How to learn to read Chinese

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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?”)

The solution is actually rather simple.  In the first stage of learning Chinese, use romanization only. The big problem, then, is how to make the jump from reading and writing romanized texts to reading and writing character texts.  Do not despair!  There is a reasonable, effective way out of the romanization-character dilemma, viz., phonetically annotated character texts.  Phonetic annotation of characters is the bridge that crosses the divide between romanization and characters.

It just so happened that I found myself in Taiwan for an extended stay (two years) at the moment when I needed to cross the gulf between spoken fluency in Mandarin and literacy in written Chinese.  I was most fortunate to come across a marvelous publication called Guoyu Ribao (Mandarin Daily News) that presented a broad selection of interesting materials (news, poetry, fiction, drama, essays, science and technology reports, recipes, games, and so on) with each character having its sound annotated in National Phonetic Symbols (ZHUYIN FUHAO or BOPOMOFO). 

[Click for full page] [Click for close-up]

Guoyu Ribao was a godsend in that it enabled me to learn Chinese characters passively and painlessly.  By assimilating massive amounts of publications from the Guoyu Ribao people, before long I was able to read texts without phonetic annotation.  Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.

I should note that I used a similar method in learning Japanese by relying on texts with furigana phonetic annotation.  My motto is to avoid masochism whenever possible, particularly when learning languages written in Chinese characters.

What prompted me to write this post is the wonderful news that we now have a publication in North America that aims to be the pinyin counterpart of Guoyu Ribao.  It is called the Huayu Xuebao (Mandarin Learning Newspaper), and it looks like this: 

[Click here for a .pdf of a sample page.]

I can’t tell you how many times during the past three decades I have begged and pleaded with publishers and pedagogs in China to produce such materials for Chinese language learners utilizing pinyin.  I am both proud and surprised to discover that the first serious – and I hope sustained – venture in this direction has taken place right in my own backyard.  One of our staunchest Mandarin teachers at Penn, Grace Wu (who also teaches Taiwanese and whose father was a distinguished teacher of Taiwanese), is one of the guiding lights behind Huayu Xuebao.  I shall actively support this noble enterprise and will refrain from suggesting that the editors consider the possibility of indicating word segmentation (joining syllables into words and putting spaces between words) until this fledgling publication is securely established.

As a closing footnote, I wish to mention that all students in China begin to read and write through pinyin.  During the 80s and 90s (and it still lingers on) there was also a remarkable, large-scale experiment in China called ZHUYIN SHIZI, TIQIAN DUXIE 注音識字提前讀寫 (Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing) that was carried out in scattered locations across the country (but mostly in the Northeast [Dongbei; Manchuria]).  The ZT experiment (as it is called after the first two letters of its constituent clauses) encouraged students to read and write in pinyin for longer periods than was stipulated by the conventional curriculum.  In addition, even in higher grades, students were permitted to write words in pinyin when they couldn’t remember how to write something in characters (e.g., the devilishly difficult DA3PEN1TI4 [“sneeze”]).  The well-documented results of the experiment demonstrate that students enrolled in the ZT curriculum actually learned to read and write characters better and faster than students enrolled in the standard curriculum.  John Rohsenow, an emeritus professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Illinois – Chicago Circle has written a couple of good papers describing the ZT experiment (e.g. John S. Rohsenow, “The ‘Z.T.’ Experiment in the PRC,” Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association. 31, 3 (1996): 33-44).



44 Comments

  1. john riemann soong said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 7:24 am

    "ZE(N)3ME BAN4"

    Oh hmm, I've been suspecting that this n-less variant existed for a long time. I wasn't sure if it was my ear, because in a lot of the references, they only give one variant. It's very weird looking up a song on youtube when the singer is singing the n-less variant but the title in pinyin has the n-variant in it, because the way the morphemes are "officialised" in pinyin.

    The one thing I dislike is how learning historical Chinese linguistics and learning the Chinese languages are so distanced from each other — this is especially if you're familiar with one dialect-language but wish to know another (in the way one might learn much of Spanish from French by noting regular sound correspondences). I wish there were a version (is there one?) of etymonline.com for the Chinese language. Unfortunately, too many sites I look up give me the origin of the written character, not the spoken morpheme. -_- Another reference by a Russian sinologist, which seems to have many mirrors, provides reconstructions all the way to Old Chinese, but doesn't provide any contextual backgound (a la the OED) for semantic drift and so forth.

    I'm a cross-migrant who was born in Singapore and lost my ability to speak Chinese in American elementary school — admittedly it was an L2 anyway — but I've since gone between the US and Singapore several times and have a plethora of unconnected phrases stuck in my head. It's very frustrating when I try to reacquire my lost second language, because all the references keep using Beijing pronunciation. It's funny because in my birth country, you often spot native speakers using the wrong pinyin, causing a written merger of minimal pairs, because there's such a large disparity between spoken Singaporean Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin, and so often the pinyin doesn't correlate with the "street" pronunciation; in the schools they ignore this fact anyway. In fact I rather suspect there's a social continua of acrolect-mesolect-basilect for Mandarin and the other Chinese language-dialects in Singapore (paralleling the situation with English), but it seems that anything written on this subject for my birth country is written for grad students and ivory tower academics, not laymen/high-schoolers/etc.

