Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chinese Character re-think

A little while ago I explained that I was spending sometime learning Chinese simplified chracters and even sprinkled a few in these posts. A short time ago I had a radical change of heart. I now firmly believe for me at least and probably for many others Chinese characters are best left for a later stage of learning. I am giving priority at the moment to developing my listening ability, my vocabulary and my pronounciation.

Generally speaking it seems to be accepted as a given that an adult beggining to learn Chinese will very shortly after take up study of the characters. There are exceptions to this but for me at least, when I was researching how to study Chinese the impression was that it was best to learn the writing system early on.

Nobody can dispute the fact that studying Chinese characters is going to involve some measure of hard work and they certainly started to absorb much of my valuable free time, until I took a step back and thought "What am I getting out of this?"

First problem is that this is not the natural way to learn a language. Nobody learns their native tongue this way. A resonable level of mastery of the spoken language precedes written language. I admit that as adults we may have lost some of the skill to aquire an inner ear for a language, but we still need to develop one. If we have to then we must work hard to achieve it. At least we can make a more concious effort to spend time doing this than a small child and we have other highly developed mental faculties to help us.

Second problem is that we already have a romanised form of Chinese to use as a tool for annotation, recording sounds and words. Pinyin is highly phonetic and learning the ins and outs of pinyin will serve for all those classic uses of text that I would employ if I was to learn another European language. I know that pinyin isn't going to be good for reading or recording long pieces of text, but we are talking about the early stage of language development here.

Third problem is that unlike other languages Chinese characters are not going to quickly provide you with another form of input via reading the language. There is an awful lot of knowledge required before anything useful can be read. Added to this it seems logical that your reading ability will be highly affected by your speaking ability and understanding of the language as a whole, so we seem to have a catch 22 situation.

Fourth problem there seems to be a lot of people who have spent a lot of time studying Chinese and still can't do anything 'real world' with it. Everybody is quite happy to explain how hard the language is allied with the fiendish writing system. Then they happily accept the whole kit and kaboodle and make an assent on the summit, loaded down with all that fiendish stuff in one go. This is language, a form of communication. Wouldn't you want to communicate in at least one fashion as fast as possible?

Fifth problem there are many 'dialects' in China that are effectively different languages. They all use the same writing system. This to me screams danger when trying to make a direct connection of the character writing system to the early stages of learning Mandarin. Ok my limited understanding is that most other dialects take second place to Mandarin here in regard to such niceties as sentance structure etc. but still......

Sixth problem, following on from five there is no direct connection between the Characters and the sounds in Mandarin. Yes many people bang on about phonetic elements etc. but bottom line is you are never going be sure and you need to have well developed language skills before you have a hope of using this. With a writing system such as this doesn't it seem more sensible to attempt to apply the sounds of language you already know to the characters, rather than the other way around?

Seventh problem, modern technology allows people to play around with annotaters, electronic dictionaries, text translators etc. in such a way as to suggest that you actually have a better mastery of the characters and language than you really do. I feel this encourages a lot of non-learning, or weak-learning activity.

Eighth problem, early learning by nessecity involves treating the characters as discrete separate entities. In reality many are used in multi-syallble words, and sentance structures. Spending any large amount of time in the early stages mucking around with discrete syallbles (even though most all of them are words also) seems similar to trying to build something in Lego using JUST THE SMALL BRICKS.

Ninth problem, once you reach a certain point (still well within the begining stage) your mind starts making all sorts of connections between sounds of Mandarin and related words or syallables. Hua4 , in putonghua in dianhua in jianghua etc. this is very exciting, surely now is the time to learn the character for hua4 and spend some happy time checking all those connections that are already there based on sound and word meaning. The character lives now.

Tenth problem, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that learning characters will be much easier when I know at least a useful amount of spoken Chinese. I haven't seen any convincing arguement to suggest otherwise.

