Beyond fluff

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Video from this article by Anthony Kuhn on the NPR Parallels blog:

For Years, I’ve Been A Correspondent In China. This Month, I Became A Viral Star” (3/18/17)

Also available on Weibo here.

After speaking in Mandarin, Kuhn at first hands the microphone over to a Chinese interpreter who was going to translate his remarks into English, but then grabs it back from her and says he’ll translate for himself.  At this point, the text of the Weibo article states, “měinǚ fānyì yī liǎn gān’gà 美女翻译一脸尴尬 (“the beautiful interpreter looked embarrassed”).  It may seem odd to mention the pulchritude of an official interpreter, but this would not be at all uncommon in China where such persons are often chosen as much for their looks as for their translating ability.

Kuhn begins:

Nǐ hǎo, wǒ shì Měiguó Quánguó gōnggòng guǎngbò diàntái de
你好,我是美国全国公共广播电台的
(“Hello, I’m from National Public Radio in America”)

Kuhn’s own translation of this is “I’m with National Public Radio”.

To me its sounds rather casual and informal for Kuhn to introduce himself the way he does, particularly by ending the first sentence with the subordinating particle “de 的”.  It would sound more natural and fully grammatical if he were to have ended the sentence by identifying himself as “Anthony Kuhn” (or the Chinese equivalent), jìzhě 记者 (“correspondent; reporter”), etc.  I would probably never introduce myself thus:

Nǐ hǎo, wǒ shì Bīnxīfǎníyǎ dàxué de
你好,我是宾夕法尼亚大学的
(“Hello, I’m from the University of Pennsylvania”.)

Instead, I would end the sentence by identifying myself as “Victor Mair”, “Méi Wéihéng 梅维恒”, “jiàoshòu 教授 (professor)”, etc.  Apparently, however, people really do introduce themselves the way Kuhn did at press conferences and on other similar occasions when less formality is called for or when they want to be a bit crafty and withhold certain information about themselves.

There’s no doubt that Kuhn’s Mandarin is superb.  He possesses virtually native fluency and is able to use the language with precision, expressiveness, and correct tones.  For example, in discussing two types of people who will be displaced by the development of the new Beijing macroregion, he describes one as being:

bèi shūsàn dào wàidì de shānghù
被疏散到外地的商户
(“merchants who will be displaced to outer areas”)

Later, you can tell how careful Kuhn is about his tones when he corrects himself from neutral tone “nei 内” (“inside”) to fourth tone nèi.

Furthermore, he is capable of using a classicism like tiān rǎng zhī bié 天壤之别 (lit., “the difference between heaven and earth”, i.e., “a world of difference”) naturally and effortlessly.  And he can use higher level lexical items like zhìxìn 置信 (“have confidence”) and yílǜ 疑虑 (“misgivings; concerns”) effortlessly and appropriately.

Attentive listeners may notice that Kuhn is fond of using the filler expression “zhège 这个” (“this”), but I have heard native speakers use it just as often.  Cf. “That, that, that…” (1/24/16).

Incidentally, I’m almost certain that Anthony Kuhn is the son of the Harvard professor of Chinese history, Philip A. Kuhn (1933-2016), who had a son named Anthony; and this Anthony Kuhn looks very much like Philip.  His mother was Sally Cheng, Philip’s first wife.

For those who are curious, the “fluff” mentioned in the first paragraph of the NPR article and in the headline for the Weibo video is huāxù 花絮 (lit., “flower catkins / floss”, i.e., “trailer; highlights; tidbits”), the back story to a movie or news item.

And, for those who are really curious, here’s the complete transcription of what Kuhn said in Chinese:

Nǐ hǎo, wǒ shì Měiguó Quánguó gōnggòng guǎngbò diàntái de. Wǒ de wèntí shì guānyú Jīng-Jīn-Jì jìhuà lǐtou de liǎng lèi rén. Yī lèi shì bèi shūsàn dào wàidì de shānghù, zhèxiē rén xīwàng dédào hélǐ de jīngjì péicháng, tèbié shòu guānzhù de shì Běijīng dòngwùyuán fúzhuāng pīfā shìchǎng. Nín néng fǒu gàosu zhèxiē shānghù guójiā zhǔnbèi gěi tāmen péicháng duōshǎo qián? Shénme shíhou zhège qián néng gěi tāmen fāfàng? Lìng yī lèi rén ne, jiùshì huán shǒudū suǒwèi pínkùn dìdài de. Wǒ qùguò zhèxiē dìfāng, díquè jiùshì gēn Běijīng yǒu tiānrǎng zhī bié. Yǒu de zhèxiē jūmín (ne) hěn nányǐ zhìxìn, dào (zhège) shísān nián zhī jiān Jīng-Jīn-Jì jìhuà jīběn shíxiàn de zhè duàn shíjiān nèi, ànzhào xiànzài de zhège fāzhǎn sùdù néng jiějué tāmen de wèntí. Nǐ zěnme huídá nàxiē rén de yílǜ? Xièxiè.

