When considering learning Chinese as learning a skill, it shares some similarities with learning other skills, such as how to tie a shoelace. When acquiring such skills, the learning process is really an internalisation process.
Let’s start with learning the skill of tying a shoelace.
When a little boy, or a little girl, begins learning how to tie a shoelace, it is not an easy task.
First of all, his parents must demonstrate and explain the sequence of tying a shoelace: the first step is ..., then you do this ..., followed by this …, and etc. Thus, this boy learns the basic theory of tying a shoelace.
However, this does not mean he can do it successfully at the first try, or even after several tries. He needs to follow the theory and practice many times. Until one day, he can tie a shoelace very well. From this point and onwards, does he need to remember the theory every time when he is tying a shoelace, or he just ties a shoelace without thinking about it?
If we look into our own personal experiences, we’d say that this boy just ties a shoelace without even thinking about it.
So, what happened to the tying-shoelace theory?
This is the learning process, i.e. internalisation process, a transition from input to output. The theory of tying a shoelace, as the input, has been internalised into his practice, the output.
Learning (Chinese) input & output
Learning Chinese follows a similar internalisation process. And learning how learning Chinese takes place helps learning.
The two ends of learning Chinese are also input and output. The input is new knowledge, new Chinese characters, new combinations, new sentence structures, pronunciations, and so on. The output is Chinese text produced by students, either in spoken form or written form.
To measure how successful students are at learning Chinese, we measure students’ output against their input. The closer they are, the better the learning outcome is.
Speaking Chinese as the output
In the Chinese listening and speaking spectrum, the basic input is sounds, words, patterns, meanings, and grammars. The basic output is students’ ability to speak Chinese texts.
From the input to the output, students need to internalise all the sounds, meanings, grammars and so on.
The whole thing is definitely more complicated than learning how to tie a shoelace. This internalisation process requires much more deliberated and focused practices and it takes place in a much longer period of time.
The secret of fast tracking this process lies in what practices students do. They should not be too easy, nor too difficult. Unfortunately, more often than not, Chinese teachers tend to make practices too hard, such as encouraging beginner students to talk to their Chinese friends when they’ve only learned a few sentences. It’s like asking our young boy to work on electric wires as a practice of tying a shoelace.
Once good practices are in place, students will make progress quickly. The input is gradually internalised into students’ output. After the transition is made, the students do not need to recall all the bits and pieces as they speak Chinese.
They just do it.
Writing Chinese as the output
In the Chinese reading and writing spectrum, the basic input is strokes, stroke orders, Chinese characters, character combinations, sentence structures, sentences, paragraphs, conversations, and narratives. The basic output is students’ ability to write Chinese texts.
To internalise all the characters, combinations, sentence structures, and so on, is an even harder thing to do. The best way to analyse it is to focus on the end result.
The ideal output, the end result, is that students just write Chinese texts, either stories or something else that they want to write, without the need to recall all the bits and pieces they’ve learned.
This is significant in the way that many aspects of the Chinese language become insignificant. Strokes and stroke orders become insignificant. Chinese character radicals become insignificant. Components of characters become insignificant. Whether a character looks like something becomes insignificant.
What becomes paramount for students is the ability to use appropriate words or structures for the purpose of conveying meanings. This is the secret of designing targeted and focused writing practices, i.e. to practice writing meaningful Chinese texts. Writing practices targeting re-enforcing stroke orders, radicals, or components are wasteful.
It is also true that the input must be oriented around meaningful texts as well. Any input targeting radicals or etymology is a waste of time. Once students become proficient in the Chinese language, they’d have a better and an easier time understanding radicals and Chinese etymology.
Therefore, in order to have the best output, we need to control the input and all the necessary practices which will make the internalisation process successful.