    Which to me seems a very unfortunate situation, because comparative/historical Chinese linguistics is a very powerful tool for a student who's trying to acquire Chinese or a particular variant of Chinese, and the audience who would benefit most from it — laymen learners — are seemingly left out of the mix.

  2. MM said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 8:10 am

    This looks excellent. I used to know a lot of characters, but that was thirty years ago. Every time I want to brush up my Chinese, this character-learning problem stops me.

    But where can I get this newspaper? (in Europe)? Will it be online?

  3. Randy Alexander said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    Maybe you can also persuade Grace Wu to publish a simplified character edition too, to go along with the spaces between words. And maybe get someone to release mp3 recordings of someone reading the articles aloud, and post them on a website. In fact publishing the newspaper on a website would be a good idea in itself.

    I'll have to ask my wife and others up here in Dongbei about the ZT experiment.

    My son has lots of books like that (pinyinized). I think it is a good step, even for me. It's also a way of learning new characters naturally.

    jrs – Regarding zěn.me –> zěm.me, I think that's a pretty widespread example of assimilation. An alveolar consonant changing it's place of articulation to the place of articulation of the following consonant (especially when the following consonant is a bilabial or velar consonant). English "then move" –> [ðɛmˈmuv], Japanese "ganbatte" –> [gamˈbat̚t̕e], etc.

    Morphemes are "officialized" in English too, in the form of English spelling. ; )

  4. Beijing Sounds said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    "The spoken language…is relatively easy to acquire."

    Amen. It is not that hard. And because of that, Mandarin has the potential to become a world language comparable to English — not just to be used as a lingua franca for communication among some Chinese, but to be learned successfully by foreigners interested in China's economic opening to the world.

    The barrier is an orthography that serves poorly for many native Mandarin speakers and functions as a never-ending source of perverse amusement for the most masochistic foreign learners, the only ones who don't drop out of Mandarin 101.

    It's wonderful to hear about anything that mitigates this situation and I'm looking forward to the sources mentioned above. Pinyin.info recently linked to some pinyin texts as well.

    Just in case, though, you're thinking that it's just a bunch of lǎowài complaining about the characters, please indulge a link to this blog post, in which a Beijing taxi driver is caught muttering about "lousy characters."

  5. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

    Where can we get the Huayu Xuebao? Sign me up!

  6. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    This initiative sounds wonderful. But requiring premature writing skills in beginning students is not limited to Chinese, although the problem is less acute in languages with alphabetic writing (but learning to spell French, English, or even worse (I imagine), Gaelic, is not obvious). I think it is because the language is taught mostly by native speakers, who often don't have enough training in language teaching. As I have written earlier in various places, we don't remember how we acquired our own language, but we remember our time in school, so persons teaching their own language remember their days in primary school and unless they are very well-trained otherwise, assume that what they need to concentrate on is what they themselves have been taught: reading and writing. The worst language teachers I know are those who are themselves uncomfortable with learning other languages, and do not realize that many students that they consider "lazy" are just like them. Mind you, some students are also uncomfortable with a teaching approach which does not emphasize written skills! But in this case, the obstacles to literacy are so great that few students could ever complain, so I think that there will be more and more use of this mixed method.

  7. Chad Nilep said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    I'm very glad to see this, as a firm supporter of the 'learn like a baby' approach to second-language literacy.

    Professor Mair's experience of mastering spoken Mandarin before approaching written Chinese reminds me a bit of Eleanor Jorden's Japanese: The Spoken Language (1987). It is a second language teaching program that focuses on spoken Japanese and avoids the written language.

    A problem with Jorden's materials, in my opinion, is that they use an idiosyncratic romanization, which, though easier than the multiple orthographies of authentic Japanese, must nonetheless be learned. One wonders what Jorden would have done with hyperlinks, embedded audio, and the like, rather than printed textbooks.

  8. Dan said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

    There are a few computer tools which will annotate Chinese text with pinyin. I'm particularly fond of a Firefox extension called Chinesepera-Kun (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3349). This will show you the pinyin and English translation of any chinese character, when you hover the mouse over it.

    I'm pretty sure there are other tools that can annotate an entire text, in a way that would let you print it out and read it.

  9. Hypotheek said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    @ MM, try Googling on it, you can find it. If not, send me an e-mail I got a copy/scan of it.

