Heed the fifth language skill in learning Chinese

Developing four basic language skills, listening, speaking, reading and writing, is sufficient to describe learning a phonetic languages, such as English, but not enough to describe learning Chinese. When learning Chinese, students must pay attention to develop their fifth language skill, associating Chinese characters with their sounds. And the sooner students start working on it, the better.

The gap between the sound and the visual images

Associating a visual image with its sound is a common phenomenon in all languages which have a written form. For example, when learning English, which is a phonetic language using alphabet, students usually start with associating 26 sounds with a set of letters, and sometimes associating one sound with two different forms, for instance, a capital letter “R” and a lower case “r” have the same sound but different appearance. 

Once students have learned their ABC, it is easy for them to transcribe speaking syllables into the written forms, because the connection between the spelling and the sound is so strong that one can be easily translated into the other.

When learning Chinese, an ideographic language, the learning approach must change completely. There is no alphabet, but thousands of Chinese characters with each one as a stand-alone image. The connection between the characters and their sound is close to zero. Students must learn to recognise these thousands of Chinese characters, and learn how to pronounce them. 

Therefore, the gap between listening/speaking Chinese and reading/writing Chinese is significantly wider.

Association process

When learning Chinese, students quickly realise that many different characters have the same sounds. And soon they will find out that, even most Chinese characters have only one sound, there are many which have multiple sound, with each sound referring to a specific meaning. How to pronounce these multi-sound Chinese characters (多音字) can only be decided by looking at characters either before or after, or even the whole sentence. Moreover, some Chinese characters are pronounced differently in different regions while the meanings stay the same. 

These factors tell us that associating Chinese characters with the sound involves building complicated memory structures. And students need to consciously work on it from different angles in order to achieve this task. 

Some common techniques for associating Chinese characters with their sounds include:

  • Reading the Chinese texts while listening to the recording. The visual images and the sound stimulation work simultaneously to trigger the association.
  • Read aloud the Chinese texts. The visual images are the input, while the sound is the output.
  • Listen to the Chinese texts and then write them down. The sound is the input, while the visual images are the output. 
  • Computer input using pinyin. Pick out the correct Chinese characters which all have the same sound.

This associating process is also connected with, and strengthened by, memorising Chinese characters, that students intentionally create lasting muscle memories of thousands of Chinese characters while associating the sound with each of them. Read more about the detailed analysis of how to memorise Chinese characters.

Recommendation

Students must be aware that they should spend time and energy to this fifth skill development when learning Chinese, and it is easier if  they start working on it early when they are learning only a handful of Chinese characters.

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