Learning Chinese - Is it difficult?
by tianzhu » Sat Jun 07, 2008 8:33 am
An interesting letter to the ST Forum (Why it's hard to learn Chinese).Parents and students often lamented about the difficulties in learning Chinese. I am puzzled by the statistics, the national averages for PSLE usually shows that the percentages of passes for A and A* is much higher than the rest of the subjects.
Are English, Maths or Science easier to pick up or is the standard of PSLE Chinese paper comparatively lower?
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Results For % (A* / A)
http://www.straitstimes.com/ST%2BForum/ ... 45088.html
Why it's hard to learn Chinese
MR LEE Seng Giap, in his article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (Wednesday), has missed two critical points.
One is that Chinese, like any other language, is much easier to learn when one is immersed in it. He has compared apples with beef when he drew from a personal experience of studying (and gaining a six-year foundation) in a school using Han Chinese (Mandarin) as the medium of instruction, with evidently nothing but Mandarin spoken and heard continuously for five to six hours every school term day, plus school mates and teachers who must have spoken nothing but Mandarin with him outside school hours.
He compared this with the difficult experiences of those who study Mandarin as a subject like any other in school for a limited number of hours, with the rest of the time spent using English as the language of communication.
Unlike him, and like the great majority of students in English-medium schools, I struggled in my time (worse because it was pre-Hanyu Pinyin days) as Mandarin was not spoken at all either at home, or among my friends. The language was taught by rote, using textbooks never intended for students learning it as a second language, but as 'mother tongue'. My 'mother tongue' is Cantonese.
The single most torturous memory I have of the lessons was that of being humiliatingly made to erase all my pencilled phonetic equivalents beside new words. There was total absence of teacher empathy for a student who had absolutely no way of recalling how to say the words when attempting to revise at home, on her own with no help whatsoever. I couldn't even read the text to myself. After two years, I was told by the teacher to give up the subject. I switched to Latin, just once a week, and passed the subject comfortably with a credit for the Cambridge School Certificate examinations two years later.
Since then I have gone on to acquire a diploma in French and certificate in German, while able to speak some Dutch, proficiency in these languages helped by living in Europe. Yet Chinese (Mandarin) still escapes me. But, of course, because Chinese is hard!
Secondly, Mr Lee cited examples of non-Chinese who are able to speak Mandarin well. Let me share another of my experiences.
While attending a four-week Chinese (Mandarin) summer course at a Shanghai university recently, I met many non-Chinese students. I was impressed with their Chinese prowess. Then I learnt their 'secret'. They spent practically all their waking hours studying the language. They spoke, heard and read nothing but Chinese. There were, of course, also less motivated students. These were the ones who spoke a Mandarin that bordered on the unintelligible. And this, despite courses tailored to the needs of people learning it as a second or third language.
So, I suggest that we steer clear of condescending condemnation of those who struggle with the language and face up empathetically to the very real problems our students have. Only then can we find helpful, constructive solutions.
Amy Loh (Ms)
She got it right when she said her non-Chinese friends learned Chinese by immersing themselves in the culture hours everyday. This is true of every person I know of who attained foreign languages. Despite the fact that no one in their immediate environment spoke the language, they can always choose activities to immerse themselves. They devote time regularly to read the books, sing the songs, watch the shows on TV, movies, appreciate the history and culture. How else did the countless individuals before Ms Amy Loh learn the languages?
She herself learned Latin, then French, German and Dutch comfortably. It is no coincidence. Had she devoted but a fraction of her time in Singapore to everything Chinese available in Singapore society (our radio DJs and TV newscasters speak flawless Mandarin) Heck, even the occasional man /woman in the street), I'm sure she would have attained a much higher prioficiency.
The question is, did she devote the time? It's not too late Amy, for you to do some serious self-reflection. Since you say your mother tongue is Cantonese, maybe you should start there.
Posted by: wugui1977 at Sat Jun 07 07:52:26 SGT 2008
Totally disagree with Amy Loh.
I am from dialect speaking family. Nobody speaks mandarin at home and in school we spoke dialect except in front of and with the teachers. Behind the teachers we spoke dialect again. It was a totally Chinese school of the old days. Every subject was in Chinese and taught in Chinese, and even English language was taught in Chinese.
I did find manadarin hard to master but speak, read, and write is not that difficult.
Now I have my own family and we all speak english at home. While my daughter struggles with higher chinese but still got an "A", my son is in GEP Higher Chinese class. Both are in same school - every subject is in English except for Chinese. All the TV programs they watch and games they play are in English. Environment is not a handicap; it is attitude that is more critical.
Posted by: kenaspammed at Sat Jun 07 07:21:50 SGT 2008
You are giving lame excuses. Do you have any pedagogical proof to show that Chinese is inherently a difficult language to learn, even if you managed to learn other foreign languages more easily than Chinese?
No language is 'easy' to acquire. Mastering any language requires practice, and the ease of learning is relative and depends very much on your background and your prior experience in other languages. Is German or French harder? A speaker of another Germanic language such as Dutch would find learning German easier, whereas a Spanish speaker would have no problems mastering the grammar of French in a short time. However, an English speaker would find Finnish difficult to learn because Finnish is not even an Indo-European language, but Estonians would beg to differ. So is Finnish actually difficult or not?
Every language has its own intricate features. In Chinese, there is the square characters. But you seem to be totally unaware that, being an analytic (in the linguistic sense) language, the grammar of Chinese is unusually easy to grasp. One does not have to worry about inflexions such as verb conjugations like in English. Likewise, while the Latin declensions are numerous and complicated, they are comprehensive enough such that sentences could be completed without much use of prepositions and postpositions as in English and which stumps countless English learners.
