How to learn real Mandarin: an anecdote

The following is a guest post by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The personal names used in the original correspondence have been changed to generational designations.

Compared to the Hànzì-centric pedagogical approach which forces little children to memorize extremely difficult and complicated characters like 老鼠 and 蝴蝶 instead of teaching them lǎoshǔ and húdié, today I received some more hopeful and sane news.

A friend of mine is teaching her grandson Mandarin. The way she is doing it is to write out the Xī yóu jì (Journey to the West) in a simple báihuà paraphrase using Pinyin only (with glosses in English for new vocabulary). My friend is a first-generation immigrant to America, and her daughter married a German who was studying in the United States, so that makes the grandson third-generation Chinese-American/German.

The other day, the grandson asked his mom out of the blue: “What’s the difference between shíjiān, shídài, and shífèn?” My friend, the grandmother, explained to me that all of these terms were in the Pinyin text that she had prepared for her grandson, and that she had glossed them as “time” or “period.” She said that the boy’s mother was very pleased, and she was tickled too, because the boy had discerned the common element shí by himself. As my friend (the grandmother) put it, “He spends very little time on Chinese, so we were pleasantly surprised.”

Hearing this account from my friend, I wrote to her: “Thank you so much for the TRULY WONDERFUL story you wrote about your grandson. This is how to learn real Chinese!!!! And you are being a real Chinese teacher to teach your grandson this way. And I’m also happy that your daughter appreciates what you and her son are doing together. Tell your grandson I’m really impressed at the intelligence of his question.”

10 thoughts on “How to learn real Mandarin: an anecdote

  1. Native learners do not learn the complicated characters first. They already know how to say each of the words and write them phonetically (in pinyin or zhuyin) before they are expected to memorize the characters.

  2. Not necessarily true, my friend’s daughter could read loads of complicated characters (I used to take her out for a walk and test her on them) before she had finished learning the whole zhuyin system. It wasn’t as if her parents were force-feeding her characters either.

  3. Right-but in the formal education system they are taught zhuyin/pinyin first. Of course recognizing characters is much easier than learning to write them.

    The trend at the moment seems to be towards rather than away from hanzi. There is even a possibility that they will be reintroduced into the Korean elementary school syllabus.

    Wouldn’t it be better to focus energies on more effective ways to teach the existing writing system rather than promoting phonetic alternatives that will never gain widespread acceptance? For good or bad, to be literate in a Chinese society, kids have to learn the characters.

  4. Great points in the comments
    1. Formal education teaches Pinyin first
    2. Kids immersed in hanzi environments pick up the ability to recognize (not write) quite a few characters seemingly automagically
    3. Focusing on more effective teaching of existing writing system is the right thing to do

    I can’t speak for Victor, but maybe he’s saying in his comment above that there should be more time spent with Pinyin in beginning programs for non-native speakers (NNSs) outside of greater China. If so, I don’t see much to argue about. Otherwise, for native speakers, the points above are right on. To expand a bit:

    1. Pinyin is SO easy to learn that it literally takes just a few months for a NS. At least from my daughter’s first grade experience I can’t see the point of spending more time with it, especially given the “you have to learn hanzi” point of item 3.

    2. Kids (again, personal observation, nothing formal) learn loads of characters from context, such as grandma reading street signs to them as they walk along. Even though I’ve blogged time and again about how hard hanzi recognition is for adult NNSs, and David Moser has done much better in his “Why Chinese is so damn hard” essay, I’m not convinced it’s nearly as hard for kids — ON THE RECOGNITION SIDE. Writing is quite a different story. It is painful and slow even for kids, and (as Moser, Mair, and others have pointed out over and over) it is easy for NSs to forget how to write a character to the point that they can’t even think of how to get started.

    3. So what to do? For NNSs, as I said before, my intuition is to spend more time with grammar and vocab acquisition in Pinyin during the first couple years of a program. For NSs, I’ll bet there’s a better approach than what exists today.Randy Alexander has been documenting and commenting on, in English, the standard mainland China process for NS hanzi acquisition in his Y?wén (??) blog. That’s probably a good starting point.

    All of the above assumes that your point is to increase literacy and Mandarin acquisition in the current environment, where hanzi is the primary script. If you want societal change, e.g. a dramatic move to greatly increased digraphia with Pinyin, then it’s helpful to be explicit about that goal and how it might be accomplished.

  5. If they don’t flip-flop on it as they have a history of doing, it will mean that Korea is the first state represented in the UN to rehabilitate full-form characters. I have to say I feel sorry for the Korean schoolkids though. It’s kind of like if a government were to introduce compulsory Greek for all primary school kids – interesting for academics but a real pain in the neck for the people who have learn and be tested on it.

  6. Anyone have an English link for the Korean story? I did some googling and the only story I could find listed the need for some Koreans to learn Chinse and/or Japanese as the motivation for increased character learning and not any desire or need felt by Koreans to re-hanja their script.