    The plugin Dan pointed at works quite well exactly, to bad I found it now after coming back from 6 months internship @ Shanghai

  10. John deBoer said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    I think this is a great resource, and that, frankly, every language teaching curriculum should be more flexible than they almost always are. Learning Japanese, I have encountered books that say you must learn kanji right away, you need never learn them, you must memorize them through 'brute force', you must memorize them through complicated mnemonics, you must never read Japanese written in roman characters, you must use roman characters for the first few years, etc. etc. But I think everyone learns differently. When I started out, theoretically, I thought this "learn like a baby" style was the correct approach; but I got absolutely nowhere until I started learning Chinese characters–which I did because I found them so interesting. I think I learn visually much better than aurally; even when I'm speaking, I'm often visualizing the characters in my head as I go.

    Does this mean I think everyone should learn that way? Of course not. I just think everyone should find the way that works for them.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    jrs – Regarding zěn.me –> zěm.me, I think that's a pretty widespread example of assimilation.

    It's not that simple. The vowel changes, too, from [ɛ] to [ɤ] — which is the vowel of Pinyin ze. The same happens with shénme "what".

    but learning to spell French, English, or even worse (I imagine), Gaelic, is not obvious

    Indeed not. My little bilingual cousin in Switzerland is on the record as saying that the French orthography is a deliberate invention by an evil man.

    Still, English tops them all. It's worse even than Tibetan (which is like French, except that silent letters also occur at the beginnings of words). Gaelic, I'm told, "does at least follow rules", while English does so only "over 85 % of the time"…

  12. mollymooly said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

    Irish Gaelic spelling is more like French than English, in that there are more homophones than homographs. Learning to read is relatively easy; learning to spell, less so.

  13. john riemann soong said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

    "Morphemes are "officialized" in English too, in the form of English spelling. ; )"

    Haha — I guess that's one way of looking at it, but I've sort of relied on pinyin as an equivalent of phonetic transcription, as opposed to an orthographic "spelling". Assimilation is actually one of the tricker things for learners to acquire, because there's a disparity between the separate morphemes they have learnt separately and processing the combined morphemes in conversation.

    Of course, the fact that it was assimilation didn't even occur to me until it was pointed out to me — since my "relearner" exposure to the "zen" morpheme has mostly been in the form of stock phrases that include "zen me," and it's very funny when the pinyin says one thing and the pronunciation is another.

    The reference texts I have consulted for Chinese wouldn't even mention assimilation, or any other such useful things to know, which is frustrating; on the other hand, a lot of English language resources (for both learners, laymen and high school students) also neglect phonetic theory, the phenomena of assimilation, and things like regular sound correspondences between dialects. No, apparently what is absolutely critical for learners and students is Avoiding Passive and Eschewing Summative Which.

  14. Alexander McLeay said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

    a lot of English language resources (for both learners, laymen and high school students) also neglect phonetic theory, the phenomena of assimilation, and things like regular sound correspondences between dialects.

    And no surprise there at all. I'd be terrified if I was expected to know such things at anything but an advanced level, and because I actually wanted to learn them. What of all the cases where Dialect1(a) = Dialect2(b) ? These are surely best acquired through going to a place that speaks the dialect you want to know, and listening to what people are saying. (I say that as the speaker of a dialect no-one is deliberately taught — Australian.)

  15. john riemann soong said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

    "These are surely best acquired through going to a place that speaks the dialect you want to know, and listening to what people are saying. "

    This doesn't seem to work too well when I'm trying to reacquire my "home" dialect (within Mandarin) when most resources are calibrated for the Beijing dialect — as far as self-teaching goes. Of course, with my current legal circumstances it may well that I shan't ever step on Singaporean soil again, but then it's hard to sort out what I've learnt by immersion and what is being presented to me in the text.

    As for my complaint about curricula in English classes, I'm not suggesting that individual English accents are taught in classes, but recognising language phenomena — from assimilation to the process of comprehension — seems so much useful than say, the Elements of Style. Is there any question on the TOEFL that deals with assimilation?

    A lot of psycholinguistic topics are fit for discussion at the high-school level (Chomsky after all, is covered in AP Psychology), and this would be far more productive than having HS teachers scathingly condemn singular they and whatnot.

  16. oohkuchi said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 12:32 am

    "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."–I'm sorry, but this is rubbish. Fluency takes years, except at the most basic level, and even when you can discuss the news, which is what I consider fluency to entail, you are hampered by the extreme difficulty of understanding spoken Mandarin. No matter how good your teachers, it cannot really be learnt without a long stay in a Chinese-speaking environment. For a non-Asian, this language is a bastard to master and there is no sweetening that pill.

  17. john riemann soong said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 1:43 am

    Well, I would say there is extreme difficulty in mastering spoken anything. What is this rubbish about the Asian thing? Universal grammar doesn't care about geography.

    The Chinese language family has some remarkable structural similarity to the Indo-European languages, enough to propose possible prehistoric interactions even, and I believe this has been covered by a few of the papers in the Sino-Platonic Papers series that Victor Mair edits. (http://sino-platonic.org/complete/spp007_old_chinese.pdf)

    By the way Victor Mair, I've been curious: has there been any update on this proposal of an Indo-European-Old-Chinese link?

