Monday, April 13, 2009

The Worst Thing I Did When Starting To Learn Mandarin

Another reflective post that will be referenced when I attempt to summarize the second six months of my Mandarin Chinese learning experience. After looking back on the post I made about the best thing I did in starting to learn Mandarin Chinese, I tried to think of the worst thing I did.

Actually the worst thing I did could have been a lot, lot more damaging but I already had suspicions that it was a bad idea (and a number of raging battles on forums). The worst thing I did was simply trying to expend any effort in learning Chinese characters in the early stages. This is a partly personal thing in that I can see that someone who is living in China and has to read basic signs etc. is probably best of starting right away (but perhaps keeping it pragmatic), however learning on my own from England I gained nothing from my initial attempts to learn characters with flash cards etc. I was still at the very start of learning the language at all and a non-phonetic writing system was not going to help whatsoever.

Here is the start of the problem, I was learning characters for words I didn't really know in the spoken form (certainly didn't know in that natural way that doesn't require internal translation effort), when I was reading the handful of characters I had learned what was I actually reading? (not Chinese for sure even if I fooled myself by sounding them out in my head). Even more bizarre in hindsight, why were so many sources and learners advocating learning to handwrite them, a monumental effort for very little gain for most of us. I can vouch that for some people at least (me being my primary example) you don't have to be able to write a character with a pen to be able to sight read it.

Experience has made me a firm believer in listen, speak/read, write. Generally (there is always room for a little flexibility) learn to read what you can already understand well. Chinese is non-phonetic it would seem sensible to delay reading beyond where you would start with a language that had familiar phonetic system.

I am picking up reading in more natural ways (more on this later although basically described here) and although the journey is far from complete I find that most of what I can read just comes straight in without the need for internal translation. As for handwriting I can only write really basic stuff with a pen but that is not a problem I am sure when I am ready it will come much faster than if I pushed at it now.

Not being the finished article (and even if I was there would be danger that I was some sort of savant that had skills not possessed by most) I can only suggest you give it a try, imagine how the rest of your Chinese might progress if you delayed those pesky character until you were ready. Sadly many on courses don't have an option, I guess if you are learning full-time you can get over the damage but I have to wonder how many self-learners have turned away from Chinese because they attempted to read too quickly.

I suspect that as with English there will come a time when new words and phrases come to me first by reading, but my Chinese will already be generally very good at that time.


Keith said...

Here, here!

Good post here. I agree with you.
Keep up the posts, man.

juan said...

Hi I stumble upon here by accident.(my blog add is fredelcraft -.-)

Anyway I'm fluent in mandarin and english. I guess I too agree that its pretty tedious that the first baby step you are taking is learning how to writ characters.

Bcos when I was in primary school, we were made to trace chinese character that we have little idea of the meaning. Basically I start understanding the language through songs.

It helps if you listen more. And I'm learning Cantonese myself now. Its a dialect of mandarin.

Good luck, dude

Chinese translator said...

Actually I learnt to read some Chinese characters at the beginning and found it was very useful to me, not only to read the signs, but each time I came cross some other sign, I could learn new words just because I was able to read the signs.

It obviously depends on each individuals as well. Some learn better by listening and some by reading.

Darek said...

Well, I only have limited experience and I wish I started with more emphasis on listening and speaking rather than reading and writing.