Friday, March 27, 2009

difficulty or method?

In response to the post, How difficult is Chinese?, I would like to express my current thoughts about the points made in that post.

The first thing that comes to mind in general is that the difficulty of learning a language could be attributed to the methods used for learning that language and not the language itself. If you were to ask me about Japanese, I would say it is very difficult to learn. But if you were to ask another fellow, he would say you can learn Japanese to native level in 18 months. I would say, No Way! There are language students who come to Japan and take a full-time course (30 hours a week) for 18 months and they are nowhere near native-level. However, we must consider the methods used and what makes learning the language easier or faster.

The second thing that is important is time. Of course time is a factor. If you spend 3 hours a day or 9 hours a day, your progress will differ. I think that's agreeable to all so I won't explain it further.

The first point made in the article is about the number of characters you must learn in Chinese. My response is: What makes this difficult is method used and time spent. In the paragraph explaining that point we can see the method described, write the words over and over, is probably not the best method. It is necessary to use the characters every day, to read them and write them, but since it is hardly necessary in today's computerized world, most learners do not keep up with it.

In my own experience with Japanese, living and working in Japan, I find there is no pressing need to be able to write characters. Practice writing takes much more time and effort than reading, so I advise learners to spend the time to get good at reading before spending time on writing. Knowing characters well enough to have no problem reading them will make the task of writing them a little bit less of a burden. Another point is, if you are an advanced reader, you will know lots of vocabulary that you can use when you write. You see, when we practice writing characters but don't know any vocabulary, then we really have nothing to write. Since writing is the least beneficial and most time consuming part, it makes sense to leave it for mastering last. You will use reading skills much more often than writing skills. I'm not saying don't learn to write characters; I'm saying learn it last.

What will make reading characters easier is knowing the language beforehand. If you already know how to process the language easily, then while working on reading you only need effort for the reading task. You see, there are two parts. One is reading; the other is understanding. When you finish reading a long sentence, do you understand it or do you have to go back and reread it again? While struggling to read, it can be easy to forget what you just read, especially when the meaning of the words also takes time to comprehend. This is why I recommend working on reading and writing after listening and speaking.

The next point in the article is that Chinese has a tonal system. The problem here is definitely the method. Almost all courses and teachers focus on tones. I believe you should not focus on tones. Tones are actually a speaking problem, but if you don't speak until you have reached the proper level of understanding, you will have no problem with tones. You won't need to think about tones as you will have acquired the rhythm and prosody of the language. But what they do in classes is to start pronouncing words right after learning about tones. Of course the students have no idea what the word is supposed to sound like so they have to use their memory of rules and numbers to reproduce the words with the correct tones. But with natural learning you only need to hear the word or phrase inside your head which will be a Memorex recording that your brain supplies.

The next point is that it is difficult to use a Chinese dictionary to look up words. If you've been reading my blog, you know what I'll say! Don't use a dictionary. It's time consuming, slows you down, and does other bad things to you. If you know the language well before reading, you won't need to look up words for meaning. I know of one guy who is reading Chinese without a dictionary and he is enjoying it.

Another point about Chinese in the article is that it has a lot of vocabulary. Well, I guess most languages do! A Chinese man I know often complains to me about how much vocabulary he has to learn for English. He doesn't agree with me that Japanese has a lot of vocabulary. That would be because for him it was not as difficult since Japanese has tons of vocabulary from Chinese, but for the rest of us we have to learn many words which have the same meaning because there are Japanese words and then there are words borrowed a long time ago from Chinese. And we don't see them all of the time because some have been replaced by a 3rd set of words originating from English and other languages. It is unlikely that Chinese has borrowed as many words as other languages have. I have been listening to it for hundreds of hours and I haven't picked up on any borrowed words from English except for "CPU" when someone was buying a computer.

The next problem mentioned was this:
One of the most frustrating things you’ll find, even after years of studying Chinese, is that you will always encounter unknown words and characters in any book you read. Even children’s books like Harry Potter can be a challenge as you will rarely see the word 魔杖 (wand) used in any other context. It’s quite disheartening to have trouble reading a book that many Chinese schoolchildren can zip through.

First of all, the word "wand" is also a very rare word in English! However, all English speakers would know the word. Children's books will always have these kind of words that everyone knows but don't use in everyday adult life.

Secondly, in Mandarin, 魔 and 杖 have but one reading each which means that if you knew the individual characters you could read the word, then if you knew the word already you are done. If you didn't know the word but knew the meaning of each character, you could figure out the meaning of the word, and given the context of the book it would make sense that it's a magic wand. But in English, just looking at the letters in the word is not going to clue you in to the meaning. In Japanese, the first character has only one reading but the second character has two readings. If you already knew the word you could read it, but if you didn't know the word you would have to verify the reading for it. Actually, this two-character word does not exist in Japanese. I asked a Japanese coworker to look at this word and he had a painful look on his face while he unassuredly tried to read the word. Although he was not sure how to pronounce it, he could tell me what it means. Both Japanese and Chinese have this word, 魔法, which I know in Japanese and somehow knew the reading for the first character. But as for the second character in the original Chinese word given as an example, I didn't know that character nor the word it represents. It means "stick." The kind of stick that you find under trees and you pick up and played with when you were a child. When I told my Japanese coworker that I didn't know that word, he jumped back with surprise. Every language has an enormous amount of vocabulary that you don't need, but you will want to eventually learn. You will more likely come across this extra vocabulary while reading because it's not likely your boss is going to ask you to go outside and find him a nice long stick. This is one of the reasons why I put the importance of reading after that of learning to listen and to speak. If you try reading before mastering listening, you will be spending more effort trying to learn too many words.

Language learning skills are easier to master when you have already mastered one of the skills previous to a different skill. If you are good at listening, then speaking will be easier. If you are good at listening and speaking, then reading will be easier. If you are good at listening, speaking, and reading, then writing will be easier. If you try to do more than one at the same time then you will not have this advantage. The mastery of one skill can cut down on the time it takes to master the next skill.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. I have been using this method for learning German, although I use a different order. First listening then writing (actually copying text) then reading then speaking then actual writing. Speaking, I believe, comes near last in that it is basically a demonstration of all the input one has received. As for copying text, Poliglotta (of youtube fame) makes a good case for copying text to learn languages. I am not sure if that applies equally to foreign script as there would be another element involved in just learning the script, but copying text has allowed me to reinforce the German I have heard.


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