Monday, August 31, 2009

When to learn Chinese Characters?

I believe that it is best to delay formal learning of Chinese characters until you know enough Chinese to be able to start learning to read words that you have already mastered (through listening and speaking), at some point in the future your reading ability will enable you to start learning new words and phrases from reading alone (just like it did in your mother tongue), but initially you should use the phonetic pinyin system to help you with your learning. If this post has a motto it is simply I don't want to learn to read Chinese characters, I want to learn to read Chinese. I think that informal learning about characters from the start won't do any harm and will probably help, including learning about stroke order, and some background about how they are used etc. Formal structured learning at any early stage is at best a distraction of time and energy with little payback in a language that in its written form can be read by mutually unintelligable dialects, at worst it presents an obstacle to actually learning Mandarin. This is my opinion, based on my experiances and research.

I have been too busy recently and am accumulating a whole bunch of things I want to post about, clearly my intention a while ago to attempt to summarize my Chinese learning experience to-date failed, the more I looked back on it the more I felt there was to say. At the moment I am going to develop small series of posts on themes like the previous on language learning not being a new thing, I am spending a little more time now doing background reading and research, eventually I will revisit the posts and go through another stage of refining and drawing conclusions. I want to write a few posts on learning Chinese characters this first one being an introduction. A while ago I posted that the worst thing I did when starting to learn Mandarin was to make any attempt to learn the characters. Many formal courses make their students learn characters (hanzi) right from the start, a traditional approach will involve countless repetition and writing to learn characters by rote. The new student is not in a position to challenge this and often has no choice as their progress is partially monitored by their ability to handwrite the characters they have been given.

To state my situation, I am a self-learner and am learning in a non-Mandarin speaking country with no Chinese relatives, a position similar to that of many English learners throughout the world and a situation that needs to be addressed as a baseline when considering the learning of any language imho. There has been a dominance of input and focus on people living in China, in full-time education and on second generation Chinese living in other countries who have had exposure to Chinese at home (material produced by the Chinese government appears to be particularly focused on this group). Insights from these groups are valuable but need to include the experiances of those learning Mandarin succesfully as a realistic hobby.

The first problem that can mislead the new learner is a statement that will go something like this "you need to know around three thousand characters to read a Chinese newspaper" unfortunately the opposite is not true, if you know three thousand characters that is no indication that you will be able to read anything significant. You will need to know many compound words and different readings first, you will need a reasonable level of Chinese. In fact if all you needed to do was learn a few thousand characters, Chinese would be a ridiculously simple language :) I don't think the realities of the Chinese writing system are usually made clear to the beginner. knowing the characters alone will not allow you read anything significant. Knowing lots of words is better, but will only get you so far. You'll need to learn the language like any other language.

Written Chinese is not phonetic, whilst European languages (and others) represent the sound elements of the spoken language in the written system, Chinese generally represents elements of meaning. This is a crucial difference, an adult learner of English coming to German has already mastered a written system and reading skills that with a little adaptation for language variation can be used straight away to hear German inside their head whilst reading it, even if they don't understand. Encountering a German word they know, they can either go straight to meaning or hop via internal translation (less ideal) either way they can "hear" the word internally. 出口 can be found on both Chinese and Japanese roads to represent an exit, the pronounciation is not similar but when I see 出口 on a sign in Japanese anime I know what it means even though I don't speak Japanese "did I read Japanese or did I read Kanji", in my head I heard chu1kou3 (Chinese), what if didn't know the Chinese but instead knew English meanings for the characters, so read "go out mouth" and guessed exit, then I read neither Japanese or Chinese, I simply read a sign. This non-phonetic system is a crucial aspect of Chinese for a Westerner, take the time to think about the implications, whatever you decide.

