Is more support needed to read Chinese?

On a teachers’ email list, the comment was recently posted:
I definitely need more than the text to understand even simple Chinese stories.
Translation is ONE way of making tests more comprehensible. But I think we need to exploit other ways as well, including gestures, pictures, body movements, etc.

Or not. This is a basic misconception about the role reading can reasonably play in TPRS-level learners of Chinese, and it’s based on prevailing (and effective) practices used in the alphabetic languages.

Translation (in ANY TPRS context) is NOT used to make texts comprehensible. Translation is used in TPRS to make sure texts were comprehended. And if you need more than the text to understand the Chinese text as a TPRS-level learner, your teacher is not using Cold Character Reading techniques properly, or at all. At a minimum, that teacher is not realizing that there is a basic difference between TPRS as practiced for the FIGS (French, Italian, German, Spanish, etc.) and Chinese. In the FIGS, the Target Language Voice doesn’t have to be as strong going into the reading, because the phonetic information is there to make “the voice” for the student if needed. In Chinese, the Chinese Voice needs to push the creation of meaning from the text.

When a student has had optimized comprehensible input of a subset of language, and then is given a text containing that language (but which is NOT the same as the story asked in class — not even close) they can read that text. Because that language is in the Chinese Voice. And then the length of the text gives them enough repetitions that the eye becomes skilled at recognizing those characters. If you cannot comprehend a text after having oral input, there wasn’t enough or optimized-enough input.

If you are trying to acquire vocabulary from a text in Chinese, it’s a fool’s errand until you have already acquired the major structure of the language. And then it’s just a lot of work. It’s a better way to get vocabulary expansion than memorizing lists, because of the context, but it’s by no means the same process as occurs in phonetic script languages. You STILL must look it up or have someone tell you what it is. In a vanishingly small proportion of cases, as a fluent non-native speaker of Chinese, you might encounter a word and say “Hmmm, I do know a word that sounds like gang [or kang or hang, because those phonetics are not reliable] and has something to do with the sense of that radical there. Hey, I know that word!” I’m still waiting for that to happen to me, and I read Chinese daily and widely, and have done for the past 35 years.

Despite claims to the contrary, radicals and phonetics are NOT significantly useful to TPRS-level learners of Chinese as “clues” to text meaning. There is no phonetic information in a Chinese text in practical terms. The language MUST be in the head before it can be read. Any attempt to have learners “figure out” unknowns before they have acquired the structure of the language will make comprehensibility plummet to levels well below even the 85% considered okay for guided reading.

Students who have acquired the major structure of the language already can certainly acquire vocabulary from a text — but I can tell you from YEARS of doing this in Chinese that it occurs only when you stop and look up the unknown word. Otherwise, you only “get” a written form, which has no language attached to it. At least today’s students can do this more or less efficiently with electronic tools. In the old days, with paper dictionaries, a beginning student might have a 60-70% chance of even finding the unknown character in the dictionary in the first place. There was very little acquisition of the words behind unknown characters going on in that case.

It’s possible to read Chinese without speaking it particularly well (ask any number of academics) but it has little to do with acquisition.   I have words in my reading vocabulary that fit this description (the word “alkane” comes to mind — I’ve looked it up a gazillion times but can’t ever remember how it’s pronounced, but I can recognize it and its meaning immediately when I’m reading a chemistry text). But in terms of language acquisition, I have not acquired the word for “alkane” in Chinese, have I?

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