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How Do Chinese People Memorize Characters?

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Hofmann

To address the original question, Chinese people memorize characters pretty much the same way native English speakers in English-speaking areas memorize how to spell English words. You can probably spell most of the time, and most of the words you know how to spell were probably not formally taught to you. How do you know them, then? You've heard them used since you were little, and picked them up as you read stuff, and you read stuff everywhere. If you went to primary and secondary school, you probably wrote English almost every day. Of course, because Chinese very fuzzily indicates pronunciation, Chinese people might have to use a dictionary or ask what an unknown character is, but it's just one more step. All this goes on for about 18 years or more. If you couldn't spell after that, you'd be suspected of being dyslexic.

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Glenn

There sure are a lot of dyslexics on the internet.

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chinopinyin

I've come across a highly interesting blog by Randy Alexander on how Chinese native speakers learn their own writing system

http://www.sinoglot.com/yuwen/

He writes a couple of posts for each lesson in a standard first grade textbook (语文). Posts include what characters Chinese kids study — which ones are required for reading, which ones for writing, and which ones are sneakily stuck in there.

There is even an Anki deck!!

WARNING: The author writes: "Two years ago, my older son entered first grade at a Chinese primary school. I looked over his textbooks and could read most of the Chinese easily. Now he’s in third grade, and he’s left me in the dust."

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HedgePig

I've come across a highly interesting blog by Randy Alexander on how Chinese native speakers learn their own writing system

http://www.sinoglot.com/yuwen/

That's a very interesting link indeed, chinopinyin - many thanks! I've only read through a little but I'm struck how different the basic vocabulary is compared with the what I first learned.

Regards

HedgePig

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songlei

Why is there this idea that doing the same as natives is the best way to learn a second language?

exactly. in fact, you might even go as far as saying that we should avoid at all costs methods native speakers employ in learning chinese, since it takes them twenty years or so to attain a proper command of the language. do you really want to spend the next 20 years learning chinese?

what i find that helps a bit is to read through lists of words that contain a certain character you're trying to memorize. let's say you want to memorize 排斥 for example, you can make a flashcard with 排斥 on it, plus a card containing a list of words that uses the character 排, and third card with a list of words containing 斥. that way you can get an idea of the range of use for each individual character, which in turn strengthens your impression of the character, as well as your ability to recall the word 排斥. just an idea i've been implementing the last few days. it's quite time-consuming, but i'm tired of forgetting words i've srsed.

anyway, i agree that as far as study methods are concerned, those employed by natives aren't necessarily the most effective ones. i believe it is mainly the factor of time that gives natives their advantage over L2 speakers.

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chinopinyin

I fully agree that the strategies Chinese people use to learn Chinese need not be the best ones for non native speakers.

But knowing what they do seems to me interesting in their own right.

Moreover, it is also possible that they use effective strategies

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anonymoose

exactly. in fact, you might even go as far as saying that we should avoid at all costs methods native speakers employ in learning chinese, since it takes them twenty years or so to attain a proper command of the language.

That's nonsense. It doesn't take 20 years. Most 10 year old children have a proper command of the language. They may not have enough knowledge in other areas to be able to use the language in a sophisticated way, but linguistically, they won't make the kind of errors that foreign learners make, even after having learned for 10 years.

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songlei

That's nonsense. It doesn't take 20 years. Most 10 year old children have a proper command of the language. They may not have enough knowledge in other areas in order to use the language in a sophisticated way, but linguistically, they won't make the kind of errors that foreign learners make, even after having learned for 10 years.

it depends on what your definition of a proper command of a language is. i used mine for the sake of convenience, which is the ability to function properly in chinese the way you function in your own country (professional, personal, hobbies, etc.) but you're right grammar wise.

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Guoke

since it takes them twenty years or so to attain a proper command of the language.

Are you saying that native Chinese speakers have a proper command of the language only when they reach the age of twenty? That's ridiculous!

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songlei

Are you saying that native Chinese speakers have a proper command of the language only when they reach the age of twenty? That's ridiculous!

like i said, depends on what your definition is. there is certainly a difference between the writings of a nineteen-year-old and that of a thirty-year-old, unless perhaps the nineteen-year-old is going to university and the thirty-year-old never has. of course some kids get there quicker than others (for example, john stuart mill wrote a history of ancient greece when he was 16 or so. in other cases, well, read some random msn live spaces and you get the point). anyway, since i have the impression that most of the people on these forums have enjoyed higher education, i made the assumption (maybe i shouldn't have) that many wish to achieve a level of chinese that is similar to that of their native language, and thus probably up to the standard of that of 20-year-old native chinese speakers. besides, what makes you think that native speakers all speak and write their own language properly? in the netherlands that is certainly not the case.

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Shi Tong

I think my wife may disagree who was reading newspapers at 4 (Tradional characters).

I asked her how she memorised characters and she just told me that it looks like a picture to her and she just remembers the way it looks.

However, I would agree that for those who are not exposed to the language from year 0, a certain amount of logical learning needs to be applied to make things easier including radical learning and matching up words with a similar or same pronunciation that have a related character.

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renzhe

What songlei seems to be aiming at is that adults aim at a very different level of language proficiency than a 10-year old.

When you are learning Chinese as a foreign language, you want to be able to communicate at a level of a 25-year old, possibly a university educated 25-year old, because this is how you communicate in your mother tongue and these are the types of people you will expect to understand and communicate with.

Achieving the standard of a 10-year old and then talking about lollipops and Hello Kitty is simply not a good enough reason to suffer through years of hard work needed to learn a language.