  18. Randy Alexander said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 4:16 am

    jrs – I heartily agree with you on explicitly teaching linguistic aspects in language classes. It even sounds redundant to say that.

    I primarily teach English to elementary school kids, and I'm not shy about letting them know about things like assimilation and other phenomena, whether phonetic or grammatical. The key is to present the material step by step. The result is kids that can speak English fluently before they get to middle school (after three or so years of study).

  19. oohkuchi said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 7:47 am

    The grammar is a minor issue. Chinese is particularly hard to understand for other reasons. The tones take weeks of work with a tape recorder. Ditto for the pronunciation–it takes a long time to distinguish ji, qi ci si zi cu xu qu and all the dozens of similar sounds made at the front of the mouth. The biggest problem though is simply unfamiliar vocabulary. To speak Chinese fluently you need to learn an awful lot of words that are totally unlike anything in a European language. You don't have to deal with any of these problems learning Swedish or French as an English speaker, as half the words are already recognisable. Then there is the problem of homophones, again absent from euro-languages. It's an old saw that Chinese words sound the same to an outsider, but it's true. They do. Even to those of us who have spent years learning the language. Trust me, as a speaker of half a dozen languages, European and Asian. Chinese is really hard to understand. Japanese are Korean are hard too, but not as hard as spoken Chinese. As a matter of fact, even Asians struggle to understand Chinese. A Japanese friend of mine, fluent in Mandarin for 20 years and married to Chinese, says she still cannot follow CCTV news properly.

  20. Socrates Abroad said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 8:19 am

    Mind you, I've never taken Asian language courses in my home country (US), but I am fully capable in Japanese and reasonably capable in Chinese. I learned the former during my 7 years in Japan and the latter prior to starting my studies in comp. sci. here in China.

    "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."

    With all due respect, this sounds like a crippling way to learn an Asian language (i.e. a character-based language). For my first 2 years in Japan, I taught (English) in Japanese elementary schools and saw personally how Japanese learn their language. Year 1 and 2, students mostly use hiragana, the rough J equivalent of pinyin. With each successive year, students learn hundreds of more characters until they graduate middle school, whereupon they're expected to know the 常用漢字, or about 2000 characters one must know to function in society.
    When Japanese learn their characters, they do so by writing a character hundreds of times on a printed worksheet (some students even take after-school classes using more of the same worksheets – much like my middle school teacher forced me use to improve my cursive). Writing a character is second nature, which is most evident when two Japanese converse. If a talker uses a term the listener does not know or might not understand/misunderstand, the talker will actually "write" the character in the air, on his hand, on a table with a chopstick, etc.

    "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.
    [snip]
    The solution is actually rather simple. In the first stage of learning Chinese, use romanization only."

    And I would vehemently disagree – since the Chinese and Japanese babies, if you will, don't learn like that. For the Westerner, Romanization becomes a crutch, one that in fact must eventually be discarded, and thus represents a greater impediment to language learning as one improves. Like Japanese, most Chinese write the characters first; for them, the pinyin/romaji is merely an afterthought.
    The better solution is to follow the Chinese/Japanese example and start immediately with both "expressions, structures, and intonations of the language" as well as the easier characters first and then move on to more complex expressions, etc. together with harder characters.

  21. MM said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    Hypotheek: I have the PDF file linked here, but a lot of Googling did not produce any website for the publication, which is why I posted here. I am looking for a website, not a scan, but I assume there is none yet.

    But thanks to Dan – that sounds just as useful.

  22. Beijing Sounds said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:02 am

    JRS and RA,
    I too support the teaching of linguistic stuff, EARLY. Assimilation and so on does not need to be scary. I hear your hesitance, Alexander McLeay, but I think it's just the terminology that's off-putting. If you ignore what linguists call it and just teach stuff that makes it easier to learn, regardless of the language at hand, even grade school kids will find it useful.

    Take, for example, what JRS first brought up: ze(n)me. Just teach that the N disappears. Always. And for teaching purposes ignore :^) what David Marjanović said ("The vowel changes, too, from [ɛ] to [ɤ]") because that's too much detail and may vary by dialect.

    oohkuchi has a point that borrowed Sinitic vocab in, say, Korean & Japanese makes it easier to acquire Mandarin in some ways. But I'm with JRS that there are a lot of things about the language that make it a heckuva lot easier for English speakers, at least, to acquire than languages with a horrific proliferation of inflection.

    Victor Mair's overall point is intact: Mandarin is quite teachable if we'd just work at teaching it as a language rather than getting tripped up by its (insert favorite epithet) script too early in the game.

