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marksealey

Characters: to delay or not to delay

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marksealey

May I crave your indulgences with these questions, please?

I am not new to learning languages: British, I learnt German, Latin, French and a little Greek at school (1960s); I lived for four years in Italy… pretty fluent in Italian then.

I have been learning Mandarin for about a month now. Simultaneously and kind of rotating:

I identified pretty early on that my two biggest challenges were going to be pronunciation (although I do have a good ear); and writing the characters.

I also found that I retain more when I see the Pinyin.

This might be a red rag to a bull: I also taught language for years (e.g. in Italy) and taught primary school for 20 years so I knew the theories about multiple intelligences.

Do these theories still stand? Is it 'OK' to want to see as well as to hear-immerse? Am I storing up trouble for later?

Thanks to much help from people here, I have tracked down and am working my way through (e.g. the FSI) pronunciation papers and guides.

But I have half a mind to defer really getting to grips with characters. I suspect I shall need Traditional? Is that wise?

My thought is that I can become proficient with spoken and heard Mandarin and read Pinyin in a reasonably short period of time.

Only then will it make sense to start 'attaching' characters to already known words.

Does anyone have any ideas, please?

Am I asking for trouble or making perfect sense?

Thanks so much!

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imron
I suspect I shall need Traditional? Is that wise?

It depends. If you think you're going to be dealing more with mainland China and mainland Chinese, then you should learn simplified. If you're going to be dealing more with Hong Kong or Taiwan then traditional would be a better decision.

Personally I think it's useful to learn characters right from the start. The simple reason being that a significant amount of normal everyday Chinese language source material is going to be off limits until you can read - newspapers, magazines, books, websites etc. The sooner you get started on characters, the sooner these resources will be available to you as a learner.

Have a read through some of the threads we have on learning to read Chinese characters.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/25-beijing-language-cultural-university889

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/17716-memorising-retaining-chinese-characters

You'll find lots of good ideas for how to go about at least learning how to remember the characters (it's usually not so necessary to be able to write them).

I also found that I retain more when I see the Pinyin.
Learning characters will get easier with time once you start learning characters. If you never make much of an effort to learn characters they will always seem more difficult.

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marksealey

imron,

Yours couldn't be a more helpful reply: thanks so much!

My main interest is in 'mainland' Chinese culture, Yes - including, ultimately, literature.

What about the fact that I find it easier to remember the spoken word when I see the written word?

It happens to be Pinyin for me now.

Is there a real reason why I should not use Pinyin as a crutch to help memorize the vocabulary I learn in, say, podcasts?

Thanks again :).

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imron
What about the fact that I find it easier to remember the spoken word when I see the written word?
That's always going to be the case initially due to a lack of familiarity with characters. It does change with time though. The other thing to consider, is what happens when you see 4 different words all pronounced shì? And then maybe you see a couple more pronounced as shí and shǐ? Then it usually becomes easier to use characters to remember them, because the characters are significantly different.
Is there a real reason why I should not use Pinyin as a crutch to help memorize the vocabulary I learn in,
It depends how long you want to keep using a crutch for. Don't get me wrong, learning pinyin is important and it's a useful aid in studying Chinese, but characters are also important. It's a long road however, but if you want to get to the point where you can read Chinese literature then then the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be able to reach your goal.

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Hofmann

I have always thought of Pinyin only as a way to notate pronunciation, and not something one should read and make sense of. If you want to read Chinese, you should start as soon as possible (right after you understand Pinyin). Once you get started, you'll see that characters aren't as troublesome as one might think.

As to which character set to use, most people start with one, and eventually absorb the other. Completely avoiding one character set is highly limiting.

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Hofmann

Better to look at the structure of Chinese characters. See this post, particularly the section on the Structure of Chinese Characters. It also has a nice section on stroke order.

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renzhe

These are age-old philosophical questions that have troubled Chinese learners for centuries :mrgreen:

You will need to learn characters eventually. You also say that you want to get into the literature. I've never heard of a person who achieved a decent level of Chinese without learning characters -- unless they had ridiculous amounts of immersion over a longer period of time, something that is hard even for people in China sometimes.

Also keep in mind that you'll need characters as soon as you finish NPCR1 -- the second volume doesn't have pinyin for the conversation.

On the other hand, it is perfectly fine to spend some time in the beginning getting used to pinyin, and mastering the pronunciation (and your ability to hear the sounds), before jumping into learning characters en masse. You're still at the beginning, and developing an ear for the tones and the sounds is crucial.

My thought is that I can become proficient with spoken and heard Mandarin and read Pinyin in a reasonably short period of time.

This is going to be difficult without actually living there. Personally, I consider it next to impossible -- in particular the "short period of time". If you are self-taught, you can forget it.

I tried and utterly failed doing this, although I have a native speaker girlfriend and pick up languages rather easily.

Only then will it make sense to start 'attaching' characters to already known words.

This is a fine approach, and this is how native speakers learn to read. But it does require you to become fluent in the language first, and this is difficult, and will require immersion (living in China for at least a year, IMHO).

