Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #4.8: I wish my child had more time learning Chinese. It takes a lot of time away from her regular studies…

October 2, 2010

4.8 Main Article

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Situation #4.8: I wish my child had more time learning Chinese. It takes a lot of time away from her regular studies.Reality: It is true that learning another language can pose more time on the regular studies. There is a solution to this: bilingual (or dual language) classes. When a child learns content while learning the language, the knowledge stays. It will be ideal if she can attend a school where the main curriculum is woven with both languages, but these are a rarity. Also, this method is much slower in achieving literacy if used as a standalone mechanism because of the high demand of character recognition as an essential prerequisite to beginning reading in Chinese. But these two strategies, purposeful content acquisition through reading, writing, speaking and listening, coupled with effective character recognition, formulate an ideal method in learning Chinese. The very last ingredient that completes the picture, and that will help one truly acquire the essence of the language, would be its artistic part—the way Chinese characters can be composed poetically, rhythmically, and meaningfully (see Situation #4.3).

Since the ancient canonical classic texts are rhythmically arranged sections of verses with embedded topical meanings composed by a high percentage of non-repeating characters (70% versus 10% in modern textbooks), they (or any similar curriculum of this kind) are truly an ideal combination of valuable content learning, efficient character recognition, and artistic essence.

Family support is of utmost importance in supporting this model. In a way, you should also maintain your language competence, especially if that is your child’s sole source of Chinese input. All that is discussed in this booklet is also applicable to you as well in view of language acquisition. Learning Chinese can become an essential, enjoyable and natural part of living for you and your child.

Considerations:

  • Where can I find a bilingual (or dual language) program that would help my child learn content in both Chinese and English? What would that look like?
  • How can I make effort to plan and weave Chinese into my child’s current academic content that is taught in English if I cannot find such a program?
  • What about the other two ingredients of the ideal teaching method: character recognition and artistic essence? What would that look like if those are also weaved into the dual-language content-based curriculum?
  • How can I expose my child to the ancient canonical classic texts? Are there versions that exist today that are more updated with current usages of words and context?
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4.7 Main Article

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Situation #4.7: Pinyin and flashcards are easy tools to use, but I am not sure whether they are effective.Reality: Pinyin (a romanization system that helps instruct Chinese characters by representing the sounds in alphabetic terms) can be easier to grasp, making a child more inclined to start learning and less likely to shun away from the first sight of characters. One thing you need to take notice, however, is whether there is confusion if your child is simultaneously learning the English phonetic alphabet at the same time. Pinyin may also help the child to read sooner since he can then put together the sounds and figure out the unrecognized Chinese characters during reading. With that said, pinyin can only help a child if he is orally proficient in the Mandarin dialect. The main disadvantage of pinyin, or any phonetic assistance, is that it takes away the urgency to recognize characters. Hence, a child may eventually lag far behind in character recognition and rely too heavily on pinyin alone. He may thus become less competent in reading text that consists solely of characters. Therefore, it is important to take notice and evaluate periodically that pinyin is used only as a guide to pronunciation and perhaps a stepping stone toward reading in characters, but never an end to itself. On another note, however, pinyin can be used in character typing on a computer, but it is not the only method.

Flashcards, as we refer to them, are a set of cards to teach Chinese characters. It usually includes a clear, large print of a Chinese character written on each card along with a picture that shows what it means. There is sometimes an English translation on the back or the front as well. These can easily be found in educational stores, especially in Asia. A Chinese character, however, is already a pictorial representation, often of its own meaning. Having a picture associated with the character may create unnecessary distractions and may, as a result, hinder the progress of character recognition. Showing only the Chinese characters is the most effective method. Actually, it can be quite enjoyable for the child because the composition of the characters is interesting and meaningful in itself.

Considerations:

  • How does my child’s curriculum utilize pinyin in the scaffolding of the Chinese characters?
  • Is a strategy evident where more and more characters are introduced and recognized, especially in reading?
  • What do I decide about the use of pinyin in light of my mission?
  • How do I make use of flashcards that have only the Chinese character(s) on the front (optionally some explanation, pictures or hints on the back)? How can I make simple games out of these cards (e.g. Memory, Go Fish)?
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November 5, 2017

Code-Switching Between Chinese and English: Is It Okay to Continue the Mix in Chinglish, Hongish, Jiazati (夾雜體)?

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Code-switching is an intentional switching between two or more languages. Often the grammar rules are deemed interchangeable and applied to both ends, without awareness at times. It just flows naturally, as one learns to make use of the languages being explored.

 

One can be aware of the following when switching takes place in a child’s conversation, but we should never laugh at his usage (unless laughing about it together as to appreciate the fun of language making!) Treat it as part of the learning process, as the child misses and turns to find the right path in life, just as we all do. We can repeat the correct usage in the next sentence, or opportunity. And never say, you’re wrong and immediately supply an answer. It is best for the child to arrive at a conclusion and own the learning.

 

  1. Ordering of subordinate phrases (things that start with if, when, after, etc) or prepositional phrases (in, at, under, etc): Usually these do not have the same ordering in both languages.
    • I will watch TV when I get home. 回家之後,我就會看電視。
    • You will find him in the kitchen. 你會在廚房找到他。
  2. Affirming a negative yes-no question: In Chinese, you affirm by saying ‘對呀’, ‘係啊’, but in English, we respond ‘no’ to such a query.
    • Ping: 是不是 outside 沒有餐具呀?
    • Lan: Yes! (Thinking: Affirmative, there is no cutlery.)

    So Ping is asking ‘Is there no cutlery outside?’ But since she mixes Chinese and English, it seems the receiver Lan has the liberty to reply in Chinese or English. But what makes it confusing is that Lan answered in English, but responded in a Chinese mindset in grammar. So now Ping will wonder, ‘Yes, there are cutlery’ (in the full English sense) or ‘Yes, you’re right, there is NO cutlery.’ (in the full Chinese sense.)

  3. Doing an English grammar “play” on Chinese words, such as plural, tense, comparison:
    • 你可不可以take the 杯s out 在抬呀? (Can you take the cups out onto the table?)
    • 我已經 un扣 ‘ed 了[咗啦] (I have already unbuttoned.)
    • What is your 靚-est one? (What is your prettiest one?)

Language is merely a description of what people use to communicate and express one’s thoughts. There is certainly a most used format, so the system can work well to help us maintain a standard to facilitate understanding. But, remember that language still changes over time. It is simply a code, like a score for a piece of music composed by an artist. The expression conveyed is the essence, not the accuracy of the score recorded. It is only normal to test out the tunes. Would a masterpiece come about on a first try?

 

Using a mixed system for expression may very well be a positive reflection of a child’s identity, living in a bi-cultural setting, benefiting from a diversity of differences. Let us learn to enjoy the privilege!

 

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June 18, 2017

Are You a Banana or an Egg? Language Shapes Our Cultural Identity

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Being overseas, we inevitably belong to multiple cultures simultaneously. It would be deceiving to think we actually can opt out from being Chinese and be completely American or British, as many native-born Chinese may at times want. Inarguably, language largely defines our identity. As the main article states, “one’s soul, mind, spirit and kinship to one another reside in the language.” Resistance to acknowledge one’s own identity can be counterproductive. Rather, embracing our various degrees of belonging in multiple cultures can be a blessing and open up opportunities otherwise not available. When a child actually becomes natural in switching languages when the situation calls, he has succeeded in serving the needs of others, accepting others as they are. Being truly bilingual is not solely academic. It is merely what life calls us to be. Language and culture go hand in hand. The talk of one without the other is as absurd as the use of one chopstick.

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