How to learn Chinese and Japanese

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Some years ago (in 2008, as a matter of fact), I wrote a post entitled "How to learn to read Chinese".  The current post is intended as a followup and supplement to that post.

Earlier this week, I received from Tom Bartlett, who has had a tremendous amount of experience teaching Chinese at some of the best universities in the world, the following paragraphs:

Y. R. Chao, in the Introduction to Mandarin Primer, recommends that students learn all 24 lessons of the book in GR  only, to establish a strong basis in the spoken language, then to restudy the book a second time, only then starting to read in characters.  At Princeton we did each lesson that way:  one week entirely in GR then a second week in characters.

[VHM:  GR = Gwoyeu Romatzyh / National Romanization (a type of tonal spelling devised by Y. R. Chao)]

Is Eleanor Jorden’s Beginning Japanese still much used?  It took students through 40 lessons entirely in romaji, without a single kana or kanji in the entire two volumes.  I did about 30+ lessons before starting to learn kana, and found it very effective for absorbing the spoken structures quickly.

I replied to Tom:

You see how smart and perceptive truly brilliant linguists like Y. R. Chao and Eleanor Jorden were!  I completely agree with their approach.  Ditto for John DeFrancis (JDF).

If I were the czar or god of Chinese and Japanese language pedagogy, I would not teach students a single Chinese character until they were relatively fluent — about two years.  I've always said that we should learn languages the way babies do; they learn to speak long before they learn to write.

Eleanor Jorden (praise be her name!) understood that principle well, and she taught people like Ron Walton (at Penn [deceased now]) and Galal Walker (at Ohio State) who followed her precepts.  Others who understand the importance of mastering the spoken language first are Bob Sanders (Auckland, NZ) and Cornelius Kubler (Williams College) — Neil was also trained under Eleanor Jorden (there are others who stress spoken language too; I cannot name all of them).

My dear wife, Li-ching, went as far as she could toward deemphasizing the characters during the early stages of learning Mandarin within the confining curricula of Harvard, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore.

Jerry Packard published a relevant study in 1990:

Jerome L. Packard, "Effects of Time Lag in the Introduction of Characters into the Chinese Language Curriculum," The Modern Language Journal, 74.2 (1990), 167-175.  (Here is a pdf.)

Jerry found that the time lag of delayed character introduction improved students' ability to discriminate Chinese sounds, and improved their fluency.

Gene Buckley comments:

Thanks for pointing out that article; it’s very interesting that a rather modest time lag has this effect, but I guess it only takes a few weeks to persuade them that Chinese is more than characters!  His explanation seems right to me.

I was fortunate that when I wanted to learn a bit of Japanese before traveling there in 2007, a colleague had Jorden’s books on his shelf.  It was nice to see someone really pay attention to the fact that it’s a pitch accent language!
Long-term experiments in China have demonstrated the validity of the same principle (see the link at the very beginning of this post, also under "Z.T." here).

Jim Unger notes:

Jorden was even clearer, in her Written Japanese, which she co-authored with Hamako Ito Chaplin, on how it was to be used in conjunction with Beginning Japanese.  The basic principal is:  never demand that students read/write things they do not already know as language/speech.  The writing system is introduced after a suitable foundation in speech is laid; gradually, as progress in both speech and writing continue, the gap is closed so that, in the end, students can start using authentic written materials on a self-study basis to improve their overall linguistic/cultural competence.  The main thing is Jorden's rule of not trying to teach students to read/write that which they cannot say/understand already.

BJ and WJ were later superseded by Japanese: The Spoken Language and Japanese: The Written Language, co-authored with Mari Noda, which is very much still being used by strong programs around the country.

The closest thing to these materials for Chinese are DeFrancis's textbooks.

Stephan Stiller observes:

This follows the idea of primacy of speech for all languages (with the exceptions of Literary Sinitic (LS) and sign languages, and the exceptional status of LS has as I understand been partially questioned).

Elaborating on that idea, if speech is (on a cognitive level) primary, the characters are "attached" to already existing words (in a "lousy phonetic script" (JDF) manner) with some weak semantic clues. That characters are "attached" to words that are already stored in phonetic form (i.e.: as phoneme or syllable/"mora" sequences) seems certainly the only way one could possibly master Japanese kanji, as to predict their use from semantic considerations seems impossible (unlike for Chinese, where we can in many cases state "rules" like "的 is pronounced dì when it means 'target'").

Delaying characters will undoubtedly improve speech performance because characters are distracting and take up a lot of time and will be stressful to students without a good visual memory. But for that same reason one can argue that characters should be introduced earlier than (say) 2 years in, because they take longer to absorb.

Therefore I would think that the study one would ultimately want to perform is to monitor over a course of 4-5 years the acquisition of fluency and character knowledge, comparing 2-3 overall strategies:

  1. simultaneous introduction
  2. gradual explicit introduction
  3. a total delay of (say) 2 years after which characters are meant to be learned through extensive reading

I'm thinking that one could split option 3 into 3a and 3b, where 3b would be as above and 3a would be to try to let the student learn passively from early on, which would mean "through extensive reading of simple texts where the introduction of characters is gradual" – akin to what the Sanders-Yao textbooks do.

Given my remarks in the following paragraphs regarding Japanese, I know that many (but how many?) Japanese textbooks limit kanji exposure in their vocabulary lists. I think characters there were delayed beyond what the scope of the jōyō kanji list would require, but an expert will know for sure. In general, it will be instructive to learn from Japanese language educators, who I'm sure have something to say.

Jorden's "Japanese: The Spoken Language" textbook series also caught my attention because it teaches pitch accent.

Almost all textbooks and other instructional materials ignore pitch accent, and many (though not all) dictionaries don't indicate it either. I never understood why.

Pitch accent varies regionally, but so do all aspects of Japanese (and in fact all aspects of any language), and Tokyo serves (as I understand) as the standard for all areas of Japanese, not only pitch accent. There's a reason there's the NHK pitch accent manual.

It's also not that pitch accent is better learned through immersion. It's like saying "we don't indicate stress in our English vocabulary lists because the student will learn it through immersion" or "we don't make distinctions re vowel length (or: the tense-lax vowel pairs) in our phonetic transcriptions for German because the student will learn them through immersion". Or if pitch accent is magically better suited for immersive learning, I really want to see an argument for that.

I think it was Haruhiko Kindaichi who wrote something similar (to try to learn pitch accent explicitly in order to not sound like a foreigner) in his book, but I don't have the reference at hand.

