In learning to read, I thought a lot about what Jim said. And, although I understand the concept of why, at universities in the west, students are taught all four skills from day one, this must be a very daunting, very discouraging way to learn. Progress would be so slow. In my case, having learned so many words first, even with reading and writing I am getting through a chapter every three days. This is only possible because I already have the speaking and listening. Maybe this method of study would be better for university students in other countries. Maybe it is only possible if you are studying in a country where the language is widely spoken.
So much about L2 (second language) acquisition has been written based on how children acquire their L1 (first language). There are some fundamental differences, however, namely that an adult has more logic and experience to draw from. An adult also understands the mechanics and use of language. When I teach second graders that they have to use good grammar, they may not even be aware that Chinese has grammar. And certainly, their Chinese grammar wouldn’t be perfect yet.
One point that makes my current study of Chinese reading and writing more similar to the way Taiwanese children learn is that, like a Taiwanese child, my vocabulary is already large and I am already able to speak and communicate. Now, I have to learn the reading and writing. Even in the more advanced reading books, if I get stuck on a word, it is normally because I don’t know how to pronounce or recognize a particular character. But, if my teacher reads the character, I understand. This is exactly the case for Taiwanese children.
There are huge differences in vocabulary and usage, however, but more on this later.
One of my Tainan friends, call him Chuck, has lived in Taiwan for twenty years. He learned all four skills from day one. He had some very interesting points to make about language. First, he said, “I studied hard for the first five years. Then I took the exam and I scored 3,000.” Meaning his test results showed that he knew 3,000 or more characters. Three thousand is the magic number. At that level you should be able to read anything, even college textbooks, but you will still need a dictionary for specialized vocabulary that you may encounter. “I stopped studying at that point.” Continued Chuck. “And my Chinese stopped improving. I recently retook the test and still scored 3,000. so, I haven’t lost anything, but fifteen more years of living here didn’t cause me to improve.”
Chuck was touching on a subject I have written about extensively, namely, being in the country doesn’t mean you are immersed or that you are learning. Chuck has lots of Taiwanese friends and speaks Chinese all day, but in the course of a normal day or normal conversation, he doesn’t go beyond his three thousand words. The only way to move forward is to study.
Chuck also said, “There is nothing anyone can do for you, when you learn to read or write. Even your teachers can’t really help you. If you get stuck or you make a mistake, they can correct you. But you have to learn it on your own.”
And this means countless, lonely hours of reading and writing. Reading and writing Chinese, you become a study hermit.
Chuck told me about a foreigner who was teaching in Taiwan in the 1980s when the country was a bit less developed and regulations were in some ways looser. This foreign adult wanted to learn Chinese, so he went to an elementary school principle and obtained permission to attend classes, along with the children.
“For four years he sat in the back of the classroom learning the stuff children learn.” Said Chuck. “But to me, it seemed a little pointless. He didn’t need to know the name of every utensil in the house.”
Now we are back to the differences in vocabulary and approach of an adult learner, verses a child. I haven’t tried it, but I would bet money that if I took my basic reading dialogue entitled “At the Money Changers” and showed it to my second graders, they wouldn’t be able to read any of it. And if I read it aloud, they probably wouldn’t know words like currency exchange, travelers checks, or the technical names for currencies such as American Dollars or New Taiwan Dollars. They might not even be able to read the rates, which are posted in decimal form. At the same time, I don’t know how to say baby bottle or game consul. And I always forget how to call your father’s younger brother.
And perhaps most embarrassing, the second graders didn’t stutter when they were reading the story about the lion and the rabbit. It took me two days to read that.
This hits on my other writing focus. There is a myth that children learn language faster than adults. It’s just not true. For my work as an adventure writer, I need a lot of specialized vocabulary in the fields of international relations, politics, and geography. There is no way second graders would understand any of the concepts, so how would they learn and use that vocabulary. Often, we are talking about a second grader’s inability to learn these words and concepts in a foreign language. But now, I am comparing me, and adult learner, learning Chinese, to native speaker second graders. While they have many advantages in general reading and writing, by virtue of being native speakers, it will be years before they could read and explain the texts I will be using at university, a few months from now. And of course, if we compare an adult foreign leaner to a child foreign learner, the difference becomes even more extreme.
Learning to read Chinese means memorizing one or more characters for every single piece of vocabulary in your head. The characters are based on over a hundred base characters. So, after a while, you can see a new character and guess that it has something to do with talking or driving or is esoterically related to the heart or an open door, but for the most part, it is pure memorization.
The Chinese language is like an epic movie, starring a cast of thousands of characters.