In "Sinological suffering" (3/31/17), "Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17), and other recent posts, we examined the difficulty, for some the near impossibility, of mastering how to write hundreds and thousands of Chinese characters. Yet, if one wishes to become literate in Chinese, one simply must do it. Until the 21st century, there was basically only one way: rote copying of the characters to engrave them in the neuromuscular pathways of the learner.
The following photographs are from the WeChat account of a Chinese teacher in Shenzhen and were forwarded to me by Alex Wang, who knows her and has made them available for this post. They show the practice writing of a Russian expat student in China. The characters which he has written hundreds of times each are:
mù 木 ("wood"), mén 门 ("door"), wǔ 五 ("five"), rù 入 ("enter"), lì 力 ("strength; force; power" — note the abortive start on the first character), tā 她 ("she"), tā 他 ("he"), mǎ 马 ("horse"), and ma 吗 (question particle)
Bear in mind that this brute repetition goes on day after day after day. What you see here is not enough to master just these nine characters. You have to keep practicing them over and over and over; if you don't do so, you'll lose command of them.
The teacher praises her expat charge, a Russian, thus: “Such a diligent student!”
Alex says that he sees parents and teachers in Shenzhen praising their children in the same manner.
It immediately struck Alex that Paul Newman could be praised in the same way in the movie "Cool Hand Luke" digging a ditch and then filling it in with the dirt he just dug up. Over and over again.
That ditch is Boss Kean's ditch. And I told him that dirt in it's your dirt. What's your dirt doin' in his ditch?
I don't know, Boss.
You better get in there and get it out, boy.
Comment by Alex:
HOW DILIGENT HE WAS!
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the teacher's Weixin moments were worth literally tens of thousands of words! It made me even more convinced I chose the right path for my sons. They can read Chinese, they can type and select the characters they want. Just say no to Ting Xie! I think I might on a whim have some stylized t-shirts made for the sweltering summer here!
That (above) is how NOT to learn Chinese.
This is also how not to learn Chinese:
Here are a few positive suggestions for how to go about it:
- "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)
- "How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)
- "The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)
- "Learning to read and write Chinese" (7/11/16)
Two basic rules:
- Emphasize spoken language (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc.) during the initial stages.
- Utilize the best and most advanced electronic aids for reading and writing after you have acquired a solid foundation in the spoken language.
The sad, almost perverse, thing about traditional Chinese language pedagogy is that it begins with and continues throughout to emphasize the written language. The fact that many teachers still regularly inflict tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation") on their students shows that they are still stuck in antediluvian teaching methods. Given the intelligent, advanced electronic learning tools that are already available, with the prospect of continuous improvements ahead, tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation") and the copying of characters hundreds and hundreds of times no longer makes sense. Do we require students in physics and mathematics to do all their calculations with a slide rule, much less by hand on paper?