Does the ability to write with a pen and paper matter? Apparently not, to quite a few Chinese as a second language learners. “Nobody really writes by hand anymore,” says one.

“Writing by hand is useless; I can just type everything at my computer,” explains another.

I disagree both arguments. While it is possible to get by without the ability to write by hand, it’s also possible to get by without learning Chinese at all. In fact, I know foreigners who have lived here for nearly two decades and who speak less Chinese than most students do after a single year. One of them was even my former boss. He got by just fine. The existence of people such as him is evidence that having fully functional language skills means something more than just being able to survive in a Chinese speaking city. Being fully functional in a language means using it to accomplish whatever daily tasks one chooses, not choosing daily activities based upon the limits of one’s language skills.

It is conceivable, that the day will come when computers are so ubiquitous and so convenient to use that the pen and paper will no longer serve any utilitarian purpose. Like the calligrapher’s brush and ink, the pen and paper will be cast aside, with only a small number of people of an artistic bent or with an interest in history using them at all. Has that day come yet? The best indicator is to look at what people who don’t have any interest in history or art do. Look at what those who just want to get on with their lives do, or better yet, look at what businesses do. Businesses aren’t run for aesthetics or culture. Businesses are all about utility. See if businesses still bother stocking those outmoded and archaic pens and pencils. I suspect that any business you might inspect would still use them, regardless of whether it were a Chinese or western company, and regardless of how high or low-tech their operations might be.

When is the last time you, yourself, used a pen or paper? Unless you are an exception, you used one yesterday. Odds are also overwhelmingly high that you didn’t go a single week in all of last year without using a pen or paper. This also suggests that the pen and paper still have some utility that computers haven’t yet been able to match. One significant feature, is that they are portable and don’t require a power source. Taking notes on a laptop during a meeting might not be too bad, but for writing down what toppings your friends want on a pizza, using computer would likely be slower than the traditional approach. Another advantage of the pen and paper is that they are less restrictive: while typing this essay, I have no choice but to make each letter the same size, and to put them into neat rows. While it would be possible use different font sizes or format a web page to display my writing a bit differently, it would be very difficult to circle various words, draw arrows from one word to another, or to draw a brainstorming diagram. Each of those techniques is both useful and common for pencil and paper users.

Why is it then, that so many people would claim that being able to write Chinese doesn’t matter? My guess is that it’s just because learning how to write in Chinese is a pain in the ass and people want a reason not to do it. That’s fine, and I can understand the desire completely. There’s nothing ignoble at all about not learning how to write Chinese characters. For that matter, there’s nothing ignoble about not learning Chinese at all.