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Finn Bamboo

When to start to learn characters

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Bad Cao Cao

"I was expecting this to be a more controversial topic."

 

Cao Cao to the rescue.

 

For the first 5 or 6 years don't worry too much about characters. Virtually everyone that learns Chinese to a high level follows this approach. During this time take advantage of pinyin over hanzi - all the serious studies show it is the best way to initially engage with characters.

 

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

 

Many natives fit this bill. Additionally, the majority of native speakers at 8-10 years are very fluent and have low character counts. Jonathon Kos Read would be the obvious example of non-natives that hit a high level without characters.  

 

See more here http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=189 

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JustinJJ

For the first 5 or 6 years don't worry too much about characters. Virtually everyone that learns Chinese to a high level follows this approach. 

 

Don't you think that's a bit slow? Where are you going to get enough 'pinyin-only' material to last you 5 or 6 years? After I'd been learning for a few months there was no pinyin material to use. Wouldn't you just be treading water for 5.5 years?

 

How do you know that virtually everyone who learns to a high level follows your approach?

 

 

Many natives fit this bill. Additionally, the majority of native speakers at 8-10 years are very fluent and have low character counts.

But natives have a stream of input from their parents from birth, unlike non-natives. How large is their vocab though? A lot of ABC's I've met who can't read grew up speaking Chinese at home so obviously they are fluent speakers, but some of them have a very basic level of vocabulary. 

 

Jonathon Kos Read would be the obvious example of non-natives that hit a high level without characters.  

 How do you know he doesn't/didn't read characters? He studied Chinese at uni in the US, I would have thought you'd need more than pinyin to understand the course and graduate.

 

 

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

I also haven't met any non-natives who had strong Chinese but couldn't read. When I was studying in China a couple students had to have their friends translate their textbooks into pinyin so that they could use the books in class. They were the weakest students in the class by a country mile.

 

 

I think for so-called conversational Chinese the need for characters would be lower (but still extremely beneficial), but I can't work out how you could e.g. listen to the news without being familiar with the vocab, which you would probably need to accumulate from reading newspapers which are in characters, not pinyin.

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Finn Bamboo

Thanks for the link, Bad Cao Cao. I will read it once I return from work today.

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imron

Don't you think that's a bit slow?

He's being facetious, being that the majority of people who learn Chinese are native speakers and 5-6 years is when they first go to school and start learning characters.

Such reasoning totally ignores the fact that the vast majority of 2-3 year olds have neither the mental capacity, the hand coordination or the attention span to learn characters otherwise you can bet Chinese parents would be starting them sooner than 5-6 (and in fact many do, just not with particularly great results).

Regarding 'learn like a child', sinosplice john had an article a while back about what it means to learn like a child and why you are unlikely to be able to do that as an adult (Edit: link here).

As an adult there's no reason why you can't use other tools and methods that aren't available to children, while at the same time creating an immersive environment for yourself to learn.

The problem is not characters, it's when people get too focused on characters at the expense of other aspects of the language. For example you could follow bad cao cao's advice about focusing mostly on pinyin for learning but at the same time also commit to learning 2 characters a day. In 5-6 years you'll have between 3650-4380 characters learnt which would almost certainly be enough to cover all the vocab you know.

2 a day is hardly a burden, but if you ignored characters completely then after 5-6 years you'd still have another couple of years just to get up to the point where you can read. You'd also be discarding a wealth of study material and native content which only exists in written form.

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Johnny20270
Regarding 'learn like a child' sinosplice john had an article a while back about what it means to learn like a child and why you are unlikely to be able to do that as an adult (I'd post a link but am on mobile).

