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Mandarin teaching methods (Comprehensible Input)

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Re: How good were you after four months of studying Chinese?

Postby ironlady » 20 May 2012, 02:36

No, literacy is not a part of language acquisition. Language acquisition is purely that -- acquiring language. Acquiring. You can't acquire literacy. There is no universal brain mechanism for acquiring the ability to read, that occurs without intervention in everyone surrounded by a print-rich environment.
Literacy is a part of becoming proficient in a language, if your goal involves reading and writing. There are, however, plenty of people who want to acquire Chinese without being particularly concerned about reading and writing, or about writing (some want to be able to read but aren't worried about writing). And there are all points along the spectrum of writing, too: written by hand from memory, by hand from a writing aid, by computer).

Chinese literacy -- learning to read and write Chinese -- is more challenging than learning to read and write an alphabetic language, obviously. There is not as easily circumscribed a set of symbols where you can say "There, I know those!" It is more challenging (though getting easier with modern technology) to find information about unknowns in a text (well, I learned to read back in the 1980s when it was about an 80% probability I would be able to find any given character in the dictionary if I wanted to look it up and didn't know how to pronounce it; contrast that with today's Pleco dictionary and its character recognition from photos!) But still not as simple as dealing with an alphabet.

The methodological comments still hold, though. It is far, far easier to teach someone to read a language that they are fluent in than to get them to read a language they haven't mastered -- yet that's what is done in most Chinese classes. Students are required to read (often out loud) language they have barely begun to work with. It's not "in their heads". They can't read a sentence and stop and say, "Hey, that last word doesn't make sense there. Let me look at that character again and make a different guess." That is the kind of error correction we are seeing when teaching reading with CI-friendly methods. It was really exciting to see novice-level Chinese students reading and actually getting impatient when we'd ask them what a sentence meant. "Duh! I know what it means. I'm just trying to read it!"

To do that, though, at present teachers have to actually write the reading materials, OR start with the reading materials already selected and teach the language included in the readings, specifically. You could get the same effect using the standard textbook "reading passage" if you took the time to have students really acquire the language before reading it, but that's not part of the communicative teaching model, so that's not what happens the majority of the time. And so it is that Chinese literacy is made more difficult than it needs to be.
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Re: Mandarin teaching methods (Comprehensible Input)

Postby JourneyMatt » 21 May 2012, 04:57

Don't fall into the trap that language is based on writing. Someone speaking a tribal language in the amazon, can speak and convey complex ideas about the world around them with no knowledge of any written system because there isn't one.

100 years ago, less than 10% of Chinese people were illiterate, yet we wouldn't say that less than 10% "knew Chinese."

In Chinese, the spoken language is further separated from the written one than in alphabetic languages. I always say, English words are lines; the only arbitrary link you have to make is between the sound and the meaning. Once you know the alphabet, you can write any word comprehensibly, if not correctly. You will never forget how to write a word you can say, or forget how to say a word you've seen written. (speling errurs kan hapin but u kan stil undirstand). All you need to cement in your head is the link between meaning and sound, the written form will take care of itself.

English (or other phonetic language)
Written form - sound

Chinese words are triangles; there are three links you have to make in your head.

written form漢字 _ _ _ _ Sound 國語

(sorry about the periods, the formatting wasn't sticking with spaces.)

Thus it's possible to have college educated Chinese speakers forget how to write certain words. If you collect hand written notes, you'll often see a handful of words written with bopomofo because they forget the Hanzi. This is because it's impossible to internally recreate the set of rules that went into making the Hanzi in the first place. If I make up an english word and say that it means dog, for example, "trelgig" you can write that the first time you hear it. In chinese, some hearing a word for the first time cannot write the Hanzi if no one tells them. Period. For example, a schoolchild hearing gou3狗 for the first time and being told it means "dog" will not be able to place himself in the minds of the scribes 2000 years ago who picked 句 as the second half because it has a similar sound, and reproduce the character. Instead the child will use Zhuyin because that allows him to write what he hears. The phonetics and radicals of Chinese characters do help a lot, but no one will ever be able to generate the right character for a word without it being taught to them. In phonetic languages, if they can say it and know the alphabet and a few spelling conventions, they can write it.

The interesting thing about the above triangle is that the sound can be replaced by any Chinese language without disrupting the link between "meaning" and "written form." It's why someone from guangdong and someone from Shanghai can read the same books even if they can't have a conversation. Their spoken languages are different but they share a written one. Try doing that with European languages and it won't work. (though you can see an echo of it if a French and an Italian person read a Latin book.)

This is also why Japanese students have an advantage in Chinese class. The western foreigners have to learn the entire triangle for each new word, but Japanese students, most of the time, only have to change the "sound" corner and learn some new grammar rules. The link between meaning and written form is pretty similar in both languages.
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Re: Mandarin teaching methods (Comprehensible Input)

Postby Albannach » 25 May 2012, 17:03

Although the points made by JM are correct, AFAIK, there are quite a few European languages that are mutually comprehensible in writing but not in speech. Irish is easy for a Scottish Gaelic-speaking reader, and Portuguese for a Spanish speaker. The relationship between Dutch and German is similar, as I found out when trying to listen to World Cup reports while travelling through the Netherlands - incredibly frustrating, as one radio channel after another spoke this incomprehensible language. Newspaper reports would have given me no problem.
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