Are you a fan of natural approaches to language learning? Chinese children don't start formal character learning until the age of 7/8 (information may be slightly out of date) as is the case everywhere they learn to read their mother tongue with language they already know, it is quite unatural to learn a language from the written form. Arguements could be made that this is not a problem in second language aquisition for languages with a phonetic writing system, especially if the the reading skills you have picked via your mother tongue are directly applicable, but does this approach make sense for a language with a written system that is outside of your experiance? It is a recognised problem amongst Asian students coming to study in the UK that many have good to excellent reading and writing ability in English but poor speaking and understanding because they have spent a lot of their learning time on reading and writing. Why should we be any better if we place too much early emphasis on their written system?

Recently there has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding the Heisig method to master writing and remembering the meanings of Hanzi, this method doesn't teach pronouciation and provides keywords to associate with a character that may only represent a single and/or approximate meaning. I dont doubt that is relatively fast and agree that rote learning is a crazy way to solve the hanzi problem so Heisig method wins on that front. Unfortuanatly the method seems to be being picked up as a good thing to do for beginners. Is it sensible to learn via a written system in a language that is so decoupled from the spoken form? How exactly will be being able to sort of read simple Chinese sentances in English help the learner? The real deal breaker for me is that Heisig will teach you to handwrite the characters but without the pronounciations you cannot enter a single hanzi into a computer, almost all my written Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met Chinese people who have lived in the UK for a few years who freely admit that their handwriting ability has badly degraded because all their Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met a Japanese person who laments that the younger generation are losing Kanji handwriting ability because their interaction is increasingly via computer, where is the pressing need to handwrite from the early stages?

If you are on a fossilised course that rates handwritten Kanji or Hanzi in the early stages then Heisig may well be a godsend, if not ......? Obviously I don't 'get' Heisig, it is quite possible I have missed something I have no objection to and in-fact welcome having my stupidity pointed out in comments (so long as you remain reasonably polite ;)). My next post will probably be an attempt to deconstruct the Heisig method (bound to be contraversial) followed by a post describing how I am learning to read Chinese. Excuse spelling/grammatical errors, IT fail has left me without spellchecking and time constraints led me to just dump the post I composed in my head whilst decorating (although some prior web research did occur and I did get a chance to discuss some issues with a Chinese friend).

8 comments:

Keith said...

I saw your comments on mandarin-only. I don't know why Ramses is starting on characters already. He has that as stage 2 but he's jumped into that Heisig book right away.

In the beginning characters are going to be a big distraction and thus slow a learner down in learning the language. I am of the same belief as you, that it is better and faster to learn to read words that you have already mastered hearing and understanding.

Greg said...

Chris - this is a really good post, which clearly took some time to prepare.

My main comment is to agree that written Chinese should wait until you're reasonably proficient at spoken Chinese. Of course, it very much depends on the student's personal goals, but I would guess the delay is best in most cases. You'll need to be good at pinyin to understand the pronunciation - so focus there. I agree totally.

Your example of 出口 is a good one - and I even blogged about that word here. Interestingly, when I mention the composition of that word (exit=outside+mouth) to native Chinese speakers, they often exclaim, "Oh, I never thought of it that way before. I just know that is the word for 'exit'." But I digress ...

As you know, I'm a fan of Heisig - but that's because it's working for me. Otherwise I wouldn't be :-) But since it's building on top of my Mandarin at basic conversational level, plus knowledge of many compound words, it really is the 'godsend' for me.

I look forward to your next few posts on the topic.

Teoh said...

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alias said...

it's no surprise that you got trapped with learning hanzi as a beginner - most beginner books for Chinese use hanzi from the first lesson.

The worst modern one I have is "A Key to Chinese Speech and writing" by Joel Beilassen and Zhang Pengpeng. Very beautiful book, well designed, but horrible to learn from. All texts are only in hanzi, and the book puts a strong focus on that. You spend so much time on memorizing the hanzi, that your vocabulary grows very slowly.

