It’s good to acquire new languages. It is. And I’m always happy to hear that people are coming into contact with Chinese, often through demos, and discovering what a cool language it is.
But doing a demo brings with it responsibility. Especially if the demo is being done for a group of teachers. Teachers who will then go out and tell the world their experience with Chinese — which is based on a wrong assumption. And an assumption that is often promoted by other teachers who also don’t teach or know Chinese.
Pinyin is not characters. Pinyin is not real Chinese literacy.
And before folks say oh, but you can’t teach people to read Chinese characters in a demo — yeah, you can. I do it all. the. time. That’s what Cold Character Reading, on top of dense, targeted, 100% comprehensible input, does.
People who demo in Chinese need to understand — and state clearly — that there is more to Chinese than just a few easy words that don’t conjugate. Chinese teachers face an enormous literacy challenge that has, until recently, had little in the way of research-based approaches to support its teaching. Memorization has been king for as long as there have been imperial examinations and programs with 100 students going in on Level 1 and six coming out at the end of Level 4.
I’ve blogged before about demos done by people who didn’t really speak the language. That’s one thing (and I still don’t like it). But presenting a Chinese lesson or lessons without literacy as a fluent speaker demonstrating a method, and failing to point out that you’re not really teaching “all of” Chinese — that’s an issue. It leads to serious misconceptions that are then repeated by teachers who don’t know Chinese as Truth. And it harms the momentum of CI in Chinese teaching because that’s not how all of this works. People don’t read in Pinyin. Some of the misconceptions just plain hurt:
Pinyin is used for texting. You can use a regular American English keyboard to enter Pinyin and have it converted to characters.
Really? Cool! I have to get me one of those. Because this is what happens on my phone when texting friends:
Sure looks like characters to me. Now, there’s a Zhuyin symbol there representing a sound, and you can see the LOL in English letters, but it ain’t Pinyin. In fact, if Pinyin were actual Chinese in written form such that people could reliably get characters out of it, you would be able to learn the exact name of the person I was texting with from seeing it on the top line. I’ll even give you a hint: she lives in Kaohsiung. Go find her if you can. Good luck, but we won’t wait, because you’re not going to be able to just based on that. (Extra points if you can spot the Taoist joke.)
Now, about that English keyboard and Pinyin just automagically turning into characters: here’s what you get when you type in “yi”, you know, like part of the word for “a”:
There are more choices, but I won’t bore you with all the screenshots it would take to show them. Yes, screenshotS, plural.
It’s true that AI has helped out a lot. If you can type accurate Pinyin, AND you can recognize when the auto-selector or the ranking isn’t giving you the right characters, sure, it’s great. Now take your English auto-correct horror stories and put them on steroids. Ask any reasonably serious student of Chinese how many times they’ve been called on the carpet for “typos” of this kind. Heck, ask any teacher of Mandarin to native speakers how character use among young people is these days. They’ll tell you how lamentable it is that young people don’t know which character should go into which compound. Just like they’re/their/there in English, only with about 50 times as many options.
If you’re still not convinced, take a closer look at the photograph in the header for this post. Which is the “real” name of the toothpaste? Are the two names the same?
Characters matter. There’s an easy way to teach them, and it’s über-CI-friendly. So stop already with the half-demos and half-truths. They’re not helping. If you’re demoing with Chinese and you’re not showing character reading, your students and audience members are only getting half the story.