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3 LANGUAGE SYSTEMS

WRITTEN CHINESE
hanzi–jian-ti-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

WRITTEN CHINESE

Traditional Chinese refers to the character set that was used in mainland China until the early 1950’s. It continues to be used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. It can also be seen in US Chinatowns that were founded before 1950.

Simplified Chinese refers to the character set that was created in 1952 by the Language Reform Research Committee of the People’s Republic of China to improve literacy rates. Even the Chinese government realized that Chinese characters are complex!

Most American high school and college students study Simplified Chinese.

SIMPLIFIED CHINESE

The Chinese government hoped to reduce both the complexity of characters (numbers of strokes), as well as the total number of characters (originally, in excess of 50,000)!

The Table of General Standard Chinese Characters  is the “standard” list of 8,105 Simplified Chinese characters issued in 2013 by the People’s Republic of China. The characters are divided into three levels containing 3500, 3000 and 1605 characters, respectively. Characters in Group 1 and 2 (the first 6,500) are designated as common. That’s still a lot to learn!

There is generally a one-to-one correlation between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

hanzi-03-char--jian-ti-0615-x-0555-trans-zh

NO PHONEMIC ORTHOGRAPHY…;>))

Because Chinese is a character-based language, you cannot pronounce characters just by looking at them, although many characters have what is called a “phonetic component” that provides a hint as to the approximate pronunciation (more on this later).  Unlike alphabetic languages, where you can pronounce words even if you don’t know the meaning, semantics and phonetics are completely separate in Chinese!

ORAL CHINESE
hanzi–kou-yu-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

ORAL CHINESE

Unlike English, there are 8 major (and numerous minor) spoken Chinese dialects, each of which is considered a distinct language.  Although all mainland Chinese people use the same written language (Simplified Chinese in mainland China), each major region has its own unique spoken language.

Each dialect has its own vocabulary, grammar and unique pronunciation of each character. The differences are so significant that Chinese who speak different dialects frequently cannot easily communicate with each other!

MODERN MANDARIN

In the same way that Written Chinese was modernized in 1952, the PRC stipulated a standard dialect to be used by all PRC citizens. It is called the “Common Speech”.  In the West, we refer to it as Modern Mandarin.

Modern Mandarin is a composite of the 8 major dialects and has its own vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation standards.

It is mandated for all TV news, movies and other broadcasts.  But because 30% of the mainland population still does not speak Modern Mandarin,  subtitles in Simplified Chinese are included in all major broadcasts!

hanzi-02-char--pu-tong-hua-0860-x-0555-trans-zh

LIMITATIONS

In the same way that it’s not possible to know the pronunciation of Chinese characters just by looking at them, it’s also not always possible to know the character that is referenced when someone speaks.  This is due to the large number of homophones (more on this later).

This is why we say that Chinese cannot be learned phonetically!  But conversely.  it’s also why pronunciation is so critical – students need to pronounce characters accurately to be able to recognize the characters that are referenced when someone is speaking.

PHONETIC GUIDE
hanzi–pin-yin-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

PINYIN

Finally, unlike alphabet-based languages, Chinese needs a third phonetic system for standard pronunciation.  For Modern Mandarin, this phonetic system is called Pinyin, which literally means “spell the sound”.

Because each Chinese dialect has different pronunciation standards, they each have a separate phonetic guide.  So, when we use the term “Pinyin”, we are referring to the phonetic guide for Modern Mandarin.

Pinyin is a romanization of Chinese characters that uses most of the letters of the English alphabet.  Originally, it was used solely as a teaching tool for standard pronunciation.  Recently, it has also become the basis for entering Chinese characters into smart phones and computers.

But contrary to common perception among Westerners, it is not a language per se.

All Chinese students, native speakers and Westerners alike, must learn how to write each character, its meaning, as well as the Pinyin for that character.

hanzi-02-char--pin-yin-0615-x-0555-trans-zh

HISTORY OF PINYIN

Along with the creation of Modern Mandarin as the common dialect for all of mainland China, the government also commissioned the creation of a standard phonetic guide in 1952.