Might have to do with kana not indicating it and instructors not being familiar with it (for that very reason) and consequently language resources not showing it.

Bob Ramsey observes:

Like many in my generation, I, too, used Beginning Japanese for the first two years of instruction, and yes, we also delayed the study of writing.

Very few places these days use BJ, and most places that still follow Jorden use her later textbook series, "Japanese the Spoken Language", in three volumes that she co-authored with Mari Noda, now at Ohio State.  As you probably know, that textbook series is used over the course of three years of pretty intensive instruction, and it's supposed to cover the "basic" structure of Japanese before more advanced students move along and branch into specialized or particularized Japanese instruction.

But some years after the completion of JSL, Jorden and Noda put out, in various field editions, a companion series, "Japanese the Written Language", which begins introducing written prose based upon vocabulary and patterns already covered in JSL. Instruction using that companion series (which is still not entirely complete) usually begins, at least at most places, a few weeks after starting JSL with katakana, followed a couple of weeks after that by hiragana and, much later, by the introduction of a few basic kanji embedded into basic sentence patterns.  By the end of the first year, students usually finish Volume 1 of JWL as well as JSL, by which time they will have covered about 100 commonly used kanji, not learned in lists but rather embedded into natural Japanese written prose.

Let me add that one reason I like JSL far more than any other textbook is Jorden's beautiful, very pragmatic—actually brilliant—approach to teaching the structure of the language. What she says about the nature and use of, for example, that old bugaboo of language students and linguists alike, the particle wa, is elegant and more insightful than all those books about it more "theoretical" linguists have written over the years.  The only thing that comes close is Martin's incomparable Reference Grammar of Japanese.

From Richard Warmington:

When I started learning Japanese 30 years ago, the course in which I was enrolled used a textbook which did indicate pitch accent. That textbook was Osamu and Nobuko Mizutani's An Introduction to Modern Japanese. However, I don't think we were given much guidance on pitch accent in classes, and I think most of us students ignored it for the most part. The course also used one of Jorden's books, but it was her "Reading Japanese," in which hundreds of kanji are introduced, rather than a textbook which only used romaji.

The following year, those first-year textbooks were replaced with materials produced in-house, and there was no longer any reference to pitch accent at all, I'm afraid. Hiragana were taught from day one, and students were expected to master that script within four weeks. Romaji were never used after that point.

I suppose one reason why many Japanese dictionaries don't indicate pitch accent is that they may be primarily intended for use by Japanese people, who may be expected to know the pronunciation of the words. Maybe it's assumed that they are just looking for definitions?

As for romanized Chinese: for better or worse, I tried to exploit my knowledge of kanji as much as I could when I started teaching myself Mandarin (years after learning Japanese). I was somewhat influenced by Chao's Mandarin Primer, though, and became quite comfortable reading GR — see my comments here (the last two or three posts on the page).

From Perry Link:

Bravo for this statement.  You can add my name to the list of supporters.  Native-speaking teachers who like to begin with characters should reflect that they themselves, as native speakers, in fact learned in the order Chao and Jorden prescribed: oral fluency first, writing next.

[VHM:  Perry is referring to my reply to Tom Bartlett quoted above.]

N.B.:  What is said about "Chinese" above naturally refers primarily to Mandarin (see the discussion here), but can also be applied to any of the many Sinitic languages and topolects.

I've been involved with Chinese language teaching long enough (well over forty years; I have taught 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year Mandarin [I once taught 3rd and 4th year Mandarin simultaneously], and have been teaching Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese for thirty years) to realize that some students are attracted by the characters and that is one of the main reasons they opt to take Chinese language courses (this is especially true of so-called heritage learners).  They think that the characters are beautiful or exotic, and sometimes their parents want them to learn the characters to maintain the culture.  On the other hand, my experience, and the experience of my colleagues named above, abundantly attest to the wisdom and efficacy of learning the language first and the script later.

The advent of electronic devices for the computer assisted writing of characters has also brought about a sea change in the way they are learned and maintained.  David Moser will write a guest post on this subject before long.


If you delay introducing the characters, students' mastery of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and so forth, are all faster and more secure.  Surprisingly, when later on they do start to study the characters (ideally in combination with large amounts of reading interesting texts with phonetic annotation), students acquire mastery of written Chinese much more quickly and painlessly than if writing is introduced at the same time as the spoken language.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer, Bill Hannas, Brendan O'Kane, and Matt Anderson]


  1. Kirby said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 7:59 am

    In your aside about heritage learners ("so-called," though I don't know why you phrase it like that), I think you either overlook a significant portion of heritage speakers, or you're using a definition than I'm accustomed to. In my experience as a native English speaker learning Mandarin through university language schools in Taiwan, the heritage speakers that I've encountered have been mostly fluent in the spoken language already– albeit with a very limited register, since these are frequently second-generation children of immigrants who speak Chinese at home, and a second native language in school or at work. Most of the students I've met who fit this category came to Taiwan specifically to develop their Chinese.

    The heritage speakers I've met in my classes here do occasionally have non-Standard grammar or pronunciation in their spoken Chinese, and are in the class partially to learn to read and write (and thus expand their access to their heritage language while living in a non-sinophone country) and to "clean up" their spoken grammar so they can use their language in professional or academic settings.

    It's good to note that heritage learners exist and frequently come into language classes with slightly different goals than first-time learners, but I think it's important to recognize that these different goals may mean they have different needs from the class. A no-characters-until-third-year approach would be unreasonable for some of these learners.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:14 am


    "A no-characters-until-third-year approach would be unreasonable for some of these learners."

    I agree. That's why most major Chinese language programs have a variety of "tracks" to accommodate the radically different needs of students entering them.

    I said "so-called" because the terminology is not fixed and not everyone agrees with this particular way of referring to a certain group (or set of groups) who learn foreign (and for many of them not so foreign; perhaps we should say "second") languages in an English language environment.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    What is standard pedagogical practice (in the U.S. and/or other Anglophone countries) for teaching other foreign languages written in non-Latin scripts (e.g. Russian, Arabic, Hindi, and of course Korean)? Is delaying instruction in the script always the optimal path, or is this an issue specific to Chinese/Japanese because of the magnitude of the difference in scripts?

    I am pretty sure than as a young boy in Tokyo I could "read" (i.e. correctly decode) certain kanji frequently used e.g. in signage which I couldn't consistently remember/pronounce the words associated with and could likewise say certain useful fixed phrases (e.g. "ikura desu ka") which I couldn't necessarily have written other than in romaji. They were separate skills with separate practical applications. On the other hand, learning kana (not much harder than learning e.g. cyrillic) was a useful quick-and-dirty way to learn Japanese phonotactics and thus make sure everything you might try to write out in romaji was phonologically plausible.