你好,我是美国全国公共广播电台的。我的问题是关于京津冀计划里头的两类人。一类是被疏散到外地的商户,这些人希望得到合理的经济赔偿,特别受关注的是北京动物园服装批发市场。您能否告诉这些商户国家准备给他们赔偿多少钱?什么时候这个钱能给他们发放?另一类人呢,就是环首都所谓贫困地带的。我去过这些地方,的确就是跟北京有天壤之别。有的这些居民(呢)很难以置信,到(这个)十三年之间京津冀计划基本实现的这段时间内,按照现在的这个发展速度能解决他们的问题。你怎么回答那些人的疑虑?谢谢。

If you want to know what that means in English, just listen to Kuhn’s own translation, which is accurate and spontaneous, without being painfully literal.

Finally, my guess is that Kuhn — like most fluent foreign speakers of Mandarin — cannot handwrite one tenth as well as he can speak, unless he grew up going to Chinese language medium schools from a very young age.  In fact, though I know hundreds of highly proficient foreign speakers of Mandarin and other Sinitic languages, I don’t know a single one who can handwrite any of these languages as well as they can speak them (except in Romanization, of course).

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, June Teufel Dreyer, Brendan O’Kane, and Kaiser Kuo]



36 Comments

  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

    Wikipedia confirms Anthony Kuhn is the son of Philip — here is an archived version of the page it cites.

  2. Max said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

    I noticed a few “uhh” fillers that, in Japanese at least, would be a tip-off to a non-native speaker. Or do Mandarin speakers fill in this way as well?

  3. Anonymous Coward said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

    Max: At least for his way of using it, there is nothing non-native. His tones, on the other hand, are a huge giveaway, as well as the slightly wrong argument structure for “难以置信”.

  4. Roger said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 4:39 am

    Oh my! Why end such great story with another obsessive punch at characters?

  5. Vanya said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 5:14 am

    Most fluent speakers of German, French or Russian as a second language cannot write those languages nearly as well as they speak them. Obviously Chinese is a special case, but it does seem like an odd point to make.

    On the other hand, you do find the odd character who can write in a foreign language better than they speak it. Samuel Beckett in French for example. I have always been curious to know how good Joseph Conrad’s spoken English actually was.

    Written Chinese seems like the sort of language that would attract foreign eccentrics who might master characters without ever learning how to speak. Are there no obvious examples?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:00 am

    @Roger

    For pedagogical reasons. I am a teacher of Chinese languages. My wife was a teacher of Mandarin, one of the best who ever walked the face of the earth. She taught many fine students to speak like Anthony Kuhn, relatively quickly and without excessive pain, by deemphasizing the characters.

    Your use of aggressive language (“obsessive punch”) is not appreciated on this forum.

  7. Rodger C said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:47 am

    @Vanya: I know any number of people, starting with myself, who write one or more L2s better than they can speak them. In fact I’d call it normal, given the usual methods of instruction.

  8. MattF said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 7:57 am

    @Vanya
    It’s well known that Conrad had a heavy Polish accent.

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    “Most fluent speakers of German, French or Russian as a second language cannot write those languages nearly as well as they speak them. Obviously Chinese is a special case, but it does seem like an odd point to make. ”

    How many of these cannot write common words by hand? I don’t think Victor was talking about prose prowess but simple active literacy (being able to leave notes for people, filling out forms, writing emails, that kind of thing. I have no idea if Mr Kuhn can easily do those things but that’s what the issue is.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    I do stand in awe of people who can speak Chinese at this level.

    I did, however, think this sentence sounded slightly awkward:

    什么时候这个钱能给他们发放?

    The fact that I find it slightly awkward means nothing; I’m not Chinese and am not in a position to judge. I’d therefore be interested to hear what Chinese speakers think. Would it benefit from a different word order? Would it sound better with 把? Or is it fine as it is?

