In September, U-M language professors and students expressed trepidation about transitioning the highly interactive experience of language classes to an online environment. After a lackluster fall semester for many and at the start of the winter semester, The Michigan Daily looked back at how written languages that cannot be produced from a Latin alphabet keyboard were taught virtually.
For the most part, the language departments that do not utilize the Latin alphabet reflected on the Fall 2020 semester with contentment and said they were surprised at how similar their online classroom felt to a normal, in-person experience. In fact, Jinyi Li-Stevenson, a lecturer in the Chinese language department, said she had already begun incorporating virtual elements into her First-Year Chinese course prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We actually started to use the touchscreen Chinese Character App, even before the pandemic,” Li-Stevenson said. “It gave the students instant feedback at home, so they know they wrote the character correctly or not. So now being online is not that different.”
As one of the developers of the app, which was designed specifically for U-M Chinese students, Li-Stevenson said she had been using it since it was completed in around 2010. With the pandemic, other faculty in the department have started integrating apps into their virtual lessons as well, according to Li-Stevenson.
Similarly, Kaori Ohara, a former Japanese lecturer at the University who continues to teach Japanese privately at the Ohara Language Center near North Campus, said she too has found touchscreen writing apps, among others, to be effective tools for online language learning.
“With Zen Brush, students can see how much they have to press and how much they have to lift up like with a real brush,” Ohara said. “They use Wanikani to (drill) kanji … and I like Notability on my iPad to write notes on their textbook and then send everything to the students.”
Li-Stevenson also said she has allowed more assignments to be typed than in typical semesters. However, other University instructors have insisted on sticking to pencil and paper and instead have asked students to upload a scan of their handwritten work to Canvas. Tara Beebani, a lecturer in the Arabic Language Department, wrote in an email to The Daily that certain unique characteristics of the Arabic language lend themselves better to handwriting than typing.
“Arabic is a cursive language, and the shape of the letters vary depending on whether the letter is in the beginning, middle, or end of a word,” Beebani wrote. “Therefore, handwriting helps students practice the directionality of Arabic language and the shape of letters within words. In a sense, handwriting is like conditioning.”
LSA sophomore Ziad Fehmi took Arabic 101 with Beebani this fall and agreed that continuing to handwrite assignments not only helped him to become proficient in writing the cursive script but also in reading handwritten works.
“If you don’t write out the actual words, you won’t be able to read other people’s handwriting,” Fehmi said. “Handwriting doesn’t always look the way it’s typed, so it would be hard if (typed Arabic) is all you read and write.”
Outside of the pandemic, the merits of learning to write by hand, even as classrooms go virtual, are part of a larger, worldwide debate: with the ease of digitally producing most languages today, is it still important to learn traditional methods of writing language?
For Chinese in particular, Li-Stevenson said she has noticed a trend in recent years towards prioritizing typing over handwriting in Chinese education programs across the globe.
“It’s becoming common for both native speakers and Chinese learners to rely on keyboard typing,” Li-Stevenson said. “For (the University) with this new reality, if we allow our students to choose typing over handwriting since the first year, they won’t even have an option in higher levels to switch back to handwriting because they've never had this foundation. So that’s part of our concern this fall: we want students to have as many options open to them as possible.”
Premlata Vaishnava and Bairam Khan, lecturers in the Hindi and Urdu language departments, along with Pinderjeet Gill, a lecturer in the Hindi and Punjabi language departments, are strong proponents of focusing on handwriting in the foreign language programs at the University, and of preserving written languages worldwide.
“When you write, you make a connection between the memories in your fingers and your muscle memory in your brain,” Vaishnava said.
Khan agreed that by directly engaging student’s hands in the process of language production, the kinesthetic movements of drawing each shape create a stronger cognitive connection between the words and their meaning than typing does.
“Languages have different patterns when it comes to framing letters and it all comes from the coordination inside you,” Khan said. “You have to teach your hand in order to teach your mind.”
When considering modern literature published in Hindi and Punjabi, Gill noted a recent increase in handwritten works.
“I think (writing) is coming back,” Gill said. “I see people are writing books, not typing them. That's why learning to write is very, very important.”
On the other hand, Engineering and Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Nick Lovell took a First-Year Japanese course last semester and said he did not feel learning to write kanji was as useful to him as just learning what different characters mean.
Lovell said when typing Japanese, as long as he knows the spoken syllables of a word and can write them out phonetically with the Latin alphabet, an algorithm will suggest the various kanji that include those syllables. Then all he has to do is recognize and select the kanji he wants.
“Personally, I don’t think writing by hand is a useful skill anymore,” Lovell said. “You can already contribute and be immersed in the language without it.”
Though typing has gained traction in other language learning methods, Vaishnava said there is one virtue of continuing to teach handwriting, even when classes are online, that is undeniable.
“For typing, you need something else, like a computer or a phone,” Vaishnava said. “You can write anywhere: in the sand, in the trees. In the world, writing is always with you, it goes with you.”