Chinese characters vs. English sight words

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Our oldest daughter is loving the neighbourhood Chinese literacy class.
You don’t have to be like a Chinese immigrant we talked with this past summer in Louisiana. She said she tells Americans to not even bother trying to learn Chinese because “it’s just too hard.”

Chinese is not impossible. It’s not even all that hard. But it is slow. Without an alphabet, it’s tough on kids who grew up on phonics and spelling rules and “it’s good to colour outside the lines!” There’s just a ton of brute memorization. And memorization is not a highly valued skill in our Western education systems. But it’s an absolute necessity for a non-phonetic language.

For example, this is our 6-year-old’s box of Chinese reading curriculum, which she uses at a training centre in our neighbourhood for kindergarten and Grade 1 students (she’s the only 老外):
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It says, “Primary students’ commonly used 1500 characters.” That’s FIFTEEN-HUNDRED Chinese characters. For five-year-olds. To memorize in 4.5 months. So that they won’t be left behind next fall by the speed and pressure of Grade 1.

And this is a non-traditional, less-pressure, relatively fun learning system.

By comparison, her English homeschooling curriculum has her memorizing maybe five sight words per week for Grade 1. I googled around, and current standards for 5-to-6-year-olds seem to aim for recognition of around 50 high-frequency words by the end of kindergarten, and familiarity with 300 total words (sight words and sounded-out words) by the end of Grade 1.

Thankfully, our oldest daughter is loving the class and the teacher, who’s competent and experienced, warm but firm in a ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense Chinese Mary Poppins kind of way.
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For more about Learning Mandarin, see:

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In China, math spells romance! (Secret Chinese love codes)

With only 409 syllables in the entire language, Chinese has too many homophones. That might sound judgmental but hear me out: Jessica’s Chinese name, for example, has in it. If I type “yi” on my phone, it’s the 90th (!!) yi in the list of yi characters to scroll through. It’s a good thing I love her so much, because inputting her name is serious 麻烦

So the Chinese totally go to town on homophone wordplays. They don’t even need to be true homophones; drunk language student pronunciation is apparently good enough to get the meaning across. In fact they don’t even need words; numbers work just fine. Turns out that in Mandarin you can say a lot with numbers. Like on the inside of our friends’ wedding rings:

They inscribed “L.L. 14520” inside the bands. The “L”s are just for their last names: Liú and . But the numbers when spoken are yī sì wǔ èr líng, which to them sounds like yī shì wǒ ài nǐ一世我爱你),which means: “(For my) whole life I love you”. (“一世” is short for “一生一世”。)

I showed the picture to my preschool office coworkers and they all got it in under three seconds.

One of their friends has 201314 on her ring: èr líng yī sān yī sì, which sounds like ài nǐ yī shēng yī shì (爱你一生一世: “love you (for my) whole life”).

There’s more language learning fun to be had in the Learning Mandarin topic. See also:

Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka “Easter”) in Chinese

If you aren’t going to do in-depth historical and cultural reading on 1st-century Palestine and learn koiné Greek, but you want an Easter tie-in for your Chinese language-learning and/or an intro to the basic “Resurrection Festival” narrative, here you go!

Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the Easter story, this short reading list should more or less work for you. It’s all actual biblical text, abridged and slightly rearranged to make the narrative easier to follow. It doesn’t include every detail; read each of the four gospel accounts separately for that (like you should! ha). And don’t do like this in exegesis class or they’ll fail you.


“Pilate Washes His Hands” by He Qi.

