The hardest part of learning Chinese is mastering the thousands of characters that are necessary for full literacy. The spoken language, in contrast, is relatively easy to acquire. A good teacher who employs benign pedagogical methods can have students conversing quite fluently within a year or two. By “benign pedagogical methods” I mean focusing on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and patterns (phrases, clauses, sentences – through build-up drills, substitution drills, etc.). Unfortunately, all too many Chinese language teachers crush the enthusiasm and the confidence of beginning and intermediate students by requiring that – almost from the start – they arbitrarily learn dozens or scores of characters every month.
From the very beginning of my own Chinese language learning experience nearly forty years ago, I have staunchly opposed this over-emphasis on brute force memorization of characters. Rather, I advocate what I call “learning like a baby” as much as possible. Namely, let students naturally become familiar and comfortable with the basic expressions, structures, and intonations of the language. After acquiring this solid foundation, then gradually introduce characters in a systematic fashion, one that is directly linked to words and expressions, not as isolated morphosyllables.
Unfortunately, most of us are adults or teenagers (post-puberty, at any rate) before we embark on our Chinese language learning quest. Furthermore, we do not live in a Chinese language environment, so that makes it all the harder to “learn like a baby.” As we say in Mandarin, ZE(N)3ME BAN4? (“What to do?”)
Read the rest of this entry »