NOTE: This is not a traditional vs. simplified argument. This is aimed at people studying Chinese in simplified characters, wondering whether they should spend some time studying traditional characters as well.
When I chose to move to Taiwan instead of Mainland China, one of my classmates said “Why are you doing that? You’ll have to use traditional characters!”
So after a year of studying simplified characters, I moved to a country where 认识 (renshi; to know (someone)) became 認識. In all honesty, at first I felt like I was drowning, but I can’t regret the time and energy traditional characters took to study.
There are definite advantages and disadvantages to studying traditional characters, my friends who have never studied them seem none the worse off. So is the time and energy worth it? Would I do it again? I’ve put together a list of 5 areas of Chinese where a knowledge of traditional characters has made an impact for me.
Traditional characters often have so many elements that your brain starts looking for patterns where it can. I have found that students who have studied traditional characters are often more aware of radicals, and this can mean that unknown traditional characters can be easier to puzzle out as they give so many more clues.
The flip side of this is getting lured into a false sense of security by being used to so many clues in your reading. When I moved to Shanghai, I could not deal with how similar the 体 in 身体 (shenti; body) and 休 in休息 (xiuxi; to rest) are. Just one little line! I was used to writing 身體 and 休息.
There is no getting around the fact that for many people (me included), writing in traditional characters takes longer. So. Much. Longer. Writing in simplified characters is comparatively speedy. Add the stress of exams to this and you will envy your classmates and their “easy to write” essays. They can write three paragraphs for every two of yours.
But if your exam sneaks in a passage in traditional characters, having studied the characters before will make your life so much easier, and there is less likely to be that moment of blind panic when confronted with half a page of mysterious characters.
It has been said that if you can read one, you can read the other. This may be true, but I haven’t seen anyone who hasn’t studied traditional characters choose to read a book written using these characters. So if you have a love for works written in Taiwan, Hong Kong, pre-simplification, or by the Chinese Diaspora, it may be that traditional characters are for you.
So that’s it! It all depends on why you want to learn Chinese. If you are interested in the wider Chinese speaking world, Chinese literature, and getting the lyrics to your favourite KTV song down, spend some time studying traditional characters. If you have a head for business and are studying Chinese for the economic benefits, it will probably be a better use of your time to stick to simplified (for now).