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Do I Learn Characters First or Characters and Sounds?


Daryn
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Pinyin may not self explanatory but I thought it was

 

Pinyin, or Hanyu Pinyin, is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China, Taiwan,[1] and Singapore

 

 

As a phonetic system the sounds must be incorporated in it.

 

A guide to the pronunciation is widely available in print and on line so I don't think it would be too difficult to find out what they should sound like, whether or not your reproduction is correct without audio is another problem.

 

My textbooks go into the pronunciation in a very in depth way with diagrams and very thorough explanations, so even without audio reference, a very good approximation can be expected.

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A phonetic writing system doesn't mean self-explanatory though, it just means the letters have a strong correspondence to the sound they're supposed to represent.

The actual sound of each letter could be anything and still needs to be learnt.

Descriptions of sounds are helpful to a point, but if it's a sound or distinction you've never heard before, you're unlikely going to be able to pronounce it accurately (unless you're a professional linguist with a working knowledge of the IPA), pinyin is still a representation of sounds. Sounds being the key-word here, which should ideally be heard...

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Yes I agree,  but my point is you should be able to have a sound to hang on each character even if later it turns out you hadn't got it quite right. As roddy said earlier it is almost impossible to separate the two.

 

but basically thought and speech are as good as inseparable.

 

 

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There are opinions about learning to translate character to sound as opposed to character to pinyin to sound. What does everyone think of this? 

 

For example, it's recommended to people who learn Japanese to take some time to learn kana (hiragana/katakana) instead of romaji to help with pronunciation. This way, sounds are linked back to characters instead of the Latin alphabet.

 

For Chinese, do you think this rule applies? I've been learning the sounds of each character without knowing the pinyin. After I become somewhat familiar with the system, I'll likely pick up pinyin to help type on electronic devices.

 

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I know plenty of 3-4 year olds who can't read but can speak quite confidently about things from their little worlds.

Precisely, my niece is exactly 3 years old and neither she is able to read nor her friends, she has just started learning basic alphabet, but she talks and talks all the day, never-ending conversations - that's where she masters her speaking and listening ))

 

Another example, I've studied Chinese in the school for 华侨, all my schoolmates were absolutely fluent in Chinese, they just were not able to read and write, they've never studied it before, that's why parents send them to China to fill his gap. Apparently, lack of ability to read and write could not stop people from becoming absolutely fluent at speaking and listening.

 

The same with children, by the time they are going to learn how to read and write words, they already know all those words, they know how to recognise them with ears and how to reproduce them with mouth, they just don't know how to recognise them with eyes and how to reproduce them with pen ))

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For Heisig book 1 you should learn at least 1 common word and its pronunciation for each character, as you are learning them.  

 

There's no point going through Heisig book 2 until you already know the meaning and sounds and common words (80% or so) of the characters in Book 1.

 

The reason for this is that you will forget too many characters by the time you come back to learn words & sounds, therefore you've wasted a lot of time.  

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I often hear a word that I know 'in characters' but draw blank, however as soon as I see it written, I understand. This is kind of the opposite of how language should work...

 

Do you think this is partly a feature of characters: that once you know enough characters, written words inevitably contain a big clue to their meaning? So whenever you see a word written down it is primarily a visual deciphering exercise. An abc language presumably would require a reader to sound-out half-familiar words to get the meaning, which helps reinforce the sound in the memory. But not Chinese. Too many times in conversation I've drawn a blank when someone says a word; they explain what it means and I realise I know the word well, if written down. Chalk it up to reasons why Chinese is rather difficult to learn?

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I think you should learn all of them together. You need pinyin for electronic input and it helps you learn the sound. You should learn characters, pinyin and their sound as a package.

 

There is no way to avoid learning all these things, you need to know all these thing eventually so just learn it all together, don't leave one of them till later, that's like learning things twice, or having to start again.

 

It all makes much more sense when you do it all together.

 

Get a good textbook, I use New Practical Chinese Reader, get the workbooks, the audio and the video, work steadily and thoroughly through the lessons, immerse you self as much as possible in chinese, watch chinese TV, talk as much as you can to people, practice writing, practice reading and you will end up with a well rounded knowledge.

 

 

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Yes I agree,  but my point is you should be able to have a sound to hang on each character even if later it turns out you hadn't got it quite right. As roddy said earlier it is almost impossible to separate the two.