Interestingly, Pinyin was designed by a New York banker who had returned to China after the revolution ended in 1949.

The Pinyin for Modern Mandarin is a composite of the pronunciation of different dialects, but it is most similar to the pronunciation styles used in Beijing and Tianjin.  For this reason, Beijing is considered the best location to study “standard” Chinese.

WHAT IS PINYIN

There is a Pinyin for each of the 8,105 characters in the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters.  A few characters have more than one pronunciation, so they have one Pinyin for each pronunciation.

Each Pinyin consists of a beginning sound (“initial”) and an ending sound (“final”) pronounced as a single syllable.  There are 412 unique Pinyin combinations.  All Pinyin are exactly one syllable and the pronunciation does not change regardless of the context in which a character is used.

For example, the Chinese word for “American” is 美国人 and the Pinyin for 美国人 is “mei guo ren”.  美 means “beautiful”. 国 means “country”. 人 means “person”.

TONES

To further differentiate sounds, 4 tones (plus a 5th neutral tone) were included in the standard for Modern Mandarin.

Tones can be flat, rising, falling / rising and falling and they are noted as a mark (diacritic) above each Pinyin.  Most digital dictionaries color-code tones.

In the example 美国人 above, adding tones to the Pinyin is rendered “měi guó rén”.

The combination of the phonetic spelling (initial and final) plus the tone (first, second, third and fourth) determines the precise pronunciation for each character.

img-pag-01.02.01-key-concepts-03-phonetic-guide-tones

PINYIN IS NOT A LANGUAGE!

Because Pinyin looks similar to English, some students try to use it as a language (instead of focusing on characters).  But Chinese do not view Pinyin as a language – if you send someone a text message in Pinyin, they will probably not understand what you are trying to say.

PINYIN & COMPUTERS / PHONES

On the other hand, Pinyin is now widely used to enter characters in computers and phones.  We’ll cover this in depth later, but for now, just note that characters are entered in computers and phones phonetically using special software called Input Method Editors (IME’s).

This is one more reason to have accurate pronunciation – if you don’t, you won’t be able to use Pinyin to enter characters phonetically using IME’s.

Interestingly, Chinese who don’t have formal training in Pinyin frequently need to draw characters on their phones – IME’s support both phonetic entry and drawing.

If we look at Chinese as 3 distinct language systems, it becomes apparent that we need a different teaching model that is aligned with each of these 3 systems…

CHINESE IS A VISUALLY COMPLEX LANGUAGE

PATTERN RECOGNITION IS KEY!
hanzi–mo-shi-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

PATTERN RECOGNITION IS KEY!

Character-based languages are visually complex. In Chinese:

  • There are 31 unique strokes used to draw characters.
  • Each character can have 1 to 50+ strokes (although most are fewer than 20).
  • There are 8,105 characters in the current Table of Standard Chinese Characters.

WESTERN-STYLE “TIPS & TRICKS”

Many western textbooks and courses encourage the use of mnemonics and/or “stories” to help students to remember how to write characters (and their meaning).

But, while using mnemonics to learn characters and their meanings works with simple characters, this technique breaks down with complex or abstract characters.

Only 5% of Chinese characters are true pictographs (that look like their meaning).  For the remaining 95% of Chinese characters, there is little correlation between a character’s appearance and its meaning.

So, no matter what technique you use, you still have to memorize characters. Breathru Chinese offers a technique that focuses less on gimmicks and more on (language-independent) pattern recognition skills.


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CHINESE VISUAL SKILLS

Chinese people have highly developed visual skills.  Functional MRI studies of native Chinese speakers show that they use their visual cortex to a much higher degree than Westerners!

Western students must likewise develop visual pattern recognition skills, as opposed to merely learning vocabulary.

AN EASIER WAY TO LEARN CHARACTERS

It’s much easier to recognize and memorize characters when you can view them as patterns of components that are used over and over again in different combinations.

