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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reaching the Tipping Point for Chinese: Part 4

Little Boy memorized his very first Chinese composition last year in Nov-Dec 2010. We are now September 2011. It has been 10 months. The start was most onerous indeed. To describe the first 25 compo memorizations as long and hard toil, is perhaps an understatement. He could not recognize more than half the words in each compo. The compos were taken from a compendium of 1000 Best Compositions from the equivalent of China's PSLE. They were at least 3 to 4 years above his reading level then. Grandma read them into a digital audio file and Little Boy plugged in the speakers and listened and followed and memorized and recited to me.

The very first week, he spent 7 hours a day reciting these compos. I sat near him. I worked near him. It was, for me, like nursing a querulous sick child back to health. You stay there by his side so that he has the strength to carry on, and to not give up on a task that looked impossible to him. There was nothing I could do for him because I am illiterate in Chinese. It was a bit like watching your child battle critical illness and not be able to do anything but hold his hand and stay nearby.

From reciting others' works, he moved on to writing his own. We were thrilled that he could score 34/40 for a piece of compo homework. But those 3 pages meant 6 hours of sustained effort. Under the timed conditions of 50 minutes in the exam, he failed his compo at the mid-year exams. However, he did very well for his Comprehension because all the reading and recitation had improved his word recognition immensely. Thanks to the recitation, he scored wonderfully for Oral reading because he was expressive and he could recognise all the words in the text. Overall, he managed to do well enough to avoid being asked to attend supplementary classes. Even though he had failed his compo, I convinced him that it was still a triumph to be celebrated.

"It isn't where you start. It's where you end up" I said. And if he continued to work at that pace, I swore by Mommy's Honour that he would end up somewhere nice in December of 2012, after the PSLE.

During the June hols 2011 of this year, he wrote one composition everyday for 3 weeks. At the same time, he read 2 model compositions each day. I had hired a tutor round about then who was a rich source of EXCELLENT model compositions written by students from a certain Top School. He learnt to highlight "yummy expressions" and use them. In the first 2 weeks, I allowed him to refer to any material he wanted. In the 3rd week, he did timed trials of 50 minutes. Again, it was a frustrating effort because it seemed that he could never complete within the time. Meanwhile, his poor tuition teacher marked his compos ad nauseum.

As CA2 (the tests in 3rd quarter of the year) neared, he got closer and closer to the 50 mins time target... until 1 week before the test, he barely managed to write 2 pages in 50 minutes, replete with "yummy expressions". He scored 28/40 in his Chinese compo test. One strategy we used was to choose chunks that could be generally used in almost any compo, and to memorize them for regurgitation. This saved time and helped him to make it to 2 pages in 50 mins.

He devoured his tutor's Chinese model compositions with an appetite so voracious that he quickly exhausted the stack of model compositions provided by his tuition teacher (because his school teacher provided none at all). There were 54 in all. By now, the file is all tatty and worn from having been well-thumbed through and referred to every time he wrote a compo. In general, he did 2 kinds of compo practices. In the first, he focused on learning and using new expressions. He did these compos in about 2 to 3 hours... checking and copying. In the second kind of compo practice, he focused on speed.

We gave up on reading for pleasure. It was too slow. Not intense enough, and couldn't give us the quick wins we were starving for. Strangely too, Little Boy was frustrated with reading for pleasure. Learning Chinese was such a painful process that I absolutely had to help him to mastery quickly so that he could at least feel a sense of achievement (and I suppose he was impatient for the same reason?). Hungry for more model compositions but pressed for time on all sides (because we still had to find time for Math, English and Science, which thankfully, Little Boy seems to grasp quickly and requires perhaps only 1 or 2 exam practices before exams).

Pressed for time, we turned to the less challenging compositions published in Singapore and sold at Popular bookstore. Grandma recorded 49 of these and Little Boy read them all, and knew them well enough to add these to his store of reference materials to use for compo practices.

That makes 25 + 54 + 49 model compositions that Little Boy had come to know like the back of his hand. He had to read, re-read, write and re-write again and again and again. That was the only way to commit the Chinese characters to long term memory. What's this about making learning Chinese fun? It ain't fun. It's plain hard work like practising scales on the piano.

We had again run out of model compos to read. I was searching about for compos and had settled for one printed in Singapore for secondary school students. Little Boy complained that it was boring. He went to dig out the Compendium of 1000 compos that we had worked on in Nov-Dec last year, and said "Mom, I like these. They're easier and more interesting to read."

It was only then that it dawned on me how much he had learnt.

What had seemed to him impossibly difficult last year, to read and understand, had now become interesting and easy. Wow! He had actually gotten good enough to have fun with the language. I sat back... pensive and wistful and quietly jubilant. And then Little Boy decided that he didn't need a tutor anymore either. He said that he could pass stuff to Grandma to mark, and the rest would be his own hard work.

And then my heart swelled with pride. My boy seemed like a man already.

According to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother, you only begin to enjoy something when you get good at it. To get good at something, you need to put in the grunt work. I dunno if that is true of everything, 'cos Petunia enjoys many things that she's no good at, but it is certainly true of learning the Chinese language. I wonder if it is a uniquely Chinese philosophy towards learning in general... and that this philosophy is so fully integrated in the codification of the Chinese language that you just gotta grunt through the pain before you get to the joy. But you know, the joy is sweet... oh-so-sweet because Little Boy feels so much more at ease in the language now. Little Boy does not dislike Chinese anymore because he has actually become rather good at it. He enjoys creative writing in Chinese, though not as much as English.

So what's this about learning Chinese the fun way? There isn't one. It's plain hard work. You memorize. You recite. You regurgitate. You do that again and again until you get good enough to do your own thing. That was the way Grandma was taught (says she) and I will tell ya... she's really good at Chinese.

This process is not for the faint-hearted. You need the heart of a lion cub and the love of a lioness. It is really not easy to stay focused on memorizing essays for 7 hours at a stretch. The child cannot do it alone. More often than not, I had to stay near just to provide the moral support that kept him from teetering over the precipice of Giving Up.


Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

wow. it really sounded like an awful task to learn chinese.....i dun think i can ever make it if i've to learn this way in my schooling years 'cos i hate drillings....

tis is how i failed my maths terribly too, too much drilling + i dun understand why i HAVE to understand/learn something this way = no more fun + "it's not right". i think people call it "unholistic" these days. LOL

i really admire Little Boy for the tenacity to make it! he's a far better student than i am. he has such awesome luck to have such good mama!

petunialee said...

Fry - I think it was painful because it was compressed in time. We had only 2 years from last Dec to get him to high levels of competence for the PSLE. I figured that if we were to put in effort, we might as well reach for the impossible. And well... it turns out that it wasn't impossible after all.

If I had been wise about the ways to learn Chinese earlier and begun working with him from P1, the approach would not have been painful at all... It would have seemed natural and measured, which is what most people who grow up in the homes of Chinese literati would have experienced.

Jen said...

Reading this, I felt both happy and sad. Happy for you and your son, specifically your son for having such a resourceful mom who sourced for all the right materials to ace Chinese and for having the commitment and tenacity to make it happen! Sad because it just proves that pple whose parents are illiterate will find it very very tough to do well in the language even with Chinese tuition. They may not have resourceful mom or grandma who recorded the compositions for the memorization to work.

If they were to start from P1, what approach should they take to do well? I know lots of parents who send their kids for tuition from day 1 and they are still struggling with the language. Their tutors are not as good as your ds tutor who provides model composition etc.