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Friday, October 28, 2011

Learning Chinese: The Potato Way

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a Potato Parent. I am not pleased to admit it... but I am not ashamed. See... I didn't get to choose how I was educated. Unlike many in Singapore, I was never given the opportunity to learn Chinese. I spent the better part of my childhood outside of Singapore. So, I learnt French instead.
My children have to learn Chinese. I am fully supportive of this. If the government decided to move away from bilingual education and people had the choice to take or not to take Chinese, I would still opt for my kids to take Chinese.
But Potato Children like mine find it really difficult to excel in the Chinese language because they do not evolve in a Chinese reading milieu. In the past 10 months, I have experimented with some Potato Methods for Learning Chinese and my son has made progress. In this post I would like to share some things I discovered about the process of learning Chinese - and why Potato Children like mine find the language almost impossible to master... and what parents can do to make the impossible possible.
Under-Developed Cognitive Infrastructure
When I first arrived in Europe, I found Caucasian faces impossible to decipher. My friends, who had been staying there for years, could differentiate the German look from the Italian look from the French look almost immediately. I even found it effortful to differentiate one person's face from another's. Some years later, my Caucasian friends complained to me that all Asian faces looked the same to them.
After 1 year in Europe, I no longer had problems differentiating Caucasian faces. Indeed, I too could pick up the subtle elements of style and expression that allowed me to identify someone as Italian. The sheer volume of exposure to Caucasian faces stimulated my brain to develop the necessary subconscious cognitive infrastructure to (1) differentiate Caucasian faces (2) retain Caucasian faces with details and (3) recall whole Caucasian faces.
A baby who evolves in a Chinese literate family, meets in the natural course of living and breathing, enough Chinese characters to develop this subconscious cognitive infrastructure for fast and easy (1) character differentiation, (2) character retention and (3) character recall. These babies grow up into adults who believe that Chinese is easier to learn than Malay. This sounds incredible to Potato Parents, so if you don't believe me... click here.
This learning is subconscious.
Up until Dec 2010, Little Boy relied on the conscious learning of the Chinese language only. His Grandma assigned assessment books and he spent hours learning his ting xie. He worked hardest at Chinese and it was still his worst subject. This conscious learning was getting him nowhere. I had to help him activate his subconscious learning processes.
I took a risk. I adapted my own experience with face recognition to Little Boy's endeavour to learn Chinese. In my adaptation, I did three things differently from what parents of potato children normally do.
(1) I exposed him to material containing at least 50% of new and strange Chinese characters
(2) I did not require him to fully master (read, recall and write) the words he was exposed to.
(3) I threw away all the assessment books.
This was because I had decided to look BEYOND obvious and tangible deliverables such as the ability to write words and get high marks for ting xie. I focused instead on the unseen aspects of developing a cognitive infrastructure for (1) fast and intuitive processing, (2) efficient organizing and retrieving of Chinese characters. I didn't care if he flunked ting xie. I was focused on building the unseen, not acing the seen.
Let's now look at each of these 2 in turn.
(A) Processing Chinese Characters
Do you remember the dial-up internet connection of old? Not much data could go through because there was not enough bandwidth. Little Boy's mental pathways for processing new Chinese characters were so narrow that they were like dial-up internet. Not surprisingly, he had to spend up to 2 hours to master one miserable list of ting xie (and he promptly forgot half the list the next day).
Now, visualize in your mind's eye a small stream that allows only a trickle of water to pass. Compare your small stream with the Thames. Then, ask yourself "How am I going to get this stream to be deep and wide enough to move the same volume of water as the Thames"? Nature does it with forces of erosion. High volumes of water exert frictional forces on stream beds and banks as it passes through to dig a channel deep and wide. The higher the volume of water, the greater the speed of flow, the higher the rate of erosion.
I had very little time left because Little Boy was in end-P4 (and PSLE was coming up too soon) when I started messing with his language cognitions. I needed maximum erosion rates to dig a mental pathway large enough that Little Boy would not look constipated every time he had to read Chinese. I exposed Little Boy to daily stimulus from Chinese texts. I made audio-recordings and he memorized the text as he listened and read. Every new Chinese character fed through his brain hit against the narrow walls of his mental pathways, and made them wider and deeper.
For maximum benefit, I required him to memorize and recite in short chunks. This pumped the same material through his brain again and again until the material could easily go in one end (eyes and ears) and come out the other (mouth). To confirm, I made him read the material to me without the recordings. This is the equivalent of pumping the same water again and again through the same stream until you're pretty sure some erosion has taken place.
Today, 10 months later, Little Boy spends as little as 20 minutes (compared to 2 hours twice a week last year) to learn 1 chapter of ting xie. His mental pathways for processing Chinese characters has become very much deeper and wider. The speed of learning has improved.
But, does he forget? We will next examine organization and recall of Chinese characters.
(B) Organization and Recall of Chinese Characters
I visualized Little Boy's brain as a room with insufficient storage cabinets. Chinese characters, after having made the long journey through narrow passageways tumbled helter-skelter into this room. Once they got there, they promptly got lost.
I was sure the characters he had learnt were there in his brain somewhere, but since he had not developed the cognitive infrastructure for organizing and retrieving Chinese characters, he couldn't find them when he needed them. He could not remember.
I took another calculated risk here. I exposed him daily to new Chinese model compositions that contained about 400 words that he had never encountered before. I made sure that he learnt these texts well enough to be able to read them fluently to me at the end of the day. This meant that he was cramming a new lot of 400 words every day into his brain.
I gambled on the adaptability of the human brain. If you stuff enough stuff in a short time inside there, the brain naturally and unconsciously decides to build more storage cabinets for better organisation. It's a bit like a housewife who realizes that she has so much to store away that she absolutely must get the carpenter in to build more cabinets.... and because she already knows what she needs to store away since everything is lying there, the cabinets are better designed for the material she needs to store.
I did not require him to write the words. I did not require him to recite the WHOLE compo at a go. I absolutely did not care if what he had just learnt disappeared from conscious memory the day after. I focused on cramming new words and more new words into his brain to stimulate the development of more and better storage capacity for Chinese characters.
By January 2011, he didn't have to revise his ting xie for 2 hours twice a week anymore to remember only half the characters. He spent a single 20 minute study session on his ting xie and that was all. Studying Chinese became faster and easier. And that was when Little Boy began to feel good about the subject.
Hence, Potato Parents please don't despair. Our children CAN excel in Chinese. We just have to be aware that we cannot go about it in the same way that Rice Parents do. We are unable to read them Chinese books in bed. We are incapable of speaking to them in Chinese. But our own ignorance can be easily compensated by modern technology.
Audio digital recordings of model Chinese compositions helped Little Boy to develop the cognitive infrastructure that made processing, organizing and retrieving Chinese characters as easy as if he were a Rice Child. There is no reason for Potato Parents to sit back and accept that it is impossible for their own children to learn Chinese excellently well. With some knowledge of how the subconscious brain works... and a computer with speakers, Potato Parents like you and I can help their Potato Children.
So, Potato Parents arise. Wrap your arms around your children and lift them up towards competence in Chinese. If your children are in Primary 1 then time is on your side. You don't have to pump up to 400 new words through your child's brain daily, like I did. Set less stressful targets for you and your child.
But DO note that if you are a Potato Parent, you need to help your Potato Child build the cognitive infrastructure for learning Chinese that Rice Children develop naturally because of their home environment. Ignore the grades for a while and lay off the writing.
It was painful to memorise compos but it was pain of a shorter duration compared to the long pain that we went through from P1 to P4, trudging through short lists of words and never quite mastering them. We felt like losers then. We don't feel like losers now. In addition, Little Boy is now able to analyze the structure of strange and new characters he encounters and GUESS how they are pronounced and what they mean. Till now, this was a skill that only Grandma and The Husband possessed because both grew up in homes where people spoke and read ONLY Chinese. Best of all, Chinese has become much easier and faster to learn.
Potato Parents who intend to use this method can order the recordings here... should also read my posts on