  23. Katya said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    Many of my friends and I became addicted to this website:

    Mei Wah

    Not exactly what you were talking about, but we did learn a lot of Chinese characters! Even my brother living in Beijing (the one who directed me to the Language Log in the first place) used it.

  24. john riemann soong said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    "For the Westerner, Romanization becomes a crutch, one that in fact must eventually be discarded, and thus represents a greater impediment to language learning as one improves."

    Well, we don't have to throw away our IPA as we improve our mastery in all the other languages, do we?

    What about many Chinese Muslims who used to write in xiao'erjing (horror forbid: AN ALPHABET for Chinese! It's a bit like bopomofo actually, except it's using an Arabic alphabet), or the Dungans (who speak a Mandarin dialect with three tones) who now currently use Cyrillic because of Soviet policies? Are they using the crutch of Western influence too?

    I must resent the act of conveniently using geographic distance as a trope for genetic distance. Mandarin must be no more difficult to learn for the average Westerner than it is for the average Hindi speaker, or even for the average speaker of a Khmer, Semitic or Austronesian language. Speakers on the Siberian side of the Na-Dene family are probably closer genetically to the Han than say, the Persians, and are more "East" than "West" but they'd still face the same boundaries to fluency. If we must make comparisons between the differences in effort required for learning Mandarin for speakers from different language families, then could we eschew terms such as "Asian" or "Western" as these terms are hardly rigourous, precise, or scientific while at the same time these terms are associated with some of the most groundless prejudices that have ever existed.

    oohkuchi, Spoken Mandarin is not an exceptionally difficult language to acquire (though I say this is as a half-speaker), any more so than it must for a Chinese speaker to learn English, Hindi or Finnish (after controlling for resource availability, of course). If you say that there's still a good bunch of common lexicon (as can be measured computationally and statistically) between Swedish and English — well this is not surprising, they're both Germanic languages whose ancestors [OE and ON] had common interaction up til the year 1000. But if you say that it's harder for an English speaker to pick up Mandarin than it is to pick up Basque, Hungarian or Finnish, then I must really raise my eyebrow because these "European" languages don't have any common lexical similarity with English. On the other hand, excluding modern loanwords such as "bok choy" and so forth, Mandarin's ancestor, Old Chinese, is proposed to have had contact with English's ancestor, PIE. In the Sino-Platonic paper I linked, it is proposed that the "wh" interrogative root in Germanic, which actually comes from the "k^w" root of PIE, can find cognates in Old Chinese that survive today in Mandarin.

    "A Japanese friend of mine, fluent in Mandarin for 20 years and married to Chinese, says she still cannot follow CCTV news properly."

    I'm a young'un who's been speaking English for 18 years and who indulges regularly in hardcore French rap, and man, I still can't understand 50 cent sometimes. ;-) But I must ask, isn't Putonghua (what they speak in the PRC media) an artificial creation of the PRC? Putonghua is an artificial standardisation of numerous Mandarin dialects, isn't it? On top of that, telecasters tend to be very artificial anyway. :-)

    Tones aren't the biggest obstacle to me. The majority of the world's languages are tonal, and heck, even Singlish (an English creole) has tones. When viewed from that perspective, it wasn't hard to distinguish minimal pairs based solely on tone. All that's important is to start addressing minimal pair distinctions — I'm sure infants don't get the tones correct the first time too. When you start assembling morphemes into actual phrases, the homophony doesn't even matter, any more than you would be concerned about "the ship's bow" and "bow and tie" for English learners. IIRC, the reason why Mandarin has more compound words than other Chinese dialect-languages is to compensate for the loss of the consonant endings and clusters kept in other dialect-languages.

    Compensation processes make me wonder if any language can be said to be more inherently difficult to learn than another, after controlling for that language's lexical distance to one's native language.

  25. JREL said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    I'd love a reference for "Singlish (an English creole) has tones". Singlish discourse particles have been said to have tones, but even that is highly controversial. Surely at a lexical level there is no tone in Singlish, nothing beyond the kind of intonation present in English or French. It's after all only half of the substrate that was tonal; neither Malay nor the lexifier English have it — it would be more than a little surprising for a contact language to have such a marked feature, particularly given the heterogeneous substrate (with different tones in Hokkien/Teochew, Cantonese, and all the others…)

  26. john riemann soong said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    The tones aren't phonemic — i.e. they don't form minimal pairs. But they are rather fixed. Back in the days when I wasn't consciously aware of the tones present in each discourse particle (though we all produced them), I remember an "ang moh" (Caucasian) physics teacher who at times tried to replicate the local speech when talking to his students, just to humour us. We always laughed because there was an "X factor" to how he articulated it — something I couldn't put my finger on at the time, but something I realise now was the tone.

