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Finn Bamboo

When to start to learn characters

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Finn Bamboo

Hello all,

 

I am currently doing a M.A. thesis on teaching Chinese in Finland. I will focus on beginners' course and my main question is: Should teaching characters be delayed?

 

What do the readers of this forum think? Should students start to learn the characters from the very beginning or should they first learn pinyin and pronunciation properly. Should the first characters be radicals? I am a teacher myself but have not taught Chinese but I have studied it to the intermediate level.

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Shelley

IMHO start learning characters from the beginning or else it will almost be like starting again. It makes more sense if you learn it all together.

 

Its not that much more to take on and I think it is easier in the long run.

 

Invest in Pleco for tablet or smart phone and it will help with learning characters and Chinese in general. Have a look here https://www.pleco.com/

 

I think Pleco is indispensable to any student of Chinese.

 

Characters help with understanding Chinese and its many homophones become less confusing when you are using characters.

 

Characters are part of Chinese and if you leave them out you are leaving out learning a part of Chinese.

 

This is only my opinion as a long term student of Chinese, I have no qualifications as a teacher.

 

I would be disappointed if I went to learn Chinese and the characters were not taught or were taught later on.

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Lei

I've been teaching Chinese for about 10 years, starting with basic levels. I think it's very important to begin with characters right away. They act as the "hangers" for students to put the Pinyin, tone, and meaning on.

  We begin with three lessons of very basic characters, all of them radicals, things like 人, 日, 月, 火, and 木. This can quickly build up to words like 明 and  床 .

  This allows students to gain confidence in writing and reading characters and to learn stroke order. We probably cover about 50 radicals in the first 10 lessons and it is very reasurring to students, when they get to more complex characters, that there is something in the character that they already know and understand,

  I find my students advance quickly learning both the characters and the Pinyin and to separate them would be, as has been said, to feel like you have to start all over again. Hope this is helpful.

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lechuan

Personally, I think it's good to start characters from the beginning, but keep it seperate from learning spoken Mandarin.

ie. Use pinyin for learning spoken Mandarin.

In parallel, start learning character components, then more common complex characters.

Later on when you have a good basic grasp on both characters and conversation, start to switch away from pinyin to characters for everything.

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lechuan

Shoot, I tried to upvote Lei's post,, but accidentally hit the downvote button on my iPad. Please upvote Lei's post for me to correct my tragic slip of hand!

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querido

I did, lechuan.

Yes, they're like hangers, and I personally can't imagine being able to retain anything without them.

Don't try to retain hundreds or thousands before being able to converse. But yes, start from the beginning, I say.

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jbradfor

I believe in starting with Characters from the beginning, if only as a tool for motivation.

 

I assert (without any data to back me up) that the vast majority of people who start learning Chinese for "personal" reasons (as opposed to business/professional or romantic reasons) do so in large part because "those crazy squiggles are just SO COOL!" 

 

Why deny your students to chance to learn just how amazing they really are?

 

HOW to teach them best -- now that's a much more difficult question (and off-topic :-) )

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anonymoose

I say learn characters from the beginning. They take much longer to learn than anything else anyway, so why waste time?

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grace-zhang

I have been teaching Chinese for ten years. I think it depends on the students' needs for learning mandarin. Some of the students only wanna grasp this language quickly so that they can better survive when they just come to China, then if they only learn pinyin, it is definitely faster for them to speak, for chinese has two systems, pin yin is a separate system. As we Chinese, we also know how to speak several years before we know how to speak. I taught many of my students this way, pin yin , speaking first without character( except some too simple radicals).  However, some students really wanna learn this language in a long term, then, yes, study pinyin and characters the same time. But still from some simple and practical topic, so that they can use them in daily life, they feel it is useful, then get motivated and the language becomes interesting. 

 

Hope my experience on this topic helps. 

