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.