  4. rgove said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Victor Mair is, of course, primarily concerned with people learning Chinese outside of a Chinese speaking country. For someone learning within China, making no effort to acquire the characters until the third year would severely restrict their ability to live as an independent adult, no matter no matter how good their grasp of the spoken language might be.

  5. C said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    We used Nakama volumes 1 and 2 at the community college where I studied Japanese for the first two years (I still consider myself an intermediate student, even after studying a year afterwards at a smaller instructional setting). I loved the Nakama books, and they did not emphasize kanji until well into the first semester coursework. However, in the classroom, as a complete neophyte, I recall being absolutely lost the first couple of weeks, and even just the effort of trying to learn hiragana was difficult to me as I tried to also keep up with the basic grammar and vocabulary. I think if the course had been approached the way Victor Mair argues, I would have been much better off.

    Our native born Japanese instructors were very very very firm with us, though, that we *must* dispense with romaji as soon as absolutely possible. If I recall correctly, I think we were pretty much discouraged from using that from the second class onwards.

  6. Kirby said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:57 am


    That's absolutely been the leading cause in my own education trajectory: I have to read to eat! Luckily, the program that got me through the hardest part of adjusting (National Sun Yat Sen University's Chinese Language Center) was massively immersive in a way that I understand to be very rare in the States. From the onset of our studies, we got zero spoken English, and extremely little written English. This was in part because the program's students are largely not native speakers of English; many of the students who come to Taiwan to study Mandarin are coming from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, or a handful of European countries. One of the most pressing incentives to develop my spoken Chinese quickly was that it was the only common language I had with most of my classmates.

    @Victor Mair

    That clears up the question I had, thank you.

    In general, I'd also add that concentrating on explicit teaching of grammar was, for me, invigorating and exciting when taught completely through the medium of the target language, but was at times frustrating or entirely impenetrable for my classmates. (These were generally the classmates who were much more fluently conversational earlier on than I was, I'll note.) So, I wonder, if you were indeed the czar of Chinese pedagogy… Chinese-medium teaching of Chinese syntax and so on? Is it worth the headache of potentially confusing half the students?

  7. Kirby said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    OH! I want to add a possibly-superfluous thing: in Taiwan, students don't use a romanization, but instead use zhuyin fuhao (注音符號) to transcribe pronunciations. Besides being parallel to the way Taiwanese children are taught Mandarin in kindergarten, I've also been told that many native speaker teachers worry that using pinyin will lead English-speaking students to mispronounce words as if they're still reading English, and that the alternate system helps to prevent this.

    While I see plenty of good evidence in favor of keeping characters out of the way until much later, do you think there's any good reason to keep English readers away from Roman letters?

  8. J. R. Omahen said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 11:13 am


    The overall push of this post I completely agree with. I have some experience teaching Japanese, and studied it for my University degree. I love teaching it, and would love to do it more if I could.

    Acquiring a solid grasp of the spoken language is absolutely essential in learning the written. As in L1, you must have a handle on the sounds, concepts and basic constructs of your target language.

    That being said, there is one thing I disagree with: the 2-year timespan. That is based off of a teaching method I find highly ineffective for a broad range of people. Much of the prevailing pedagogy uses far too much English in explaining grammar, syntax and vocabulary. I find students spend more time doing internal L1-L2 translation, and not enough L2-thinking.

    Other pedagogical minds like Ollendorff, Manesca et al., were strong proponents in introducting vocabulary and grammar in a serial fashion, small tidbits at a time, with enormous amounts of examples and exercises. The closest approach to this I've seen has been the UH Learn Japanese text. Strangely, they've ditched that text for a new one that I see as inferior in acquiring fundamental competency.

    Lastly focussing on speech, and primarily in the target language allows us to draw out proper pronunciation, and focus on the pitch-accent of the Tokyo dialect. It also gives us an opportunity to be exposed to other accents and Japanese dialects without being entirely lost.

    Overall, kudos! I'm glad there are like-minded teachers out there. Apologies for the lack of brevity.

  9. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    1. I've just checked. Kenneth Henshall (in "Welcome to Japanese") urges his readers to learn pitch accent. I'm not sure whether Haruhiko Kindaichi says the same thing, but I can recommend his informative explanations of the nature of pitch accent.

    2. As for rōmaji vs kana for Japanese: I don't have any objections to rōmaji, though kana are indeed simple enough to be learned quickly. Rōmaji makes it easier to indicate pitch accent, but kana makes some distinctions not made by many romanization schemes (re "ji", "zu", and certain long vowels – on the other hand, maybe the number of exceptions is small).

  10. Ellen K. said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    What comes to mind to me reading this post and the comments is that even in learning Spanish I think more learning through the spoken language rather than written would have been helpful in becoming fluent. And learning the Spanish alphabet (the written language and how it aligns with the spoken language) is I think easier than learning even a roman alphabet transcription of Japanese or Chinese would be.

    Another thought that comes to mind is that while I can read French (which I've never studied) for comprehension sometimes, using written French to learn how to speak French would be difficult. And that's using an alphabet I already know.

    So, yeah, from my outsider perspective, the idea of teaching the spoken language first and characters later makes a whole lot of sense.

  11. Chris said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    Forgive my ignorance here — interested layperson only — but I hope that when you say that students do not learn characters at the beginning, you mean that they are using a roman-letters transcription instead. Otherwise an oral-first language learning process would be pretty much lost on me, or at least would require some strenuous adaptation, since I personally have great difficulty attaching and retaining meaning to words if I can't envision some sort of written form. (Preferably at least vaguely phonetically coded, though I've managed both French and German.)

    I've always thought this reflected some sort of neurological quirk on my part, but perhaps it just means I've been too thoroughly acculturated to regard the written word as the primary form of language. (I was an early and self-taught reader.)

  12. michael farris said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    JW Brewer: "What is standard pedagogical practice (in the U.S. and/or other Anglophone countries) for teaching other foreign languages written in non-Latin scripts (e.g. Russian, Arabic, Hindi, and of course Korean)? Is delaying instruction in the script always the optimal path, or is this an issue specific to Chinese/Japanese because of the magnitude of the difference in scripts? "

    I don't have that much experience (and I suspect there is no standard practice) but IME

    The Japanese class I took (second year) was all kana (and students could add in as many kanji as they wanted though not that many were required. The policy seemed to be little by little to not overburden students.