  11. TonyK said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 10:38 am

    I assume you have no data on Kuhn’s proficiency in written Chinese. So why mention it at all? I agree with Roger here.

  12. Alex said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    In my experience here in China and having over 60 staff members doing IT engagements abroad of which require all English documentation of the work performed, it seems most educated Chinese who had English courses in school can write/type far better than they can speak, I would go as far to say that their written grammar is better than the average native US high school student given what I see in newspapers and media concerning the decline of the education system in the US. As for handwriting on average they print obsessively neat.

  13. Alex said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 11:36 am

    “In fact, though I know hundreds of highly proficient foreign speakers of Mandarin and other Sinitic languages, I don’t know a single one who can handwrite any of these languages as well as they can speak them (except in Romanization, of course).”

    I think an added point that should be made is that I am willing to bet many expats can type or input Chinese characters. I easily know 100 plus expats some that only have been here a couple years. Many post Chinese on their weixin moments, many comment to their Chinese friends’ post using Chinese characters inputted with pinyin. Thus showing learning to laboriously learning to hand write characters is not needed to effectively communicate.

  14. Edwin Schmitt said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

    Nearly every foreigner I know who speaks Chinese well are perfectly capable of reading and writing characters. Nor am I familiar with language instructors who recommend using only pinyin to teach non-native students how to speak Chinese. When I speak, think or dream in Chinese, the images in my mind are not phonetic representations of how the language is pronounced (“pinyin”) but characters. I cannot imagine what it would be like to speak Chinese without being able to understand characters. However, I completely agree that handwriting is exceptionally difficult for me; a difficulty that is compounded by my reliance on various 拼音输入方法 software on my computer and cell phone. Unfortunately, I was never formally taught how to use such software and learned most of the tricks and shortcuts through trial and error or under the guidance of friends from Mainland China. Since you apparently brought up Kuhn’s hypothetical inability to hand write characters for pedagogical reasons, my suggestion is that instructors of Chinese as a Foreign Language courses integrate material that teaches their students how to properly use these software packages.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

    @TonyK

    For very important pedagogical reasons, as mentioned above.

    See also the second comment by Alex.

    These things need to be stressed, because so many people — both students and teachers — are confused about the importance of learning how to write characters in relation to learning how to speak Sinitic languages. People can achieve a very high degree of proficiency in spoken Cantonese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and other Sinitic languages without knowing a single character. Ditto for Japanese. Eleanor Jorden, the great professor of Japanese at Cornell, both in her classes and in her highly successful textbooks, relied heavily on romaji. The renowned Chinese linguist, Y. R. Chao, adopted a similar approach (using GR = Gwoyeu Romatzyh / National Romanization [a type of tonal spelling]) in his Mandarin Primer. Mormon missionary language courses emphasize spoken language, and people who go through those courses achieve functional spoken ability much faster than students who go through conventional courses that stress Chinese characters. The same was true with the way I learned Nepali — from 0 to the ability to get around easily on my own in less than three months, and it was purely oral-aural.

    See:

    How to learn Chinese and Japanese” (2/17/14)

    Learn Nepali” (9/21/16)

    I wanted to make the point that it is possible to achieve high degrees of fluency on the order of Anthony Kuhn, but so few people do because of the deplorable pedagogical methods that are pervasive throughout our educational system.

    New York high school Chinese test” (1/18/17)

    In conventional courses, teachers almost invariably put the cart before the horse, demanding that the students be able to handwrite everything they can say and more. The result is that their spoken language ability — even after three or four years — is minimal. With the proper approach, they could be impressing Chinese wherever they go, delivering talks, and speaking out in press conferences.

    Instead, what do the teachers give them? For one thing, dreaded dictation (tīngxiě 听写) — the teacher pronounces a word and the student is expected to write the characters. Such exercises are enormously anxiety inducing and of almost no utility in learning Sinitic languages. So the student, under duress, learns several hundred characters. Meanwhile, their spoken ability lags far behind what it could and should be after any given amount of time invested. Moreover, they develop psychological hangups, thinking that they are stupid and not gifted enough to learn Mandarin. I speak from personal experience when I say that these things can be very serious. It didn’t happen to me because I refused to submit to such a regimen, but I’ve known many fine students who were permanently scarred by bad Chinese language pedagogy.

    The language is the horse, characters are the cart. Get the horse / language under control, and the cart / characters will follow in due course.

    Furthermore, with the proliferation of all sorts of electronic devices for writing Chinese, there is no excuse for insisting that students should memorize this many or that many characters before moving on to the next level of language acquisition.