WORDS
hanzi–dan-ci-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

WORDS ARE CONCATENATED  CHARACTERS

Chinese words are made up of 1 to 4 (rarely, more) characters.  Each character in a word is both semantically and phonetically significant:

If you know the meaning of each character in a word, then you have a very good idea of the meaning of that word.  Likewise, if you know the pronunciation of each character in a word, then you know exactly how to pronounce that word!

FOCUS ON CHARACTERS FIRST, THEN VOCABULARY!

So, it’s really important to learn Chinese at the character level – only then can you begin to study vocabulary.  Which is just opposite of English, where we generally study vocabulary and only refer to syllables to understand the root and part of speech indicators.

What is even more important – in English, syllables frequently don’t have semantic significance. For example, in the word “American”, we generally are not concerned with the meaning of each syllable (A·mer·i·can), unless we’re studying etymology.

But, in Chinese, we absolutely care about the meaning of each syllable.  The word 美国人 (měi guó rén) literally means “beautiful country person” (the Chinese graciously call America the “beautiful country”).

hanzi-02-char--mei-guo-ren-0860-x-0555-trans-zh

CHARACTER NETWORKS

When we study vocabulary, instead of learning the meaning of each word, it’s much easier to train our brains to recognize the meaning (and pronunciation) of each character in the word.

Conversely, it’s very useful to look at characters from the opposite perspective – that is, in addition to learning the characters that make up a word, we also learn all the common words that use a character.

We call these “character networks”.

Character networks are one of the tools we use to help students build build pattern recognition skills. Recognizing all the words that use the same character makes it possible to study vocabulary in sets of related words!

img-pag-01.02.01-key-concepts-02-visual-char-networks
COMPONENTS AND COMPOUNDS
hanzi–pian-pang-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

COMPONENTS

Characters, in turn, are composed of 1 or more “components”.  Each component in a character can be a simpler character or simply one or more strokes.

COMPONENT PATTERNS

When we study characters, instead of assigning mnemonics or stories to words as learning aides, it’s much more effective to train our brains to recognize each component of a character…

COMPOUNDS

Conversely, it’s useful to look at characters from the opposite perspective – that is, in addition to the components that make up a character, we also learn the characters that are used by components.  These are called “compounds”.

NETWORK MODELS

By studying the decomposition of characters, we can also develop a network model in our mind of the relationship of characters and their respective components and compounds.

We call these “component networks”.

Component networks are one of the tools we use to help students build build pattern recognition skills. Recognizing the components (and compounds) of each character makes it possible to quickly place that character into our language roadmap and, more importantly, to recognize characters based on their component patterns…!

NEUROPLASTICITY
hanzi–nao-zi-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

NEUROPLASTICITY

“In the context of cognitive neuroscience, we use the term plasticity to describe changes in structure and function of the brain that affect behavior and that are related to experience or training…”

(Herholz 2012).

What has been missing from the study of Chinese has been the link between neuroplasticity and the methodologies used to teach the Chinese language.

NEUROPLASTICITY & VIOLINISTS

Recent research has shown that professional violinists  have a highly developed motor cortex relative to the general population. We can’t say whether people who are likely to succeed at learning to play the violin naturally have a more developed motor cortex or whether practicing vibrato, harmonics and bowing techniques causes that development.

But clearly there is a difference in brain structure between professional violinists and those of us who don’t play any instrument…

NEUROPLASTICITY & CHINESE

In the same way, native Chinese speakers have a highly developed visual cortex.  And there is a strong correlation between visual pattern recognition skills and success in learning Chinese.

By studying Chinese as a network of words, characters, components and compounds, we’re literally building “neural muscle” and developing our visual cortex (or at least, our capacity to use it).

This network model is at the core of our methodology – in our experience, it has never been used as the basis for teaching Chinese. Instead, Chinese is almost always taught as if it is yet another Western language.

CHINESE IS A VISUALLY COMPLEX LANGUAGE

PATTERN RECOGNITION IS KEY!
hanzi–mo-shi-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

PATTERN RECOGNITION IS KEY!

Character-based languages are visually complex. In Chinese:

  • There are 31 unique strokes used to draw characters.
  • Each character can have 1 to 50+ strokes (although most are fewer than 20).
  • There are 8,105 characters in the current Table of Standard Chinese Characters.