Interestingly, the same author Zhang Pengpeng in his next book "Intensive Spoken Chinese" says that it's a very bad idea to teach hanzi from the beginning. Obviously he received a lot of bad feedback on the other book :-)
This book goes a much better way: All in pinyin, and hanzi only printed small below for information. The student is not asked to learn the hanzi.

In the foreword he says, hanzi should be learned from simple to complex, and with the meaning of each symbol, instead of learning only the compounds in vocabulary. Therefore, the hanzi course is a separate book, independent from the pinyin book. They go in parallel. Only the third book then brings speech and writing together.

What I miss in all these books: a vocabulary list useful to learn from. In school, our English and Latin books had vocabulary lists in the appendix, sorted by chapters. All Chinese books I have supply only an alphabetic list of vocabulary, so I have to type it out for myself, or write on cards.

Ray said...

hi chris! the Practical Chinese might be of helo to your readers who wants to learn chinese. It is based on daily conversation and incorporates language and culture.
Its exercises are gradually expanded from writing characters with the stroke order, translating words into Chinese, asking and answering questions according to real life situations, translating sentences, and performing oral presentations.

Jean-Paul Setlak said...

I would recommend starting immediately. I did NOT when I began learning Mandarin and it continues to plague me. I can speak and understand fairly well but somehow never seem to take the time to catch up with my hanzi. The fable of the turtle and the hare come to mind. Let Pinyin be the hare etc. In spite of my communication skills, I feel illiterate.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree on the fact that learning hanzi at the very beginning is a complete waste of time. Like many people, I started with pinyin only, for several years, and now after having acquired around 2500 words in spoken mandarin, I started learning hanzi several weeks ago. But differently ;-)

Like many people, I tried several methodologies, I have SRS of course (Anki on my iPhone 4), which works out pretty good ... for me. I tried Helsig also : didn't work for me. Why ? Because my mother tongue is French. I can speak English fluently, but trying to stick to Helsig's "figurative" description of hanzi in English was too "CPU-time" consuming ... My brain had to translate from English to French before being able to use those "images" proposed by Helsig. Didn't work out.

But then I came across a website that pretty much changed my life, I'm sure many people reading this also know that : it's Khatsumoto's now famous www.ajatt.com (stands for All Japanese All The Time). There this guy describes how he managed to get from zero to near-native fluency in just 18 months in Japanese. Of course I find his methodology a little "too much" and "overkill". I adapted it to MY needs (for instance, I don't want to reach "native" level, but rather "fluency" level in everyday speech). But his basic ideas are REALLY important when you have to learn a language and are not able to actually LIVE in the target-language country, which is also the case for me (I live in Switzerland) : first and foremost, you have to experiment PLEASURE in learning, and that's what led me to give a shot at watching Chinese drama series (中国电视剧). Of course, you may not like the series themselves. I happen to enjoy watching them, so I kept on. I watched 蜗居 (wō jū​), then 奋斗 (fèn dòu​), then 中国式离婚 (Zhōng guó shì​ lí hūn​), then 双面胶 (shuāng​ miàn jiāo​), and I'm about to start 奋斗 2. For me (I insist on that), that's the BEST way to learn "some" hanzi without a huge effort. But again, that's because I know a lot of words in spoken language, my brain simply makes the link between what I hear and what I read. I don't, and this is VERY important, use any other subtitles. ONLY hanzi subs, that's the key. It worked for me, but it might not work for you.

Speaking about grammar books, I also tried Bellassen : horrible, I mean what's the point in putting in so many hanzi when you don't know anything about spoken Chinese … I didn't have any pleasure at all. The only book I found interesting is called "Le chinois … comme en Chine !" (something like "Chinese … as in China !"), which is obviously in French. That's simply the best grammar book I've tried, and I've tried a lot (both in French and English). I don't think there's an English translation though …

Watching Chinese TV series enabled me to :

1) drastically improved my hearing abilities, because the characters are always the same, you hear their accents and figures of speech and typical expressions for hours ;

2) improved my spoken Chinese because I learned about 400 new words without even noticing it (well of course I had to look them up in a dictionary, but managed to remember them because they were coming in so frequently in the TV series) ;

3) drastically improved my hanzi-reading abilities : I went from nearly zero hanzi to something like 500 hanzi effortlessly ;

4) have a lot of fun !! because I actually enjoyed the series themselves.