    The future of Chinese language learning is now” (4/5/14)

  16. TonyK said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

    Yes, but what does all that have to do with Anthony Kuhn? You are just confirming Roger’s point with these irrelevant diatribes.

  17. Christopher Coulouris said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    I don’t think Anthony Kuhn being able to speak Chinese well should come as a surprise. According to Wikipedia Philip Kuhn, “married Sally Cheng (程吾) in the 1960s and had one son, Anthony Kuhn, a journalist.” I am curious to know if Philip Kuhn spoke Chinese well. Maybe Professor Mair has the inside scoop on my question.

  18. NSBK said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    I think Dr. Mair’s point is that Anthont Kuhn’s command of spoken Mandarin is superb, and the fact that we have no idea what his writing proficiency simply emphasizes that when teaching Chinese language, one’s ability to write characters has not too much of an effect on their ability to speak well and get by with important, real life interactions. But many methods of teaching Chinese language over-emphasize character memorization.

  19. Alex said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

    ” I cannot imagine what it would be like to speak Chinese without being able to understand characters. ”

    Prior to the “95” literacy rate I suppose many people dreamed without knowing the characters. Born in the US, I learned and spoke Chinese at home but can not write characters. Im pretty sure there are many ABC’s that speak but can not write.

    Children dream without characters.

  20. Alex said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

    @ “TonyK said,
    Yes, but what does all that have to do with Anthony Kuhn? You are just confirming Roger’s point with these irrelevant diatribes.”

    I saw there was a post concerning the movie Arrival, how wonderful a linguist can play the hero. That is a movie.

    The real heroes are: “The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s by many linguists, including Zhou Youguang”

    Is it not wonderful that there are linguists that have the passion and dedication to lift hundreds of millions out the chains of illiteracy?

    For me I see the effects on children being forced to use muscle memory to learn how to write weekly. I see the children being left behind, I children shamed/embarrassed and begin to loathe learning. I saw the effects on my son.

    I think its quite nice that there are linguists that take the time and energy to try change things for the better by posting and drawing attention to this issue.

    I am not a linguist but I found this site by googling around and finding “character amnesia” wiki entry. I took the time to research because I wanted to understand more as I didnt want my younger son to “suffer”

    I consider these post most “relevant” when compared to posts concerning some obscure ancient hindu language (I do find those fascinating)

  21. julie lee said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 8:12 pm

    Professor Mair wrote above:

    “Instead, what do the teachers give them? For one thing, dreaded dictation (tīngxiě 听写) — the teacher pronounces a word and the student is expected to write the characters. Such exercises are enormously anxiety inducing and of almost no utility in learning Sinitic languages. So the student, under duress, learns several hundred characters. Meanwhile, their spoken ability lags far behind what it could and should be after any given amount of time invested. ”

    I can personally attest to this. My grandson, now 15, has been taking private lessons from a Chinese teacher of Mandarin once a week for ten years. He still can’t speak Mandarin. He has been asked to memorize and write hundreds of Chinese characters standing alone, without being used in any text. He also has lessons composed of sentences (in characters) relating to a topic, like “Going to School”, “The Weather”, “Going Shopping” etc., but not stories. He keeps forgetting what he has learned. Stories would be easier to remember. After ten years of weekly lessons, he still cannot conduct a simple conversation in Mandarin. He can occasionally answer a simple question only with difficulty and haltingly. He is not stupid, but is a top student in his school.

  22. Alex said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 9:22 pm

    Seeing posts like this gave me the added courage to say to my son, don’t worry about not scoring well on the tingxie part. He is able to read many Chinese books and he can type daily emails to his grandfather in the States via pinyin. That is good enough. With the time he saves he plays with his younger brother, sleeps more, plays the guitar which he enjoys, and reads more books like national geographic kids.

    The logical arguments and weekly posts were significant in helping me decide this path for my sons as I see the “writing” on the wall and have no desire to “waste and torture” their childhood. I can envision the emphasis on writing going the path of photography film development centers within 15 years due to “disruptive” technology.

    My comment is a “diatribe” :-)

  23. Dave Cragin said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 9:31 pm

    I can absolutely relate to Victor’s comment about speaking versus writing. In fact, I sent a wechat on this earlier this evening to a Chinese friend.

    In Chinese, my speaking is better than my writing and my writing is better than my reading.
    In contrast, when I was learning French & German, I could often read things I couldn’t say. This never happens in Chinese (never).