    Now you see, comparative phonology of the Chinese dialects is not taught at the primary or secondary level (at any rate the government seems to be in the habit of designating non-Mandarin dialects as evil little tongues that cause disunity and therefore tongues that must be eliminated and "replaced"), so I can't identify which discourse particle came from which dialect, which ones were a merger of two particles from two different dialects and so forth. But realising there is a fixed tone to each particle — tones I replicated easily and naturally — made me realise I had been apprehensive about the tonal aspect of the Chinese languages for no reason at all. I would still struggle to have a simple conversation about the news. But it's easy to master the fixed tones assigned to each morpheme; there was daily ritual of watching my classmates go, "lian laoshi zao an," during the MT period; or recitation of the daily pledge in a different official language depending on the current day of the week, and the Mandarin one started in particular, "women shi xinjiapo gongmin[g]…" So I don't know what the fuss about the tones is about.

    In English and French, the tones aren't fixed, and in addition, you adjust them based on stress, question-marking or whatever.

    Of course, I don't have any real training in this area — one of my lamentations is that they don't introduce linguistics earlier to primary and secondary school (high school) students, and I have consigned myself mainly to self-teaching. But I have come across numerous papers (the names of the authors I neglected to memorise) that cross-reference tones in discourse particles, and to me I wasn't aware that it was a controversial topic. I probably should have said "semi-tonal" — but to me the fixed tones assigned to each discourse particle are quite analogous to the tones you find in the Chinese dialect-languages. When I first came across those papers, everything clicked for me and the explanation made perfect sense.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    @Socrates Abroad: you say that Japanese should be taught to foreigners the way Japanese children learn their language: you seem to be confusing speech and writing. You are describing how school-age Japanese children learn to write, not to speak, which they have been doing for several years. This attitude is similar to the one I mentioned above, about persons who think that teaching their own language to others means starting with what they themselves were taught in school, not realizing that they already spoke their own language to everyone's satisfaction (= appropriately for their age) when they entered school. A person starting on a foreign language has to learn everything. Japanese and Chinese children start reading and writing non-alphabetic characters, OK, but they are not learning "their language", only the traditional written representation of it. Most foreign learners, especially if adult, have a lifetime of literacy behind them, based on different principles. There is no reason not to use this literacy as a bridge between the spoken word and the non-alphabetic, non-syllabic characters of the new language. Would you deny a learner of English the benefit of IPA transcriptions because English-speaking children are not using them in school?

    As to phonetics or romanization being a crutch, most people who require crutches are very glad to discard them at the earliest opportunity once they no longer need them: then they are a hindrance rather than a help. But denying crutches to a person with a broken leg or recently operated knee would not be doing that person a favour. According to the reports above, persons who are using phonetically annotated Chinese characters are having a much better learning experience than those who have to struggle separately with the spoken words and the characters.

    @john riemann soong: French rap does not use real colloquial French but a specific urban dialect, much of which is deliberately opaque, distorting ordinary French words and also using many Arabic words, so don't feel bad if you can't understand it.

  28. David Marjanović said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

    Just teach that the N disappears. Always. And for teaching purposes ignore :^) what David Marjanović said ("The vowel changes, too, from [ɛ] to [ɤ]") because that's too much detail and may vary by dialect.

    Is there a dialect that really uses [ɛ] in these words? That's the vowel in English bed, and the one that Mandarin shen, zen and all syllables in Pinyin -en have. Would that be understood?

    Just teach that the n drops in such a way that the result sounds like ze + me rather than like zen + me.

    (Concerning what varies between the dialects, somewhere on Wikipedia there's a truly scary list of what the tones of different Mandarin dialects are like. A tone that is flat in one dialect is rising in another and falling in the next, and there are splits and mergers and… AAARGH! So, you could make a nice argument for not teaching the tones at all, except this would lead to nobody understanding the poor learner. — And this isn't limited to Mandarin: Wú generally has five tones, but Shanghainese doesn't have tones at all, it has a pitch accent, where the stressed syllable of a long word can be high or low [or something else, which is produced by voiced initial consonants], and the pitch of all other syllables in the word is predictable.)

  29. JREL said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Now I'm not one to question native speaker intuitions, but as an ang moh who's been exposed to quite a range of those famous particles, I've always felt that they simply carry on the intonation pattern of the utterance (which may be why I'm no good at them, because my intonation is not a Singlish one). Here's a perception test that could be done: play some informants an utterance (recorded in the right setting, of course), and cut out the final particle. Ask them which particle they'd use in that slot. My guess is that you'd get quite a high proportion of correct answers, which would suggest an intonational origin for what is ostensibly the particle's tone.

    It would be odd, too, to have tone only in a particular grammatical category, although this is going beyond what I'm qualified for.

  30. Janice M Cauwels, PhD said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    As the English Communications Director for the Mandarin Learning Newspaper, I would like to clarify Dr. Mair's reference to Grace Wu's role in the paper. Ms. Wu contacted us after the paper had begun publication, and beginning with the second (June) issue, she is contributing university-level content. Her kindly enthusiasm prompted us to invite her to join our Advisory Board. Other Advisory Board members will likewise be able to contribute articles, reviews, and so forth.

