Family Language Alive - Children Learning Chinese

Situation #4.3: Character drilling (any exercise that requests one to repeat writing a character an excessive number of times) is a major part of learning Chinese, but my child dreads it…

October 2, 2010

4.3 Main Article

Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page

Situation #4.3: Character drilling (any exercise that requests one to repeat writing a character an excessive number of times) seems to be considered a major part of learning Chinese, but my child dreads it.Reality: Character drilling (see Situation #3.3) is important. The truth is, in light of other factors, how prioritized should this be? Character drilling is sometimes used as a primary part of a Chinese curriculum. It is how it is traditionally done, and therefore, what many curriculum materials are based on, and how everyone thinks Chinese should be taught.In some way, Chinese is different from English. It is not based on a phonetic system, but a tonal system. Many characters do have clues embedded in their structural formation in terms of meaning and sounds, but it does not always adhere to a definite rule, nor is it always present. Because of that, it is very logical to require children to memorize a large set of characters before emphasis is placed for them to read literary works and write their own sentences. Unfortunately, sometimes it is too long forgotten that memorizing a large set might take years to accomplish if the traditional method is used.

In recent years, studies from both Hong Kong (where Cantonese and Mandarin are taught using traditional characters) and China (where Mandarin is taught using simplified characters) have found that children will learn only about an average of 2500 characters by the end of elementary years, which is considered low since that is the minimum required to do any meaningful independent reading. In the United States and United Kingdom, the statistics is even more disheartening. Chinese schools can teach at most a few hundred characters by the teenaged years, a case which is considered quite an accomplishment.

As you can see, in a once-a-week, three-hour class, a child may never get a chance to read any great literary works besides readers, and he may never get a chance to write any substantial stories on his own, before their yearning for the language is exhausted and zapped by the repetition of character drilling. Before long, they outgrow the conceptual level of Chinese readers, and the amount of vocabulary demanded by their writing far exceeds what they know. This is definitely driving them toward disinterest and discouragement in the learning of the language itself.

Drilling in character recognition through oral recitation and memorization instead of character drilling, however, can be the method to learning Chinese characters speedily. Traditionally, that was how Chinese children learn characters throughout the ancient times anyway, using various Chinese canonical classic texts like the Three Character Classic (三字經), Hundred Family Surnames (百家姓), and Thousand Character Classic (千字文).

The most important lesson from using curriculum similar in nature to these texts is that the characters are arranged in a certain order (mostly in fours, sometimes in fives and sevens in ancient poems) based on their phonetic sounds, embedding within the most poetic and artistic meanings beyond measure. Therefore, cultivation in the rhythmic nature and the four-letter phrases of the language should be understood at a very early age. It brings forth the deeper magic of the language that does not exist otherwise in Western languages. The appreciation and gratification of Chinese learning will come as a result. Besides, this feature can be thought of as the means through which Chinese should be learned, much like the context and phonetic sounds as the mean through which English is learned. After all, Chinese is an ancient language that is a few thousands years old. On a different note, it can also be thought of as the most effective method to pass down values and thoughts as accurately as possible, much like the songs, folklore, sayings, ballads, or chants that are orally passed on through generations in many other cultures. Without having exposed to these types of text that undoubtedly are penetrated within the essence of the Chinese culture, a child will inevitably find studying ancient Chinese historical figures or cultural myths tiresome and dull in those modern curricula.

Even though it helps, learning a language is not simply a matter of repetition. Writing from the heart and allowing the language to make meaning in life (e.g. journals, poems, and scientific entries) are more important for a child than drilling on characters that make no impression. Besides, it is very likely that he will forget the characters soon enough if he does not make connection with them immediately and use them meaningfully and repeatedly in his life.

Even with this knowledge, it does still take much effort to learn a new language, especially when this is a very different language from English. All characters need to be memorized by sight. Even though there are sometimes pictorial and phonetic clues and a fixed set of radicals that commonly appear as components within the characters, these features do not appear consistent enough to be considered as rules. Overall, you need to pick your battle for your child whether character drilling is important enough among all that is necessary in learning Chinese.