    In addition, I could always read French or German better than I could write them. The opposite is true with Chinese; I can write Chinese much more easily than I can read it.

    When I want to write something in Chinese, I know what I want to say. The software is remarkably smart at picking the right characters when I type the pinyin. Because of this, I normally can recognize the characters to express the words that I want to write. The software makes me seem much more knowledgeable with characters than I actually am.

    In contrast, when reading a note from a friend, I don’t necessarily know the context of each character. Also, because there are no spaces between “words”, you just have to know based on the context that this one is a one character word, this one is a 3 character word, etc.

    Hence, the speaking–writing-reading chasm for Chinese learners is likely far greater than with those of most other language.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

    “these irrelevant diatribes”

    Let’s lay off the dismissive, censorious rebukes, and listen to all the other voices, please.

    I’m correcting assignments all night, so don’t have time to say more now, but will tomorrow. In the meantime, I appreciate very much those whose comments show a clear understanding of the vital issues that are at stake.

  25. Vanya said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 7:00 am

    I do find it surprising that Chinese pedagogy is apparently moving backwards the way Professor Mair describes. When I studied Mandarin at Yale in the 1980s the focus was certainly on speaking. My wife had the same experience learning Chinese at Connecticut College. In fact she became a fluent Mandarin speaker with an excellent accent, but never graduated beyond reading fairly basic texts (and she had no love for Classical Chinese). I thought that was a fairly common experience among American students of Mandarin, or at least it was in the 1980s. Has the supply of quality Mandarin teachers simply not kept pace with demand?

    We also used the Jorden books to learn Japanese in the 1980s, and they are great, although in retrospect I think a Kana based approach to Japanese would work fine.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 7:40 am

    I won’t comment on Anthony Kuhn, but I would like to second comments about the need to teach the spoken language before plunging into the intricacies of writing. This is based on bitter experience.

    Having studied some basic spoken Mongolian in Mongolia, in 2012-2015 I attended weekly classes in Beijing that had the aim of fostering Mongolian language and culture. The classes were free of charge and mainly attracted ethnic Mongols who wished to reconnect with their heritage. Some had learnt the spoken language but never learnt how to write it, some had been to Mongolian schools in their childhood but had forgotten much of their Mongolian, others had virtually no knowledge of their language and culture at all. While the aims were laudable, the approach to teaching the language was extremely poor. Due to the crisis that Mongolian is facing in China, the focus at the time seemed to be on preserving a narrow version of the culture (ethnic culture and customs), including a dogged attempt to inculcate the written language. Since traditional Mongolian is quite a difficult script, this entailed large amounts of time being devoted to teaching the script before teaching the language. The reason I was given is that if students are taught to speak first, they develop poor writing habits.

    The course started by teaching traditional syllabic writing, which took six months, followed by the reading of texts in phonetic fashion — that is, exactly as they were spelt. This is a problematic approach since the spelling and the actual spoken pronunciation can be quite different. An example is üürex ’to carry on the back’, which is spelt egürxü. It is like teaching English-speaking students to pronounce ‘night’ as something like nig he t or ‘leave’ as lee ay vee. Many students laboured away without even knowing that they were not learning the language as it was pronounced. When they were later taught how to relate this spelling pronunciation to the actual pronunciation, a number never quite made the transition.

    The teachers were ethnic Mongolian university students, many of whom were not trained in methods for teaching non-speakers. They simply taught what they had been taught at school, and in schools in Inner Mongolia that is exactly how primary school students are taught — that is, several years of spelling pronunciations before moving on to the actual spoken pronunciation. The difference is that young children in Mongolian schools can already speak the language, having learnt it from their parents, and teachers teach them in that language. This is quite different from the situation in our classes. Having spent well over a year teaching students the spelling pronunciation, followed by a hasty transition to the actual pronunciation, the teacher then moved on to introduce points of grammar, mostly from an academic perspective. Little attempt was made to teach the basics of conversation or, most of the time, to even speak Mongolian in class. As a result, when they finished the course, students who already had some Mongolian had slightly improved vocabulary and reading. Students who started with no Mongolian learnt a few words and expressions, some song lyrics, and the basics of the written language, but essentially remained unable to communicate in Mongolian. The dismal failure to teach people to speak Mongolian was a direct result of the decision to concentrate on writing at the expense of speech. I am grateful to the course for teaching me how to read that wonderful alphabet, but my spoken Mongolian actually went downhill during the course.