A problem is that there are virtually no materials in pinyin you can learn from, so you will need to pick the language up aurally for the most part, which means you'll need HUGE amounts of listening materials, and when you get decent aural material, the transcriptions will almost certainly be in characters. In my case, I developed my listening through lots of Chinese TV shows, and I've literally invested hundreds of hours into doing this, and the only explanation I had was basically the Chinese character subtitles. But doing this helped me learned lots of new words and phrases. I don't know how you could learn all this only by using pinyin.

With me, the breakthrough came when I got to grips with the characters, and my learning picked up speed exactly around the time when I devoted time to learning characters and vocabulary.

What you could consider doing is the Heisig-style method of learning lots of characters through mnemonics as a completely separate effort from the rest of the language. Learn through pinyin for the next few months, but memorise characters (without pronunciation) in parallel. Search Heisig on this forum for some more information. It's kind of controversial, but it works for some people.

I personally would suggest getting a good basis in pronunciation and tones from a native speaker, and then investing a half-hour or so every day with a flashcard program and a character database. If you are motivated and consistent, you can learn a decent number of characters in a year or two, and then you don't have to worry about it.

My main interest is in 'mainland' Chinese culture, Yes - including, ultimately, literature.

If you're going to work with Mainland sources, then simplified characters are better. To be honest, it's a matter of priorities more than anything else. Once you learn the 3000 characters you need for reading literature in either set, getting comfortable with the other set is relatively easy. It's just a question of what you learn first. Most classics are available in simplified characters on the mainland, and you only really NEED traditional if you really want to study literature on a scholarly level. It's still nice to know traditional characters, of course.

What about the fact that I find it easier to remember the spoken word when I see the written word?

That's normal. But pinyin is one and the same as the pronunciation. That's how you visualise pronunciation.

But as you progress and learn more vocabulary, you will see that thinking of Chinese words purely phonetically becomes rather difficult.

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Lu

I agree with Hofmann and Renzhe. It's not a bad idea to first devote some time to learning pinyin and pronounciation well, but when you start learning words, get started on characters as soon as you can. Especially since you eventually want to read literature.

Good luck!

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anonymoose

If you're going to want to read literature to any competent degree, then you're going to need in the region of 4000 characters (just an estimate). This is not something that can be achieved over a short period of time, so the sooner you get started learning, the sooner you'll be able to reach that target.

Besides, apart from time constraints, I don't think there's a conflict between learning characters and learning other aspects of chinese, so if I were you, I'd start with characters straight away.

For what it's worth, I started by learning characters, and didn't learn listening/speaking at all until I was already able to read and write basic sentences. (This wasn't a planned strategy - it's just how it worked out with the resources available at the time.) I don't think having done it like this has been detrimental at all to my listening/speaking. If anything, on the contrary, it has been useful because the ability to read and write has opened up access to so many resources exclusively in chinese (eg. books, websites, chatting in chinese on the internet, etc.)

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Lugubert
For what it's worth, I started by learning characters, and didn't learn listening/speaking at all until I was already able to read and write basic sentences. (This wasn't a planned strategy - it's just how it worked out with the resources available at the time.) I don't think having done it like this has been detrimental at all to my listening/speaking. If anything, on the contrary, it has been useful because the ability to read and write has opened up access to so many resources exclusively in chinese (eg. books, websites, chatting in chinese on the internet, etc.)

Thank you. I'm finishing 2nd full time year university Chinese. 100% translating, so I now can extract the basics from newspapers and not too complicated web pages. In China recently, people seldom understood what I tried to say, and in those cases they got it, they replied at their normal speed, which left me perfectly helpless. You give me some hope for future acquisition of conversation skills.

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marksealey

Thanks, everyone!

Have now read through this thread twice - and branched off to the others you've all been kind enough to suggest.

I can't see any reason why what everybody's said shouldn't be followed 'to the letter'.

Shall do so from now on.

Thanks again!

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notatirem

This is an interesting topic. I know of a study that showed that students who delayed learning chinese characters perform better on phonetic discrimination tests and oral fluency tests. (Packard) The study suggests that waiting to learn characters can be beneficial since the student gains a greater understanding of the sound structure of the language.

Packard cites a study that showed native readers employ a higher phonological (what the charachter sounds like) strategy when reading than do second language students of Chinese. (Hayes) Packard also suggests that students who have a greater understanding of the sound structure learn to employ phonological strategies, as opposed to graphic (what the character looks like) or semantic (what the character means) strategies.

These are just two studies, I'm sure someone out there can find something contrary. I would suggest from personal experience, just take it at your own pace. Study characters because they grab your attention, not because you feel you must. And take some time to study radicals. You will be suprised how far you get with something so small.

Hayes, Edmund B. "Encoding Strategies Used by Native and Non-Native Readers of Chinese Mandarin" The Modern Language Journal Vol. 72, no. 2 1988 pp.188-195

Packard, Jerome L. "Effects of Time Lag in the Introduction of Characters into the Chinese Language Curriculum" The modern Language Journal Vol. 74, no. 2. 1990 pp. 167-175

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marksealey

Again - Thanks, notatirem

Useful material to think about. It confirms in some ways how I'm approaching this.