This doesn't mean that 10-year olds do not have a great grasp of pronunciation and all common gramatical constructs, which they do. Unfortunately, the exact methods they used to achieve this proficiency are simply not a possibility for the vast majority of us. And these methods are not necessarily the best for achieving the kind of advanced language (in terms of vocabulary and phrasing) that most adult learners are targeting.

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anonymoose

In that case we might as well all give up now.

I don't think even Da Shan can compare with the average university-educated 25-year old Chinese person.

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renzhe

What I'm saying is that you'd be surprised at the amount of stuff you know that your average 10-year old does not. Even in Chinese. It's quite natural, as 10-year olds are not interested in philosophy, politics, history, engineering or linguistics. And while they all have to read serious literature, I'd guess that many of them aren't interested in that either.

Starting as an adult and then matching a university educated native speaker is obviously a very hard goal. But at least you aim to have a meaningful and interesting conversation with such native speakers. Restricting yourself to a child's vocabulary is not all that, well, useful.

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anonymoose

What I'm saying is that you'd be surprised at the amount of stuff you know that your average 10-year old does not. Even in Chinese. It's quite natural, as 10-year olds are not interested in philosophy, politics, history, engineering or linguistics. And while they all have to read serious literature, I'd guess that many of them aren't interested in that either.

Starting as an adult and then matching a university educated native speaker is obviously a very hard goal. But at least you aim to have a meaningful and interesting conversation with such native speakers. Restricting yourself to a child's vocabulary is not all that, well, useful.

I take your point, but I think the discussion has moved beyond just language.

Of course a 10-year old is not going to have the language or knowledge necessary to discuss philosophy or politics or history (though I suspect the main factor would be the lack of knowledge rather than the lack of language), but that's like saying a person with a degree in politics would have a lower language level than a person with a degree in medicine, simply because medicine has more specialist vocabulary than politics.

I don't think you can define someone's language ability in such narrow terms. It stands to reason that a 20-year old will have a broader vocabulary than a 10-year old, but this part of the argument started with someone saying:

you might even go as far as saying that we should avoid at all costs methods native speakers employ in learning chinese, since it takes them twenty years or so to attain a proper command of the language. do you really want to spend the next 20 years learning chinese?

and my point is that implying a native speaker under 20 doesn't have a "proper command" of their language is nonsense. Using this argument, a 50-year old is likely to have a better command of the language than a 20-year old. So what justification is there saying it takes 20 years to attain a proper command of the language rather than say, 50 years, or 80 years?

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renzhe

I don't exactly agree with the extreme formulation used by songlei, but I would argue that the fact that adult learners are aiming for a much larger vocabulary in a shorter time, usually on top of a full-time or a part-time job, calls for different strategies than those used by native speaker children. And this does apply to the topic, memorising characters.

I completely agree that a 10-year old has proper command of the language -- at the level of a 10-year old -- and that in some aspects (pronunciation comes to mind), most of us will never reach their level.

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anonymoose

I don't exactly agree with the extreme formulation used by songlei, but I would argue that the fact that adult learners are aiming for a much larger vocabulary in a shorter time, usually on top of a full-time or a part-time job, calls for different strategies than those used by native speaker children. And this does apply to the topic, memorising characters.

I completely agree that a 10-year old has proper command of the language -- at the level of a 10-year old -- and that in some aspects (pronunciation comes to mind), most of us will never reach their level.

Well, as you mentioned, being able to discuss specialist topics requires specialist vocabulary. But actually I think that is one of the easier things to learn. If you want to discuss philosophy, just make a list of the 100 or 200 specialist words you need to do so, it shouldn't take more than a week or so to memorize them, and then you're all set to go.

Personally, though, I don't think vocabulary is the main factor that determines someone's proficiency with a language. For me, it is the ability to formulate, on the fly, complex sentences with a natural structure and appropriate grammar, that follow on smoothly from one another. For example, I am involved in scientific work. I find that the difficulty in discussing science in Chinese is not with the specialist vocabulary, most of which I am very familiar with, but being able to structure everything into a coherent whole, off the top of my head. I wouldn't expect a 10-year old native speaker to understand much specialist scientific vocabulary, but I'm sure that talking about a cartoon or something, they'd be much better at formulating a linguistically accurate and natural account than I would be able to. If I had that ability, on top of the vocabulary that I already know, then I'd be at a near-native level. But unfortunately, that is the difficult part to acquire.

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calibre2001

but I would argue that the fact that adult learners are aiming for a much larger vocabulary in a shorter time, usually on top of a full-time or a part-time job

Are you sure? Alot of adults learners I know want to pick up just enough conversational chinese for survival and social purposes. Not every adult aims to have an advanced & academic level of chinese.

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renzhe

Well, adults' conversations require a larger vocabulary even for day-to-day conversations than those of children.

I also agree that vocabulary is not everything. But, quite frankly, I wouldn't trust a child to formulate arguments scientifically better than a second language speaker who works in the field. I would take a German or French scientist over a 15-year old English boy any day of the week if I needed someone to write a scientific paper, even without the vocabulary aspect :) Scientific language is another thing that needs to be learned, not only in terms of vocabulary, but also grammar and the way things are formulated.

But perhaps Chinese is different in this respect. I certainly find formulating complex arguments in Chinese more complicated than I do in European languages I've learned.

In terms of memorising characters, though, I do maintain that what works for a 10-year old Chinese is not necessarily the best approach for a part-time learner in their 20s or 30s.

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