    I hear that the school has reappraised its approach in the past two years but I don’t know how big an impact this has had on the teaching.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 8:00 am

    Here’s a more detailed discussion of what Bathrobe talked about in the preceding comment:

    Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching” (12/2/12)

  28. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    This kind of video definitely deserves an “[X]-porn”-style name, but “foreigner-speaks-East-Asian-language-adequately-porn” is a tad unwieldy. It is fundamentally an East Asian fetish (recall Kuhn = viral star), but those of us who have spent time learning such a language ourselves seem also to develop an uncomfortable obsession with it…

  29. Edwin Schmitt said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 1:19 am

    @Alex The point I was making is that despite the fact that *I* am a native English speaker I still think (and yes dream) in characters and not pinyin…which is why I said that *I* cannot imagine what it would be like to speak Chinese without learning characters. I am not denying the possibility that one can learn to speak Chinese strictly through pinyin. But the argument being discussed here is that learning characters is somehow detrimental to learning spoken Chinese. Of course pre-1949 most Chinese speakers did not think about their language in terms of characters, but they did not think with any form of written language precisely because they never learned one. I don’t see how your point is relevant at all. The fact that you never learned to use characters and that young children dream has nothing to do with whether characters hold back students from learning how to speak Chinese.

  30. Alex said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    @Edwin Schmitt

    ” The fact that you never learned to use characters and that young children dream has nothing to do with whether characters hold back students from learning how to speak Chinese.”

    I don’t purport to be a neuro-scientist so i cant say for certain that characters hold back or does not have some subtle/non obvious way to help students learn how to speak.

    I can say time is limited. So we can speak to efficiency. The following is just my observation.

    When my older son was just beginning to build his English vocabulary he used flashcards with pictures on the back. Now very early on he had a good command of basic phonetics. When he came across a word he doesn’t recognize he could try to sound it out cat, hat, rat, and bat. The cards had three words like nut cut hut on one side and on the other side the picture of a nut and next to it the word etc. You need to remember his first language was Chinese as was 95% of his environment as we live in Shenzhen China and my wife and I speak with one another using Chinese.

    It didn’t take him much time to learn/build his English vocabulary/ how to say cat hat rat bat and learn their meanings. He learned words via pictures on things he had yet encountered. Now how could he do that by himself with Chinese characters on one side and the picture on the other?

    Boat coat goat float
    Meat seat heat neat
    bite kite white write
    hide ride wide slide
    cute flute glue blue

    van can tan
    leg peg beg
    lime time dime
    tail nail mail
    meal seal heal
    five hive dive
    tune dune june
    cub tub rub
    hen pen den
    case vase base
    row mow bow
    cob job sob

    I copied some of his cards and work sheets to show you examples. (His younger brother uses these, thus on hand) Both worksheets and cards have pictures. Please excuse the showing of so many examples, I did it to show how many words kids can learn how to say. (there are hundreds more)

    This is why pinyin was invented to help children build vocabulary / learn to speak using more words.

    For Chinese its 2 steps pinyin and picture then memorize the Chinese character.
    Whereas English there is 1 step. This is why in the public schools here grade 1 and preschool they teach pinyin first.

    I am sure there is some benefit to being forced to memorize 1000’s of characters but one can argue walking up and down 8 flights of steps 6 times a day has benefits that riding the elevator does not. Perhaps in my own case I should do that! But for my two boys who have limited time Id rather them take the elevator.

    PS the topic was speaking but I will add he quickly learned how to write/spell these “simple” words so he can write short stories.

  31. Alex said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

    I am sorry it is late here, 2am,

    I should have added in the PS when the Chinese child is learning the pinyin for example “chibang” the English one is learning “wing”. Then as the Chinese child is learning the characters for chibang 翅膀, the English child is moving on to the next word.

    Finally which takes longer to learn/remember, how to say, read and write
    1 chibang
    2翅膀
    3 wing

    or both “chibang” and “翅膀” vs “wing(s)” as the kid going to school here needs to learn both chi bang in pinyin and 翅膀

  32. Victor Mair said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    From Yao Liu:

    It’s not entirely irrelevant to bring up the fact that many foreigners often have difficulty with handwriting characters, and how one could achieve fluency without being able to instantly recall characters off the top of their head. It’s just that we don’t know that in Anthony Kuhn’s case.