 

Possibly, but there's no reason why that sound HAS to be that represented by pinyin. This is clearly evidenced by literate speakers of other dialects, who do not speak Mandarin. And although not of much practical value, there's no reason why 狗 couldn't be pronounced "dog" and 猫 "cat".

 

It's a long time ago now, so I don't remember all that clearly, but I'm sure when I started learning, I knew the meaning for many characters that not only did I not know how to pronounce, I did not even remember the pinyin. It was literally just a character and a meaning.

 

Besides, how do congenitally deaf people read and write? Presumably they don't ascribe a sound to each character...?

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Besides, how do congenitally deaf people read and write? Presumably they don't ascribe a sound to each character...?

 

Good question.

 

The whole subject of sound and character is fascinating. I think as adult learners who can read and write our mother tongue we can have things explained to us using pinyin and phonetics.

 

We are not children who learn parrot fashion and with a limited vocabulary. We are well educated students of a foreign language who have many resources and tools to use.

 

I agree that any sound can be used and that it doesn't have to be represented by pinyin but my point is there has to be a sound.

 

I only suggest that as pinyin is widely used and has lots of learning material it would be practical to use pinyin.

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We are well educated students of a foreign language who have many resources and tools to use.

 

Well, yes, but that is a different issue. I'm not at all suggesting that learning characters without learning the associated sound is an optimal learning strategy. But I think it's possible. I don't see why one has to associate a sound to each character. Do people who decipher Egyptian heiroglyphics ascribe a sound to each picture?

 

And in the days I was starting out, I certainly didn't have many resources and tools to use.

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I agree its possible, difficult for me to believe but I have to admit it must be possible, but just not best.

 

Do people who decipher Egyptian heiroglyphics ascribe a sound to each picture?

 

I don't know the answer to this.

 

I will have to find out more about this.

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  • 5 years later...
  • New Members

I'm also using the Heisig method using Anki. Like you, I've also wondered whether I should learn the sound first or the character first. I did have a good basic in pinyin; and since I loved to give it a try with Mnemonics, I decided to try out Heisig. But along the way I keep feeling that I could use my time better -- so I revised and customised it as I went along. So far (at 1,100 characters), I'm quite happy with my current approach. Just thought I would share, you might benefit from it. I might also get some feedback from others who have been there before me.

 

My current approach is as I learn a new character, I also look up and add the below information to my card:

  • Pinyin
  • One commonly used compound word as a Chinese cue word
  • I use an Anki plugin that read both of them out loud

I find that this approach solves a few of my gripes with Heisig, while offers a few additional benefits:

 

ONE, Heisig's keywords are sometimes confusing. That's where the Chinese cue word comes in. On the front of the card, I hide the cue word under the blue bar (1st screen), but I allow myself to click on it to "peek" at the cue word (2nd screen). I do need to peek sometimes (for example I might confuse somebody with someone, but shēn and zhě are quite distinguishable. Better yet, shēn and zuò zhě). This is also how the Chinese distinguish similar sounding characters from one another (when they say something like "shēn tǐ de shēn"). I think there is no reason we have to stick to English keywords -- the only reason I still use them is because Heisig uses them in subsequent stories. But if in our mind we remember the characters using pinyin or pinyin cue word, it will be more beneficial during the transition away from the Heisig keywords later on).

 

TWO, while I don't consciously review the sound; doing this makes it mostly stick in my mind to a certain extend, without much more efforts. When I review the card, I try to read out both the sound and the Chinese cue word - if I get it wrong, it doesn't matter, I still mark the card is Good).

 

THREE, I always find it hard to remember the tones of characters. I find that learning the sound of the character in a compound word makes it easier to remember its tone. zuò zhě is easier for me to remember than zhě (... or was that zhè, or zhé? lol).

 

FOUR, looking up the pinyin allows me to see a lot of connections between characters like 马, 吗 and 妈 - which is something that Heisig deliberately left out from his method -- for no other reason than it was originally devised for learning Kanji which has much less phonetic consistency.

 

FIVE, if I choose the cue word so that it includes the character I'm currently learning, plus a character I've already learnt; this seems to link them up beautifully in my mind and it makes my brain very happy.

 

SIX, I get exposure to a word as I learn a character. While I don't consciously learn it; it makes it easier to recognise them when I read later on. Why only learn 3000 characters when you could learn 3,000 characters and get yourself exposed to 3,000 words with a little bit more effort. I don't expect this to be the main benefit though; but a nice bonus.

 

 

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