    Thai uses an alphasyllabary and IME the more Thai a person knows before starting to learn the alphabet the better in terms of understanding the intricate and ingenious ways of spelling Thai words, Indian words are just a nightmare (etymological spelling with very little relation to the modern phonological shape of words with lots of letters not used elsewhere) but still easier the more a person knows the language.

    When I had Modern Greek they zipped through the alphabet very quickly in a class or two and that was all that was ever used in class. It's very easy to convert written Greek into the right sounds (much harder the other way around) but at least we used simple accent marking rather than the old complicated one.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 2:30 pm


    My introduction to Nepali was completely through oral immersion. I still remember the first three sentences I learned, and they helped me to grasp some essential features of grammar, not to mention a number of key words that are forever etched in my memory — completely through sound, without the intervention of any written symbols.

    This method of emphasizing speech over writing is NOT something that only English-speaking linguists advocate. Y. R. Chao (arguably the greatest Chinese linguist of the 20th century) was firmly in favor of such an approach.

  14. Ron said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    Excellent timing! I recently started my master's project for instructional design using your original article on Chinese as a jumping off point– I spent a few years dabbling in Japanese and Chinese while working in Asia as an English teacher, and found your original article to be a good example of a clear instructional path being outlined that surprisingly few programs and textbooks seem to follow. That sort of thing really hit home after years teaching English with less than realistic curricula.

    I too found Kubler's book to be great (it's what I'm using now that I'm finally focused on studying Chinese). It's a mention of Jorden (and Walton) in Kubler's book that led me to her work, but I hadn't realized that she authored those particular textbooks.

    For those interested, I'd like to recommend Liu Yongbing's "A Pedagogy for Digraphia" to anyone interested in Pinyin-focused education within China. It's a well organized literature review of just how big an impact changes like this can have for language learners.

    Based on what I read in Liu, it seems like it could be helpful to print the characters over/under the pinyin– you may not explicitly teach the characters in the first two years, but the learner would be exposed to them and get pretty good at recognizing some of the commonplace ones without explicit instruction. Is there a downside to that I'm missing? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

    Lastly, Packard's article is just what I was looking for to round out my first round of research, so thank you for posting that.

  15. Carl said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    I also learned Japanese from Nakama, and I think its approach is basically fine. I had already studied the kana on my own, so I probably wasn't as lost as some other students, but from my point of view, there's little difference between learning that "'ra' is pronounced with a sound between R, L, and D," and learning that "ら is pronounced with a sound between R, L, and D." You have to learn the Japanese sounds at some point, and they don't map onto English sounds in the simple ways you would expect from the romanization, so why not learn the kana at the same time?

    My only suggestion is that English learners should be taught katakana before hiragana, since when you see カード and mistakenly read it as KAAJI, it's easy to self-correct to KAADO based on the English word "card," whereas if you misread つき as TSUSA, there's nothing to trigger the impulse to self-correct to TSUKI.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 3:49 pm


    Thank you very much for mentioning Liu Yongbing's "A Pedagogy for Digraphia". This is something that my colleagues and I are going to have to take a very close look at, especially inasmuch as it deals with the development of Pinyin-aided instruction in China.

    I quite agree that phonetically annotated characters or character-annotated Pinyin is enormously useful for students who already have a grasp of the fundamentals of Chinese grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and so forth.

  17. Eric said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    @Kirby–"do you think there's any good reason to keep English readers away from Roman letters?" There might be–but there are probably also very good reasons to give them the support of familiar (roman) letters. As Chris noted above, many adult learners feel helpless without letters. If teachers withhold the letters, learners typically create their own (perhaps very misleading) systems (e.g., knee how = ni hao 你好). Even with Taiwan's bopomofo symbols, a native English speaker will probably rely on roman letters to interpret the sound-symbol relationships.

    Personally, I think the important thing is that learners get quick and accurate feedback on what letter-sound correspondences are. Or, maybe, there's room for some creative compromise: use roman letters where they're helpful, and substitute other symbols where the roman letters would be misleading (e.g. Pinyin 'x'). One classmate of mine who teaches high school students has used the latter approach, starting out with unfamiliar symbols to indicate sounds unique to Chinese, then gradually replacing them with standard Pinyin. Of course, this requires that he create materials himself and that's a potentially heavy burden for busy teachers. In any case, I think efforts like this are laudable, though getting adults to properly perceive and produce foreign sounds is going to be difficult regardless of how much pedagogical ingenuity a teacher brings to the task .

  18. Noel Hunt said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    As for pitch-accent marking, one must also mention Anthony Alfonso's 'Japanese Language Patterns', also written in the same style as the Bloch school (Jorden, DeFrancis, Samuel Martin), but with pitch-accent indicated.

    Actually I am not sure that they were all students of Bernard Bloch, but I believe I have seen them referred to as such.

  19. Anthony said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

    I think this approach is great for languages with complicated orthographies, but for a language like Korean, it makes little sense. Written Korean is learnable in a day or so, and learning the correct sound-letter combinations is much easier than learning a romanization, which may have multiple pronunciations. If one is going to teach how to pronounce the romanization correctly, you might as well do Hangeul and skip the intermediary. I would argue this for cyrillic and Greek as well.

    Two further points. I do like the idea of focusing on sounds first and learning spoken structures compared to written ones. I think its useful, pedagogically, to some extent. Then again, we are not babies and do not learn an L2 like our LI, especially if we are adults. Some of us (like me) crave written input.

    Which brings me to my final point of learner expectations. If I were to learn Japanese but find out that I would not meet any of the scripts for 1 or 2 years, I would be pretty upset. Part of studying a language is because of learning how to read and write cool orthographies. Unless clearly and convincingly explained to students, it may negatively affect their motivation.

  20. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

    I have always considered learning Japanese with romaji as a block to correct pronunciation. Certainly, I met many native English speakers in Japan who learned that way and did not progress well. The kana are quite simple and few in number, and with a little application can be learned in entirety in a month or so. By breaking the association between the roman alphabet and sounds in English in this way, you can learn to map new sounds to new symbols. I found it easier to go straight to kana then kanji rather than mess around with romaji.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

    Many of the commenters to this thread misunderstand what I said about avoiding characters during the initial stages of learning East Asian languages. I was only talking about hanzi / kanji / hanja because they are so time-consuming and difficult to learn, particularly through rote memorization near the beginning of exposure to languages in which they are used.

