The future of Chinese language learning
Victor Mair has some compelling thoughts on the Language Log on the future of Chinese language learning, and how we might soon be rid of brute force “rote memorization (sǐbèi/jì 死背/記 [lit., “deadly memorization”]).”
When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language. Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively. The main features of my desired regimen would be to:
1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)
2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script
3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated
The problem was that all of my language teachers insisted that I memorize hundreds of characters right from the very start.
How shall we use these marvelous tools, and what are their implications for Chinese language teaching / learning? I could expatiate on the virtues of these new applications for days, but here I shall merely outline them under several points:
1. they will eliminate the need for the dreaded, boring, antiquated, stifling tīngxiě 听 写 / 聽寫 (“dictation”) exercises
2. they will banish the fear of character amnesia (electronic devices are already writing our characters for us)
3. they will enable students to read massive amounts of quality texts on the widest possible variety of subjects without having to endure the agony and drudgery of looking up characters by radicals, stroke order, shape, etc. — I wasted years of my life on exactly those tasks — and it is precisely the reading of large quantities of real Chinese that facilitates the acquisition of a confident Sprachgefühl for the language in diverse contexts
2 comments on “The future of Chinese language learning”
Thanks Jason, super interesting! Victor Mair has been arguing for decades that the Chinese language should be digraphic, that is accompanied by romanized alphabet at all times. It’s been the subject of debate about Chinese society, literacy, and language reform (see http://www.kanjinetworks.com/eng/kanji-blog/post.cfm/critique-conflation-agenda and http://historum.com/asian-history/51152-true-chairman-mao-wanted-get-rid-chinese-characters-5.html). This all plays out differently in the digital context, where the compact Chinese script conveys more information in a shorter space, making a 140-character Weibo post more content-rich than a tweet, for instance.
Lyn – thanks for the context! I didn’t know he had been had it for that long. I probably wouldn’t go as far as to be digraphic myself, which is probably why I cherrypicked his comments about computer-aided learning 🙂