Thursday, December 14, 2006

On Characters 1

There has been a huge number of comments regarding a post Ken Carol made on the Chinesepod blog. Some very passionate views expressed. Many people will know that I am strongly against the idea of learning Chinese characters in the early stages. Sadly (or perhaps otherwise) the comments were petering out and then Henning made a comment that I thought I ought to reply to. I have replied but am not sure that many people will read it. So that some of my views are fairly clearly stated I have decided to copy my comment here (in itallics). Prabably very bad to do this out of context but I am tired and don't want to loose the thoughts I had.

No it is not too late even for me :)

Somewhere in many places amongst the litter of comments, blog posts , forum posts etc. I have stated many times that I am not ignoring characters. I have also posted about translating, my reading strategies etc.

Of course at some point early next year when I release character based material some people who understandably haven’t read that huge volume of potential places where I might have posted will scream “hypocrite” meibanfa, the problem with this medium is that you cannot post an entire methodology in every comment.

I started learning 11 months ago, for almost three months I just listened (didn’t even feel the urge to open my mounth and try the sounds) then I started attempting sounds and scratchy character stuff. The character learning at that time did terrible damage to my progress so I stopped. At about six months I started gently working with characters again (I was ready) I had also got stuck into to talking over Skype (obviously badly ;) ). My beef is with the idea that you should start with the text or even run them simultaneously (many people believe this). It may surprise you to know that I have spent a little time learning the basics of looking up characters in a Chinese only zidian, that I can comfortably write about 120 characters and read around 300 or so, that the characters I can can read I can read at full speed (well subtitle speed anyway). Not a lot of characters I realise but I am the path to real reading. I haven’t really used anything apporaching traditional methods methods so far and have spent comparitivly little time learning the the characters, as long as I stick to soee basic rules. I generally do not attempt anthing I cannot hear well, I generally try not to learn to read anything I cannot listen and speak, and I never try to learn to write anything I cannot read without thinking. This feels so natural.

I have horror stories from my first attempts, the character 尖 (point, pointed) I picked up because of something I was studying. I could write it, I knew it was xiao3 over da4 etc. I came to use the word with my Skype partner and all that popped in my head was the character (usually I just have sounds and meanings in there) even worse there was no sound associated in my head. This was like a slap with a wet fish. In the example used by Eugenio way above I know tian2 田 already. Why do I know tian, well because I had learned nan2 男 which is of course field over power (the power of the man hoeing the field or whatever) aside from the fact that this is both sexist and out of date this should be the character for tractor ;) . I hadn’t actually wanted to know the character or word for field that was unwanted collateral damage there were other words that would have served me better at that time.

Chinese is my main hobby now, I have a full time job and a large family, I study it very hard considering so maybe an identical me studying in evening class would have been ready for characters at one year or even one and a half. Who knows maybe a younger fulltime studier would be ready at three months. The fact still remains that starting with that baggage at the beggining seems very strange.

I have spent a lot of thought and undergone a lot of self analysis regarding my studying and the progress I make. I am in very unfertile ground, living where I am and having limited study time. If I had a Chinese speaking partner for example I know that even now I wouldn’t have touched a character. Heaven forbid that I ever start thinking in characters :O.

One shocking thought I had early on is if Japanease can use essentially the same set of characters to write a completly different language, then surely that is a strong level of abstraction between the spoken form of Mandarin and the written form no matter what cunning cultural arguements there are to attempt to knit them together. We had men hoeing fields in ancient England too and also kept women firmly in place under our roofs for a peaceful environment although we might have even called it a home without a pig (maybe a yang2 羊 sheep under the roof in Wales ;) ). Taking the above into account isn’t there a strong case for stating that actually you don’t get the full culture hit unless you learn the meta language actually in Mandarin (zhe4ge4 zi4 you3 tian2 de yi4si (aaiii zian4zai4 wo3 ming2bai2le), did that make anybody sweat a little??. Should we really be learning the true language of characters in English? what do we loose by attempting to be oh so smart and educated and un-childlike.

Yes I may be ‘psuedo-intellectual’, I may be misguided etc. but a valid arguement is valid no matter what the source and I think I have at least one here worthy of further thought. I hope I have a least demonstrated that I don’t take any of this lightly.

Henning you started with sound too, ok you hit a wall but would you have changed things?

It did also occur to me some learning to read too early may actually be reading in Chinese but thinking in English (which seems a terrible idea to me). Ohh well.

1 comment:

Xiaohang said...

it's such a great article.I think you're right,i mean definitely.b]Because when we (referring to chinese) started learning new chinese words in school at the age of 6 or 7, we learned pin yin first. Then,we learn how to use pin yin to help us pronounce a word that we haven't come across. After that, we were taught to read some stories writing in pin yin. And that so sth like 4-5 months or so, then we saw short sentences written in characters. Regardless what we had picked outside the school, the proper way to learn chinese,in my opinion, is surely starting from pin yin. Then u practise it until u almost confident and comfortable using it,then u should start looking at characters.....

I got some problems learning english at the moment.I am fine listening to a lecture on the stuff that i am studying. I am fine at understanding people. However, when it comes to reading newspaper ( i mean proper paper like times/indepedent), I am stuck, while as the same news written in Metro is so much easier to understand, i know it is due to the vocabulories they are using is much more formal. However,I really have no idea how to learn this 'hard' words. First, in every article, there are usually 30% of the words i don't understand, which doesn't often influence the understanding the content itself, however, it does make u miss out a lot of details. Second, they are not very easily understand, even you are trying to use the whole sentence to help and guess the meaning of the words,it doesn't work. Third, there are 10-20 new words per 800 words,so if you are trying to look them up in the dictionary,you may be fed up very quickly and it's highly likely you are not going to remember them the next day, unless you've met the word somewhere else 7 times. Finally, the probability of seeing such a word 7 times in a relatively short period is very small, because these words are so formal,people don't tend to use it in every day life,which means you have to do a lot of reading everyday so as that you will be fimilar with some 10 words in a few days, which again would take up lot of time of a day.

I am still working on finding a good interesting way of learning this new, formal vocabularies, which really put me off from enjoying the novels and good articles written english. 'Sigh'

have you got any ideas?