 

 

 

I too, just can't accept that philosophy in terms of language learning. I see it a lot and think its an irrelevant connection. A child's mind is a blank canvas, An adults kind is not. I am surprised how many accepted learning method take take this approach. Maybe it works for drawing etc but given by the time you are 30 say you might have spoken 2000 x 365 x 30 ~ 22m words, your first language is firmly ingrained (no idea how many words people speak per day) and will effect your second language acquisition. Rossetta stone seem to persist at this though so I'd imagine there must be some strong research somewhere that backs it up

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Radical Mandarin

I believe learning like a child is a nice concept per se. It doesn't imply we have to adhere to a child's pace and timeline.

 

How do kids learn their first language?

They experience things first, then learn to associate things and feelings with sounds, then imitate these sounds, getting closer and closer, and finally get to experience language pro-actively - use it to get what they want.  Once they got the grasp, they have a model to use and refine. Only after all that do they have enough mental capacity and (physical coordination) to have a go at literacy, at the abstract.

 

I believe that the core idea - experience first, associate and produce Sound next, play with the Abstract last - works for me, even though I'm an adult (arguably). But being rather more sophisticated and a lot busier that kids, it's all too big of a temptation for the vast majority of us to reverse the order, or even go from Abstract to Abstract, (written word  to written word), which is essentially a shortcut.

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renzhe

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

I was talking about adult learners, but perhaps I should have specified that clearly.

Five year olds are fine and dandy, but if you're an adult, than "fluency" means speaking like an adult, and that requires at least 15,000 lexical items. You are not going to acquire them from reading pinyin, or from pinyin flashcards.

Virtually everyone that learns Chinese to a high level follows this approach.

Name one.

Da Shan, Julien Gaudfroy and others all learned characters early. I don't know anyone who actually followed this approach and reached a high level.

Victor Mair is the one qualified person who seems to propagate this myth that speaking Chinese fluently is "easy". For the life of me, I can not understand why. Even he didn't learn to speak it fluently without reading, AFAIK.

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roddy

"Where are you going to get enough 'pinyin-only' material to last you 5 or 6 years? "
Turn the radio on.
 
Which is half a flippant response to Cao Cao's weekly descent from the holy mountain he lives atop, but it's also half serious. There's no shortage of 'pinyin-only' material - all tv and spoken word qualifies, and the stuff made for kids could be used by learners. I don't think it's necessary - why miss out all the interesting stuff in written form. Plus, I'm not allowed to act like a child in any other part of my life, why should language learning be different.

 

Edit after below responses - I should also have pointed out that it's a bad idea. 

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renzhe

There are several threads here on this forum where people documented their attempts to learn Chinese by listening to radio and watching children's cartoons.

The short summary -- it does not work.

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imron
I believe that the core idea - experience first, associate and produce Sound next, play with the Abstract last - works for me

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for experience based learning.  Characters can fit in to that kind of learning just fine though without necessarily adding too much extra strain.

 

I just think it's silly to say native speakers wait 5-6 years until starting to learn characters and therefore you should do that too, because it ignores the fact that the only reason they wait that long is because there are very real physical and mental restraints for a large portion of that first 5-6 years that prevent them from learning characters.

 

The same restrains do not apply to the majority of adults, so I don't see the point in artificially limiting yourself, when there is also so much to gain from learning them.

 

 

Turn the radio on.

Good luck finding the pinyin transcripts and in looking up any unknown words in a dictionary to help make sense of the radio firehose.

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Shelley

As adult learners, we should be capable of taking on the learning of characters as well as speaking, listening and reading with pinyin (which I would stop using after the early part of learning)

 

Characters are part of Chinese, you wouldn't think of learning any other language without learning it's written form. Granted characters are quite different from most written forms but that's no reason to put off learning them or worse ignore them all together.

 

I find it hard to understand how not learning characters could be considered helpful, if you want to learn Chinese fully its an essential part.

 

Only if you want to just "get by" for a holiday or business trip and have no interest in furthering your studies is it acceptable to not learn characters in my opinion.

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Lu

But why would anyone think learning like a child is a good idea? Children take one to two years before they start saying intelligable things. Even a lazy student can produce simple sentences in mere weeks. A halfway diligent student can read books and newspapers and discuss the contents with a native speaker after five years. If a native-speaking five-year-old manages that, we call them a genius.

