Questions About Chinese Language Study

Jump to: I. Why learning Chinese ?
II. Is it difficult to learn Chinese ?
III. How to be a successful learner of Chinese ?

I. Why learning Chinese ?

There is little doubt about the benefit of studying a foreign language. Research has shown that academic achievement such as math and verbal SAT scores is positively correlated with the length of foreign language study. That is, the longer one studies a foreign language, the stronger his/her skills become to succeed in school. Studying a foreign language can definitely improve one's analytic and interpretative capacities.

With the increase of cultural and economic exchanges, more and more business work closely with companies in other countries. As we are in a global economy, the demand for people who can engage in cross-cultural communication is soaring. However, since cross-cultural communication is a two-way traffic, we cannot just sit ideal and wait for people in other countries to learn English. American companies need many different kind of workers who can communicate in different languages and understand other cultures. Knowing more than one language will help your career development, and enhance opportunities in government, business, medical and health care, law enforcement, teaching, technology, the military, communications, industry social service, and marketing.

Language is indispensable from culture. Learning a foreign language will give you not only an insider's view of another culture, but also a new perspective of better understand your own. Knowledge of another language and culture will help you better understand your native ones. In the meantime, it will expand your personal horizons and enable you become a responsible citizen. Your ability to communicate with people of other countries and gather information beyond the world of English will contribute to your community and your country.

Chinese is a large country that has a history of 5,000 years. As one of the four birthplaces of ancient civilization, Chinese culture has made a great contribution to human civilization. The influence of Chinese philosophy, religion, art, literature, medical science, technology, etc. has reached far beyond Asia.

As one of the major powers in the world, China is playing a more and more important role in the international affairs. China has a population of over 1.2 billion people, and is a huge market of all kinds of products. At present, China is one of the most dynamic areas in economic development throughout the world. Since the 1980's, China's annual economic growth has been over 8% consecutively, the fastest one of all countries in the last two decades of this century. While over 2,000 U.S. companies have invested in China, business and trade between the two countries is booming. Studying Chinese language and culture, so as to further understand China and promote friendship and cooperation between the Chinese and American people, is in the best interest of both nations.

Chinese is a language that differs from the Indo-European languages linguistically. It is, in a certain sense, "a true foreign language" (Jordan and Walton, 1987) to English speakers. Learning to speak Chinese will enable you to communicate with one-fifth of the world population; moreover, it will help you rediscover yourself and the world around you in meeting the new challenge.

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II. Is it difficult to learn Chinese ?

The answer is both "yes'' and "no". Learning Chinese, like learning any other foreign languages, is always a challenge for non-native speakers, even for Chinese people who speak other dialects as their mother tongues. However, as learning all other subjects and skills, it is precisely in the process of accepting the challenge and conquering the difficulties that people gain satisfaction and mater a new language or a new skill.

Chinese grammar is relatively simple, from the standpoint of most European languages. Since Chinese is an isolating/analytic language, it is exempt from the tedious conjugations and arduous memorization of all the inflections for agreements of gender, number, case, person, tense, etc. The word order of Chinese is basically SVO, and its syntactic structures resemble English considerably.

Chinese sound system is uncomplicated, either. There are 408 sounds, including all finals (mostly vowels, with several ending in -n or -ng), and the combinations of initials (similar to consonants) and finals. Even compounded by the four tones, the total number of meaningful syllables in Chinese is 1,382 only. Thus it is not exaggerated to say that the entire spoken Chinese contains merely various combinations of all these 1,382 syllables. Since there is no consonant clusters, and most of the sounds end with a vowel, the sounds in Chinese per se are not difficult to produce.

The writing system in Chinese is characters, and each character represents a morpheme/syllable. Obviously this means that reading and writing requires knowing thousands of characters. However, because the majority of Chinese words are formed by combining different characters/morphemes, basic literacy calls for about 1,500 characters only. As a matter of fact, average college-educated Chinese person who is not an expert in the of literature or history just know between 3,500 and 4,000 characters (Norman, 1988:73). With this amount of characters, an educated native speaker of Chinese can read and comprehend about 94% of all the printed materials in Chinese. Moreover, 85% of the characters belong to the category of x^ngsh4ng -- a principle of character formation that combines a semantic component (called "radical") and a phonetic component. Although it is generally true that characters are not phonetic, it is not totally impossible to guess the approximate sound of a character if one knows the pronunciation of the phonetic component of a specific character. For example, the character *® (=horse) is pronounced as "m2", whereas the characters ** (=mother, with a radical §k on the left, signifying "female"), *| (=scold, with two radicals §f on top, signifying "mouths" ), *X (= to pile up or stack, with a radical * on the left, signifying "stone") share the similar sound "ma", except their tones are different. Therefore, reading and writing characters is by no means as difficult as it is often reputed to be.

As the saying goes, everything has its good and bad sides. While Chinese is "easy" in some respects, it is "difficult" in others. First of all, unlike French or Spanish, Chinese grammar rules are not very rigorous -- exceptions to certain rules are not uncommon. The lack of inflections and agreements of gender, number, case, person, tense, etc. makes Chinese rely heavily on the appropriate arrangement of word order and use of function words, particularly the use of particles to indicate an action or event has/had happened (§F le) , is/was going on ( ·A zhe), or has been experienced (*L guo). Some notions such as "Resultative Complement", "Potential Complement", or "Directional Complement" may sound unusual to English speakers.

Secondly, Chinese is a tonal language that requires painstaking effort and conscious monitoring so that one can get both tones and intonation in speech correct. In addition, because there are only 1,382 meaningful syllables in Chinese, and morphemes are relatively fewer compared with English or other western languages, there are a large number of homophones -- words/morphemes that share the same pronunciation and tones. This results in using a lot of disyllabic word compounds in modern Chinese. Yet, which homophone corresponds to which morpheme/character to represent the right word may cause some confusions and difficulties to learners of Chinese.

