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How does a Chinese child learn about his mother tongue (from age 3 to 8)

Enjune Zhang



How does a Chinese child learn about his mother tongue (from age 3 to 8 )
中国人小时候都是怎样学母语的 (以3岁至8岁年龄段为例)


I happen to pay a visit to the bookstore and the children's book area is crowded with kids and their mothers busy teaching them how to read after the words. They get lucky to have parents around being their tutors, and I remember that I have nowhere to find mine when I was three or four, let alone to have them teach me how to read or write. It reminds me of how we learn mother tongue as a child.

In China, children are supposed to go to kindergarten at about the age of four, and before that time family members play a significant part in showing us how to talk, besides, the TV programs and the materials with characters and vocal function mean a lot to us back in those days. 

At the beginning we have no idea what it means when we imitate the pronunciation of the adults, and they seem to enjoy teaching us how to speak without feeling bored. Later on we say the character or word presented to us before and we seem to get the things we want in return, and that's when we start to realize how speaking up will make the life of an infant easier. 

We still have no idea of the written forms of what we speak, and just name it after the adults, trying to make it sound not so confusing to them so our demand will be soon satisfied. Actually, we take speaking as a way to give the order, which we want the people around us to follow. 

Therefore, what we speak is closely related to our need from within, until the adults bring about something like flashcards with pictures of animals and music instruments, story books and reading machine, etc. That's when we start to know something about the outside world instead of focusing just on the daily necessity of eating and sleeping. And what we have been exposed to at this period, somewhere around age three, will distinguish us from the peer concerning the level of language. 

We have no idea what this is about until we are put together in the kindergarten later, and see that some of the kids know almost everything even before the teachers start the lessons, while some of them have a hard time understanding what the teacher is talking about.    

Thanks for my grandpa's habit of watching CCTV channels and his patience reading bedtime story to me, I knew that there is another way of pronunciation of Chinese which sounds alien and strange to people speaking Cantonese originally. And my listening comprehension was pretty good before I went to the kindergarten.

The only thing puzzled me was that we talked with teachers and classmates in Cantonese but read after the tape in Mandarin when we learned from the textbook. We started learning how to identify the corresponding characters and build their connections with the pronunciations. With a certain foundation of listening comprehension, it was easy for us to link the written forms with the familiar words we'd heard hundreds of times.                                                                      


Pinyin was not introduced until a term before we were going to primary school. Prior to Pinyin, we had read after the tapes for Mandarin pronunciation of the certain text. Actually we could speak Mandarin before we had Pinyin into our life. And then in primary school Pinyin was taught again and it remained an important part of our course throughout the nine-year compulsory education. Pinyin is not the necessity for someone to speak Mandarin. Language has something more important to do with imitation than rules.

I guess that people born in Beijing hardly need to learn Pinyin since they have mastered the pronunciation of Mandarin through everyday communication since childhood, and similar situation may happen to the English native speakers that they don't go directly to phonetic symbols when they study how to speak English. 

Pinyin is not the starting point of our connection with Mandarin, not should any pronunciation rules with any language. Speak first, then let Pinyin help us correct and polish the pronunciation we have, and lead us to more characters of which we have no idea of their pronunciation.

We started to look up a new character in the dictionary via radical and Pinyin when we read and wrote at the age of five or six as pupils in the first grade of primary school. Teachers taught us how to make words with the characters learned just now, and then the sentence with a certain word given. Building the words and sentences got us well prepared to the composition later on, and we started writing from diary. 

We were asked to do lots of reading apart from the textbooks, guided by the booklist recommended by teachers. But I was the one ignoring all the recommendation and went directly to the bookshop to explore books of my own taste. I read really slowly and even now I kept this habit. I preferred taking notes of the beautiful wordings applied and sometimes marking down things crossing my mind while reading. It helps my improvement in writing a lot, in native language as well as foreign language.                


It will be a natural way learning language from listening, speaking, reading and then writing, and I'm curious about how much more efficient and effective I would become in learning English if I take the right path instead of paying partial attention to reading only. I try to recall how I learn Chinese just to see what kind of enlightenment I have for English study. 



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