    Hanyu Pinyin, kana, Hangeul are easy to learn and can be used to record the sounds of these languages when necessary and convenient.

    I should also point out that many East Asian languages have no fixed character orthographies (Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc.), so if one wants to write them at all, pedagogical texts invariably use romanization.

  22. Chris Kern said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    Although it's worth pointing out that Jorden did not want kana used either because the resulting texts were not natural Japanese (since all-kana is never used other than children's books and a few other special cases). Her intro to JSL also indicates that she thinks if you use even kana before you learn to speak, you will associate the symbols with English (or roman letters) rather than sounds.

  23. Dave Cragin said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:49 pm

    In his original post of 2008, Dr. Mair notes opposition to the over-emphasis on brute force memorization of characters. As an adult learner of Chinese, I support this and take it one step further: the over-emphasis on grammar rules and memorizing individual words is also ineffective (i.e, J Omahen’s perspective is similar to mine). Learning to speak full sentences is much more effective.

    The old way of teaching a language via word memorization and grammar rules is akin teaching someone to sing by 1st having them memorize how to sing each word individually – give them a test – grade them on how each individual word is sung. Then give them a rule book (grammar) and have them to try to figure out how to sing the song. Songs taught this way would sound disfluent, as does language (and it’s a boring way to learn – learning to communicate is interesting).

    Despite getting good grades, my 7 yrs of German in junior high school thru college German reflected this rote approach: I could say lots of random words with appropriate grammatical gender, conjugate verbs, etc but I lacked effective verbal communication skills. It’s interesting that a few Chinese colleagues who had trouble communicating in the US after they spent >10 yrs learning English using rote memorization still thought that rote memorization is effective (how? –maybe after 20 yrs???)

    Another example is counting: Often people are taught to count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. This is worthless in regards to conversation because if you have to count in your head to say a number, the conversation is over before you get it. This also fails to engages one’s thinking process, it’s rote memorization with no application.

    In contrast, the 1st number I was taught in Chinese and Tagalog was how to order 2 beers, then I learned 8 o’clock, and 3 o’clock; not in order and always in a useful way. This latter approach gets one to think in the other language rather than trying to translate from English.

    First learning to speak sentences and phrases is the best way to learn a language. It gives you the cadence for the language that the written word can never do. It can also give an implicit sense of grammar. It's more interesting as well because it gives you skills you can actually use.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

    @Dave Cragin

    I thoroughly approve of the approach that you have described. It is both more effective and less painful than memorizing individual lexical items, grammar rules, and so forth. Learn things in context; absorb them through actual use.

  25. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

    But Japanese texts frequently use kana as furigana to denote the pronunciation of kanji for native speakers.
    I do agree that speaking comes first, but many Japanese expressions that are learned at the beginning of learning to speak are most usually represented in hiragana. They do have kanji representations, but these are only learned by native speakers after several years of learning kanji (e.g. ありがとう as opposed to 有り難う)
    I think that delaying kanji for two years becomes a problem for many learners.

  26. Ted McClure said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 12:00 am

    My experience was similar to that of Chris @ 12:41pm. I, too, was an early and self-taught reader of English. When seventh grade threw "ALM" French at me, we were taught only the spoken language (from pictures) through the first semester. At the start of the second semester came what seemed to me to be a whole new language – written French. I couldn't tie the two together. I tried two years of Latin, then two years of German with more conventional pedagogy and did better but not well – I couldn't recall all of the inflections in a timely manner for conversation. Later while living in Germany my conversation improved with practice, although southern Germans thought I was Dutch because my German was so bad. Gradually the written and spoken languages converged. If I had already known Latin and recognized Celtic sounds and phrasing, I might have understood French as Latin with a Celtic accent. Perhaps different brains learn languages differently, and we need diagnostics to tell us which pedagogy is best for which brain.

  27. Bruce said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    Speaking as someone who learned the characters and spoken language somewhat independently because at no time did I have the benefit of an extensive program of instruction let me mention a few things:

    First the concept "learn a Chinese character" is becoming reduced to two concepts"
    [a] recognize it
    [b] enter it into an electronic device
    and not
    [c] Draw it properly

    The main risk any self-learner runs into is lack of milieu. I learned written French quite well in my teenage years but I don't live in French speaking area.

    When I learned Chinese, I was living in Hong Kong. This is not primarily a Mandarin-speaking city but I got plenty of Cantonese-accented Mandarin (generally better than my English-accented Mandarin of course) and quite a few native Mandarin speakers … and of course reading Chinese signs was essential to my life even though HK's official language was supposedly English.

    So I didn't learn some bad habits in Chinese that took many years to break in French.

    The characters — if I had it to do over again I would have learned the characters from Reading and Writing Chinese by McNaughten & Li Ying.on a separate track from learning the spoken language. But I used a combination of "Beginning Chinese Reader" (deFrancis) and Practical Chinese Reader (Beijing Languages Institute)

    The latter book, unlike any other Chinese course I know about offers workbooks where you can trace/practice Chinese characters in detail. That's something that has dogged me from the beginning. I can draw recognizably reasonably complex characters like 海 or 香港 but the results are hardly works of art to a Chinese eye — even my eye! are ghastly.

    Thus to my view we are entering a strange era where learning the Chinese characters is perhaps not that difficult — if the goal is only to have the machine draw them and to recognize them in the field.

    I no longer live in China — but the opportunities to speak Mandarin come every single day in Vancouver. And in nearly every case that I do so I am rewarded with a comment usually in English like "I've rarely heard white men speak Chinese before". Of course it must not be true, but I'm glad they appreciate the effort.

  28. julie lee said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    Let me mention a successful example of immersion in language-learning—a Chinese person learning German. It may also apply to learning Chinese, though it's a drastic method.
    Years ago, after university in Taiwan, my brother (Chinese) who knew some English was denied a visa to America. Like many other Chinese, he got a student visa to Germany. He started learning German (from books) from scratch. When he arrived in Germany, he attended German language-classes for foreigners. He learned to read German, and to understand spoken German. But he simply couldn't speak German grammatically (compose grammatical German sentences on the spot), even though he had the vocabulary. So this is what he did: He put on earphones attached to a tape recorder that played spoken German all through the night. Every night the spoken German went into his ears while he was sleeping. After a time of this, he found he no longer had any trouble speaking German grammatically (composing grammatical German sentences on the spot).

  29. Michael Lorton said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    It never occurred to me that someone would even try to learn to write Chinese as they learned to speak it.