Last, since Chinese is not a phonetic language and characters generally do not symbolize sounds, the memorization of characters is a real challenge. There seems to be no shortcut in learning characters but to work hard, particularly at the beginning stage.

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III. How to be a successful learner of Chinese?

While we all wish that there were a formula that can produce wonder in learning Chinese or any foreign language, reality is anther story. The reasons are rather simple: every learner may differ in IQ, personality, or in learning style. There are various learning strategies, each of which may work better for different people. When all these factors compounded: personality, learning style, and strategies operating within the same person, obviously there is no such thing as a formula that can turn everybody into a successful foreign language learner. However, based on research and teaching experience, we can offer some advises and suggestions in general, to help you become a successful Chinese language learner. In the meantime, we are looking forward to your sharing your successful stories with us in the future. Here are the suggestions:

1. Stay motivated. This is the impetus that will brings you through the journey of Chinese study. It is also the magic force that helps you overcome all frustrations and difficulties.

2. Set your own goals beyond the course objectives. Specifically, you may make a list of what you want to achieve on you own in a particular week, month, or semester. For example, the correct pronunciation of a specific speech sound or a tone; the appropriate use of grammar structure; performing a communicative task; memorizing 10 extra characters; learning some words or expressions that you think are useful; or whatever you are interested in but not in the textbook. The learning process of Chinese language is a prolonged one, thus you should change the emphasis when needed and constantly revise your approximation to the target language.

3. Constantly search for more effective learning strategies, and develop a personal learning style. Foreign language study is a process of constant learning and discovery. It is crucial "to learn how to learn" and obtain "learner autonomy"-- taking charge of your own study. What matters more is not how much time and effort you have spent, but how wisely you have made your strategic investment. You can get twice the result with half the effort if you have found the strategies that suit your personality and learning style, and have developed the right self-management skills as well. People are different -- what works for John may not necessarily work for Joe. Therefore, learners should keep their minds open. While periodically reflecting on the strategies they have been using, they should continually look for new alternatives.

4. Adopt an active approach to learning and practice. Chinese language study is not, and should not be limited inside the classroom. You should actively engage in all learning activities, seize every opportunity to practice purposely. While it is helpful to try to develop a "feel' for Chinese by experimenting with its grammar and words, it is more important to use the language for communication whenever possible. Those who are willing to go "extra miles" by adding related language learning activities to the regular program and/or intensify the efforts on a daily basis will definitely travel faster and further.

5. Remain a positive attitude. Any adult who is learning a foreign language will encounter the problem of the disparity between his/her willfully controlled native language and the intractable target language. However, a good foreign language learner can tolerate ambiguity -- the linguistic/cultural disorientation and frustrations that occur in the early stages of learning. He/she can live with the uncertainty and not getting flustered for not understanding every word. He/she accepts the status as a "linguistic toddler", and is willing to concede his/her "linguistic adulthood and dignity", even appear to be foolish if communication results. In addition, a good learner makes a conscious effort, and is able to empathize with the native speaker and culture of the target language.

6. Be adventurous, and dare to take risks. On the one hand, you must believe in yourself that you can learn the language well; on the other, you should not be inhibited, tense, or "up-tight" in the learning process. As long as you approach the target language with an open and relaxed attitude, you won't feel bad even if you know you are making a lot of mistakes. Indeed, as Nida put it nicely and humorously, "In general, one must murder a language before mastering it, and part of the murdering process must begin at once" (Nida, 1957).

7. Monitor yourself, and make your mistakes work FOR you but not against you. What separates a successful Chinese learner from others is not only he/she is willing to make mistakes, but also how he/she treats his/her mistakes. One may say that mistakes are like "candid cameras": they may make us look "bad", but can provide valuable information about how far we are off (or how close we are toward) the target language. If we can learn from our own mistakes, and make due adjustments, then one by one, we will be able to get rid of all the mistakes. Monitoring one's language performance does not mean just watching out for mistakes. It involves hypothesis testing, trial-and-error, and being self-critical. By self-monitoring, you will become more sensitive to language use, and also sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of Chinese as well.

8. Develop a certain technical "known-how" about languages and language learning. For example, give priority to Listening and Speaking first, then Reading. Use whatever linguistic knowledge you have, including your first language, to tackle the new language. Make comparisons with your native language and the target language. Although you are operating from your native language as your reference system (especially at the beginning stage), you must make an active effort to understand rationally the new reference system of the target language, and accommodate yourself to it intelligently and emotionally. You should focus on meaning but prepared to attend to form. You should know what to look out for when learning a new item -- a speech sound, a syntactic structure, a usage, or an expression. There are various techniques that you can experiment and use to deal specifically with pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, listening comprehension, character recognition and retention, reading, and writing. In addition, strategies that you have learned elsewhere for communication, memory enhancement, practice, review, emotion control, etc. can be used in the learning process also.

9. Develop the new language into an ordered system, and revise the system progressively. When learning a new item of Chinese, try to relate it to items learned previously and organize the discrete elements into a network or system. As you learn, probe the language, analyze it and make inference about it and discover rules and relationships. Gradually, you will be able to see a clearer picture of the whole, and you will learn to use it as a new reference system to deal with Chinese, instead of the one of your native language.

10. Engage in cooperative learning, and work closely with your classmates. Learning takes place primarily through interactions, parcticularly in the case of foreign language study. It is hard to imagine that one can learn to speak a language without talking with others. When you take the whole class as a team, when you share your knowledge, learning strategies, frustrations, and success with your teammates, you will see more cooperation than competition, and you will find out What fun it is to study Chinese

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