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Johnny20270

Yup I fully agree with all other comments, I didn't start character until much later and than was a mistake. I was always getting confused by sentences with 'de' and was ignorant of 的,得,地 etc I think a potential student might take the view "I'll do these later" as they are tedious. My fellow students did in their self study but we realize it aids learning, especially grammar

 

As for teaching them. As a student I find a general over view of characters useful, e.g. whats a radical, component  but not going to in depth. For me there are 'too many exceptions to the rule' I like when things such as differences in potentially confusing characters due to similarly of character

 

Why deny your students to chance to learn just how amazing they really are?

 

 

Haven't got to that stage yet! I find them irritating, lol  My fellow students like handwriting and 书法,I hate it.  I might see the light one day :)

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戴 睿

I waited to begin character study till 4 to 5 months into my study of Chinese. At that point, I was already conversational when it came to familiar topics. I would also argue that my tones and pronunciation far surpassed that of the average 4 month student who had been studying characters since day one.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing to study characters, but for new students it can occasionally become a distraction. I think dedicating the first 3 months of study to constant repetitive recitation of common phrases, grammar principles, etc. (while have a teacher listen carefully to each student to make tonal and pronunciation corrections) is the secret to jumpstarting your mandarin learning.

I know that there are many that disagree with me on this point. I can only speak from my own experience. I personally am convinced that nothing is more important than proper pronunciation and tonal drills during the first few months of learning.

Bad pronunciation habits can take years to re-learn. Characters, on the other hand, are relatively straight forward.

My knowledge of Chinese characters was entirely self-taught, and to be honest I don't think I ever felt like I "needed" a teacher for that whole process. Between Tuttle, NPCR, Skritter, Pleco, and Anki... students have plenty of ammunition to start studying characters on their own, AFTER they are able to speak with correct pronunciation and tones (not native level, just "correct").

4 months delay really wont stall their character learning in any massive, irreparable way.

The majority of Chinese learners (and users on this forum), all learned the same way - characters from day 1 - so you'll probably have a hard time getting a diversity of opinions on this subject. Still, there's my two cents.

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Finn Bamboo

Thank you for the fine replies, folks. Your answers are well justified and interesting. I actually agree with you but for the thesis's sake I hope someone would disagree with this. Some researchers say that learning the characters, pinyin and the meaning of the word simultaneously may be too much (cognitive workload) and therefore suggest that there should be an around 5 seconds interval before the pinyin is introduced or that pinyin should be learnt well before moving on to the characters.

 

Also, I think that introducing characters that are radicals in the beginning would be a good thing but are there enough this kind of words that the sentences made from them would make sense? The most important thing in learning any language is motivation and that must be kept alive when studying turns into routine. The research claims that studying Chinese takes about three times longer (and more effort as well) than for example European languages.

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lechuan

What I meant to say in my statement was that I think characters should be learned from the beginning, in parallel with spoken/pinyin, but not in such a way that it slows down the aquisition of spoken language (ie. You'd have two seperate classes. One for spoken/pinyin, a second completely-unrelated characters class. Don't worry about making sentences with the characters at this point. Once you've acquired a basic amount, you can start reading/writing with them). Later on (say intermediate level), you then take all those characters you have learned and start connecting them with the spoken language you already know. At this point, you've merged everything together and study exclusively from characters (using Pinyin only to look up the pronunciation).

 

I ripped off this idea (or at least my interpretation of his idea) from Zhang Peng Peng who advocates this as a faster way to progress in picking up the spoken language without neglecting the written.

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renzhe

I was expecting this to be a more controversial topic. I agree with most people that you should start learning characters early. This is something that will take time and the sooner you start, the better. Also, characters are a great motivator in the beginning, because they are very exotic and cool. People want to write a character or two to show off in front of their friends and family.

That said, the first few weeks, in my opinion, should be all about pinyin and tones. Add some characters for fun, add some social context, some interesting conversations, so people feel like they are learning the language, but you want to hammer the pronunciation down in the very beginning. So I'd say that a short delay in the very beginning is a good idea.