    If you're learning something reasonable phonetic–Korean, Hebrew, Russian–OK, go and learn the script.

    But my personal experience learning a language with even an abugida (an alphabet-like script where the consonants and vowels are combined into single glyphs), was that you need a phonetic script even to take notes.

    Trying to learn an ideogrammatical script like Chinese or kanji while still struggling with the language is just nuts.

  30. Nuno said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    How about learning how to write characters first and only then how to pronounce them and use them to form words?

    James W. Heisig argues quite convincingly in favour of this in the introduction to Remembering the Hanzi, available here:

  31. Eric said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    @Nuno. No doubt Victor will have something interesting to say about Heisig's method when he gets a chance. Here's my two cents: nearly any method imaginable will work for *someone*, and Heisig's books are quite popular so no doubt they've worked for quite a few people. That being said, there are likely many more who couldn't stomach the de-contextualized memorization of pre-determined stories for a thousand-plus characters before ever learning to speak a word or read a simple sentence–or even most words. Under Heisig's method, as I understand it, the word 厕所 cèsuǒ 'toilet' wouldn't be learned until after the learner memorized 1000+ characters (all without learning their pronunciation(s)). Until then, the learner would only have memorized the character 厕 and the character 所 (neither of which are words on their own) without putting them–or any others–together to make words.

    J. Unger has a chapter in his book "Ideogram" where he argues that Heisig's method is really just a re-discovery of a memorization trick used by the magician Harry Lorayne. To quote Unger (p. 82), "as a procedure for efficient learning, [Heisig's method] has little if anything to do with reading Japanese as Japanese. Heisig's method is a thoroughgoing technique for memorizing the equivalent of a dictionary, much as a magician might memorize the order of the cards in a stacked deck–a fine trick, but not the secret to winning poker." (Note: this was written before the Chinese-targeted versions of Heisig's books existed, but presumably Unger would hold the same view of those as he did of the Japanese versions.) I have to agree with Unger. Heisig's approach comes off like a gimmick: a feat of memory, followed by the normal challenges of language learning with the benefit that the visual forms of (some, definitely not all) characters don't have to be learned (assuming one doesn't forget them too quickly for them to be useful). The method only deals with character *recognition*. It has little to do with learning to read, much less learning to speak and understand spoken Chinese–which are presumably the primary goals of most beginning learners.

    Thinking about it from a psycholinguistic perspective, a major short-coming of the approach is that it completely divorces orthography from phonology. Research in both first and second language learning has repeatedly shown that readers make great use of the (admittedly quite limited) phonological information encoded in characters (e.g. 吧,把,爸 which all have the sound 'ba'). Heisig's method denies learners the use of this natural reading strategy and memory cue. Maybe this has no impact on the reading process in the long run, but it's a striking departure from how reading normally develops. That departure is kind of the whole point of Heisig's method–but to me it's a warning flag: proceed with caution!

    In short, if an individual wants to use Heisig's method, I wish them the best of luck, but if someone wanted to suggest it as a general approach to teaching Chinese in classrooms, I would object quite loudly.

  32. Nuno Sobral said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

    I'm not really a good example, since I was already conversational and an okay reader when I found out about Heisig. Therefore I've been studying the characters' pronunciation and usage as I'm going through the book.

    Still it has helped me tremendously.

    My favourite thing by far is that every thing now has a name. What I mean by that is that Heisig assigns *memorable* meaning to all components. Components like 木 or 月 take care of themselves. You can just look them up in a dictionary and get tree/wood and moon.

    But how about 圭? "An elongated pointed tablet of jade held in the hands by ancient rulers on ceremonial occasions" is not memorable. "Bricks", on the other hand, is. Note that Heisig makes it clear that that's what you can remember 圭 as, not what it *means*. He does this even for small components that are neither characters in and of themselves nor part of the traditional list of "radicals".

    This makes remembering how to write a character much easier. And I have noticed that knowing exactly how to write a character makes me a lot more confident when reading.

    I find that context pretty much takes care of itself. No ten minutes after learning mi2 谜 "riddle" from the book I encounter it in a songs lyrics and I can understand the sentence perfectly. A couple of days after learning zang3 葬 as "inter" (which was very easy based on its components), I stumbled upon zang3li3 葬礼 "funeral". I knew right away what it meant without even translating to "funeral" in my head. Before, I would have to take the time to look these up, and then probably forget them right away.

  33. Nuno Sobral said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 4:14 pm


    Phonetic components can also go the other way around. You remember bao3 堡 "fort" (as in 堡垒) using the components bao3 保 "protect" and tu3 土 "ground/dirt/soil", And than remember its pronunciation based on the component 保.
    Still I admit I'm not going to use this for characters like 嘿,嗨 or 嗖 any time soon. Then again those aren't hard to remember :)
    Heisig actually admits in the book that his method is, as it stands today, completely unsuited for classroom study. Nevertheless I think it would be great if Chinese teachers would teach more about character components and started encouraging the use of mnemonics.

    Olle Linge might have put it best:

    Know your mnemonics or die: 弋、戈、戊、戌、戍、戉、戎、成、或

  34. Eric said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    @Nuno Sobral–Thanks for sharing your experience! I only learned about Heisig's books year after I was able to read Chinese, so I have no experience with it as a learner. It sounds like he has useful and systematized mnemonics, which many learners might be able to use productively, though I'm sure not everyone will have patience to do so. My critique was aimed at his suggested method of learning characters *prior* to anything else. I have no strong opinions about the value of the mnemonics apart from that.

  35. Nuno said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 5:22 pm


    You are quite right. There are two different issues at stake here.

    I'm hoping someone who learned the written characters through Heisig and only then started to learn spoken Chinese or Japanese might comment. They could offer a more complete perspective than me.

  36. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    I believe Eric has hit the nail on the head with the comment that any method will work for someone since individuals have different preferred learning strategies (verbal, visual kinesthetic to varying degrees of each).

    I could not imagine having to learn Japanese for two years without kanji. But that's probably just me.

  37. DG said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 12:03 am

    In contrast to many people here, I find that I am completely unable to learn by immersive methods. It is far easier for me to learn nine rules that apply to a single word each than nine separate word. When someone teaches me how to order two beers, I can't use that at all until I understand what each individual word means and how the grammar of the sentence works. When people give me a hundred sentences to absorb without explaining what all the parts of speech are, what are the inflectional rules (not talking about Chinese here, obviously), etc., it makes me want to tear out my hair. This is how children learn, but I am not a child, I have a fair linguistics background, and I can use my higher reasoning facilities with some effect.

