Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #4.2: My child thinks Chinese is too difficult to learn…

October 2, 2010

4.2 Main Article

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Situation #4.2: My child thinks Chinese is too difficult to learn.Reality: It depends. The writing of characters is foreign to children mainly because they are familiar and more comfortable with the alphabet. It seems to them that there are only 26 letters (of course, they have not considered the different building blocks made from these letters) to build words with.So forget writing for a moment. Recognition of characters is actually the key because that can bring the child to reading independently as early as possible. That will in turn help her progress in the other areas of development such as writing, speaking and thinking in the Chinese context. Knowing too few characters impose many difficulties in learning Chinese. First, there is not as much literary material available for children in Chinese as in English. Therefore, finding developmentally and linguistically appropriate reading material (excluding textbooks) for a child is close to impossible. Second, reading a children’s book requires a much more sophisticated knowledge of the Chinese language than in the case of reading a children’s book in English. There is basically no phonetic help in reading Chinese characters (except through the use of pinyin, that is, if you are learning Mandarin). Moreover, illustrations are not as intelligently and craftily used in Chinese children’s books to help with context as the ones in Western books. Therefore, due to these practical reasons, character recognition becomes extremely important in Chinese acquisition.Top 1 character ~4%
Top 6 characters ~10%
Top 19 characters ~20%
Top 50 characters ~28%
Top 250 characters ~60%
Top 500 characters ~75%
Top 1000 characters ~90%
Top 1500 characters ~95%
Top 2000 characters ~97%
Top 3000 characters ~99%

Graph 1

Although the total of Chinese characters ranges from 50,000 to 80,000 characters*, one needs to know only about 1000 to 3000 to be in varying degrees of literacy**. Graph 1 shows the average percentages of appearance in various written materials*** of the top most frequently used characters in Chinese. As you can see, many Chinese characters repeat a lot.

One needs only about 400 to start some independent reading (in beginning children books) and about 1000 to read most of the text in common reading materials. The building blocks of Chinese characters are also mostly composed of radicals and combinations of simpler characters forming together. Once you have encountered a threshold of the most frequently used radicals, character learning will become much easier from then on. In reality, Chinese has no conjugations, no tense, and no gender forms. You can make far fewer grammatical errors than when learning other languages.

Even before character recognition, sound plays an immensely important part in learning Chinese. Research shows that a child hears sounds even when she is in the womb. For the early years, as with other languages, a child learns by hearing and speaking. Therefore, learning Chinese is no different. For the early years, you should provide as many opportunities as possible on hearing and speaking the language, even recitation on classic poems that she may or may not understand yet. Do not underestimate the number of words that she can memorize in mind and heart. After all, that is one of the ways she learns to speak the mother tongue.

*There are various debates over how many characters exactly are out there based on various dictionaries from different time periods.

**Interesting statistics on the number of characters one should know:
Peasants: 1500 characters
Workers: 2000 characters
Reading a newspaper: 3000-4000 characters
Educated citizen: 6000 characters

***Data collected based on averages collected by various agencies. Please refer to the online guide of YellowBridge, http://www.yellowbridge.com and the Miktam of Chinese International Inc., http://www.miktamchinese.com

When she is about four to six, she can start to recognize the characters, connecting back to the repertoire of phonetic knowledge that she had acquired in the early years. Many parents and teachers mistakenly overemphasize the writing of characters at this stage, thinking that that is the determining factor of the number of characters a child knows. Some children stumble right from the start due to less developed fine-motor skills and become frustrated early on. Some progress smoothly, but are hindered from the more speedy process of character recognition due to the character drilling process (see Situation #3.3). Again, do not underestimate the number of characters a child at this age range can recognize. If she is relieved from the burden of character drilling, she can place much more time and interest in the recognition, and not to mention the appreciation of and the confidence in the language itself. It is in such environment that one can be free to recognize a few thousands characters by the end of this age period.

When a child is about seven years of age or when she is ready to write her thoughts down, she is ready to learn how to write Chinese characters. By that time, if she has gone through the earlier stages aforementioned, she should have already acquired an abundantly rich analysis of how most characters are shaped. She can study and examine radicals, composition of components, original meanings and usages with other characters. Her vocabulary grows as she starts to be able to read a variety of materials. Hence, as it was mentioned, it is eminent that she should recognize as many characters as early and as soon as possible from the previous years. At this stage, she should be able to write as she remembers or as she gets help from dictionaries, adults, and her surrounding environment.

There are many theories about which Chinese characters should be learned first. Some start with forms; some with simplicity of strokes; some with context; some with high frequency characters; others with canonical classics. You can even pick a combination of these methods, not necessarily needing to stick with only one. The ticket is to recognize as many characters as possible as early as the child can. She should be read to by a human (not by a machine) on a daily basis with real reading materials like books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, brochures, advertisements, and grocery labels. She should also be spoken to as frequently as possible in real context like conversations over a meal, current events and happenings in the car, and chore requests. Finally, she should use the language in as many various contexts and setting as she can find that are safe and challenging enough, like talking to her grandmother, playing board games, telling stories in a group setting, or acting in a drama in front of an audience.

Considerations:

  • How does my child approach Chinese learning? Does it include any assistance through oral recitation and speedy character recognition?
  • What do I think of the importance of having my child reading independently as early as possible? How can I help my child start and maintain consistency of oral recitation and character recognition on a regular basis? How does her Chinese school help in this regard? How can I bridge the gap?
  • How should I now evaluate the curriculum my child is using or will be using based on what I have learned about how the Chinese character system works?
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July 22, 2013

High Frequency Chart

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Learning from context in Chinese can be quite slow. How many characters can be achieved realistically in childhood? A few hundreds? That already is some achievement in the U.S. or the U.K. You need thousands to build up literacy. Before the end of primary school, the child’s cognitive intelligence is way beyond his reading skill in Chinese. That’s usually the time when even the parent may give up.

You can start with using this high frequency chart that contains the most frequent 250 Chinese characters with your child. Share this wonderful finding with your friends!

HighFreqChart250

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March 17, 2013

Symmetry in Chinese Characters

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car

Chinese characters are pictorial, as everyone knows, but symmetry can actually plays a role in some characters, adding geometry into the curriculum. Finding and using these new and fun ideas tailored to your child’s level of need can provide some sparks to an otherwise dry and rote-learning method.

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