Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #1

Pardon the delay – I was in Mexico last week. And, in case you’re wondering, Mexicans don’t understand Chinese. Believe me, I tested the hypothesis repeatedly and with the same outcome. But I wanted to share some of my own conclusions about language learning, particularly Chinese. Not sure how much I’ve written about this in the past, but the longer I am in China, the more convinced I become of the essentialness of language acquisition. Why the missionary ought to learn the language (regardless of his age) is a topic that merits its own treatment. One of the great blights on modern missions in China is the failure of the vast majority to do so. But the next few posts are what I would say to all you prospective Chinese learners out there. You can discount these as opinions if you so desire, but they all spring from firsthand observation of a large number of language learners, both successful and otherwise.

Blasphemy to a Chinese teacher. But I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met that know over a thousand characters and can’t say anything correctly! Pinyin (Romanized Chinese) is one of the greatest inventions you have at your disposal. From the first week of class in most schools the teachers keep telling you, ‘Don’t look at the pinyin!’ Many struggling [failing] students have told me they don’t want to use the pinyin because they don’t want a crutch. But a crutch is exactly what a cripple needs! One day you should learn characters. Then you can pitch the crutch. For now, you can sit there or you can crutch it.

So why do people gravitate toward learning characters first? Honestly, learning the characters is about the easiest part of Chinese. Sheer memorization. Plus, it’s the most aesthetically pleasing part of Chinese. It’s what most think of when taking up Chinese – the beauty of the characters. Finally, it is about the most concrete part of learning Chinese. Visible, measurable results. You can say, I now know x characters (never mind that you can’t say it in Chinese!). The problem is a time issue. Memorization takes time – and most Chinese students spend all their outside-classroom study time scribbling characters furiously. No time to drill their spoken Chinese.

Listen, talk, read, write – in that order. How much can the average first grader say? How much can they write? I think the reason Chinese teachers insist on their students writing characters is that that’s all they remember from school themselves. Of course they don’t remember learning to talk. All they remember is long hours hunched over a desk, copying the strokes from a textbook. So they advise you to do the same. But learning to talk Chinese (well) is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do – the bulk of your time must be spent there.

Though it ain’t worth much, it’s my guess that in the future the characters will either undergo another simplification or else be done away with altogether. Most Chinese people insist that’s impossible, but that’s due mostly to their inability to use pinyin comfortably. It is entirely possible, and I think it inevitable. The characters have great artistic value (as Chinese people always point out), but these decisions are never made by artists.

But I love the characters. They’re in use, so we should learn them. I’m for the characters, just not for learning them FIRST. Spend a year talking before you try to write a single character. Your teachers won’t like it, but they’ve never learned Chinese before (consciously, anyway), so I’d think twice before taking their advice.

On the flip side of this is a task that most Chinese teachers consider to be unimportant – understanding the grammar of the language. Chinese people have told me many times that they have no grammar in their language. In response, I just say something wrong in Chinese and ask them why I can’t say it like that. The answer is: grammar. The problem is that any language’s grammar structure is invisible to the native speakers. Their brain is formed to the mold of the language’s restrictions and actually has to work to say things in a wrong way. Their mind effortlessly plugs new words into rigid, well-worn patterns. There may be lots of words you don’t know in English, but you know (subconsciously, that is) practically all the grammar there is to know!

Now you want to learn Chinese. The grammar is constructed very differently. Your brain will want to bend the new Chinese words and shove them into its existing grammar template. You will have to build new sentence molds from scratch. How do you do that? Drilling. You use the same pattern of speaking over and over until you can do it as effortlessly as you can in English. This will turn your brain to mush. But it’s the only way you’ll ever speak with any level of comfort in the language. This, quite simply, is the reason why every pitch about learning a language in a matter of weeks is a gimmick. You can learn all the words you want to, but those grammar structures grow slowly like trees, a ring at a time.

I suggest taking a new sentence pattern that you are unfamiliar with (which at the beginning is all of them!) and speaking it a few hundred times, plugging in different vocabulary while maintaining the original structure. With every repetition, the pattern is grooved a little deeper in your mind. Continue until you’re comfortable with saying it like this, and saying it any other way sounds wrong!

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9 Comments on “Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #1”

  1. MC Champlin July 28, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    One question (and a genuine one): How do you balance the undisputed need to learn the language if you are to be established in a country with the fact that Paul used the global lingua franc of his day to minister even where that was not the heart-tongue? (Acts 14:18, notice vs. 11 particularly)

    I’ve given this much thought and don’t have an answer unless I just excuse it away.

