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How Do Chinese People Memorize Characters?

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anonymoose

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.

That's really the point. As you know, French and German are very closely related to English, at least compared with Chinese.

I have edited scientific papers written in English by Chinese writers, and I know that my ability to express scientific concepts, from the point of view of language (rather than scientific content), was way better when I was 15 years old than the majority of the adult Chinese scientists I have encountered.

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flippant

I think that the person upthread mentioning "weight of [previous] knowledge" was onto something.

As a foreigner, I started learning English 16 odd years ago. It was the only subject I ever cared much for after I hit puberty (when discovering new facets of (my oh so unique) life took precedence). I stuck to it and read voraciously, devouring words, idioms and turns of phrase indiscriminately. By the time I was 18, my vocabulary outstripped everyone around me; being 18, arrogance ensued. I digress. My point is this: by constantly and incrementally building a solid foundation on which to rest my knowledge of English, a splendid corollary was the very act of adding knowledge being made much easier. I could hear a word and pretty much instantly remember it, the pronunciation and what it meant. Nuances of usage came later (as always).

Building my English was like throwing random bits of language into a funnel: the way it hit me might not have been optimal nor timely, but the funnel of my previously acquired knowledge let it easily end up where it should. If it came in my direction, I would catch it. It became effortless.

Mistaking this infrastructure for a natural aptitude, trying to learn Chinese was a healthy shock to my Narrative of Self, as it were.

This time, it seemed as if the funnel was turned upside down. Bits of language were thrown at me -- and bounced off like nonsense. Very few, and very random things, stuck. I would study and study and study. Sit in front of Anki for hours on end reviewing, grading and reviewing some more. It was an uphill struggle, against a brain that seemingly did not want to know. Did not want to remember.

A few months ago, after a year and a half of study, I saw a word: 结构 (structure; composition; construction). A word as good as any. It had no special rank or importance in the scheme of Chinese words.

But I remembered it. I could see it in my minds' eye; visualize the strokes and draw it inside my head.

After that day, more words came. 标准, 正确. Words I saw once and remembered.

I felt something shift. A week ago while at a wine tasting, I was annoyed I could never remember the pútao (grape) of pútaojiǔ (wine). So I looked it up: 葡萄 - in the realm of alcoholic drinks they are, by comparison, characters far too complex for their purpose.

But I remembered them. Again, I could draw them inside my head.

The funnel is still not placed correctly, but it is no longer upside down. Lying on its side, it is angled slightly toward me. And I know, by every character I come across and remember, that funnel is turning toward me. With time, it will angle itself perfectly.

But I have to nudge it.

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songlei

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.

i see your points, and i think they're mostly valid and worth noting. i don't think we disagree on anything substantial here either. maybe my initial statement was a bit rash. what i meant to say is, apart from a good feel for the grammar of a language, a speaker of an older age or with a better education can simply utilize the language more effectively and convincingly. this indeed is not so much grammar related as it is vocabulary, life-experience and education-related. since us L2 learners don't need to catch up in the life-experience and educational aspects of life, we follow a radically different trajectory in mastering chinese than do L1 learners. i think this is also one of the reasons why there is a clear distinction between the research fields of language acquisition and second language acquisition. we're in a completely different situation than chinese kids are, which calls for a completely different approach to learning the language as well. we have different (more demanding) requirements of the language, and at the same time we don't have time on our side. of course, as someone mentioned earlier, there might be L1 strategies that would be useful for us as well. the intention of my initial reply was basically to argue that we should at least be careful with blindly assuming that whatever the chinese do is the best way. not that that is what everybody's doing here of course!

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songlei

I think that the person upthread mentioning "weight of [previous] knowledge" was onto something.

As a foreigner, I started learning English 16 odd years ago. It was the only subject I ever cared much for after I hit puberty (when discovering new facets of (my oh so unique) life took precedence). I stuck to it and read voraciously, devouring words, idioms and turns of phrase indiscriminately. By the time I was 18, my vocabulary outstripped everyone around me; being 18, arrogance ensued. I digress. My point is this: by constantly and incrementally building a solid foundation on which to rest my knowledge of English, a splendid corollary was the very act of adding knowledge being made much easier. I could hear a word and pretty much instantly remember it, the pronunciation and what it meant. Nuances of usage came later (as always).

Building my English was like throwing random bits of language into a funnel: the way it hit me might not have been optimal nor timely, but the funnel of my previously acquired knowledge let it easily end up where it should. If it came in my direction, I would catch it. It became effortless.

Mistaking this infrastructure for a natural aptitude, trying to learn Chinese was a healthy shock to my Narrative of Self, as it were.

This time, it seemed as if the funnel was turned upside down. Bits of language were thrown at me -- and bounced off like nonsense. Very few, and very random things, stuck. I would study and study and study. Sit in front of Anki for hours on end reviewing, grading and reviewing some more. It was an uphill struggle, against a brain that seemingly did not want to know. Did not want to remember.

A few months ago, after a year and a half of study, I saw a word: 结构 (structure; composition; construction). A word as good as any. It had no special rank or importance in the scheme of Chinese words.

But I remembered it. I could see it in my minds' eye; visualize the strokes and draw it inside my head.

After that day, more words came. 标准, 正确. Words I saw once and remembered.

I felt something shift. A week ago while at a wine tasting, I was annoyed I could never remember the pútao (grape) of pútaojiǔ (wine). So I looked it up: 葡萄 - in the realm of alcoholic drinks they are, by comparison, characters far too complex for their purpose.

But I remembered them. Again, I could draw them inside my head.

The funnel is still not placed correctly, but it is no longer upside down. Lying on its side, it is angled slightly toward me. And I know, by every character I come across and remember, that funnel is turning toward me. With time, it will angle itself perfectly.

But I have to nudge it.

thanks for proving my point. i'm thinking you will be having a much harder time learning chinese than most of us haha (i mean to say that your personal requirements of the language will be a tad higher than ours probably). by the way, how do you say funnel in chinese?

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