WESTERN-STYLE “TIPS & TRICKS”

Many western textbooks and courses encourage the use of mnemonics and/or “stories” to help students to remember how to write characters (and their meaning).

But, while using mnemonics to learn characters and their meanings works with simple characters, this technique breaks down with complex or abstract characters.

Only 5% of Chinese characters are true pictographs (that look like their meaning).  For the remaining 95% of Chinese characters, there is little correlation between a character’s appearance and its meaning.

So, no matter what technique you use, you still have to memorize characters. Breathru Chinese offers a technique that focuses less on gimmicks and more on (language-independent) pattern recognition skills.


Warning: "continue" targeting switch is equivalent to "break". Did you mean to use "continue 2"? in /home/easternw/public_html/altchinese/wp03/wp-content/plugins/jupiter-donut/includes/wpbakery/shortcodes/mk_imagebox/show-as/column.php on line 20

CHINESE VISUAL SKILLS

Chinese people have highly developed visual skills.  Functional MRI studies of native Chinese speakers show that they use their visual cortex to a much higher degree than Westerners!

Western students must likewise develop visual pattern recognition skills, as opposed to merely learning vocabulary.

AN EASIER WAY TO LEARN CHARACTERS

It’s much easier to recognize and memorize characters when you can view them as patterns of components that are used over and over again in different combinations.

WORDS
hanzi–dan-ci-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

WORDS ARE CONCATENATED  CHARACTERS

Chinese words are made up of 1 to 4 (rarely, more) characters.  Each character in a word is both semantically and phonetically significant:

If you know the meaning of each character in a word, then you have a very good idea of the meaning of that word.  Likewise, if you know the pronunciation of each character in a word, then you know exactly how to pronounce that word!

FOCUS ON CHARACTERS FIRST, THEN VOCABULARY!

So, it’s really important to learn Chinese at the character level – only then can you begin to study vocabulary.  Which is just opposite of English, where we generally study vocabulary and only refer to syllables to understand the root and part of speech indicators.

What is even more important – in English, syllables frequently don’t have semantic significance. For example, in the word “American”, we generally are not concerned with the meaning of each syllable (A·mer·i·can), unless we’re studying etymology.

But, in Chinese, we absolutely care about the meaning of each syllable.  The word 美国人 (měi guó rén) literally means “beautiful country person” (the Chinese graciously call America the “beautiful country”).

CHARACTER NETWORKS

When we study vocabulary, instead of learning the meaning of each word, it’s much easier to train our brains to recognize the meaning (and pronunciation) of each character in the word.

Conversely, it’s very useful to look at characters from the opposite perspective – that is, in addition to learning the characters that make up a word, we also learn all the common words that use a character.

We call these “character networks”.

Character networks are one of the tools we use to help students build build pattern recognition skills. Recognizing all the words that use the same character makes it possible to study vocabulary in sets of related words!

COMPONENTS AND COMPOUNDS
hanzi–pian-pang-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

COMPONENTS

Characters, in turn, are composed of 1 or more “components”.  Each component in a character can be a simpler character or simply one or more strokes.

COMPONENT PATTERNS

When we study characters, instead of assigning mnemonics or stories to words as learning aides, it’s much more effective to train our brains to recognize each component of a character…

COMPOUNDS

Conversely, it’s useful to look at characters from the opposite perspective – that is, in addition to the components that make up a character, we also learn the characters that are used by components.  These are called “compounds”.

NETWORK MODELS

By studying the decomposition of characters, we can also develop a network model in our mind of the relationship of characters and their respective components and compounds.

We call these “component networks”.

Component networks are one of the tools we use to help students build build pattern recognition skills. Recognizing the components (and compounds) of each character makes it possible to quickly place that character into our language roadmap and, more importantly, to recognize characters based on their component patterns…!

NEUROPLASTICITY
hanzi–nao-zi-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

NEUROPLASTICIY

“In the context of cognitive neuroscience, we use the term plasticity to describe changes in structure and function of the brain that affect behavior and that are related to experience or training…”

(Herholz 2012).