Considerations:

  • Does the curriculum my child is using reflect an effective way of learning Chinese to the best of my knowledge? How many characters are still remembered after an extended period of learning?
  • Based on the rate of retainment, how long would my child be able to reach the expected achievement based on my family mission? How many characters do I want my child to learn?
  • Does the curriculum include at least some rote memorization of certain canonical text either through oral recitation or visual repetition? Can I bridge this gap at home by providing such materials for my child?
  • What is my child doing most of the time in school and in homework? What is the percentage of character drilling compared to the percentage of the rest of the necessary components of language acquisition, such as listening, speaking, reading and writing (see *character drilling under Situation 3.3 for the definition of writing)?
  • What are those percentages like outside of class? Can I balance the different components within my knowledge and power in my child’s environment?
  • Are there writing tasks that I can help him with that are reasonably meaningful and appropriate for his attention span, for example, notes and letters to friends and relatives, thank-you and birthday cards, and Chinese New Year signs?
  • Can he secure a pen pal to whom he can regularly read and write letters?
Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page
February 18, 2015

Writing Chinese New Year Banners? Following the Heart of the Child!

Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page

It is definitely valuable to introduce to the children existing blessings passed down over the generations, like 常常喜樂 (Be joyful always), 出入平安 (May you be blessed with safety). They may pick up the rhythm and the literary elements of these phrases. Alternately, writing their own blessings can also be more personal to their lives.

 

You may want to try this third idea. Most know that it is a tradition to have an elaborate feast during this holiday, usually with dishes with special names that sound like blessings, e.g. 發財好事 (dried oysters with black moss), 年年有餘 (we always have a surplus; fish sounds like something left). The issue is that children today, especially those raised overseas, may not have the delicate taste buds to enjoy these fine dishes.

 

To pass down this tradition more effectively, we may start to ask what foods the child likes to have for the new year, then work backwards.

 

A scenario: A child came up with sausages, eggs, onion and duck. Another child said we need vegetables, so they added broccoli and cauliflower. Then based on the food names, they came up with rhymes that may help make up a blessing The teacher may need to add some linkage to tie up the phrases, asking intermittently whether that is the blessing they wish to receive.

新年大餐

花彩家愛 (花菜雞鍋) Radiant Family Love
椰菜花 西蘭花 花調雞 (cauliflower, broccoli, chicken with huadiao wine pot)

 

常常是但 (腸腸豉蛋) Always Be Easygoing ( “是但”不注重過程, 但注重结果)
香腸豉油炒蛋 (sausages and eggs with soy sauce)

 

衷心萬得 (蔥心Duck) (Sincerity of the Heart Makes Everything Work)
洋蔥爆雞心鴨絲 (chicken hearts and shredded duck, stir fry with onion)

 

The advantages? The level of the word usage and understanding is adjusted for both the child and the teacher. And the child

  1. makes up blessings he likes to receive
  2. learns the words of the food he likes
  3. actually eats the food

20150218_162833

Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page
February 5, 2014

How children can enjoy writing their own Chinese poems

Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page

IF2014Q1_0022

I am no Emily Dickenson, and I know nothing much about Chinese poetry. I only know it sounds beautiful when recited from heart, and one can practically relate a story with few words. That is fascinating in itself, and I want to pass that on to my children. Here is something you can try:

  • decide on the format of the verses (is it a four-character phrase, a seven-character dual verses, a seven-character four verses?)
  • relate to the child the structure of the verse. For example, in a seven-character verse, usually the first two-character will be a concept, the second two-character forms another, and then the next three will finish the story off.
  • Decide on a theme. For this New Year, we wanted to write something about horse. So I asked the child to describe the animal. Some keywords that came to her mind: swift, gallop, eat grass peacefully, efficient
  • Since we were writing a New Year blessing, it would need some wishes. So I asked the child what wish she may want for the new year. So these came up: peaceful family, finishing up tasks
  • So now it’s just a matter of thinking up two-character and three-character concepts that can be placed by each other to make sense. The verses need not rhyme but should flow pleasingly when heard. So just keep thinking of words she knows, and you can suggest some if needed, but try to stay with what she comes up with.
  • Write each concept out on cards and play around with the orders.
  • Recite it out loud to each other until the verses sound great to her ears and makes meaning to the child.
  • Don’t compare it with standard Chinese prose. Think of it as a child merely wanting to express herself using words in a beautiful way.
Share with friends...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInPrint this page