    If your goal is not to learn how to order beer tomorrow, but to study a language for several years, I think it's far better to do it systematically, from the bottom up. I know that many people feel differently, but I get an idea that people like me are being ignored as an irrelevant minority.

  38. maidhc said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 6:21 am

    I'd like to propose another concept. I'd like to read Chinese without having to learn to speak it.

    My goal is purely utilitarian. If I were plunged into a foreign environment, I would like to be able to read the signs. Speaking is not so important because I can buy a phrasebook and a dictionary for that.

    If I went to Russia, I think I could manage, because the Cyrillic alphabet is not too hard to understand. Arabic might be harder, but my mother learned to read Arabic even though she couldn't understand it. (She worked in a university library that had books in many languages.)

    Just because I encounter Chinese writing a lot, or I might like to go to China some day, I'd like to be able to recognize some Chinese characters. Not so I could read articles in a newspaper, but just enough to get around a bit. I don't really want to learn to speak Chinese. That would be nice, but it's more trouble than I want to go to. As an ignorant tourist I can just wave my arms and point to things. But it would be nice to be able to read some minimal vocabulary.

    As an example, I have a friend who was invited to visit a Chinese university. As far as lecturing, there was no problem because it was all in English. But figuring out things like where is the cafeteria was a problem because all the signs around campus were only in Chinese.

  39. Rodger C said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    I had a friend at DLI in 1969 who'd made straight As in German but who quickly flunked out of Spanish taught orally. His main problem was that, trained in a fellow Germanic language, he was flummoxed by the lack of a juncture phoneme: "You can't hear where the words begin and end!" he'd cry, as if this were unheard of. Judging from his transacription exercises, he also couldn't handle a language where final -e became tenser instead of laxer (if "laxer" is a word).

    I suspect that if he'd taken nothing (or another Romance language) before Spanish he'd have done better, but he was definitely someone for whom oral learning was wrong in his situation.

  40. Ron said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    @maidhc: you could always use the Heisig method to just learn vague associations with individual characters, but you have to remember that individual characters put together to form compound words are going to form entirely new words with different meanings just like any other language. You'll sometimes see two or three characters combined and correctly guess what they mean together, but just as often you'll be stumped.

    If you're really just hoping to find your way around and recognize useful things on, say, menus and tourist signage, and never aspire towards fluency, you'd do just as well to learn 100 or so basic characters– enough to get you used to both how characters are written and how to look at a character and see its component parts (as opposed to just a whole bunch of lines). This would be enough to let you write characters down or input them into a touchpad/smartphone by drawing them. Plus, you'd hopefully know a few basic tourist phrases. Anything more comprehensive is going to take too long to be particularly useful for a short trip. If you get Professor Kubler's book on Written Chinese in addition to his book on the spoken language and study them simultaneously, you'll learn enough in the first two lessons to find your way around a campus and find a number of Chinese cities on a map.

    Regarding Heisig in General: Dr. Mair has already discussed his dislike of mnemonic methods in a October 14th, 2009 post titled "How NOT to learn Chinese Characters." As a total beginner I found the first few lessons of Heisig helpful, but couldn't see myself slogging through the entire book because I had a limited amount of time in a day and found my study time better spent actually studying the language of the country I was in. If I had the entire day to myself and could have studied Heisig on top of a full day of language study, I don't know, perhaps that might have worked, but I couldn't justify it.

    Heisig sounded a lot more sensible to me at the time I was studying Japanese and each Kanji had multiple readings and there were fewer Kanji, ultimately, to worry about learning. The idea of working through Heisig's 3,000 kanji and then never having to worry about learning new Kanji for basic literacy sure sounded tempting. For Chinese, with so many more Hanzi to worry about (each one having fewer readings) Heisig seems less useful.

    The payoff doesn't seem particularly great in either case– the idea of shaving six months to a year off your learning time may sound compelling when you're just starting out, but the "spoken language first" method outlined above by Dr. Mair is going to be far less painful in the long run. Cram learning 3,000 hanzi at the beginning may let you pass the HSK level 1 earlier, but you'll probably get more mileage out of the language if you focus your limited time on actually learning to use it authentically.

    I've met numerous non-native English speakers who learned English by cram-learning vocabulary and grammar rules so that they could pass university entrance exams– great diagrammers of sentences, awful at small-talk and listening to an actual English conversation (as opposed to highly scripted audio comprehension drills). I find the talented people that can blitz-learn something effectively to be fascinating, but I'd much rather err on the side of painless and long-term at this point in life.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 10:48 am


    Cynthia Ning at the University of Hawaii has written a book that does just what you want. It has photographs of all sorts of signs in China with simple explanations of what they mean.

    When I was teaching in Hong Kong from 2002-3, I also saw a similar book like that in the bookstores there.

    Of course, this won't get you very far, but at least you'll probably know the difference between men's and women's toilets, and maybe — if you're good — which building is the post office, etc.

  42. Kevin McCready said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 5:20 pm

    Great post from Victor and from Dave Cragin. I support the evidence based approach you guys are taking and I hope the remnants of a grammar based approach continue to decline (though if individuals find it floats their boat, go for it).

    I agree with most of Victor and Dave's thrust though with an important qualification about tonal languages.

    If the goal is listening and speaking mandarin, ideally I would also avoid pinyin or any phonetic script in the early stages.

    This is of course very difficult to do. But if we make it a goal the challenge would be to simulate immersion in the language lab or learning environment. Victor's situational sentences are great. And Dave's sentences are great but I'd like to see sentences with minimal pairs embedded within them.

    Reminder on minimal pairs. An MP is two items which sound the same to a non-native speaker, but which are quite different to a native speaker. Students would listen to the two sentences, learn to discriminate between them and then learn to reproduce them. Very intensive of teacher time, but with a good language lab, quite achievable.

    I'm a professional Chinese to English translator (not interpreter) and struggle with tones which are outside the ones I learnt beautifully as a parrot. For everyday interactions Chinese people understand me perfectly, but as soon as the topic gets outside my tonal range (so to speak) unless they are familiar with people mangling tones, our communication slows down.

    So I'm currently entertaining another thought. Learn to chant the modern thousand Chinese characters 中华字经 (based on the idea of the Thousand Character Classic (千字文). It might get the tones embedded in my brain just like the kids do. Feedback on this would be welcome.

