Best way to learn Chinese – A four-stage learning process

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Stage 1 – Introduction
Stage 2 – Foundation
Stage 3 – Development
Stage 4 – Acculturation

As a teacher, my interest is to see more people learning Chinese. And Chinese, as a heritage language with a long history, is really worth learning. After critiquing of some unproductive methods and approaches, this part is about learning Chinese. Hence, even though it is a continuation of previous three posts, the title of this part is changed.

Our focus is second language students, who have a different learning experience from learning their first languages. When they start with their first languages, they start as babies. They have interactions with their parents or other adult members, and receive audio and visual stimulations all day round. Gradually, they understand quite a bit before they can even utter a single word. Slowly, they acquire some verbal skills. Later at a certain age, they begin to learn reading and writing. However, as second language learners, they start as eloquent and literate grown-ups, but go through a period of ground zero learning process.

We have repeatedly pointed out that Chinese is very difficult to learn. However, it does not mean students have to suffer endless pain. Indeed, learning Chinese can be fun, interesting, exciting, stimulating and rewarding. The following part is a description of what I consider the best way to learn Chinese. It may not be the only way, but certainly very effective and efficient.

The whole process contains four learning stages.

The first one is an introduction stage, which is very approachable and easy to manage. Pinyin is used to give students a quick start. Students can see some immediate results from day one. This stage must be short in time and simple in content to avoid fostering a habit of relying on Pinyin exclusively. At MSL Master, Mandarin Express Intro Level A covers this stage. It takes no more than three months to finish.

The second stage is a foundation stage, where the importance of Pinyin is gradually weakened. While students continue to build up their verbal ability through Pinyin, characters are slowly introduced. Mandarin Express Intro Level B, Basic Level A & B, and Chinese Reading and Writing 1 – 6 cover this stage. It takes one to two years to finish.

Special remarks must be made on how to introduce characters and what characters to introduce. From previous reasoning, flashcard style must be discarded, and so are radicals. Characters will not be categorized into Xiangxingzi or Zhishizi. What happened is that I selected 320 characters based on Mandarin Express and a frequency list, introduced them one by one with pages and pages of illustrations. Meticulous effort was made to ensure that all illustrations only contain learned characters. These 320 characters probably represent more than 65% of character occurring.

Due credit must be given to John DeFrancis and his Chinese Reader series. These are excellent books. However, there are problems. The first one is that these books look daunting and intimidating. From Beginning Chinese Reader to Advanced Chinese Reader, there are five books with each as thick as a brick. The second problem is that, after passing a threshold, continuing learning characters this way does not make much sense. The top 500 characters count for 72.1% - 79.2% of the characters occurring, while the next 500 characters only for 11.9% - 14.1%. What happened is that the 2nd 500 characters demand triple effort from students but produce less achievement.

Therefore, I split the 320 characters into six Chinese Reading and Writing books. Each book is so thin that it is hardly qualified as a book. They look manageable. With each book completed, students gain a deeper understanding on Chinese, and get essential practice on how to use characters. After this stage, new characters are introduced in a different way to enable students learn characters more rapidly.

The third stage is a development stage, where Pinyin no longer appears in textbooks. Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level, A & B cover this stage. It takes one to two years to finish. At this stage, three scenarios will happen. The first one is that students learn how to write the characters for the words they have learned previously with Pinyin. The second one is that they learn new words with familiar characters. The third one is to learn new words with new characters. Of the first two scenarios, students are already quite familiar with, as they have done so frequently during the second stage. The difficulty lies in the third one. In order to mitigate its impact, the texts are short in length at the beginning of Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A. Slowly yet effectively, texts become lengthier and incorporate more and more in-depth readings. Thus, characters become the main medium for students to improve their overall Chinese.

The fourth stage is an acculturation stage, where students not only improve their Chinese language skills but also acquire Chinese cultural literacy. Mandarin Express Intermediate Level, A & B covers this stage, dealing with a vast number of authentic and original Chinese texts on history, business, technology, philosophy, and so on. It takes two to four years to finish, and requires students contribute to the class extensively. However, I dare not say students finish learning. In fact, this stage opens up tremendous directions for students to pursue further learning. That is the reason that I put "Intermediate Level" in the title.

In Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B, a substantial amount of classical Chinese (wenyanwen) is included. There is no doubt that wenyanwen is difficult to learn, and many students get by without knowing any of it. So, why do I include so many wenyanwen texts? The first reason is that these texts have left so many traces and clues in current expressions and people's thinking, and therefore are the place where Chinese cultural literacy embeds. For any students who wish to have an effective communication with Chinese people, these texts are a must to study. Without them, many expressions, symbols, and behavious do not make much sense. Secondly, these texts offer students an opportunity to get a glimpse of Chinese historical, social and cultural changes over thousands of years. The texts range from 2100BCE to the 20th century, and are very influential in Chinese history. Through active participation, students have a chance to engage in dialogues about, gain valuable insights on why China is the way it is. How cool is that!

This four-stage process partially simulates fist language learning process. Reading and writing slightly tail behind the listening and speaking. Students gradually participate in more and more diverse activities, and their roles change as they progress. At the beginning, they are receivers and observers, later they are consumers and demonstrators, and finally they become contributors and teachers.

After conclude with this four-stage process, I wish all students have fun, get a great learning experience, and learn Chinese well!

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