Each PDF’s text comes in five different Chinese translations, all of which you can view online at BibleGateway.com and Bible.com. My plan is to do one a week ending on Resurrection Festival Sunday. Here they’re arranged to fit the traditional Western church calendar, but it’s cramming a lot of text into only a few days:

  • 2014年4月13日 — 棕榈主日 — 〈复活节2
  • 2014年4月17日 — 濯足节 — 〈复活节3〉+ 〈复活节4
  • 2014年4月18日 — 受难节 — 〈复活节5〉+ 〈复活节6
  • 2014年4月20日 — 复活节星期日 — 〈复活节7

复活节1.pdf

Peter tells Jesus he thinks Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus tells him he’s right, but when Jesus goes on to talk about dying a horrible, humiliating death at the hands of their foreign political oppressors — basically the antithesis of what the Messiah was expected to be — Peter tells him to knock it off. Jesus responds with some tough love.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可8:27-38 (但7:13-14))

复活节2.pdf

The common people are all keyed up. Word’s got around about Jesus’ miracles, especially about raising Lazarus from the dead. And the religious and cultural elites are calling for Jesus’ arrest. Crowds are fickle, but they know what potential public drama looks like. Will Jesus dare show up in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival when the religious and cultural establishment is out to get him? And what will happen if he does?
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 约11:55-12:19;2:13-25)

复活节3.pdf

It’s the Passover meal with Jesus’ closest followers, his final meal before his death. Jesus continues to demonstrate his radical redefinition of Messiah and the subversive, upside-down nature of life in his ‘Kingdom’ by taking the role of the lowest servant and washing everyone’s filthy 1st-century Palestine feet. With wine and broken bread, he tells his disciples that his imminent sacrifice is for them.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路22:7-13;约13:1-17;路22:14-30;(但7:13-14))

复活节4.pdf

Jesus knows it’s mere hours before his suffering and death, and he tells his disciples they will all abandon him. Peter refuses to accept this — he’s not afraid of violent revolution; that’s what he signed up for in the first place and he’s not the only one. Despite what Jesus has already said and done, his followers just can’t think outside their preconception of ‘Messiah’ as the long-awaited political liberator. Some of them are armed, and there’s blood shed when Jesus is betrayed. But Jesus’ reaction shatters them, and they do exactly as he said they would.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太26:30-46;路22:47-52;可14:49-52;(但7:13-14))

复活节5.pdf

Jesus’ enemies can’t manage to convict him of blasphemy at their illegal trial because the testimonies of their lying witnesses conflict. So Jesus helps them out and makes a direct claim to divinity right in the high priest’s face. By their own laws that means the death penalty, but under Roman occupation they need an order from Pilate, the Roman governor, so they claim Jesus was organizing an armed rebellion against Rome. Pilate declares him innocent multiple times, but in the interests of diffusing a potential riot he orders Jesus’ brutal flogging and crucifixion, while placing responsibility for Jesus’ death squarely on the religious leaders and the mob they’d stirred up.

Meanwhile, Peter’s followed at a distance all this time, sneaking in within earshot of the proceedings — the only disciple brave enough. He alone of the 12 core disciples has refused to give up all hope that Jesus will bust out with the supernatural power and take down the Romans and the politically sold-out Jewish establishment. But as things turn from bad to worse and the people around him begin to recognize him as one of Jesus’ followers, he finally breaks.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可14:53-72;路23:1-23;太27:24-31;(但7:13-14))

复活节6.pdf

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two high-ranking and prominent religious leaders, publicly defy their peers by requesting Jesus’ body and giving him as honourable a burial as they can. The religious leaders, aware of Jesus’ claim that he would come back to life on the third day, convince Pilate to place guards at the tomb and seal it with a heavy stone so Jesus’ followers can’t steal the body and claim he’s resurrected. (Plus: the full psalm from which Jesus quotes, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, and the previous bits involving Nicodemus: where he sneaks off in the night to talk with Jesus, and where he questions the legality of what his peers are suggesting.)
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路23:26-43;约19:23-27;可15:33-41、43;约19:38b-40;路23:54-56;太27:62-66;(诗篇22);(约3:1-21、7:45-53))