And those children have the perfect language-learning environment. They have at least one, but often multuple adults talking to them all day every day, correcting their mistakes, teaching them new words, paying close attention all the time. These adults also prepare their food and provide a roof over their head. Perhaps if you can replicate that environment in your studies, you can consider 'learning like a baby'. In other cases, it's usually better to learn like an adult.

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li3wei1
I find it hard to understand how not learning characters could be considered helpful, if you want to learn Chinese fully its an essential part.

 

That wasn't the original topic. The question was, does one delay learning the characters until one has learned how to say a few things.

 

The advantage is that both the audio version of the language and the video version are hard, and doing both at once can be seen as a struggle. Some people seem to have had success doing first one, then the other. Heisig, for instance, learned characters first, and then started learning how to talk (though that was Japanese). That said, I know people who are taking Chinese alongside two or even three other languages and they cope. Some of them.

 

It would be interesting approaching this as an actual subject of scientific enquiry. Taking a poll of people's opinions is an exercise in statistics, and is about as meaningful as asking third-graders what they think of global warming.

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Shelley

Quote

I find it hard to understand how not learning characters could be considered helpful, if you want to learn Chinese fully its an essential part.

 

That wasn't the original topic.

 

You are quite correct.

 

There were a few comments that gave that gave me the impression that some people felt characters were not needed to be fluent.

 

Additionally, the majority of native speakers at 8-10 years are very fluent and have low character counts

 

non-natives that hit a high level without characters.

 

Didn't mean to to derail the topic.

 

Apologies

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Finn Bamboo

It would be interesting approaching this as an actual subject of scientific enquiry. Taking a poll of people's opinions is an exercise in statistics, and is about as meaningful as asking third-graders what they think of global warming.

 

 

For me the opinions are interesting. The material concerning the scientific research I can and have found from net and books so, please keep on stating your opinions, for or against. The thesis will be about Chinese teachers' opinions about teaching characters but I find the students opinions interesting as well. I'd like to do the research on elementary school students but at the moment there are only two elementary schools that teach Chinese so will have to include other institutions as well.

 

I am actually teaching fourth graders at the moment and we do talk about global warming. They know quite a lot about this and some of them have very good opinions about the matter as well. I would not downplay their opinions, that's the age when they should learn about the global warming so they can little by little have an effect on bigger things. :D

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Shelley

@Finn Bamboo is your question solely when should characters start to be taught or does that also include whether or not to teach them at all.?

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anonymoose

Taking a poll of people's opinions is an exercise in statistics, and is about as meaningful as asking third-graders what they think of global warming

 

unless the

 

thesis will be about Chinese teachers' opinions about teaching characters

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Finn Bamboo

@Finn Bamboo is your question solely when should characters start to be taught or does that also include whether or not to teach them at all.?

 

 

The question is when to start teaching characters.

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lechuan

I waited many years to learn characters. I regret it.

 

When I started, the textbooks/courses I had did not teach characters very well, they just expected you to learn whatever was used in the dialogs. They didn't teach anything about pictographs, meaning components, phonetic components, mnemonics, etc. I gave up because I found wrote character learning too time consuming, was studying sporadically part-time, and wanted to what little time I had on speaking and listening.

 

If I could start all over again, I wish that I could have been learned characters seperately from day one, first learning all the common components, then late how they go together to form useful/common words. If I had done this, I could already have had a large bank of characters to draw on and start connecting with my spoken Mandarin as I started to move beyond beginner stage, and start to make use of reading materials earlier.

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Johnny20270

We just started a new book today in class and there is no pinyin in the dialogue. I have not had this experience before. Its interesting as even if the dialogue is pretty easy, my eyes just naturally drift to the pinyin no matter what. I found even after one day I am starting to become 'closer to the language' if that makes sense. For example, I am starting to spot 是 ... 的, constructions easier.

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