When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language. Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively. The main features of my desired regimen would be to:
1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)
2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script
3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated
The problem was that all of my language teachers insisted that I memorize hundreds of characters right from the very start. I rebelled against their demands as much as I could, but had to give in to the extent necessary to get a good grade in their courses. The first year of learning Mandarin was pure torture in the classroom, though I managed to preserve my sanity by reading old missionary manuals for learning Mandarin that provided romanization for all sentences. In particular, I was enormously grateful for the splendid work of the Belgian priest, Jozef Mullie, whose magnificent The structural principles of the Chinese language: an introduction to the spoken language, Northern Pekingese dialect was like a lifeboat for me. Without Mullie's great work, I don't know how I would have survived that first year of intensive Mandarin.
Fortunately, I went to Taiwan not long thereafter and encountered another savior, Guóyǔ rìbào 國語日報 (Mandarin Daily News). This was a daily newspaper that, at that time (1970-72), had a variety of materials for individuals of all ages (news, literature, essays, recipes, social criticism, philosophy, and so forth), and everything was annotated with phonetic symbols, so I didn't have to struggle with radicals and residual strokes. I read every word of that paper each day for two years, and by the end of that time I had painlessly acquired the ability to recognize three or four thousand characters and probably could write more than a thousand characters.
The same folks who published the newspaper also put out a series called Shū hàn rén 書和人 (Books and People) and another wonderful series entitled Gǔjīn wénxuǎn 古今文選 (Anthology of Ancient and Modern Literature), in both of which I read voluminously, thus greatly enriching my exposure to texts of all sorts from every period of Chinese history.
Thus I struggled to find my own path to a rational, workable method for learning Chinese without suffering unduly from rote memorization (sǐbèi/jì 死背/記 [lit., "deadly memorization"]). I have summarized these methods in "How to learn to read Chinese" and "How to learn Chinese and Japanese".
My wife, Zhang Liqing, told me that, in her long career as a professional language teacher at Harvard, Bryn Mawr / Haverford, Swarthmore, Penn, Oberlin, and Middlebury, a few of her best students instinctively had the same antipathy to the characters and zest for the spoken language that I did during the initial stages of learning Mandarin. Of course, virtually all foreign students of Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc. do so through Romanization.
But now I want to jump to the present and then take a look at the future.
On Tuesday, April 1, David Moser (of Beijing Capital Normal University and Academic Director of Chinese Studies at CET Beijing) delivered the following lecture at Penn: "Is Character Writing Still a Basic Skill? The New Digital Chinese Tools and their Implications for Chinese Learning".
In the past decade an explosion of digital devices and technological innovations have virtually revolutionized the study of Chinese language and Chinese script. These include tools such as comprehensive digital dictionaries (such as Pleco), hand-held multilingual dictionaries and translation devices, a plethora of online translation tools, hundreds of Hanzi-to-pinyin conversion tools, various optical character recognition (OCR) programs, text-to-speech converters, and a dazzling selection of pedagogical software (such as Wenlin), databases, and digital tools that can translate, annotate, gloss, format, read, write, speak and explain Chinese texts in various fashions and to varying degrees of sophistication. These tools, easily installed on smart phones and pads, allow beginning and intermediate students to easily navigate a vast range of texts that would have been nearly impossible a decade ago. Thus these digital tools clearly have the potential to utterly revolutionize the teaching of Chinese at all levels. Yet many students fail to make full use of such aids, and a great many Chinese teachers have not been able to incorporate these tools into the standard curriculum. These new aids important implications for the learning of Chinese characters in particular, and have prompted a reevaluation of the importance of written character memorization (e.g. daily tingxie exercises). Since even native Chinese speakers are losing the ability to produce characters by hand, to what extent is writing still a basic skill? What are the cognitive and psycholinguistic implications of these new methods of processing Chinese script? How can we teach students to make better use of these tools? How many of these digital aids are truly useful, and how many are merely distracting and counterproductive?
It was a brilliant lecture. David demonstrated many of the new tools to the audience. For example, he used his iPad to take a photograph of a character that was written on the blackboard. He then ran that character through the dictionaries in the iPad, retrieved the meanings of the characters, and played the pronunciation for the audience. What is really fantastic is that, utilizing the advanced OCR capabilities of the various new programs he introduced, David showed how you can scan texts, phonetically annotate them, and obtain detailed explanations for each character and translations of whole texts.
Basically, one could say that the miracles that David presented to us relied on two fundamental techniques: digitization and phoneticization. Watching David perform all of this magic was like a dream come true for me. These are exactly the things that I have been wanting for over forty years, and now they are a reality.
How shall we use these marvelous tools, and what are their implications for Chinese language teaching / learning? I could expatiate on the virtues of these new applications for days, but here I shall merely outline them under several points:
1. they will eliminate the need for the dreaded, boring, antiquated, stifling tīngxiě 听 写 / 聽寫 ("dictation") exercises
2. they will banish the fear of character amnesia (electronic devices are already writing our characters for us)
3. they will enable students to read massive amounts of quality texts on the widest possible variety of subjects without having to endure the agony and drudgery of looking up characters by radicals, stroke order, shape, etc. — I wasted years of my life on exactly those tasks — and it is precisely the reading of large quantities of real Chinese that facilitates the acquisition of a confident Sprachgefühl for the language in diverse contexts
In "Sneeze, hiccup, cough", I summarized David's research on the inability of Chinese to write common characters. If native speakers of Chinese are increasingly unable to reproduce the characters for simple words ("egg", "shrimp", "toad", and so on), why should we force non-native speakers to do so?
Chinese characters are hard. Do not believe anyone who tells you that they are easy: whoever does so is a quack.
ShaoLan Hsueh, who doesn't even bother to tell us how to pronounce Chinese characters, thus further divorcing them from language than they already are, claims that "English-speakers can start learning to read Chinese in less than 10 minutes." 10 months for a start, maybe, and 10 years for proficiency.
The road to Chinese literacy is hard, hard, hard — just like that fabled road to remote and inaccessible Shu.
Let the machines serve us so that we no longer have to be slaves of the characters.