    I’d suggest that next time this comes up, if VHM happens to know the person, why not let him/her speak for themself about their experience learning Chinese, how their handwriting skills/abilities are, and if they would want for a complete or partial Romanization? A little questionnaire should work well. In my opinion, Dashan (大山 Mark Rowswell) and Julien Gaudfroy (朱力安) have the best Mandarin of all the foreigners (can google them), completely free of accents, and they both started at/after college (though they both had the benefit of living in China, and trained in xiangsheng, or cross-talks, for years). Dashan has actually been a commenter on LL, so he’d probably be willing to write a guest post, if he’s not busy giving stand-up comedies in Mandarin around the world.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 12:44 am

    Please remember that, throughout history, the vast majority of Sinitic speakers didn’t know any Chinese characters, including how to sign their own name, yet they were fully fluent in their various mother tongues. So this is proof that you don’t have to know any Chinese characters to speak fluent Sinitic languages. It’s still that way for speakers of Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and all the other topolects that do not have a standard Sinographic form.

    I have always advocated learning languages “like a baby” as being the most effective and painless method for learning how to speak. Children become fluent in their mother tongue before they go to school and start to learn how to read and write. Moreover, as I have pointed out many times on Language Log, even when they do go to school, all children in China begin the process of acquiring literacy through Pinyin (Romanization). Here again, we are faced with the nonessentiality of characters for acquiring mastery of the spoken language.

    People who have a fetish for the characters, putting them in first place from the very beginning of the language learning experience (many teachers and students do adopt this approach), seldom develop native fluency with natural rhythm, intonation, cadences, and overall expressiveness. I know quite a few people who can read Chinese fairly well and handwrite it passably with great effort, but whose spoken Mandarin is painful to listen to because it is so labored, mechanical, and unnatural — and here I’m talking about people who have been studying and working actively with Chinese for as much as half a century or more. These are the types who are glued to the characters (many are close associates of mine, but they got off on the wrong track and developed bad language learning habits before I could convince them otherwise).

    Conversely, the best speakers of Sinitic languages I know — and I’m talking about dozens of specialists, some of whom are renowned for their fluency in Mandarin and who have been actively involved with Chinese language learning, teaching, and usage for up to half a century or more — all put characters in a decidedly secondary place in their acquisition of Mandarin (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, etc.). Among these, some of the very best began their learning of Mandarin with Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR; “National Language Romanization”, tonal spelling), as designed and advocated by Y. R. Chao, one of the most distinguished Chinese linguists of the 20th century, when it was still used at places like Harvard and Princeton.

    We should not ignore julie lee’s testimony about her grandson’s experience taking Mandarin lessons with a private Chinese teacher for ten years, and still not being able to speak Mandarin — despite the fact that he is intelligent and comes from a family where learning Mandarin is encouraged. Why is this? Because his teacher emphasizes characters and measures his progress in how many characters he has learned. I’ve seen this tragedy unfold time and time again in families where learning Chinese was strongly encouraged, and where the children were judged by how many characters they had memorized, even getting certificates for knowing 500, a thousand, or in exceptional cases even two thousand characters by the time they get out of high school, but still not being able to speak sufficiently well to converse on any topic beyond the bare minimum (“Hello. How are you? What’s your name?”) etc. I knew several students in Chinese weekend schools who won character memorization certificates, but whose best spoken efforts consisted almost entirely / mainly of things like “duì, duì, duì (yes, yes, yes)”, “bù, bù, bù (no,no,no)”, “wǒ bù zhīdào (I don’t know”), “wǒ bù huì (I can’t)”, and so forth.

    We should also take to heart what Alex said about dreaming in Chinese without characters. I have very few dreams (maybe three or four a year), but when I do dream in Chinese, there are never any characters (or Pinyin, for that matter) around, just the sounds of the words and the meanings they convey.

    Finally, something I have mentioned before on Language Log, but it merits repeating, is that my wife’s very best students in fifty years of teaching Mandarin at the University of Washington, Oberlin [the center in Taiwan]), Middlebury (summer school), Harvard, Bryn Mawr, University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore all had an innate resistance to learning the characters during the early stages of language acquisition. They told her they wanted to concentrate on mastering the fundamentals of the language (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.) first and not get hung up on the characters. Because Li-ching was a sensitive, flexible teacher, she made special provisions to accommodate such students. They knew, and she knew, that the characters would come later in due course, and they would come more easily than if they were forced on the student before they were comfortable with the language itself. I should note that several such students went on to distinguished careers as Sinologists and in other fields involving the use of Chinese language.