Eleventh problem, though really not a problem, whilst I am blasting away in characterless freedom I seem to be absorbing quite a few anyway (at least on a reading level). I don't actually advocate treating them like lepers or ignoring them in any way and still have a fair amount of exposure. It is just that I am not actively learning them.


John said...

I've tried posting comments here before that didn't show up on your blog so I'm not sure if you actually see them or not. Anyway I just wanted to say,

Yes, Yes, Yes, that's just what I think about learning characters.

Matt Whyndham said...

I think you are making a mistake actually.

pinyin doesn't tell you which Word it is, only the sound. You are effectively blind to much of the sentence meaning, and unaware of how compounds are formed from the monosyllables.

Don't get obsessed with hanzi by all means, but do use them. Preferably get some real life tuition that shows you the writing skills too.

Seal&Vito said...

im a little bored, hence here to give you some suggestions.

do you have any idea to learn the phonetic system used in the ROC? i am not refering to "han yu pin yin" or some sort of that. im talking about " character alphabets". sorry that i really dont know how it is called in English, or maybe you know it as " dru4 yin fu2 hau4"(im not familiar with your "pinyin" hope you understand). it is a phonetic system designed for mandarino, in a form of construction of chinese characters. they are udsually printed right next to the characters, so you can read through without pronunciation problems. also, you wont get influenced by your mother tongue. its commonly used in Taiwan. almost everyone who was born after 1947 grows up recognising Chinese characters by reading the books with dru in fu hau, thus there are a lot of them sold in Taiwan, from those for small kids to those for junior high students. but in this way you must learn traditional Chinese. however dont think it an disadvantage. many chines learners say that it is not at all more difficult to learn traditional, and after you learn traditional, there will be no problem to learn simplified, if you learn chinese for bussiness use.

the fifth problem is nothing to worry about. because there are not much stuff written in dialects. you just need to take care when you are in Hong Kong-- it could be Contonese.

actually the character you use in daily life wont be too many. once you get started, you will improve fast.

bon chance

Mutant Jedi said...

I agree.

Written language is an encoding of the oral language. With some languages, such as German, the connection is pretty easy to see. Others, such as Chinese, it's next to impossible to make the connection. How would you say 你好 unless you knew, before hand, how to say 你 and 好? On the other hand, if you know 'n', 'h', 'ǐ', and 'ǎo', you would be able to say "nǐ hǎo".

When I was studying German many many years ago, I found being able to read German helpful in speaking German. That's not the case with Chinese. But still, being able to say a sentence out loud doesn't mean that I understand it. That brings us back to understanding the oral language. However I may write "nǐ hǎo" means nothing if you don't understand it when I say it.

When you focus on both written and oral Chinese, you are really learning two languages at once. The workload can become very onerous. For example, 20 years ago, I studied Chinese at university. I absolutely loved it. However, I got caught up having to keep on top of both simplified and traditional characters as well as a full course load of other subjects (not to mention learning Cantonese from my friends). Sadly, I felt that I had to drop Chinese to keep up with my other subjects.

I believe that if you focus on the oral first, the written will come much easier. Especially with the tools we have today. It's much easier to check your characters today than it was 20 years ago!

At the end of the day, I'd much rather be able to have a good conversation than to try to speak, read, and write at a poor level.

And you are right, you will absorb the important/frequent characters as you are learning oral Mandarin.

By the way...
My strategy is 1st) oral, 2nd) reading, then 3rd) writing. Writing is going to be a challenge because it is so easy to use the computer these days, plus I hardly ever write on paper anymore. When using my Mac to write Chinese, it really is just a matter of putting oral and reading skills together. Thus, I can write things on my computer that I would not be able to write on paper because I can recognize the right character but I can't remember it.

Chris said...

I basically agree with your ordering aural+audio, reading and then writing.

Matt I think I know where our misunderstanding is coming from. Initially I was learning only from sound so pinyin is a way to capture little bits of 'frozen' sound. Sentance structure and meaning is coming in via the ears so no need for characters if you start learning this way.