Learning Chinese characters: etymology vs usage

It has happened countless times that a student has learned hundreds of Chinese characters, is able to recognise dozens of Chinese radicals and point out connections between many Chinese characters and their related physical objects (and possibly different forms of these characters throughout the history), yet he/she can not read a simple paragraph written in Chinese. I think this is a huge problem. 

Learning Chinese radicals, the connections between characters and their related physical objects, the resemblance between pictures and Chinese characters, and the transformation of Chinese characters throughout history is absolutely fascinating. All these belong to the realm of Chinese character etymology, which is unique on this planet. Give etymologists an English word, they will trace it back to a Greek word. But give etymologists a Chinese character, they will explain it using natural phenomena or customs in the society. 

That is truly amazing. The only tiny bit of hiccup is that, for beginner students who just start learning how to read and write Chinese, learning Chinese character etymology does not help them understand the relationships between characters, nor develop their Chinese reading and writing skills.

A look back

Studying etymology of Chinese characters is quite different from learning usages of Chinese characters. 

I am not an etymologist. My knowledge about the history of Chinese characters is very limited, and most of it comes from what I was taught during my early primary school or even kindergarten days. Those things stuck in my head. 

Back then I never questioned my teachers. When they taught me that the grass radical () gives a clue that characters with this radical are connected to grass or plants, such as , , , , I never thought that there were any exceptions. When they taught me that picto-phonetic characters (形声字) give clues to their pronunciations and meanings, such as , , , , I never thought there were instances that they were not. 

Now I fully understand that all these rules my teachers taught me are not absolute. Radicals sometimes do and sometimes don’t give clues to meanings of Chinese characters. The connections between a Chinese character’s components and its pronunciation/meanings is not always reliable. And pictures and Chinese characters don’t always tally with each other. 

I believe that my Chinese teachers never intended to make me a Chinese etymologist. All they wanted was to catch my fickle attention while teaching me some characters so that I could start reading and writing Chinese texts. And pretty soon, my Chinese textbooks were all about words, sentences and essays. Radicals and pictures were no where to be found. The transition from learning piece meal knowledge about Chinese characters to developing Chinese reading and writing skills was made. 

The current predominate mode of teaching and learning Chinese characters

Things have not changed much since my early primary school days. 

The same piece meal knowledge of Chinese character etymology, which I was taught long time ago, is continued to be taught to kindergarten/primary school students, and it is also taught to adult Chinese learners. The difference between kindergarten students and adult students are huge, yet they are taught the same thing. 

The result is that, after years of grinding, as long as their parents don’t give up, kindergarten students will move on, and re-orient their focus on developing Chinese reading and writing skills and on how to use Chinese characters into meaningful communications. But many adult students could not make that transition due to lack of time or other resources. 

This is not fair to adult Chinese learners! 

Adult students and kid students should be taught differently. 

One huge advantage that adult students have is their ability to focus. If they prefer and when they have some good materials, they are able to self-study Chinese character etymology, which is probably more comprehensive than what they learn in a Chinese language classroom. 

Adult Chinese learners face a different hurdle, how to use their time effectively and efficiently to develop solid Chinese reading and writing skills. 

A tale of two lesson styles

Let me use the character as an example to explain two lesson styles. One is focused on learning Chinese characters, and the other on developing Chinese reading and writing skills. 

When the focus is on learning Chinese characters, students will learn that this character, , is a picto-phonetic character. The upper part, , is the meaning radical, indicating the character has some relationship with grass. Some pictures might be there to show how the grass turned into the grass radical. The lower part, , is the phonetic radical, indicating how the character is pronounced. Put these information together, students learn the sound of this character is “huā”, and the meaning is “flowers”. Next, students are shown the stroke order of , and are asked to copy this character following the stroke order. After that, students probably learn a word or two, such as 花朵, as an example of how to use this character. Students might be asked to copy this word a few times. This is probably the end of learning this character. Students then will move on to the next character, which is taught in a similar way.

When the focus is on developing reading and writing skills, the lesson must be structured very differently. The character, , is presented directly, together with several potential meanings, such as “flowers” and “to spend”. After getting familiar with the character, students are presented with different words using , such as 红花, 花钱, 花老师. Next, students read sentences and paragraphs to practice picking out the right words and to comprehend the entire meaning of the given text. When done properly, students will be able to recognise all the characters in the texts, but they need to put in some effort to understand what the texts are actually saying. That’s how their reading skills are developed. The writing exercises require students to copy characters and words, and also ask them to write sentences and paragraphs of their own. This character will then re-appear in subsequent texts for further practice. Comparing to the previous lesson style, to develop reading and writing skills requires more effort from students, and as a result, students will accomplish a lot more. Unfortunately, as right now, very few Chinese textbooks adopt this style of teaching. Yet this is what adult students benefit the most. 

This is where I am glad that I have made some contribution. The entire Chinese Reading and Writing series is written for this purpose. Working with 320 characters, students are able to gain deep understanding of the Chinese writing system and to develop sound reading and writing skills. 

For those students who aspire to become a Chinese etymologist, strong Chinese reading and writing skills will help them to achieve that goal. 


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April Zhang
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