  34. Eidolon said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

    “When my older son was just beginning to build his English vocabulary he used flashcards with pictures on the back. Now very early on he had a good command of basic phonetics. When he came across a word he doesn’t recognize he could try to sound it out cat, hat, rat, and bat. The cards had three words like nut cut hut on one side and on the other side the picture of a nut and next to it the word etc. You need to remember his first language was Chinese as was 95% of his environment as we live in Shenzhen China and my wife and I speak with one another using Chinese.”

    In my experience, when people do this, they are either learning a second language, or memorizing vocabulary for the sake of taking what is, in all likelihood, a literacy test. And in terms of results, it’s only the latter that benefits much from such an approach.

    Children should not have to learn their first *spoken* language through memorizing vocabulary. At least no one I know have ever done so. It just comes naturally as a consequence of the speech environment. People figure out the words for objects, ideas, etc. through hearing other people speak about them. They don’t need to be literate to do that.

    In fact, this is what has happened for thousands of years, since most of the public in every country have always been illiterate, and so could not have used the writing system as an aid of any sort for learning their native tongue.

    It is also what works best, in my opinion, for second language fluency. Environmental immersion, not rote learning. Among my own contacts – and with me included – those who attempted to learn a second language through attending classes & rote learning had a high risk of failing to obtain fluency. By contrast, those who immersed themselves in the environment of that language, typically acquired it successfully.

    So I agree with those who state that the best way to achieve fluency in a language is to learn it strictly by listening and speaking that language – every day, at every moment, when possible. Literacy will come later, and at a higher cost in the case of writing systems like Chinese, but it is an independent task that should not be confused with fluency. Using flash cards to expand your vocabulary might work well for an upcoming vocabulary test, but it is not likely to improve your long-term proficiency in the language or even vocabulary, as most people will soon forget what they don’t use. As such, I wouldn’t waste much time with these methods unless it is necessary to pass a particular class which, in turn, doesn’t speak well of our education system.

  35. Alex said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

    @Eidolon said
    “Children should not have to learn their first *spoken* language through memorizing vocabulary. At least no one I know have ever done so. It just comes naturally as a consequence of the speech environment. People figure out the words for objects, ideas, etc. through hearing other people speak about them. They don’t need to be literate to do that.”

    Totally agree on first “spoken” language and speaking.

    However for first “reading and writing” spelling flashcards and workbooks to show relationships of sounds in my experience are terrific. Things like cat in the hat books are super as they have “made up words” and quickly the child. Most importantly many kids enjoy them. My younger son’s favorite is Whacky Wednesday.

    “It just comes naturally as a consequence of the speech environment. People figure out the words for objects, ideas, etc. through hearing other people speak about them.”

    This is another huge topic. One that could use its own post. It has to do with loanwords. To give an example wherever I go I try my best to bring my children. When I am lets say hotel I have what my wife calls an annoying habit. (she now doesn’t mind as much.) I would point out objects and say the English word. “chandelier” “ornament” etc this is because I realize there are so many objects workbooks and books wouldn’t have. I would then try to find out the Chinese word for such object with my phone or asking my wife or someone. I would then point and say the words to my kids and ask them to repeat and test again later on and when we see the objects again. More often than not for many words my wife who is near 40 wouldn’t know or couldn’t be sure of the correct term as China has only relatively recently imported 1000s of new “objects” into the vocabulary. So what happens is kids here do not hear the local word for things as many adults end up not saying the word. “look at the pretty ornaments or chandelier” I guess this will change for the better given time perhaps within a few generations.

    I easily see how much English my sons have learned via media, shows designed for kids that are fun are a tremendous asset. Things like Wally Kazam, Little Einstein, Dora the Explorer, Peg and Cat etc. They try to be interactive as they ask questions by breaking the fourth wall.

    “Using flash cards to expand your vocabulary might work well for an upcoming vocabulary test, but it is not likely to improve your long-term proficiency in the language or even vocabulary, as most people will soon forget what they don’t use.”

    Yes the key is the “forget what they don’t use” beginner flash cards usually are common daily items. It is those “SAT” type flashcards that are less long term useful.

    That said, “forget what they don’t use” is exactly the issue with the hand writing system here.

  36. Alex said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

    There are many articles such as these

    http://literacy.rice.edu/thirty-million-word-gap

    http://www.npr.org/2013/12/29/257922222/closing-the-word-gap-between-rich-and-poor

    That show “”It just comes naturally as a consequence of the speech environment. People figure out the words for objects, ideas, etc. through hearing other people speak about them.”

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