Chinese: A Description for Teachers of Other Languages – 2

Diane continues:

Some terms:

Pinyin: phonetic writing system developed in the 1950’s to show standard Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters; its goal was to help Chinese understand each other’s speech and standardize “Mandarin.” It’s very scientific – once you know what sound some letters represent, that’s the whole set of syllables available in Chinese: about 250 total. So, It’s just a guide to pronunciation, not the language itself. Chinese has many, many homophones so it’s actually confusing (maybe even unpleasant, if it’s like how I feel) for most native speakers to use pinyin alone to derive meaning instead of just how to pronounce something. The lines above letters are tone marks. Pinyin looks like this: n?h?o! p?ny?n shì zhèyàng de yì huí shì.

Characters: pictographic symbols combining meaning and sometimes some phonetic indicator, too. The same Chinese characters are used with all Chinese dialects (with a few unique ones in writing Cantonese, and sometimes different words used in different regions, just as in other languages). Chinese characters are not random; there is embedded meaning and components of characters are massively re-used in other characters. Single characters are also massively re-used in multiple, compound words. Same sentence as above in pinyin: ?????????????One advantage about Chinese is that 1000 characters are enough for basic literacy, as these frequency websites suggest:

Dialects: Mandarin is the national language in the PRC and Taiwan and used in business, broadcasting, and education. Many regions, though, have a spoken dialect (most of which are not usually written except informally). Cantonese is the second most spoken dialect and used in and near Hong Kong, though Mandarin is being more and more widely used there, too. According to World, the four most-spoken world languages are all dialects of Chinese: Other languages in East Asia once used characters as their written form: Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese definitely. Japanese still mixes native, phonetic syllable scripts with some Chinese characters, so someone Chinese can read Japanese texts for basic meaning (and vice-versa). Korean has a phonetic, syllable writing kind of shaped like characters, but they are phonetic.

Cold character reading: Terry Waltz developed this method of learning to read following massive aural input; students see new words in pinyin only, and within a day or two are ready to read in characters only (hence, “cold,” without prep work in individual characters). The idea is to limit the number of new characters in any reading but give massive visual repetitions on those new characters, so cold character reading requires rather long, rather repetitive texts. Think of a written version of the whole conversation in circling and discussion during PQA – that’s similar. Haiyun Lu has called this kind of text “visual circling” for that reason. Readings must be designed to repeat the new words frequently, like 10-20 times.



4 thoughts on “Chinese: A Description for Teachers of Other Languages – 2”

  1. Fascinating! Thank you, Diane.

    Much of this is new info to me and good to know. I’ve been asked before how you learn to read Chinese. I’ve also seen cold character reading and pinyin talked about on moreTPRS, but I’ve never really understood.

  2. Thank you Diane. How interesting. Am I understanding correctly that Japanese and Chinese characters are mostly similar? I always wondered if each Asian language had developed their own set of characters over time. I’ve also seen vertical writing in Japanese papers.
    If I were to have kids read in early elementary I would try cold character reading in French. I understand it much better now. A little like high frequency sight words in Kindergarten.

    1. Hi Catharina,

      The Japanese began to write their language after Chinese scholars came in the 700’s. First, it was all exactly the same set of characters (but later, Japanese adapted to using some characters – sometimes they are written a little bit different, but still pretty much the same – and they created 2 syllabary phonetic writing systems). Chinese has been written vertically from top to bottom, and also horizontally from right to left, and mostly is now just as English is written (left to right). Japanese I think is likewise, but don’t quote me on that. I know in my college Japanese classes we read from left to right like an English text would be.

      My French dept. chair says she sees similar issues in reading for students of French because the spelling doesn’t seem to match the pronunciation.

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