    I can think of better ways of going about improving the level of Chinese and Japanese knowledge of Koreans, but (waring: offensive generalization coming) the use of characters seems to lead to odd go-around-your-elbow strategies in general, so efficiency and ease are probably not going to be leading criteria.

  7. The Korean story does sound interesting. Here’s part of an English version of the same article that I came across today:

    South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Friday that the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation has submitted a research report to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, suggesting the inclusion of Chinese-character education into primary school courses.

    Citing a survey during June and July of last year on 5,222 parents and teachers, the report pointed out that 83 percent of respondents (89.1 percent of parents and 77.3 percent of teachers) support teaching pupils Chinese characters.

    The ministry advised that, from next year, pupils learn Chinese characters during the creative-experience period in school, with the promise of further Chinese studies to meet social needs.

    After a nearly 40-year absence in textbooks – since the policy of specializing in the Korean language in the 1970s – the Chinese-character education is likely to return to primary schools, the newspaper added.

    South Korea likely to resume teaching Chinese

    I don’t know, though, just how much of that article can be taken at face value. It comes from a CCP newspaper. I’d like to see some stories out of Korea itself on this.

  8. The googling I did quickly turned up a pattern going back at least to the 90s and probably far beyond:

    1. Some SK politician or other makes noises about increasing/improving the teaching of characters for either a) historical cultural reasons b) facilitation of learning written Chinese and/or Japanese for those Koreans who need to do so.

    2. (optional step) some kind of plans are made

    3. Nothing substantive happens.

    4. start over from 1.

    IME almost all the koreans I’ve known (nb. mostly teachers of Korean as a foreign langauge) display a stunning lack of dedication to the idea of characters or character education in general.

  9. While I quite enjoy Dr. Mair’s running commentary on language log, and while he is doubtless extremely knowledgeable in classical and modern Chinese, this is a point with which I must voice major disagreement. Allow me to present another short story:

    I once went to the Beijing zoo with a Chinese friend. There were placards around for all types of exotic birds and monkeys and such. I realized that in English, I would hardly know the name for these animals, but I would be able to pronounce them based on the rules of English phonetics. But it got me thinking about how Chinese people do it–a mother next to us read off the name of a bird with ease to her 2 year old son–and I asked my friend. Aside from names which were descriptions of the animal (the owl is the ???, or “cat-headed eagle”), he replied, “The right side of that character is always pronounced that way, so I know by analogy”. Analogy is a significant factor here, and the reason these bizarre characters were able to be recognized. Even the cited example, ??, has ? as a component and the right side of ? is typically found in characters pronounced “die”. This analogy often goes even as far as the tones. And this is the method by which I have been studying.

    Learning Chinese through pinyin without ever transitioning to characters is like leaving the training wheels on.

    As to the arguments about slower learning and lower literacy rates, which Dr. Mair seems to make elsewhere, these fail to take into account China’s vastly different economic landscape, and as I see it, seem to impose the idea of the difficulty of second language acquisition on first language learning. I am not fully sure about acquisition data, but I have heard there is maximum 1-2 additional years required for mastery. Even so, even if it did take 1-2 additional years to learn it, is it the place of the linguist to make prescriptive policy judgments, especially on a language that is not a native one?

    I think this kind of reasoning, and posts like the one above, which glorify self-imposed ignorance of the essence of the Chinese writing system, is frankly dangerous.

    I respect Dr. Mair and acknowledge the gravity of his accomplishments and contributions to the scene of Chinese studies and Chinese linguistics broadly conceived. But when we begin to think of pinyin as anything more than training wheels (of course to be supplemented with real characters) I believe we step into territory of cultural-absolutist prescriptivism.

  10. I belief that for modern Chinese learning for NNSs it is not necessary to focus any energy on writing characters. I belief learning to recognize them will be more than enough and is much easier. I studied Sinology in University and I was a decent writer – then. After my degree I ended up using pinyin & computers and now I have trouble writing the most simple characters. However, I know many Chinese who have also lost their writing ability to some extend due to computers and texting.

    Handwriting will be less important in the future. Pinyin (or Zhuyin for that matter) is more than training wheels, it actually is the only way that we can keep track of spoken Chinese! In several local versions of Mandarin one can actually encounter sounds or expressions that are purely spoken Chinese. There are no characters for them! I belief that Chinese writing is holding back Chinese language development and i would go so far that they are also holding back development of China as a whole.

    Modern language learning for NNSs and even second/third generation Chinese children can be done with a lot of modern methods, such as singing, computer gaming and why not — reading the Xiyouji in Pinyin? In general, I would conclude it should be more fun to learn Chinese, after all, it is not such a hard language to master for NNSs if you set the writing system aside (at least for a while).

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