复活节7.pdf

Women with burial spices arrive at the tomb early in the morning only to discover it open and empty. An angel invites them to have a look, and then go tell Jesus’ other followers. Meanwhile the guards report what happened to the leaders, who bribe them into saying that Jesus’ disciples stole the body while they slept. Jesus appears to various groups of disciples on different occasions, including Thomas, who has refused to believe any of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, and Peter, who’d denied knowing Jesus before his crucifixion. Peter’s gone back to fishing, and in a dramatic scene reminiscent of previous key shared experiences between the two, Jesus appears and addresses Peter’s denial.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太28:1-15;路24:13-34;约20:19-21:25)

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“Nail Mark” (detail) by Li Wei San.

More Resurrection Festival in China:

Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?

Setting personal language learning goals helps immensely. But it helps to be smart about it.

There’s a language study infographic floating around comparing the difficulty of various languages for native English speakers. It says you need 1.69 years/2,200 classroom hours to reach proficiency in Chinese:

People always disagree about how long it takes to learn Chinese, mostly because they talk about it with mushy terms: “learn Chinese”, “speak Chinese”, “know Chinese”, “fluent”, “proficient”, etc. I’m not gonna bother arguing with this graphic’s fuzzy term, but here are four other somewhat authoritative takes on how much time you need to learn Chinese. Accurate language learning expectations are important, so it’s well worth comparing.

Linguist John Pasden’s Sinosplice post “How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?” quotes two Chinese experts. First, Da Shan aka Mark Rowswell aka the most famous foreigner in China:

2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job…

5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

Second, Chinese linguist Dr. David Moser:

The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.
[…]
My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese.

Third, Joann Pittman, consultant, trainer, teacher, researcher, and writer with 28 years in China shares some research stats in her post, “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?” Among her conclusions:

Even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese
[…]
a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach limited working proficiency level

Fourth, linguist and Chinese textbook author Martin Symonds in our post, “Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations”:

Full-time Mandarin Study
# of years 1 2 4 8 !??!
Proficiency Level Survival Daily Living Minimum Work Full Work Native

Like Joann says, the point isn’t to scare people off or kill their enthusiasm for learning Chinese, but to give them realistic expectations so they can become better language learners, and craft their study according to their language goals.

There’s lots more in our Learning Mandarin topic.

Make civilized students.
Constantly use the Common Speech. Everywhere use civilized language

文明学生
时时普通话处处文明

Diary of a Worm in Chinese! (an English / 汉字 / pīnyīn online read-along)

A friend bought our daughter 蚯蚓的日记, the Chinese translation of Diary of a Worm, as a Christmas gift. It’s actually pretty funny – I think it won some awards or something – and so as a language exercise I’ve back-translated it into English (without ever seeing the original English text).

You can read along!
After all that work, and because it’s a great book, I put my English, the 汉字 and the pīnyīn together into a PDF cheatsheet and uploaded shots of each page into a photo gallery so other language students can test their reading comprehension. On the gallery page you can click through the pages and if you get stuck, either reference the PDF cheatsheet or glance at the captions under each photo, which also contain all the text for that page in English, 汉字,and pīnyīn (the captions are ugly; go with the PDF!).

Of course, if you like it you should buy it. Checking out author Doreen Cronin’s homepage might be nice, too.

A Chinese language learning essential

09-12-18, 7am — Hypothesis confirmed: a direct correlation exists between the amount of coffee in my system and the amount of Chinese I’m able to speak before 9am.

Funny Chinese songs by genius laowai for language learners

You can download the mp3s, song lyrics with hanzi, pinyin, and English translation, and even the guitar chords if you want from Albert at LaowaiChinese.net, the guy who wrote Chinese 24/7. Great for language learners and funny. Here’s his latest Chinese ones:

Follow the links and you’ll also find English language songs about jiǎozi and his Chinese bicycles. The humour may or may not translate into Chinese too well, owing mostly to the fact that Mainlanders seem to have a much higher tolerance for clichéd phrases.