There are a lot of ways to learn a language, we have to try several and then stick to it as long as we have pleasure doing it. Read books, watch Chinese TV, watch Chinese movies or TV series, whatever you can find in native Chinese. Anytime, anywhere. All the time.

Well, that was just my 2 cents.

Zima

Anonymous said...

I totally agree on the fact that learning hanzi at the very beginning is a complete waste of time. Like many people, I started with pinyin only, for several years, and now after having acquired around 2500 words in spoken mandarin, I started learning hanzi several weeks ago. But differently ;-)

Like many people, I tried several methodologies, I have SRS of course (Anki on my iPhone 4), which works out pretty good ... for me. I tried Helsig also : didn't work for me. Why ? Because my mother tongue is French. I can speak English fluently, but trying to stick to Helsig's "figurative" description of hanzi in English was too "CPU-time" consuming ... My brain had to translate from English to French before being able to use those "images" proposed by Helsig. Didn't work out.

But then I came across a website that pretty much changed my life, I'm sure many people reading this also know that : it's Khatsumoto's now famous www.ajatt.com (stands for All Japanese All The Time). There this guy describes how he managed to get from zero to near-native fluency in just 18 months in Japanese. Of course I find his methodology a little "too much" and "overkill". I adapted it to MY needs (for instance, I don't want to reach "native" level, but rather "fluency" level in everyday speech). But his basic ideas are REALLY important when you have to learn a language and are not able to actually LIVE in the target-language country, which is also the case for me (I live in Switzerland) : first and foremost, you have to experiment PLEASURE in learning, and that's what led me to give a shot at watching Chinese drama series (中国电视剧). Of course, you may not like the series themselves. I happen to enjoy watching them, so I kept on. I watched 蜗居 (wō jū​), then 奋斗 (fèn dòu​), then 中国式离婚 (Zhōng guó shì​ lí hūn​), then 双面胶 (shuāng​ miàn jiāo​), and I'm about to start 奋斗 2. For me (I insist on that), that's the BEST way to learn "some" hanzi without a huge effort. But again, that's because I know a lot of words in spoken language, my brain simply makes the link between what I hear and what I read. I don't, and this is VERY important, use any other subtitles. ONLY hanzi subs, that's the key. It worked for me, but it might not work for you.

Speaking about grammar books, I also tried Bellassen : horrible, I mean what's the point in putting in so many hanzi when you don't know anything about spoken Chinese … I didn't have any pleasure at all. The only book I found interesting is called "Le chinois … comme en Chine !" (something like "Chinese … as in China !"), which is obviously in French. That's simply the best grammar book I've tried, and I've tried a lot (both in French and English). I don't think there's an English translation though …

Watching Chinese TV series enabled me to :

1) drastically improved my hearing abilities, because the characters are always the same, you hear their accents and figures of speech and typical expressions for hours ;

2) improved my spoken Chinese because I learned about 400 new words without even noticing it (well of course I had to look them up in a dictionary, but managed to remember them because they were coming in so frequently in the TV series) ;

3) drastically improved my hanzi-reading abilities : I went from nearly zero hanzi to something like 500 hanzi effortlessly ;

4) have a lot of fun !! because I actually enjoyed the series themselves.

There are a lot of ways to learn a language, we have to try several and then stick to it as long as we have pleasure doing it. Read books, watch Chinese TV, watch Chinese movies or TV series, whatever you can find in native Chinese. Anytime, anywhere. All the time.

Well, that was just my 2 cents.

Zima