I shall definitely start looking at the radicals independently; I've always thought that made sense.

Much appreciated :)

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david808

In terms of our teaching experience, it is better to start learning Pinyin and commonly-used radicals at the same time.

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marksealey

Thanks, David; that's exactly what I'm now doing - your help greatly appreciated!

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The Elf Piper

As a newbie myself (maybe 8 months learning veeeeeeeery slowly on my own and now a class), I found the characters really intimidating at the beginning.

But at the same time I had a couple of films in Mandarin with no English subtitles, so I sort of slid into trying to look up a few of lines. (Ha ha, I didn't know then that there could be more than one character per word, did THAT throw me off!)

From that I became quite interested in characters, got that Tuttle book about learning them, and I'm slowly working my way through it. I'm glad I am, too, because in class the teacher writes everything in characters and it's not as scary as it would have been otherwise.

There's still not a whole lot I can read but now I can at least recognize the various parts of a character.

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L-F-J

characters....

as others have mentioned, the ability to read characters is a vital factor in learning chinese. without that, your vocabulary acquisition will be very slow and limited to learner resources. there isnt much authentic material that can be found in pinyin. thats not very practical. learning to read characters will open up all kinds of resources, as people have mentioned- books, magazines, newspapers, anything online, etc..

however, the ability to write characters by hand, in my opinion, is not at all useful in daily life. i've never had to use that ability. everything can be typed on the computer, and if you recognize characters, thats not a problem. moreover, developing the ability to hand-write characters is a lengthy process that, again in my opinion, will be a major waste of time- time you could spend on reading, listening, and speaking skills. those are the only skills you'll likely ever need to use after all.

of course, hand-writing some characters is useful. perhaps to fill out a simple form. you'll need to know how to write your name, address, and other personal information, but you'll never have to write an article in chinese using even half of the vocabulary you'll acquire. its simply not practical to learn and remember how to hand-write every single word you learn. that would be a huge waste of valuable study time, actually acquiring new vocabulary and progressing in the language. learning to draw a bunch of lines over and over until you memorize it is not increasing your vocabulary, not training your listening skills, and not improving your speaking ability. those take so much time anyway, that if you spend as much time as it takes to learn to write characters, i dont know how far you'll get in the other, most useful, areas.

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Hofmann

What's so time consuming about learning to write?

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renzhe

The traditional way of learning how to write characters is to write them over and over again. At least 10 times per character, though you'll likely need much more than that at the beginning.

This takes time. Some people (including me) ignore the writing aspect and concentrate on recognition (reading) only. The upside is that you learn faster, the downside is that you are running the risk of not remembering all the parts of the character clearly.

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greenleaf1348

I delayed; and I'm happy with my progress.

This is what I did so far (well this and lurking here :oops:)

-Spent 3 month in China; but just 玩儿玩儿 so didn't really learn anything, only 服务员买单 and counting 1 to 10, but with crappy pronunciation of 4,7 and 10...

I only started learning after coming back home...

Actually started studying on 30 march

-2 weeks spent on tones: FSI + some websites; maybe 20min a day...

-14 April to 16 July on FSI module 1 to 6; did all the exercises; imput vocab+sentences in Anki, learned to shadow all the texts; approx. 2hours a day

Also had a half-dozen lessons with a teacher; but she fired me (seriously!); I'd speak Chinese (just read FSI material really) and make her translate on the fly into English; so I'd know she actually understood what I say; well...she didn't exactly like that.... And, well, I have eyes too, I don't really need to pay someone to read a language manual to me...traditional chinese teaching just isn't for me I think...Meh, at least she fired me Chinese way "you're too good, I don't think you need a teacher, you can just learn on your own"..haha!...I'm a student, not a retard; so yeah I pretty much expect to be 95% right, her role as a teacher would be to correct me on the other 5%; she didn't seem to agree...Oh, and obv. she'd keep pestering me to start learning characters....

-4 weeks break from learning new material, I still did review what I already knew evey day though...

-then I did about half of the optional FSI modules; also worked through the book "Conversational Chinese 301" and started characters with the book "Rapid literacy in Chinese"

-Currently working through

*FSI module 7; but it's much harder than the previous ones; usually (FSI 4-6) I'd pick 10-15 extra sentences from the pdf's to imput into Anki - I usually pick one sentence per grammatical point and/or the sentences I find hard - well,I got ~50 for unit 7.1 and 65 for 7.2... (on top of the 10 exchanges that are already on the tapes)

*ChinesePod to build up my vocabulary

*RLC for learning characters, so far I can read/write from memory 390 chars. can also read the traditional version for those who have one

and I try to get 3 to 5 hours of voice chat a week on Skype, partly with friends, partly with people from italki.

also try to get 3 hours of chinese TV a week; mainly crayon shin chan/蜡笔小新 & Taiwanese shows adapted from Japanese mangas (easier vocabulary, imo)...

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