    • Vengador August 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

      Interesting point. Honestly had never given much thought to the role of language learning in the Apostle Paul’s ministry. Thanks for the thought-provocation!
      I can only speak for China because that’s where I work, but Mandarin Chinese is a lingua franc. And that’s the language that I learned even though many of the people in our church would probably claim some dialect as their mother tongue. I mention that simply to point out that the existence of a lingua franc isn’t really an argument against learning a language, rather it is an argument for learning a strategic language. I’m sure there are some countries where English functions as a lingua franc, but China is not one of those countries. English is spoken by an extremely small portion of the population. But your point is valid: in a country like the Philippines, many missionaries have dismissed the need to learn a native language as the percentage of English speakers is much higher. I think we need to be careful in labeling a language a lingua franc: how many people can truly communicate in this language? The fact that Paul is delivering a message in Lystra that is both intellectual AND emotionally appealing seems to imply that he had good reasons to believe that his listeners were comfortable in the Greek tongue. I don’t think Paul was pantomiming or talking like a caveman, like his modern brethren who opt out of language learning! In summary, English is simply not a global lingua franc like the Greek language apparently was in the Roman Empire.
      Thanks for the input!

      • MC Champlin August 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

        That makes sense. While English is the “global language”, it is often not the lingua franc – it really is only the lingua franc of certain parts of most countries. Thanks for the perspective adjustment!

  2. Jacques August 8, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    You listed several “benefits” of studying written Chinese (aesthetically pleasing, measurable, it is the only thing Chinese teachers remember from school), but I believe you failed to mention one of the most important benefits: the ability to read and write.

    George Orwell once said, “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”

    Not that I disagree with your overall premise that it is unnecessary to learn to write characters before you learn to speak Chinese.

    • Vengador August 8, 2011 at 11:15 am #

      Great point! I should definitely have worded that better!
      Writing is vital – but in Chinese that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of character study. Typing is done in pinyin, so though there are many characters that I still don’t remember how to write, I can type them effortlessly. In other words, writing in Chinese is not a problem for those who can speak well. Conversely, if someone doesn’t know how to speak Chinese, that someone certainly doesn’t have anything to write in Chinese! So I agree with your point – and I think you seem to agree that it’s necessary to speak correctly before you write.

  3. Jacques August 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    That‘s definitely true. So far, have memorized about 1000 characters and forgotten probably 400 of those. But when it comes to typing on the computer, or reading them on the page, it is much easier to recollect.

    Also, I find life getting a little bit easier in China knowing how to read a little Chinese. From buying groceries, reading medicine labels, navigating a map, shopping online, or sending text messages, written Chinese definitely comes in handy.

    Another benefit that comes to mind from learning Chinese in a traditional school setting is that it may add to one’s cultural learning in addition to language learning.

    Although it may slow down the pace of our class, learning the background story to a popular Chinese idiom or the history of a well known song, painting, writer, or Emperor helps me grasp more than just the language of China. It helps me understand its history and culture.

    Furthermore, the process of learning the language in a public university is a cultural study in itself. As you know, education, with all of its flaws, is huge in China, so understanding what going to school in China is like can greatly help one understand a major aspect of life for 1.4 billion Chinese people. After all, the education process is not only a source of toil and anxiety for students, but for their parents and grandparents as well.

    When I sit in my classroom each week, cram for two major exams every semester, ignore the notes and cheat sheets that are being passed around while the teacher leaves the room, and scribble characters on practice paper for hours every evening, I am joining an experience shared by hundreds of millions of other Chinese people who have done the same. After all, from their earliest days in grade school, they too learned to sit patiently for hours every night as their hands cramped while they practiced writing characters for hours on end. And when they approached the end of high school, every Chinese student spent many hours cramming for the college entrance exam that would seemingly make or break their very existences in a mere 8 hours while their parents and grandparents sat on a curbside outside the school, anxiously awaiting them to finish.

    Anyway, just some thoughts adding to a different perspective on learning Chinese in China.

  4. Vengador August 12, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    Well, Jacques, again you’re making a very valid point. I am completely in favor of learning characters. And poems. And culture.

    Writing Chinese is handy. Writing Chinese is part of Chinese culture. Writing Chinese is a way of identifying with Chinese people.

    But my post is about learning the Chinese language, not the Chinese culture. And I maintain that if someone majors in written Chinese, their spoken Chinese will (except in cases of extreme talent) suffer greatly.

    Besides, the single greatest method of acquiring cultural information is via personal conversation in someone’s heart language. There is just no way of comparing it to the cultural info gleaned from writing characters. It’s like comparing the water you can gain by gathering rainwater retained in tree leaves to scooping cupfuls right out of a river. It doesn’t matter how many poems or how much history you know – if you’re not able to have deep conversations with people, you’re simply not getting the meat of Chinese culture.

    Now maybe it’s possible for someone to learn 1,000 characters in, say, a year of language learning, AND be able to converse meaningfully with Chinese people. I’ve just never met someone who has. Which tells me that, for the average learner, that is just not the way to go about it.

    As an example of what I mean, I would hold up the example of a student that I know. He has been studying for less than a year, and has preached in our underground church in Chinese for twenty minutes – with only a couple slip-ups. Frankly, he will know more about Chinese culture than his character-focused counterpart. For the record, this friend of mine has very little in the way of natural language-learning ability.

    I hope I don’t sound argumentative! Not my intent at all. You may be the crazy guy that can learn 1,000 characters a year AND be able to excel in spoken Chinese. But most people are not, and would be hurt by such a strategy. I personally have met dozens of examples.

    Thanks for the added perspective!


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