    We are eagerly soliciting feedback that will help guide us in our venture. Besides expanding, customizing, and improving the content of the MLN, our eventual goal is to become an information platform for schools and complementary learning materials and to restrict our advertising to their offerings.

    We are in the process of registering a domain name and setting up the Web site. Anyone interested in subscribing to or otherwise helping to support the paper is welcome meanwhile to contact me at my temporary address, jmclearningnewspaper@yahoo.com. I will send you a press release that summarizes the paper's rationale along with a subscription form to complete.

    Thank you very much indeed, Dr. Mair, for mentioning the Mandarin Learning Newspaper, and thank you all for your interest.

    Janice Cauwels

  31. danny said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    As China increasingly is seen as a growing business power, interest in learning the Chinese language had rocketed, and dominance of Chinese over English will be a long time coming. More and more people begin to learn Chinese, because here is clear career potential for the future. Chinese language education market will be prosperous. Childhood,I think , is the best period to learn Chinese. If you are interested in Chinese, visit the website http://www.learnchinese.bj.cn/

  32. Al Jensen said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    Learning pinyin only for first year students is a huge mistake, the whole thing about learning language is understanding that simplicity does not always equal easy or certainly does not always equal effective.
    Language learning needs to be dealt with holistically.
    If you're a beginner, and interested in learning the characters from the start, why not take a look at http://www.zhongwenred.com ?

  33. Erick said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 5:46 am

    Why hasn't anyone bothered to mention the Heisig method? the book "Remembering the Kanji" took a truly different approach to learning characters ."Remembering the Hanzi" will set out to do the same this summer. I'm eagerly awaiting the Simplified version. Using mnemonics has helped me in my personal studies. My favorite dictionary using similar etymological hints to remember characters: zhongwen.com.

  34. Jim said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 6:16 am

    I've found this recently published book to be extremely useful in helping me associate tones with the characters. The color mnemonic method really works!
    http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Through-Color-Nathan-Dummitt/dp/0781812046/ref=pd_ts_b_22?ie=UTF8&s=books

  35. john riemann soong said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    @ JREL:

    "Ask them which particle they'd use in that slot. My guess is that you'd get quite a high proportion of correct answers, which would suggest an intonational origin for what is ostensibly the particle's tone."

    Oh hmm, This would be an interesting experiment. Now I'm not trained, but I always thought the discourse particle depended on the rhetorical intent of the speaker, and the intonation may have some correlation with that intent. But as I recall, the discourse particles used often have a strong correlation with say with the "le" of Mandarin (or a possible merger with particles from other dialects). I have yet to study any formal theory for Singlish intonation, but sometimes I think the particle intended causes the intonation for the sentence and not the other way round.

    Two sentences with roughly the same "factual" content but particle-"inflected" for different rhetorical effects:

    "he never do[es his] homework one."
    "he never do[es his] homework leh."

    Interestingly the omission of singular agreement and the determiner has effects I won't analyse here,.

    In both of these sentences (for me) the intonation is roughly the same until the end of the sentence, where it seems that the "-work" syllable assimilates into the tone of whatever particle the speaker decides to use. Perhaps it's sort of like tone sandhi?

    I am interested in the origin of my country's creole and how exactly it developed. My mother apparently thinks it was a "game" her peers developed, and at the time apparently she and her peers it was something was just confined to her particular stream and school. Now I am highly skeptical that is the ultimate origin of Singlish but I do know that my mother's generation, the generation before her, and my generation all perceive Singlish very differently, and reading the Language Instinct I have a vague idea of how a "game" that was being developed simultaneously by schoolchildren could have an effect on another pidgin that was developing at the time (at the time after independence Bazaar Malay was being phased out among the populace in favour of English — to be taught at all primary schools. Lots of room for speculation and research I suppose.

  36. john riemann soong said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

    "Learning pinyin only for first year students is a huge mistake, the whole thing about learning language is understanding that simplicity does not always equal easy or certainly does not always equal effective."

    It is an important concept I think, to divorce the spoken language from the written language. You can for example, write Mandarin in xiao'ering and Cyrillic. I get the feeling that the Chinese written language may have initially been used for something other than Chinese.

  37. David Porter said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    A brief note in response to this comment above:

    "Maybe you can also persuade Grace Wu to publish a simplified character edition too, to go along with the spaces between words. And maybe get someone to release mp3 recordings of someone reading the articles aloud, and post them on a website."

    Clavis Sinica has recently created free web-based resources addressing both of these needs:

    1) The Chinese Text Annotator is a free online tool that will produce a printable characters + pinyin version of any Chinese text a student might want to read. You can just copy and paste the text (from a Chinese newspaper website, for example), click a button, and display the text with pinyin under the characters. To avoid the temptation of relying exclusively on the pinyin, you can choose not to display pinyin for more commonly used characters, according to your skill level.