Anonymous said...

PetuniaLee you are AMAZING...using imagination and initiative you helped Little Boy conquer a road block...I'm so proud of you both

Petunia Lee said...

Theanne - Thank you!!

Wen-ai said...

wow... a very very informative post. Hmmm, ST should run this article!

decheng said...


I think that your method is good.

Andrew | Redtype said...

Care to further develop this into a new methodology of learning? looks like PhD material. great stuff! -- Potato Parent au Canada. Si vous avez d'interêt avec ça, m'envoyer un courriel!

Petunia Lee said...

Andrew - Je n'ai pas votre adresse.

Edith said...

Petunia, can you tell me where to buy this audio? Both my hubby and I are weak in this subject and finds it hard to teach my girl. I got my son exempted from this and since regretted it as he can no longer qualify for JC. I don't want to make the same mistake again. I just needed my girl to have a pass before she gets downgraded.

I am really impressived by your commitment. You are such a great mom.

Anonymous said...

we have received the audio book petunia .. we will try it tomorrow...

Petunia Lee said...

You are a very brave and determined Mommy... I think you will succeed.

weiz said...

Hi Petunia,

Do you explain the Chinese stories to the child, or he understands basic Chinese enough to know the meaning?


Petunia Lee said...

Cindy - Every single word in the text is thoroughly explained. A glossary is also provided for him to refer to as and when he forgets the meanings of words. THe meaning of every word needs to be completely clear before he even begins to memorize.

This is important because the text given to him had 50% of unknown words. If not explained, he would be memorizing gibberish.

weiz said...

Thanks, Petunia!

Do you add in hanyu pinyin for really difficult words?

Petunia Lee said...

Weiz... No hanyu pinyin at all. Hanyu pinyin interfered with his ability to process Chinese characters. I insisted that he remember the characters and link it to an actual sound he heard on audio tape. The alphabet system doesn't help. It stunted his progress towards the processing of Chinese characters. People in China don't use hanyu pinyin. They are better at Chinese than those who do.

Solace said...

Hi Petunia,

Glad to have found this blog recommended by a fellow forummer..

Have managed to buy the following as recommended by you.
Book Title : 小学好作文
Level : 5 & 6 年级
Publisher : 海洋出版公司

N have just ordered the CD-ROM..

Thank u for sharing.. Though am not a potato mummy, but i find it tough to teach my son.. hope this method works for him.

Thanks a lot! :)

Scrapheartz said...

My daughter is facing her PSLE next month. She doesn't seem motivated at all to study. She would study for 5 minuts, read story books for 15 minutes, study for 5 minutes and hide in toilet for 10 minutes. Any suggestions on how to motivate her?

Petunia Lee said...

Scrapheartz - The book Internal Drive Theory(R): Motivate Your Child to WANT to Study details motivation strategies you can use. You can get this book from the National Library, Times the Bookstore or Kinokuniya.

In the post above, one of the links actually lead you to an article sharing how to motivate a child to do Potato Chinese. Please explore the links?

Petunia Lee said...

Scrapheartz - If your daughter is doing PSLE next month, I am afraid it's too late to study. By this time last year, I forbade my son from studying for his PSLE. I wanted him to rest and manage his stress.