In any case, characters will require lots of self-study. Nobody learns all the characters they need from a teacher or a course. After the initial fascination wears off, characters quickly turn into a year-long nuissance. Get them reading simple texts early to get them comfortable with the concept of reading characters and instill a habit of looking up and revising characters, because they'll be doing that for quite a long time.

People who "became fluent before learning characters" school of thought are essentially flying pink unicorns. I've never met one.

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mackie1402

Personally I found learning the characters one of the most interesting things in the beginning. Once a knew a handful, just being able to recognise some on street signs was so motivating! When I first arrived in China, my girlfriend (Chinese) and I would be driving around and every chance I got I would say "大...什么...什么...国...什么...what's that mean?"

 

I also never really learnt the radicals which I'm regretting more and more recently. In fact for the last few weeks I've been reviewing NPCR 2+3, one lesson every day to review and the workbook and I have to say the way they put together the radicals and characters from the text is really helpful!

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Johnny20270
I actually agree with you but for the thesis's sake I hope someone would disagree with this.

 

 

if you want a counter argument, I do think there is some merit in delaying the characters initially, depending on the circumstance. For example Pimsleur teaches no characters, nor pinyin for that matter, its purely listening and speaking. It is useful when for reasons such as

  • - want some basic of Chinese for a holiday / passing interest and focus is on speaking listening. 
  • - Work/personal requirements don't allow to actually study. I used to listen to pimsleur when I was painting my house, no time for actually study. I used it every day, many years ago for Spanish while driving to work
  • - Want to see how you get on with the language first before you dive in as it were
  • - Motivation, I could see the argument that learning characters slow down beginners progress initially (but starts to swing in favour of characters pretty quickly)

 

Personally I don't have a whole pile of interest in characters. I just see it as a necessity in my language learning. I find Anki reviews very tedious!

 

Edit: I think its good to bear in mind that people on this forum, by nature of logging on, posting etc, have a high interest in Chinese. There are a whole lot of people who 'do a bit here and there' and give up. That was certainly my experience in London. I knew many who 'had a go' and abandoned it when they realize what it entails. So getting speaking quickly was paramount to them for motivational purposes. 

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li3wei1

Somewhere on this forum is a discussion in which someone mentioned some language school in China, I think, where they didn't teach characters for the first year, and there was anecdotal evidence that students in that program caught up with, and passed, students from other programs that had studied characters from the beginning. All you've got so far is "I believe", and "I did it this way", no evidence. I think if you're doing a thesis you'll have to either find some evidence or do some studies yourself. Granted, this would be very difficult to do in controlled circumstances, and would take a very long time to see results. Also you need to decide what you're testing. So far we've got:

a) characters integrated with speech, from beginning

b) characters as separate study, from the beginning

c) speech first, for some period of time (1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year?), then characters.

 

Also, the answer might be very different for different age groups. Are you teaching children, secondary school students, or adults?

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Radical Mandarin

Grace-zhang is right, it greatly depends on the need! 

 

Assuming the end goal is to reach intermediate level and higher, for complete beginners I'd recommend 80% listening/speaking, 20% on characters, so that listening/speaking abilities would surpass reading/writing abilities for beginners. As for writing, I would concentrate on the easiest words to write, radicals, important phonetics, and learn those. Then spend more time on characters, catching up.

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Finn Bamboo

 I think if you're doing a thesis you'll have to either find some evidence or do some studies yourself.

 

 Yes, that's true. Actually my thesis will be about the opinions of Chinese teachers teaching in Finland, both Finns and Chinese. I have quite a lot of text for this and also I have the questionaire ready. To research this kind of thing with students would take years and is not possible withing the MA thesis. But your opinions are valuable for me as I can see what people think about this and about their own experiences.

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JustinJJ

I think it's of great benefit to learn the characters from the beginning, but perhaps start with the easy ones like 一二三大田日, etc to keep them interested, otherwise they might lose concentration easily.

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