Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rooted in sound!

I will be posting more in the future about my experiences with Chinese characters but before I do this, I should make it clear that my own personal strategy for learning Chinese will always be firmly rooted in sound and not writing.

I know this is an area that causes much argument, and many people may prefer to base their learning on the writing system. Many others will have no choice because they are following formal courses of study. I do have my reasons for preferring sound, which I will now try to explain.

For starters I think many people are forced into a 'literature' centric mode of learning Chinese. As the saying goes "if you only have a hammer every problem looks like a nail". The most horrific example is a type of comment I have heard a few times now on different forums from people in the early stages of learning Chinese. The comment goes something like this "how do you visualize the characters, when listening to full speed Chinese, I find it hard to visualize the correct character especially with homonyms?".

I can't imagine the learning system that would allow someone to even phrase a question along those lines. Visualizing characters will not help you sort out homonyms and visualizing conversation as text strikes me as a particularly inefficient way to translate in real time. For starters most Chinese sounds are represented by many characters (to visualize the correct one you already need to have extracted some meaning from context so why bother with the character bit). Also many characters have two or more sounds associated with them, sometimes different tones, sometimes completely different. Both characters and sounds have their own confusions, I am aware that you are more likely to extract meaning from a character than a discrete sound however you should bear in mind that the same character may well have a similar or identical meaning in Japanese kanji and obviously Japanese and Chinese are two completely different languages.

I have a suspicion that learning to understand the meaning of Mandarin from the writing system is not exercising the correct pathways of the brain to aid eventual fluency in conversation. For me it seems pretty clear that learning to write what you can already hear and say is a more logical approach (and the approach taken by all those that speak Mandarin as a first language).

I can see that many people will have no choice but to learn the reading as soon as possible and it obviously has a lot more relevancy for anyone actually living in China etc. Also many years ago there simply wouldn't be enough sources of sound input available for somebody living in England (or elsewhere) and learning Mandarin in their spare time. For these reasons many techniques for learning Chinese had to be developed from a predominantly literature-centric view.

Today the Internet provides us with a huge sound resource. We have podcasts, streaming TV and radio and of course DVDs and music. Sound input can even occur in otherwise dead time for learning (times where it simply isn't practical to get out a book and start reading)

I believe that the writing system and Chinese literature can offer huge opportunities for study but as with English I expect to acquire the basic language through the medium of sound and move on from there.

Maybe the real question should be "Are you studying Mandarin mostly from books or mostly from the spoken language?"? Followed by "Which do you want first, to be able to read it or speak it?".


shuwei said...

i totally agree with you. It's very frustating when you depend on characters or even pinyin to understand what someone's saying.

Dave said...

With the rising importance and prevelance of computers, focusing on sound makes much more sense than it used to. Now you can type Chinese without having memorized the character perfectly.

Matt Whyndham said...

I guess I'm one of those who has advocated character study. I come from a world where 80% of my communications are written, so it's more natural for me to lean to that mode.

Nick said...

For my part I think characters are the way to go. In particular I find it helpful for my listening to be able to associate the character with the sounds I hear (when I only know the pinyin for words I have to stop and think...). I guess for speaking I'd agree it's not that helpful but even there I don't feel like I "know" a word until I can associate it with the character.

Also (in the process of being) formally taught, but I recall that this was the case before I started formal teaching... perhaps it's different for everyone...

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