kids wouldn’t officially know 恐竜 until high school, so for a child to write an equivalent sentence in Japanese with full kanji at that age would be extremely unlikely. However they do have kana in Japan, and I would expect a child of that age to be able to write those sentences phonetically in kana.

    Also, is “room” really appropriate for 房子 here? My interpretation was “My family’s house can breathe.”

  2. Aaron: Thanks for the equivalent grades. Though obviously it wouldn’t match up to China where there is no kana, it’s still a much more intuitive way to look at the likelihood of a child knowing the characters than simply saying the frequency.

    As for the translation, yeah, you’re right. I’ve changed it.

  3. Louis says:

    My wife, a teacher, said that a child in the first grade should be able to write the characters in the photo (恐龍 in the 2nd grade). Taiwan’s education system is ferocious in this area. (I’m guessing the schools across the strait are, too.)

  4. Louis: Interesting. I myself can barely write 龍, being a 龙 kinda guy myself.

    Syz? Randy? Any input on the Mainland education system?

  5. André says:

    I don’t think that character frequency is a good way to predict which characters children learn to write first.

    Regardless of country, education system or language, I am pretty sure kids learn to write words that they use in everyday speech before learning words that are common in text.

    For instance, the word “elephant” probably has a pretty low frequency in written English, but I would guess kids learn to write it long before they write a word like “politics”.

    Which could explain why a young child might be able to write even characters like 哇, because it’s a word they use themselves when speaking.

  6. Claw says:

    @Aaron: I’ve seen the use of 々 to indicate repeated characters in handwritten Chinese letters before. The writers were all from Hong Kong, so I don’t know whether the practice is as common on the Mainland or in Taiwan.

  7. justin says:

    You’ve just got to stop thinking of people like robots or computers to be programmed is all =) I doubt the frequency is terribly high, but due to the ‘status’ of being able to spell them — we learned stuff like ‘mississippi’ and ‘supercalifragilisticexpealidotious’ probably in first grade, of our OWN accord on the playground. The first word I learned to spell in my life, I distinctly remember, was ‘Boo!’ to accompany my ghost pictures. You think kids don’t ask their parents how to write 恐龙 at even age 4 or 5 in China???? @_@

  8. Chris Waugh says:

    Wouldn’t these characters appear in children’s books?

  9. Justin: I don’t. It’s just that, lacking kids or a memory of childhood, frequency is all I got. Though of course I admit the frequency is misleading. 拉 is seen everywhere while 啦 I hardly see at all, despite hearing it every day.

    Chris: Maybe I’m just underestimating a native speaker’s ability to write at whatever age that is. My nephew can sure as hell tell you the names of a few dozen dinosaurs, but I’m not sure he can spell “dinosaur” yet. Though he’s also in a Mandarin immersion elementary school in the States, so who knows, maybe he can write 恐龙. I’ll have to ask at Christmas.

  10. er, I meant to say that with 拉 being everywhere I therefore expect anyone could write 啦.

  11. justin says:

    啦 is a good example. It takes a split second of an absent minded adult to teach a child that one, I think. Say a kid makes a cartoon drawing and writes 拉 meaning 啦 along with his baby sentence — and an adult criticizes him: “Ah? Where’s the 口字旁?” Of course kids want to be proud and think they are just like adults — so they’ll never forget after just that split second reference.

  12. Louis says:

    I was thinking since young children are taught Mandarin phonetic symbols (zhùyīn fúhāo/注音符號/bo po mo fo) before they learn characters, most of their books would only contain such symbols. Wanting to double check, I did a quick internet search.

    I found that 嬰幼兒 books contained characters with 注音 glosses. 啦 showed up in the first book I looked into.

    It seems that children are exposed to characters at pre-school ages through books. As youngsters love reading, they are probably familiar with a good number of characters before the school years. However, we should be careful not to confuse recognition with writing. Writing takes many grueling pencil-to-work-book hours and therefore probably does not begin until much later. Of course, more research needs to be done to say anything definitive.

  13. Syz says:

    Well, I had my daughter take the Pepsi challenge and she chose Coke in at least a few cases. I took the liberty of adding into your post, Kellen, what she wrote. So if you look above, you’ll see the scan. It works like this:
    1. Initially she said she didn’t know three of the characters
    2. Then, after writing Pinyin for those, she decided that she knew the 呼 in 呼吸
    3. When I asked her about “wa”, she said she thought there wasn’t a character for it. Later when I told her what it was, she said, “oh, duh, of course!”

    Demographics: third grade now, has been in a Beijing Chinese language school since grade one.

    Just a few other thoughts:
    * Recognition is MUCH easier than production. Trying to restrain my pride, I have to say my daughter recognizes an immense number of characters, but that’s not at all the same as being able to write them.

    * Jun Da’s database is pretty useless for gauging kids’ character exposure

    * Per Louis’s comment, I’d still say what teacher’s wish their students could write, or think their students should be able to write, is probably quite different from what they can actually write.

  14. Syz says:

    oh, i forgot to add: then my daughter guessed at the kong3 in 恐龙. Clearly she missed that one! Then later when I showed typed it on the computer she was rueful: “Oh, now I see that even from a thousand miles away!”

    So again, lots of recognition ability; a bit less in the production department.

  15. HRB says:

    @Louis: Interesting thought. Perhaps characters are a bit like other things. Recognizing a cat, a chair or the outline of your continent or country is easier than drawing them well enough for others to recognize. The difference being, of course, that characters are designed for easy reproduction.

  16. Kellen says:

    Ha! The philosopher in me loves the idea of a 孔(夫子)龙.

    The addition brings to mind another part of this that kinda threw me when I first saw it. At whatever age third graders are (10?), her handwriting is way better and less childish than the ads. Anyway she’s a little bit older than these kids in the ads (right?) as well, and didn’t know a few characters off hand. If only there were someone around here with a kid in, oh, first or second grade. Nudge.

  17. minus273 says:

    From my personal memory, when I was a third-grader, we, my classmates and I, read lotta dinosaur books for fun without the slightest trouble posed by unfamiliar characters. Production-wise I have forgotten, though.

  18. tiq says:

    Hi, Mainland here also use 々 or 丷(not a quotation mark :)) or something like マ to represent repeated character in handwriting, but it is considered informal.

  19. tiq: I’ve seen 丷, but also “. I haven’t seen マ or 々 but it’s good to know. I’ll keep my eyes open. I also sometimes see things like 谢² which I’ve used myself.

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