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Friday, November 25, 2011

Reaching the Tipping Point for Chinese: Part 6

Last year, in Nov-Dec 2010, Little Boy had to work all day on a single Chinese model composition (written by 12 year olds in China) in order to be able to read it fluently to me, and explain all the words. Last week, in Nov 2011, Little Boy could process and fluently read FOUR Chinese model compositions in 4.5 hours.

It occurred to me that instead of doing more of the same thing, I could perhaps introduce writing into his process of learning Chinese in order to stimulate even deeper learning and better recall, leading to enhanced literacy. I decided early this week to stop asking him to READ 4 Chinese compositions a day. We are pushing our Potato Chinese experiment even further. Little Boy now has to memorize and recite ONE WHOLE composition at a stretch... and not only that, he has to WRITE out ONE whole composition from memory.

Like last year, I really dunno where this will end up. I am hoping that we will end up with another quantum leap in true competence in Chinese. This goal looks as impossible to us as last year's goal to memorize and recite one whole composition. However, we did achieve what we set out to do last year (with excellent results) and chances are, this year's goal won't be impossible either (but I still dunno about the results).

We've been working on the same 2100 character/pictogram (approximately) Chinese composition over the past 4 days. He successfully wrote out the whole composition for the first time yesterday with mistakes. He wrote out the whole composition for the second time today, and we think he will have to write out the whole composition another 5 times to be sure that the learning is deeply anchored. Meanwhile, on a daily basis, he has to learn to fluently read ONE new composition.

I popped over to Grandma's earlier today to get her opinion on whether this would help him learn. Grandma stated (rather smugly too) that that was how she was taught when she was young, that Chinese pictograms (like people's faces) need to be committed to memory... and learning to write well required writing practice in drawing the characters (like you had to learn to draw people's faces)... and that given the intricate connection between sound and picture (i.e., the same sound means different things if the picture is different), you absolutely had to read, recite and write all at one go from memory so that you could learn and retain the intricate connections between meaning, sound and picture.

Grandma then said that back in the 1960s, this was how she herself taught Chinese to her students. Later though, in the late 1970s, there was a huge resistance from people who were largely English educated to teaching via memorizing. Memory work is for dumb people. It is boring. We should be teaching students to analyze, not memorize. Therein lies the problem. To learn to write in English, you MEMORIZE your 26 characters of the alphabet (see... you still have to memorize even in English), and then you use them to represent sounds. Sounds then convey meaning. The process of making words in English is to compose them from only 26 sounds. These sounds can be easily broken down and analyzed, and powers of analysis can put them back together again.

To be literate in Chinese, you need to memorize at least 2000 characters. Each character has it's own face. Different faces have the same sound. Sound and meaning are intertwined, and whilst some analysis is possible, it is not easy. Ya just gotta remember the character like you remember every face you have met since childhood. Have you tried remembering people's faces by analyzing them? Possible, but not the fastest way to recall them.

I'm not sure, perhaps Chinese is a language you can only truly master when you memorize more than analyze. After all, Dr Lee Wei Ling (Mr Lee Kuan Yew's daughter) freely admits that she spent half her time in secondary school memorizing Chinese classics. PhD candidates from China that I met some years ago also shared that they did a lot of text memorizing, and once, 2 or 3 of them even had a good time reciting to each other, beloved bits of literary texts that every child in China would have to know. These are all highly educated people, and that was how they learnt Chinese. Grandma herself possesses high levels of competence in Chinese and that was how she learnt Chinese too. Do I want Little Boy to possess enough Chinese to be on par with such highly educated people... or do I want him to be only as literate as a Chinese street hawker? Certainly, if it is possible, I want him to be well educated in the Chinese language.

So, who are English educated people like me to judge that one should not teach Chinese through memory work? Seriously, I am not hung up about any method of learning. I refuse to judge METHODS. I want results. Period. If memory work produces Chinese literati like Grandma, PhD candidates and Dr Lee Wei Ling, then it produces lasting results and inculcates a love for the Chinese classics.

So, that is the method we will muck about with, and see what happens.


Anonymous said...

I believe Little Boy will succeed and be very well educated!

petunialee said...

Oh Theanne... I hope so. I sure hope so.

Felice said...

WOW, you are really a dedicated
mother !! 3 Cheers for you that little boy got 100% in 'teng sie".
For me, i let them read Chinese
Cartoons and watch Chinese Drama serials.. so no complaint about learning Chinese !!
Smelling flowers along the journey
is more impt than the destination will be more stress for me& them if i adopt the S'pore way.
To each is own. You DID IT YOUR WAY,GREAT!!

petunialee said...

Felice - I did it this way because time is running very short. From P1 to P4, we encouraged him to watch Chinese cartoons. We even bought our TV especially for cartoons (prior to that we didn't own a TV) but none of us enjoy TV so sitting down there to watch cartoons was very frustrating for Little Boy. As for reading cartoons, he lacked so much vocab that he also didn't enjoy them. I don't ever let him watch Chinese drama serials because they are vehicles for morality issues that I greatly object to. The TCS serials dumb down the brain. I would rather that he fail Chinese than have to learn Chinese that way. **Shudder**. Then I turned to songs. Little Boy retorted "Mom, I don't even like music so what makes you think I will like learning Chinese songs." **Tear hair**

However, if I had more time, I would greatly reduce the intensity of what we are doing so as to make it far less painful.

