Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Chinese Reading Experiance


My last post described my experience learning to read English this one extends this to my experience of learning to read Chinese so far. Let me say that I haven't completed this process yet and that this post may summarize some details and opinions that will be elaborated on in later posts. My approach has been more about acquiring characters than learning them and it has progressed far enough for me to think that it is successful.

First appraisal

Here is what I quickly found out when I started, Chinese is not phonetic, did you hear that Chinese is not phonetic. This means that Chinese as it sits on the page and unlike my mother tongue has no sound ... it is silent it has no sound except the sound that I give it and that sound may be completely different depending on the language/dialect that is applied. That is huge, that makes me instantly stop listening to anybody who is European and tries to justify approaches to reading based on European languages or how they used subtitles to learn Spanish etc. To be scientific it about it their conclusions may or may not be correct but they are completely unconnected to their reasoning. Everything changes, a Mandarin speaker may be able to read and understand the writing of a Cantonese speaker despite not being able to speak each others language he will have no idea what it is supposed to sound like, whereas an English speaker can quickly learn to "hear" the writing of a German speaker even if he has no idea what it means. At first glance the Chinese have the upper hand but consider that the Mandarin speaker cannot learn Cantonese from the writing but an English speaker could conceivable get most of the way to mastery of German entirely through the written form, and that the advantage of meaning over sound comes at the price of having to master a harder writing system.

Process (or lack of it)

I have long ago decided that dictionaries are unreliable, they are not even particularly good at defining a word in a language, in its own language, if I know the definition of a foreign word in my own language I have often barely started to learn it. If I started intensively learning to read Chinese when I started learning Chinese, I would be learning to read words I didn't know, learning to read English meanings for characters that have no sound. If I wait however I will be learning to read words I know, I will be hearing Chinese. I decided I AM NOT READING CHINESE UNLESS I AM HEARING IT.

Acquiring characters means that I have learned to write some but never really stressed about it, I have learned the stroke order rules by occasionally trying to write a character and then watching an animation, have learned reading a lot of characters by watching subtitles for Chinese when I can understand the audio (I understand a lot of learners work this the other way around), extended my learning by using Chinese subtitles on English audio and recently using Chinese subtitles to understand material were the audio is in a language I do not understand, have used a genuine zidian (Chinese character dictionary) to look up characters by radical and stroke count (only a little), have acquired familiarity with a number of radicals and character components and phonetic elements without really studying them etc etc. I have noticed characters by looking at them when looking up words but not learning them. I have run pop-up translators over text to read (but always strived to use them less because it slows me down), have modified pop-up translators to only give pinyin for characters (no definition). I hope that big mush of text above gives the impression that I have been attentive to characters but mostly concentrating on learning Chinese not Hanzi. I can almost exclusively only read or understand written Chinese I can already speak and when I read Chinese I hear Mandarin in my head (sometimes now the really familiar stuff goes straight to pictures and meaning).

This means that my handwritten Chinese is poor, I can use my finger to write things like 我是一个英国人正在学中文,下一步是什么? on misty a bus window but not enough characters in my handwritten repertoire to make many sentences. I hardly ever need to handwrite Chinese though. When I read, I read the stuff I know well fast, and can quickly work out a whole bunch more, sometimes I can read a few paragraphs from a personal email with hardly a pause. I still have many problem areas and am particularly weak with news articles, I did worry about the news thing but discovered some Chinese people I met who had lived in England for years, worked in England and who I considered to have good English, still struggled with our news, so news is awaiting an assault later this year.

I read a lot, starting to read novels, but cutting my reading teeth on snippets from Twitter and bits I find in Google when searching for words and phrases. So I can read 上个月家里用了 1,000 kW•h 的电,怎么搞的,我还在想是不是什么漏电了。 and just need to look up 漏电. Or I can read 孩子不肯睡觉有许多原因:怕黑、担心自己不能醒来、害怕一个人睡觉等等。同睡觉相比,他们无疑更喜欢玩或看电视,而且他们愿意你总在他们身边关照他们。 Pushing it somewhat I can read 建工作正在进行中的奉节县城,迎来一男一女两个山西人。   男人韩三明(韩三明饰)来自汾阳,是名忠厚老实的煤矿工人,来奉节为寻十六年未见的前妻。前妻是他当年用钱买来的,生完孩子后跑回了奉节。寻找前妻的过程中波折不断,韩三明决定留下来做苦力一直等到前妻出现。女人赵红(赵涛饰)来自太原,是名沉默寡言的护士,为寻多日不曾与自己联系的丈夫而来奉节。丈夫与她的夫妻关系早已是有名无实,这点她虽然深知,仍想让丈夫当面给她个说法。赵红的找寻过程也不是一帆风顺,丈夫在有意无意地躲着她。韩三明和赵红虽不认识,却因为要做相对意义上的“拿起”与“舍弃”抉择,在冥冥之中有了某种神秘的联系。   本片荣获2006年第63届威尼斯国际电影节金狮奖。 © 豆瓣 with the aid of looking up a few words and having watched the film in question.

I still have far too many gaps and gaping caverns, my method of learning to read Chinese would be useless for passing tests in college (good job I don't need to pass tests) but now I am in a virtuous cycle, the more I read the better I get.

This post is a summary, it is hard to describe what is going on in the sub-concious, apologies it won't be of interest to most people, but I decided I didn't need to stress about learning Hanzi and it appears that in my case I was right, and when I read I hear Chinese, when I learn a new phrase from reading, I can say it if I wish, job done.


Learn Japanese Online said...

I spent 10 years living in Japan and pretty much speak and read the language. I have started learning Chinese. Knowing Kanji is helping me understand Chinese quickly.

I am also practicing Buddhism and intend to go to Taiwan this year.

Are you enjoying learning Chinese?

Dawn @ said...

No! Chinese is not phonetic. So it's not a straight path if you learn Chinese in a phonetic way. I always oppose teaching Pinyin to brand new learners.

Matt said...

Nice summary, thanks Chris.

Scott said...

Sunny, why do you oppose teaching pinyin to beginners? Just interested in the reasoning. I learned Chinese only in China. I was taught pinyin first. I saw some foreigners stay on pinyin because they were lazy. This drove the teachers crazy and I understood why.