What has been missing from the study of Chinese has been the link between neuroplasticity and the methodologies used to teach the Chinese language.

NEUROPLASTICIY & VIOLINISTS

Recent research has shown that professional violinists  have a highly developed motor cortex relative to the general population. We can’t say whether people who are likely to succeed at learning to play the violin naturally have a more developed motor cortex or whether practicing vibrato, harmonics and bowing techniques causes that development.

But clearly there is a difference in brain structure between professional violinists and those of us who don’t play any instrument…

NEUROPLASTICITY & CHINESE

In the same way, native Chinese speakers have a highly developed visual cortex.  And there is a strong correlation between visual pattern recognition skills and success in learning Chinese.

By studying Chinese as a network of words, characters, components and compounds, we’re literally building “neural muscle” and developing our visual cortex (or at least, our capacity to use it).

This network model is at the core of our methodology – in our experience, it has never been used as the basis for teaching Chinese. Instead, Chinese is almost always taught as if it is yet another Western language.

HOMOPHONES

IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME!
hanzi-key-concepts-tong-yin-sz-lg-trans-zh

LIMITATIONS OF PINYIN

There are only 412 unique Pinyin sounds in Modern Mandarin.  Even with tones added to provide further differentiation, there are still many exact homophones in Chinese!

Because English is an inflective, not a tonal, language, most students do not have a natural talent for recognizing different tones.  To the Western ear, tone differences are very, very subtle.  But to the Chinese ear, incorrect (or no) tones are completely incomprehensible…!

NEAR HOMOPHONES

In addition, Chinese also has many near-homophones (e.g. the “zh”, “ch”, “sh” and “z”, “c”, “s” initials and the “e” and “I” finals).  Despite the Pinyin spelling that may appear to be familiar to English speakers, pronouncing these near-homophones correctly is a bit more challenging than what you might expect.

IT REALLY DOES ALL SOUNDS THE SAME!

The combination of identical Pinyin spelling, tones and near-homophones can be one of the biggest challenges faced by students.

So, when students comment that Chinese all sounds the same…it’s largely true!

WHY IT MATTERS
hanzi–zhong-yao-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

WHY IT MATTERS

Because of the prevalence of homophones, precise pronunciation is critical for:

  • Listening Comprehension
  • Learning Characters

WE ARE “PRONUNCIATION TOLERANT” IN THE US

For a variety of reasons, we tend to be “pronunciation tolerant” in the US and can understand foreigners who may not pronounce English with 100% accuracy.

STANDARD CHINESE

But if your goal includes communicating with native Chinese speakers, especially in China, you’ll discover that Chinese requires precise pronunciation to communicate effectively.  Students who have successfully competed courses in the US, but have not mastered “standard” Mandarin pronunciation, may not be able to communicate in China.

It’s worth noting that the PRC has established precise standards for pronunciation, ranked on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest).  In fact, native Chinese speakers will often comment that someone who has mastered pronunciation speak very “standard” Chinese!

Perhaps simply because of time constraints in large group classes, teachers may not pay a lot of attention to pronunciation and tones – it takes a lot of work to get it right!

LEARNING PHONETICALLY VS CHARACTERS
hanzi–bi-jiao-0400-x-0200-trans-zh

LEARNING PHONETICALLY VS CHARACTERS

Students need to develop a strong association between characters and their meanings – this is a major difference between Chinese and most Western languages, which, to a certain extent, can be learned phonetically.

For this reason, Western students tend to use phonetics as a primary “anchor” when learning other languages – we hear and associate phonetics and meanings.

But because of the overwhelming number of homophones and near-homophones, our focus as Chinese students needs to be the use of characters as the primary “anchor” for learning Chinese.  We associate characters with both meaning and  pronunciation.

PRONUNCIATION PRACTICE

At the same time, at Breakthru Chinese ® we also focus on standard pronunciation to enable students to recognize the most subtle differences in Modern Mandarin.

While we are not speech specialists, we do provide coaching in the precise use of breath, tongue, teeth and lips to accurately render standard Mandarin pronunciation.

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