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.