  43. Eric said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

    @Kevin McCready–There has been some interesting research done in the last decade (maybe 8 or 9 studies) that examines how perceptual training of tones can effect learning. The results aren't miraculous, but they are positive. Most of it has been done in labs rather than classrooms, and not necessarily with natural Mandarin stimuli. But I expect more practical classroom applications will come soon–actually there are a couple pertinent articles already.

    Some of the interesting results found so far are: 1) Short-term intensive training in perceiving tones has a positive and apparently lasting impact on learners ability to both perceive and produce tones; 2) Native speakers attend to pitch direction (rising, falling) more than to pitch height (high, mid, low), but native English speakers are the opposite. It seems that training English speakers to attend more to pitch direction can be beneficial. 3) Different learners benefit from having more or less variation in training materials. That is, some learners are better at hearing tones and they benefit from having materials with lots of different speaker voices. For learners who don't have the same aptitude for learning tones, the use of less varied materials is more beneficial. (All of this goes with the usual caveats about replicability, generalizability, and such that should accompany good science.)

    Some sources for those lucky enough to have access to academic journals: 1) Wang et al. (2003) "Acoustic and perceptual evaluation of Mandarin tone productions before and after perceptual training." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America; 2) Chandrasekaran et al. (2010) "Individual variability in cue-weighting and lexical tone learning" Journal of the Acoustical Society of America; 3) Perrachione et al. (2011) . "Learning a novel phonological contrast depends on interactions between individual differences and training paradigm design" Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Notice these are all in a pretty discipline specific journal–I'm afraid most teachers and even researchers of Chinese SLA don't often see these.

    Two recent studies trying to put some of this information to use in a classroom are: 1) Liu et al. (2011) "Learning a Tonal Language by Attending to the Tone: An In Vivo Experiment," Language Learning; and 2) Xinchun Wang (2013) "Perception of Mandarin Tones: The Effect of L1 Background and Training." The Modern Language Journal.

  44. Dave Cragin said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

    Kevin – Thanks – you’ve given me much to think about. Previously, I wasn’t familiar with Minimal pairs. Learning to speak the language before learning pinyin is actually how I began (by using Pimsleur CDs). Much later I started learning characters.

    DG – I agree it’s good to know the words that are used to express an idea. And this can help one use the sentence structure with other ideas (which I think was a point you made).

    The key is that it's tough to learn how to use a word without using it in a sentence or phrase. Take a simple example: What does “head” mean? A head of beer, the head of a department, I’m heading out, bringing matters to a head, the head on her shoulders, the head of a table, etc. Meaning is often derived from the phrase or sentence the word is used in, not the word itself.

    Individual word meaning is even more difficult across languages: E.g., Translating each word of the Chinese phrase for “I’m sorry”: 对不起 (dui bu qi) into English doesn't make sense. A literal translation could be “correct not up.” That is, there is no correlation between the English and Chinese words, despite that the sentences have similar meanings.

    Chinese has words for "I", "am" and "sorry", but they aren't used in 对不起(dui bu qi). Knowing every grammar rule in English and Chinese doesn’t help with this. The sentence tells the meaning, not the individual words.

    Another example: Memorize an entire Eng-Chinese dictionary, learn all the grammar rules, and one still can’t say correctly “The store is closed” , “The store is open.” Why? Because English & Chinese use different words to express the same idea. Chinese say “doors are open.” “doors are closed.” 开门了。关门了 (kaimen le, guanmen le).

    Hence, knowing the meaning of the Chinese words is helpful because it shows the logical relationship between the store is open/closed. However, to speak the language one must know the sentences.

  45. hanmeng said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    Two years seems an awfully long time to put off learning characters. I would prefer a two-track system which emphasized the spoken language, but with a supplementary text that taught characters at a more leisurely pace than the spoken language, and not necessarily those characters representing vocabulary learned in the spoken language track.

    No need to learn how to write 噴嚏.

  46. Dave Cragin said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 2:03 am

    A late post to this topic: Yesterday's China Daily (Mar 6) had an article noting that more active approaches to language learning are needed, as opposed to the traditional rote memorization of words and grammar.


    I'll note that every year I come to China, the English language ability of the students I meet gets better & better, so it does appear more effective teaching techniques are being used.

  47. matt said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    1. Based on my limited Chinese language study experience, I agree that starting with speech, then pinyin, then characters is the best route. As a learner, though, I've never understood why authors (or maybe it's their publishers) put pinyin above the characters.
    As I transitioned to reading characters, I absolutely loved the few books I came across with the pinyin below the characters. When pinyin is on the bottom, readers can cover it with a bookmark as they attempt to read the characters. They can check their reading by uncovering the pinyn below, or uncover the pinyin to fall back on it when they don't recognize the characters. Pinyin placed above characters almost forecloses these options. It's very difficult to keep eyes trained to read letters and not characters focused on the latter. For transitional texts containing pinyin and characters, does anyone know why pinyin above Hanzi is not the standard?

    2. @Victor Mair: A. Thanks for this forum!
    B. What's the title, ISBN, etc. for Cynthia Ning's book about Chinese signage? I've been looking for something along these lines and just got (but have not yet used) a copy of "Learning Chinese with Signs" by Lisa Huang Healy, Juyu Sung and Wanjun Liao from The Far East Book Co., ISBN 978-957-612-959-9.

  48. matt said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    Item 1 in my last post should end "…does anyone know why pinyin BELOW Hanzi is not the standard?"

  49. Learn Japanese Through Anime said,

    March 27, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    I agree. I learn Chinese and Japanese. I reached a great conversational level of Japanese, only after I stopped learning the characters and focused on improving my listening comprehension. My Japanese skills improved heaps and bounds.

    Chinese and Japanese are relatively exotic languages, but the same principle can be applied to romantic languages. Always learn how to listen before you speak , read and write.

  50. Castor Oil Uses said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    Interesting, I only learned Japanese with romaji mainly. I know around 500 characters though and I speak it well even without reading fluently. Language learning is all about the effort you put into learning the language.

  51. jmtech said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    Yes. You could also learn Chinese Mandarin from native Mandarin speaker and those who use the said language formally or for business. Befriend them.


  52. Peter. M said,

    September 1, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    This is exactly the way I think about it. There is a lot of stuff about how bad romaji is. Many in the popular community are completely against any use of romaji or kana. My self made approach to learning Japanese has been to mostly ignore Kanji. I know hiragana so I use that and romaji You guys are the geniuses. My resolve is doubled. I dropped Japanese at uni because I could not stand the method. It seemed to make the whole task excruciating. I can much more efficiently and enjoyably teach myself.

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