Reflections on learning Chinese 1: rote learning, regular testing and literacy

A few years ago I spent a year in Beijing learning Mandarin Chinese, starting pretty much from scratch (I spoke some basic Cantonese, but had next to no reading or writing ability). Chinese is a famously difficult language (this is a fun read), but I really enjoyed learning it and was pretty successful in doing so. This was in large part thanks to a growing online community of language ‘hackers’ who actively apply modern theories of learning and memory to foreign languges. As a keen learner, I quickly dove into applying such theories to myself. Of course, looking back, it was also a fantastic introduction to teaching, and trying to get others to learn effectively. The knowldege I gained of the education system as a whole, my experiences as a learner, and my reflections on them as a teacher form the basis of this series.

First up: an introduction to the difficulty written Chinese, and some reflections on how locals learn the language.

So, Chinese is difficult. This in large part due to the complexity of the written language. The basic building blocks of written Chinese are ‘radicals’, which are a bit like letters of the alphabet: put together radicals, and you have a Chinese character. Here’s an interesting example, with an interesting emphasis: when you put together the radical for ‘female’ (left) and ‘child’ (right), you get the character meaning ‘good’ (middle):


Yet – ‘only’ 200 pieces? Indeed, there are over 200 radicals; and completely unlike alphabets, they give (pretty much) zero phonetic information about how to pronounce the character in question.

How about characters? Firstly, they aren’t usually words; they too are building blocks, which carry various meanings. They’re more similar to things like prefixes, suffixes and word stems; to make up the vast majority of Chinese words, you have to put together two Chinese characters. Again, Chinese characters have few precise, consistent phonetic clues, especially for absolute beginners. And most crucially of all, you need to know around 3000 of them to begin to access the daily newspaper. (On top of knowing those characters you have to know the words that they form.)


In other words: written Chinese is a learning nightmare.

The focus of this starting post: it’s very interesting to consider: given that Chinese is so difficult, how on earth do Chinese people become functionally literate? What clever strategies do Chinese teachers use? Much of what follows is from my wife (who went through the system herself in Hong Kong).

The answer, plain and simple, is rote learning and regular low-stakes testing. From a young age, Chinese children spend literally hours writing and rewriting characters, again and again, every single day of their lives. They look at the character, they copy it, they continue to copy it until they can reproduce it by memory. And then they test themselves, and then they are tested in school – a bit like a spelling test, but more complicated.

In this context, it is fascinating to note that Japan (Japanese borrows heavily from the Chinese language, has all the same difficulties (and potentially even more), and teaches literacy in just the same way) has a far higher literacy rate than the UK.

This last statistic, to me, is stunning; written Japanese/Chinese are indisputably much harder written languages than English – how on earth can Japan be beating an English speaking country in terms of literacy? The question sounds rhetorical, but it’s really not – they have no secrets other than the much-derided (in the UK) strategies of rote learning of new Chinese characters and regular testing.

I am not suggesting that other countries should adopt this approach, nor am I offering any advice to foreign languages teachers. I personally did not learn Chinese characters by rote repetition – thank God for that! (How I learnt characters will be the subject of my next post.) I simply find these facts striking as a teacher in an education system where literacy is a big problem , and yet rote learning and testing are widely shunned.

Some possible takeaways as a teacher in the UK:

  1. Don’t be afraid of getting students to practise, practise, and practise.
  2. Use regular low-stakes testing.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on learning Chinese 1: rote learning, regular testing and literacy

  1. Pingback: Reflections on learning Chinese 2: how I memorised characters | mathagogy

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