In recent while, I’ve gotten a few emails regarding the best way to study Chinese characters. While I’m sure the answers to this question will vary from person to person, I thought I would use this blog to detail my own personal experiences with learning how to read and write Chinese.
One of the reasons that many find it hard to learn Chinese, even while living in a Chinese community, is due to not being able to read Chinese characters. Most learners of second languages get the majority of their learning from reading. If you’re trying to learn English while living in an English speaking country, you will get a lot of peripheral learning from being able to read.
While out on the street, you may see a bank and recognize it as being so, along with the word “bank” printed on the sign outside. However, looking at a street scene like the one pictured above, it’s hard to get any learning when you don’t understand any of the characters printed.
The majority of my initial learning of characters came from waiting at traffic lights on my scooter. I would look at street signs that were printed with the Pinyin equivalents below and try to match the characters with their equivalent Pinyin. I would pick out characters that were distinct and easy to remember such as 大 and 小 or that I were likely to see such as the characters for road or street and would pick them out from address signs. I learned numbers and tried to pick them out where I could too.
I then tried to extend this into something practical by learning the characters for certain foods. I felt much safer looking at a menu and being able to pick out beef (牛肉) at a glance instead of always having to rely on others. My favorite fruit was mango, so I could soon instantly look at the fruits and beverages section and pick out anything with 芒果 in it.
Without knowing, I was employing an approach of using comprehensible input, to further my knowledge. I would focus on what I already know and look for something slightly above it.
Further posts in this series will go into more detail on how you can use this approach to further your own learning.
Welcome to Learning Mandarin Chinese Insights, a new blog I’ve started that will give you more of a background about myself, as well as some of the insights I’ve picked up along the way while learning Mandarin Chinese, and how they apply to my Chinese Learn Online(CLO) course.
I came to Taiwan in 2003, like many others, to teach English. My focus was on making and saving money teaching English, but one of the reasons I had chosen Taiwan was because I figured if I had to learn another language, learning Mandarin Chinese would be as good a choice as any.
During my first year here, not much effort was made on learning Chinese. I assumed I would learn by osmosis. After all, everything around me was Chinese – all the signs I saw and all the sounds I heard so I would have no choice but to learn Chinese, right?
Well I was shocked to find after my first year, that my level of Chinese was nowhere near what I would have hoped for after living here for a year. That’s when I decided to get serious about learning Chinese. Why waste such a grand opportunity to learn a new language while living in a new country!
Since my focus was still on teaching English, I wasn’t prepared to give up my working hours to learn Chinese, so all my Chinese learning had to be self taught during my spare time. I started devouring any and all material I could come across related to learning Chinese. I purchased books and CDs galore. At the same time, I was also interested in language learning techniques to improve my English teaching skills, so I began to develop an interest in the differences in learning techniques used by native Chinese speakers to learn English versus those used by native English speakers to learn Chinese.
Although I had purchased a lot of books and courses (I had over 20 of them occupying my shelf), I found that the majority of my time was spent on a few that I found to be the best. That was about the time the first seed was planted, that while a few courses excelled in certain areas, there didn’t seem to be one definite one out there that combined all the aspects that I thought were required for a good teaching system.
To make a long story short, I completed two more years in Taiwan (so three years in total) and then moved back to Canada. By then, I had enough of a vocabulary base to communicate basic concepts in Mandarin, but certainly not enough to understand Mandarin news on television. During my learning, there was very little focus given on reading and writing so my reading skills were quite minimal whereas my writing skills were non existent.
After returning to Canada, I decided to start CLO as a way to combine my experiences in language teaching and learning in Taiwan with my Computer Science background. I initially used Kirin, a native Taiwanese who was visiting Canada at the time, as my main speaker since she had a very clear manner of speaking. After she returned to Taiwan, I employed local immigrants from various parts of China and Taiwan who were now living in Canada.
During this time, I was still designing all the lessons myself and using the speakers as consultants and for the recording aspects. However, as the level of the course increased, I realized that at some point it would exceed my ability to create new lessons, which is why I decided to return to Taiwan after exactly a year off, to continue production of the course from here.
Since this was now a full time venture for me, I decided it would be in my interest to add some formal learning in Chinese to my experience. I was also very curious as to what types of techniques were used in classroom settings when teaching Chinese to foreign learners and whether any of these techniques could be used in my course so I enrolled myself in a local University course.
I’m happy to say that I’ve been very pleased with the class so far and would certainly like to develop some of the learning techniques used in the class into techniques that can be used in my course. There is a great emphasis within the course on reading and writing Chinese characters, so my mind is bursting with ideas for things I could write about in this blog in that area.
I am in talks right now with multiple teachers on what techniques they could contribute to the course, so I’m certainly excited about the possibilities for the future.
As I share my experiences with you, I would love to hear from some listeners as well. Let me know what techniques work for you and what don’t. I’ll admit that a lot of the ideas in this course didn’t come from me, but from feedback from users, so please continue to send me your comments, as they will direct the future direction of this course.
a dog says 汪汪 [wāngwāng] a bee says 嗡嗡 [wēngwēng] a frog says 呱呱 [guāguā] (ducks say this too) a sheep says 咩咩 [miēmiē] a bird says 叽叽喳喳 [jījizhāzhā] a cat says 喵喵 [miāomiāo] a cow says 哞 [mōu] a pig says 哼哼 [hēnghēng] a tiger says 嗷呜 [áowū] (other roaring animals say this too) a mouse says 吱吱 [zhīzhī] a snake says 嘶嘶 [sīsī] a rooster says 喔喔喔 [wōwōwō] a cricket says 蛐蛐 [qūqū]