    The URL for the Chinese Text Annotator is:

    http://www.clavisinica.com/annotator.html

    2) If you're in need of suitable texts to read (or to assign students), on the same site you'll find the Chinese Voices Project, a free collection of 100 short, accessible Chinese texts on a wide variety of timely topics relating to life in modern Beijing. All of the texts are accompanied by MP3 audio recordings, so you can listen along as you read.

    The URL for the Chinese Voices Project is:

    http://www.clavisinica.com/voices.html

    There is a forum devoted to the discussion of these and related Chinese language learning resources at http://clavisinica.com/Forums .

    Enjoy!
    David Porter

  38. dd said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 6:25 am

    already exist such newspaper utilizing pinyin for students in china. that is xiaoxuesheng pinyinbao小学生拼音报. and many Chinese newspaper published in southeast asia also issue a learning material for Chinese learner with annotation. Thai's world news世界日报's supplements include material especially for Chinese learner with bopomofo.

    >>
    I can't tell you how many times during the past three decades I have begged and pleaded with publishers and pedagogs in China to produce such materials for Chinese language learners utilizing pinyin.
    <<

  39. Terry Crossman said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 6:54 am

    What a godsend this post has been!! I first learned Mandarin in 1973 at Guo Yu Ri Bao's language center and learned my Ju Ying Fu Hao/bo po mo fo and still think that that system once learned is far better than pinyin ( I still have tons of material with it in my library). I then majored in Oriental Studies at Penn where Victor now teaches. I have been thinking for a long time about applying myself to learning how to read and write again as I speak Mandarin very fluently, but am essentially wenmang and haven't studied jianti zi either. I also learned how to speak Cantonese reasonably fluently as well. thank you for all the links and the stimulating discussion. There may be hope yet for this wenmang de tu baozi.

  40. Jim Proia said,

    June 14, 2008 @ 7:44 am

    Read Chinese Without Knowing Chinese – A complete guide to Computer-aided Chinese Reading

    http://www.georgekung.com is the accompanying website for the book “Read Chinese Without Knowing Chinese – A complete guide to Computer-aided Chinese Reading.” This is the first book to advocate reading text written in a language without actually learning or knowing the language.

    This website contains information related to the book: frequently asked questions, table of contents, sample chapters, information updates, support links, resources and test data of the products described in the book, discussion forum, blogs, ordering links, etc. It also contains tools as well as other useful links and information related to reading Chinese text using the help of PC, Internet, and other tools and devices.

  41. ADSC said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    English is a language of alphabetic writing, the language region in the brain in native English-language people is in Wernike area of the brain, Wernike areas are connected to the hearing area, Chinese is a graphical language, the areas of Chinese language is in the Broca area of the brain, Broca area is connected to the region of movement and color functional areas of human, Wernike area is incompatible with Broca area,
    If we use Wernike area to learn Chinese, it will become extremely difficult.

    [Commercial link deleted by myl]

    [(myl) This is neurological nonsense. Both Wernicke's area and Broca's area are involved in processing both English and Chinese; and the linguistic functions of Broca's area involve connections to oro-facial motor control (i.e. speech production) and to forebrain executive functions, not to "region of movement and color functional areas".]

  42. Tony B said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

    Socrates Abroad said, That you should learn as a native, well a native speaks fluently for years before learning to red and write in their native languages.

    As Dr. Mair mentioned, you are being force fed reading, writing, and language basics, all at the same time.

    I am not a learner of the Chinese language, its not my interest, but I have spent years studying Japanese, I learned hiragana from a book, not in a class room, but from a book, in about 30 days, but it took me another 2 years to become fluent in all of the subtleties tied around the written language, and in the ability to read it correctly.

    I that point I did learn Katakana the same way the Japanese learn it, the first grade coloring book text, and then moved on to Kanji, the Chinese characters.

    I believe Dr. Mair's point,and at least my point now is learn at you pace and comfort. If you truly want to learn a language, you will eventually learn all of that language, and if you need a crutch, as I used with romanji for two years for hiragana, then use it, it helps, and I have found, and been told by Japanese collegues, all in all my reading and writing, has surpassed both theirs, and other foreigners who studiedthe traditional ways in school.

    Albeit the final sentence above is subjective, Dr. Mair is 100% correct, and Socrates Abroad, just doesn't make the muster in my opinion.

  43. Mark said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    I've tried posting my comment several times, but it won't show up.

  44. Jer said,

    March 24, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    Pinyin seems to be a trap for adult learners, since Pinyin is by and for people who already know the correct sound and meaning of a word. I have observed many adult learners associate a (unique) english word with each character as a aide-memoire, effectively creating their own personal pinyin, and I always wondered why that wasn't more standardised.

    In any case, touting "learn like a baby" has a nasty psychological payload. If someone tries to learn like a baby and fails, what does that imply about the learner?

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