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Four Islands of Conclusions in learning Chinese

I came across a great parable recently, the Island of Conclusion. 

This is the story:

Milo and his friends see a beautiful island across the water as they drive by. They each jump to a conclusion that this island must be beautiful and it must be wonderful to be on this island. 

Immediately, they are transported across the water and land on that seemingly beautiful island.

However, once they get there, this island is not as beautiful as what they thought it was. It is actually a miserable place. 

People who are there all share the same story. They mistakenly believed that it was a wonderful place to be and therefore were transported there right away.

This island is called the Island of Conclusion.

The Island of Conclusion is easy to come, but difficult to leave.

It is impossible for people to jump out of the island as they jump onto it. The only way to leave the island is to swim through icy cold water. 

Eventually, that is what Milo and his friends decide to do. They swim back and make a vow that they’ll never jump to conclusions anymore. 

Milo says, “You can lose too much time jumping to conclusions.”

This story comes from The phantom Tollbooth (by Norton Juster). It reminded me of a few existing Islands of Conclusions in teaching and learning Chinese. All these islands are easy to jump to, hard to get out, consume tons of time and energy, but with little to show for. 

The story in the book ended with Milo and his friends left the island. An alternative ending could be that Milo and his friends stayed on the island with everyone else. They huddled together, suffering and complaining, while trying to make the best out of the miserable place for the rest of their lives.

This parable gives us a lot to think about. 

If you’re learning Chinese, it is a reminder for you to think about your learning methods and strategies. Are there any conclusions that you mistakenly believe?

I consider the following four the most costly conclusions to jump to.

(1) Memorising tones are important, so that you can speak Chinese well and people can understand you.

Chinese is a tonal language. Tones give Chinese a unique fascinating quality. Tones are something worth studying. In fact, Chinese poets have studied tones for nearly two thousand years to perfect their poetry, long before any modern linguists waded in. 

Unless you are on that level, it’s really not necessary to spend lots of time trying to memorise the tones of each word or each character. 

There are no “correct tones” in an absolute sense. Tones are fluid. The same character can be pronounced differently depending on its position in the word. The same word can be uttered differently by the same person, and are definitely uttered differently by different people in different regions. Jokes playing on the tones, such as calling mother a horse, are only jokes. 

When the objective is to speak Chinese and to speak it well, there are better ways of achieving it, without sweating over tones.

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(2) It is important to follow stroke orders when learning to write Chinese characters.

When writing Chinese characters, stroke orders vary. Some characters have one common stroke order, while other characters can be written following two or more different stroke orders.

Characters, such as , are quite straightforward. There is one prevailing stroke order used by all people.

There are other characters, such as , at least two commonly used stroke orders can be found. Take a look:

Stroke orders

It would be interesting to use the question, “how do you write the character ?”, to replace the question, “do you like Star Wars or Star Trek?”, when asking for seemingly exclusive preferences.

When learning Chinese characters, writing is an important act. As long as you write, orders will appear.

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(3) If you’ve learned 2000 Chinese characters, you can read Chinese newspapers.

Many students mistakenly believed this conclusion, and get trapped into counting the number of flashcards of Chinese characters. It’s probably the most time consuming and energy wasting Island of Conclusion in learning Chinese.

To be able to read Chinese newspapers (or novels), 2000 Chinese characters alone are not enough. You need to learn 20,000, or more, words and combinations to be able to do that. Also, you need to train yourself to pick out those words and combinations in sentences. There are no blank spaces between words.

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(4) You must learn radicals if you want to learn Chinese characters

  • Chinese character radicals show meanings. 
  • Some Chinese characters can be explained by their radicals. 
  • Therefore, all Chinese characters can be explained by their radicals. 

This is a big jump, and yet it happens again and again. I’ve seen beautiful charts, info graphs, and tables, sorting out commonly used radicals with some related Chinese characters. All give the impression that this is it, this is the number one important factor to crack open the code of Chinese characters, and this is the one ring that rules all rings.

Unfortunately, things are never that simple. 

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