Chinese Language Week: How do you learn a language you can't read?

22 Sep 2019

Learning any language is a daunting undertaking for most people, so how much more difficult is learning Chinese when the characters it's written in are completely different to the Roman alphabet English speakers are used to?

The fact the US government Foreign Service Institute classes Mandarin Chinese as a category five language - the most difficult category for a native English speaker to learn - could be a hint.

But Dr Chia-rong Wu, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Canterbury, doesn't think the rating tells the full story.

"I think Chinese language patterns are very easy to follow and flexible. It's defined as category five simply because it's very different from English," he said.

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Learning Chinese characters may seem like a big challenge but there are ways to make it easier.

Learning Chinese characters may seem like a big challenge but there are ways to make it easier.
At the same time he acknowledged: "Of course it takes time to learn Chinese characters...It requires time and effort for sure."

Coming to the aid of English speakers wanting to learn Chinese is pinyin, in which Chinese characters are spelt out - essentially in line with their pronunciation - with letters from the Roman alphabet.

"Usually it will take one to two weeks for Western language learners to learn pinyin. It's not difficult for English speakers."

Pinyin could also be used to enter Chinese characters on digital devices," Wu said.

After students learnt pinyin, they started learning Chinese characters.

"A lot of Chinese characters look like pictures. For example we have a character for water; it looks like the flow of a river. The character for mountain looks like a mountain," Wu said.

"Each single character has its own meaning. Sometimes each character has multiple meanings. If you put different characters together you will be able to contextualise the text."

At the University of Canterbury each lesson included a Chinese character-only text. Accompanying that was a vocabulary list, which had the Chinese characters, its pinyin version, and an English definition. That enabled students to find any new characters in pinyin.

Artist Stan Chan provides some calligraphy pointers to Wellington East Girls' College students in this file pic.
CAMERON BURNELL/ FAIRFAX NZ
Artist Stan Chan provides some calligraphy pointers to Wellington East Girls' College students in this file pic.
If students were having trouble remembering how to pronounce a character, they could look for it in the vocabulary list for the lesson when the character was introduced.

There were also videos online that accompanied the textbooks used in class. "If students need some more practice they can definitely go through those videos to enhance their listening and speaking skills," Wu said.

"With technology, some students can use a mobile app to scan characters. I think that's a new learning technique for the future... I never had that luxury."

In time students were able to build up a decent database of characters, so they could read and understand Chinese text.

"If you really want to speak Chinese fluently and communicate with native speakers without any problem it would be good to have at least 3000 Chinese characters... If not you can have 1000 to get around," Wu said.

Until recently he taught in the US where some students were able to get to the 3000-character mark within two years. Many students were able to learn more than 1500 characters.

To be able to converse fluently in Chinese, learn 3000 characters.

To be able to converse fluently in Chinese, learn 3000 characters.
Writing Chinese characters was probably the most challenging part of the curriculum. Students could also choose to learn some calligraphy, using a brush pen and ink to write characters, which was considered an important artistic practice.

Confucius Institutes have been set up around the world, with the stated aim of promoting the Chinese culture and language.

In New Zealand, Confucius Institutes are based at Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington universities. They are each a collaboration between the New Zealand university, a Chinese institution, and Hanban - the Office of Chinese Language Council International based in Beijing.

At the University of Canterbury, Confucius Institute teachers played a supporting role in teaching the Chinese curriculum, Wu said. The institute was also expected to reach out to other parts of the South Island. It was working with more than 100 schools and offering classes to more than 13,000 primary and secondary students.