Prof. Victor Mair has just posted an interesting blog post over at Language Log, in which he writes that “If I were the czar or god of Chinese and Japanese language pedagogy, I would not teach students a single Chinese character until they were relatively fluent — about two years.”
He suggests that students should be taught language the same way native speakers learn it as children – namely, by learning speaking & listening comprehension first, and reading & writing much later. He also cites a study by Jerome Packard which “found that the time lag of delayed character introduction improved students’ ability to discriminate Chinese sounds, and improved their fluency.” Of course, I’m summarizing dramatically, and would invite you to read the whole, rather short, blog post over at Language Log.
The idea certainly sounds compelling, and I can see how this might very well be the case – that students would learn spoken & listening fluency more quickly, and more truly fluently, if that’s all that’s focused on for the first year or two. But, I’d worry – as I did when I first started learning Japanese, and still do today – that the longer one spends working with just romaji or kana, the more one will think in romaji or kana, and not in kanji. Even to this day, if I think up a Japanese phrase, it appears in my mind in romaji, and it takes an extra mental step to think about how to write it in kanji. And, besides, just in general, to take a language for two years and come out of those two years with essentially no ability at all to read or write?
Image from 8asians.com article, Will Chinese Soon Be The Primary Language In America?
I find the whole argument rather intriguing especially because for a long time – based on my experience as a language learner, though admittedly without any formal language pedagogy experience – I thought I wished we had spent more time on kanji, and sooner. After four and a half years of college-level Japanese classes (meeting a few hours a week), I still had a hell of a time reading almost anything. The concept of recognizing radicals and other parts of a character, and being able to use those to guess the meaning and/or pronunciation, had not at all been ingrained in me. Coming across any character I didn’t already know proved a major obstacle, and reading just about anything a terribly arduous process. And then I went to IUC’s intensive all-day everyday 10-month program, and, well, I don’t remember if it happened in the first month, or in the second, but pretty quickly, something clicked and I found it far far easier than ever before to recognize radicals and parts, to guess at meanings & readings, to look up characters I hadn’t previously known, and to remember more of them more quickly & completely. By the end of the ten months, I ostensibly knew all 2,000-odd jôyô kanji (though I wouldn’t say I necessarily know all of them perfectly today). And so, coming off of that experience, I always thought I wished we had done more with kanji sooner – quite the opposite of what Mair is advocating here. And, yet, most intriguingly, he concludes by saying that when the introduction of characters is delayed, and the focus is placed only on speaking/listening for the first few years, “surprisingly, when later on they do start to study the characters, students acquire mastery of written Chinese much more quickly and painlessly than if writing is introduced at the same time as the spoken language.”
What do you think? What were your experiences with gaining fluency, and learning characters?