The cycle of memorizing-reciting-writing is necessary to learning Chinese. A friend of mine is a translator (Chinese-English) and she assured me that some degree of memory work is necessary to learning Chinese well enough to be highly literate. Comics and Chinese drama serials won't bring him to the levels of competence that will make him truly bilingual in every register of the Chinese language(from coffee shop talk to highly stylised language). Chinese drama serials will just teach him coffee shop talk (there is also writing... and you can't write if you have not practised writing from memory). If I rely on comics and drama serials alone, he'll probably get an A in PSLE Chinese (because 80% of the PSLE cohort gets A), but his t-score will be very low because he is competing with PRC students on the bell curve.

jewel said...

I was looking around for chinese resources and family who teaches their kids mandarin when I stumbled upon your blog. I could empathize with how you felt trying to get him up to speed, only that my sons are merely preschooler. But I am desperate because he can hardly speak a full sentence. So I committed myself to speak mandarin with them everyday, read, sing mandarin songs, rhymes, DVDs and have thoughts about escaping to Taiwan to live for a year for total immersion! 3 days into this mandarin madness in my family, both my sons finally spoke mandarin, a full sentence at that, and it was an encouragement to me. Thanks for sharing your journey that we mothers can relate to. Love reading your blog by the way, havent seen good writings, let alone good literature for a long long time!

mummyof3 said...


I am a Potato Chinese as I was educated in Malaysia in Malay. I understand only very basic Chinese and can barely read nursery level Chinese. My husband has the same background as well. We don't speak Chinese at all (and neither do our parents btw, they speak dialects peppered w Eng or vice versa).

I have 3 children, 2 of whom are in primary school: a girl in P4 who amazingly does Higher Chinese without any help except a weekly enrichment class, and a P2 boy who struggles badly with Chinese. The girl is finding it increasingly hard going especially w compo and compre. As for the boy, he has a tutor and we are just trying hard not to have him hate the subject.

I am most encouraged by the hope you are holding out with Potato Chinese.

I have one question though: once my kids finish the CD Roms of Potato Chinese (praying we can do it this Dec hols) what's the next step for them? I don't have someone like your Little Boy's grandma to read and record passages or compos for them. What next? Just read and memorise? is that too slow/cumbersome?

Petunia Lee said...

mummyof3 - We have made over 100 recordings and would be happy to sell you the next CD if you see the need. However, the first CD is tough enough to get through.

Potato Chinese is a brain preparation exercise. Once you've done enough to build the cognitive infrastructure, you can stop. My boy stopped Potato Chinese after about 60 compos. From memorise-recite, he moved on to listen, read and then read the text aloud. These days, he has gone onto silent reading.

To really understand Potato Chinese, do please read these 2 posts



AlasMyDear said...

Like many others I came across this post looking for Chinese material for my kids. I have 3 girls - P2, K2 and 2 years. We are on our Chinese learning journey.

I was a Fake Chinese Student in my youth as well - my parents are Malaysian and spoke nearly no Chinese. I had an Aunt who was schooled in a classical Taiwanese school and she was my strength for that 2 hours a week. She was all the tuition I had and without her I would have died.

Our way of learning was exactly the same as you describe. I had endless tingxie and moxie, I memorized chengyu and shuyu, and reams and reams of model compositions, all throughout my school years. I wanted to vomit blood, it was very painful indeed. And I wrote them from memory for myself and my aunt to mark ad nauseum.

The labour paid off, I did both Chinese and higher Chinese at O-levels, and I even did decently well in them. I got A2 and B3 for them I believe. My Chinese teachers at school all couldn't believe it, because I could do the exam but I can barely speak the language. The high powered stuff exists in my head only, not in my reality. But I was so thrilled to be let off the hook for Chinese at A-level (and forever afterward), it was worth it.

The problem is because I hated Chinese so much (the methods to learn it), I gave it up completely after Sec 4. Totally and utterly. Never touched a book, newspaper, song or TV show since then. And now, I can still barely speak it and when I do, it's seriously marketplace standard or below, even.

That's a big problem, now I have kids. I want so much to make their Chinese journey as easy and enjoyable for them as possible. I don't want them to go through the pain that I did. But I discovered that I don't know how.

The elder 2 have weekly Chinese class with a very sweet teacher. I am happy that they don't hate the language and can even speak and write some (my teacher told me I have very low standards). My eldest seems to be doing ok in school, though she admits that Chinese is her worst subject for now.

I wanted to provide an home environment of immersion, have one pure Chinese parent or pure Chinese day etc. But that didn't work. My husband's Chinese is worse than mine, lol (ACS boy) and when I try to do the only speak Chinese thing, I end up not speaking to my kids! Or when I do, they look confused and don't understand me.

They don't like the cartoons I tried, they did like songs but seem to have outgrown the kiddy ones while not liking the teenypop ones yet.

I guess there are not many options left to me. I will have to start the forcefeeding of books and model essays. Without a home immersion like we have in English, there really seems to be no way out of it. Well, at least I know it works.

Petunia Lee said...

Hi... yep... your experience and our experience, as well as the experience of many Moms who tried Potato Chinese, bears this out.