Reasons of NOT learning Chinese (Part 2)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Another thing Moser repeatedly talks about is that the Chinese writing system is difficult. I totally agree, and I will give additional points and examples to elaborate. Nobody can ever make Chinese writing system easy.

There is a popular statistic-based belief trying to downplay this difficulty. Several studies have been conducted on the most frequently used characters. The results all point to the same direction even though the exact numbers are slightly different. Researchers typically identify 4000 - 5000 characters in prints or web, including both simplified and traditional characters. The finding is that most frequently used 1000 characters account for 86–91% of the characters occurring, and the most frequently used 2000 for 95–98%. Therefore, people believe that students really only need 2000 characters to read newspapers, and a frequency list shines on the right path to full Chinese literacy. As a result, we see publishers publish, teachers teach, and students learn, flash-card-style books. These books introduce 250, 800 or 2000 characters with one character per page/card, containing the stroke order of this character, the meaning, a few combinations as examples, and sometimes a couple of sentences. However, these examples garner scarce attention because they all most always contain new characters which are further down on the frequency list.

STOP! Any students who are learning characters this way should quit right now! Their hard work will never pay off. There are two reasons. Firstly, different combinations of characters create new meanings. Secondly, the word boundaries are not clear in Chinese texts. These two factors are often intertwined and make it difficult to decipher a sentence made up with familiar characters. That means, even if students accumulate 1000 most frequently used characters, they still could not make much sense of the texts. The problem is that, with a focus on accumulating characters, students miss the opportunities to circulate characters in different combinations and contexts. For example, the combination of "小" and "說" does not mean "small talk" (For people who don't know, it means "novel"). Therefore, without knowing the meaning of "小說", students can wrongly interpret a sentence like "她喜歡小說". Another example, "江小明天天上課開小差". In this sentence, if the word boundaries are drawn around common combinations, such as " 明天" and "天上", the meaning will be lost. The correct boundaries should be "江小明 / 天天 / 上課 / 開小差" . To understand this sentence, students must know the meanings of all these combinations, and identify "江小明" as a person's name through the context.

There are two worse methods of trying to amass a vast number of Chinese characters quickly. Not only do they have the same problems we explained earlier, but each also has its own distinctive shortcomings.

One of them is to learn characters with pictorial origins (象形字) first. I acknowledge that it is fun to learn characters through pictures. I don't object associating objects with some characters sometimes. But a whole book of 250 characters? That is a total waste of resources. After the initial novelty wears off, students are left with a handful isolated characters that they don't have slightest hope of ever lacing them together into a meaningful paragraph. For example, "木", this character resembles a tree so well that it is very often among the first batch of characters taught to beginner students. However, this character is not very active in usage. For a very long time, this character will stay on a cold bench until students finally, if at all, learn some other characters to use together with "木", such as "樹木", "木匠", and "木頭".

If the learning objective is to recognize a dozen of isolated Chinese characters here and there and brag about what objects associate with these characters, I suppose such method does the trick. For any students who actually want to do something with their characters, they must not stay in this rut.

The other method is to learn characters grouped by their radicals. If students learn all radicals (about 200 of them) and related characters, at least they will get a whole picture. However, this method always features the same old 25-30 radicals which are directly related to objects, such as "イ: 你什仍代", "口: 叫吃吐嚇". The rest of radicals are ignored because they either do not resemble objects or are too complicated. This method has huge drawbacks. Apart from learning isolated characters they have no hope to use, students get the false idea that all characters have radicals that correlate to objects, and all radicals can explain the meanings of characters. Therefore, they got stuck when they realize that many radicals do not correlate to objects, and many characters cannot be explained through radicals.

We must of course acknowledge the historical role radicals have played in learning Chinese. Twenty years ago, learning radicals and related characters made total sense. Radicals give an index to all characters and make looking up a word in dictionaries possible, even though complicated. Fortunately for current students, a mobile app can solve all most all the problems. In today's tech era, radicals can start thinking about retirement now.

Another limitation of all three methods we talked about is that none of them will do enough service, if any, to some highly useful characters. For example "就", this character does not resemble an object, neither does its radical. It is also very hard to talk about the exact meaning of "就" without a contextual base, which makes learning this character in a flash-card style very difficult. "就" embodies different meanings in different contexts, such as: "就是他", "他甚麼都好,就是沒有錢", "就有這一本書", and "如果他來,我就走".

Learning characters is not an easy task. Unlike many other languages, Chinese writing system does not use an alphabet, which enables many languages to borrow words easily from one another, such as airport and aeropuerto, problem and problema. Chinese language cannot do that. There is no phonetic clue to pronunciations. Students have to memorize one character at a time. Moser says that he was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system. My guess is that he recognized "木" for a tree, and thus got hooked on a path he greatly regretted many years later.

There is also the thorny issue of two overlapping sets of writing system, classical texts (wenyanwen), and issues Moser missed as a student. We shall continue next time.

Till soon.

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