People who complain about Chinese being a difficult language should examine their own bloody attitudes before spewing out all kinds of justifications. In Singapore, there are ample resources for Chinese and plenty of opportunities to improve on the language.
Posted by: fcxiao at Sat Jun 07 06:55:43 SGT 2008
Amy Loh, you are giving lame excuses. Nothing is impossible for the man who need not have to do it. It is either you are not interested, did not make an effort to learn or dislike it. I believe unewolkeis able to give you constructive opinion.
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by tamarind » Sat Jun 07, 2008 12:24 pm
I am also cantonese, grow up in a household speaking only cantonese. I never had any chinese tuition or enrichment classes. Chinese is my favourite subject, because I thought it was so easy to learn Chinese. I consistently scored the highest marks in Chinese in schools, all the way to junior college level, and even when I was in the top secondary school in Singapore.
However, I struggled with English. I was not taught phonics, and I had difficulty reading english books even when I was in secondary school. I still manage to do well in other subjects simply because I memorized everything. But I was hopeless when writing english essays.
I believe it is because our brains are all wired differently. I am very good at recognizing shapes, so that makes recognizing different chinese characters very easy. However for english, I find that I had to memorize the spelling of hundreds of english words, which I dreaded. Amy Loh's brain is probably wired differently.
My 5 year old girl speaks only english and cantonese at home. She started at Berries Chinese class when she was 4 years old. She has learned many Chinese characters easily, without any use of hanyu pinyin. At the same time, she started to learn english phonics, she was only able to read english well after 1 year. But I would say that her speed of learning Chinese is much faster, and she also never complain that Chinese is more difficult.
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by mintcc » Sat Jun 07, 2008 9:51 pm
However, I do agree that Chinese is a more difficult language to learn as there are more characters, different tone to each sound and many similar sounding words with different characters and meanings.
Don't know how true it is but there is this theory that it is easier for people who know Chinese to pick up English compare to people who knows English to pick up Chinese. I suppose in Singapore, it is due to exposure too. If you don't have much exposure to Chinese outside school, there are not as much opportunities to do so in school. There is 1 subject in Chinese while all the other subjects are taught in English.
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by tianzhu » Sat Jun 14, 2008 6:44 am
June 14, 2008
Uphill battle to learn Chinese, 'this beautiful language'
THE article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (June 4) by Mr Lee Seng Giap struck a chord with me as my learning of Chinese also took a chequered route. I was born in a dialect-speaking family in a Chinese kampung and sent to an English school where English sounded quite alien to me. In those days, Mandarin was regarded by all my peers as a 'pariah language' fit for the uncouth and uncivilised.
Chinese was then an optional language in school and my mother sent me to a Chinese Sunday school where I picked up the rudiments of this beautiful language. My mother tongue is Teochew and hence learning English was an uphill battle.
Many Chinese phrases have both a literal and a figurative meaning. When we say, 'tui ren luo jing, luo jing xia shi',it literally means 'to push someone down a well and then drop rocks on him', but the real meaning is 'to accelerate the death of a drowning man'. Previously, we had to use Chinese phonetic symbols to pronounce the words, but today we use Hanyu Pinyin which is easier for the English-educated.
In recent years, many English-educated parents have complained vehemently about the difficulty of learning Chinese in primary school. In the Primary School Leaving Examination, when a maths question was slightly difficult, there was a spate of angry letters by parents to the press. Instead of encouraging their children to take on the challenge, these parents prefer to take the line of least resistance. Molly-coddling our kids will do them no good.
Dr Benjamin Carson, a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who operated on the Iranian conjoined twins at Raffles Hospital in 2003, said in his book Take The Risk that he was inspired to study science by his teacher, Mr Jaeck. Years later when he went back to visit his old teacher, Mr Jaeck said this to him: 'Ben, we don't have animals in our science lab any more because of the risk that one of the students might get bitten or scratched. The school system can't afford the liability.' In a lawsuit-happy culture, the school authorities made a knee-jerk decision to exile the lab animals. Dr Carson said: 'If we set as our priority the removal of all risk, we'll soon have sterile, stagnant and unstimulating learning environments.' No wonder India and China have surpassed the United States in the percentage of college graduates in science and technology every year.
As China continues to take on a global role in its economic and military development, Chinese will become increasingly important as a language of commerce, science and communication. Our children must know the risks they run if they fail to learn and master Chinese, even though English is prima facie the current lingua franca in the global economy.
Heng Cho Choon
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by May » Sat Jun 14, 2008 9:54 am
My 6-year old son was taken care of by my mother-in-law since birth. Only proficient in Mandarin and Hokkien, she used to converse in Mandarin with him. He used to speak good Mandarin and would often say ' Speak Mandarin, don't speak in English' whenever I conversed in English with him. But this changed since he started classes in nursery and kindergarten. He switched to speaking in English and it was 'Speak English, don't speak Mandarin'. It is quite amazing... Now, his mastery of the English language has certainly surpassed Chinese and he is finding difficulty in coping with the Chinese Language. Am looking around for Chinese enrichment classes for him to attend.
My younger son was looked after my Indonesian maid. He doesn't speak a word of Chinese at all and this worries me..... He just refused and would speak in English to my non-English speaking mother-in-law.... My mother-in-law has nonetheless, picked up simple English words to communicate with him in the process
Both husband and I came from a SAP school previously and we of course, would want them to master the Chinese Language as well. Well, between me and hubby, he is the one who is more proficient in Mandarin and I in English. So it works quite well between the 2 of us.
Did anyone of you watch the competition among schools on the Chinese language on channel 8 on Monday nites? I thought the standard was really high (or was it that my standards of Chinese had gone down ???). While I liked the Chinese language, I guess that the infrequent use of it at work has led to the language becoming more rusty.....and harder??
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by ChiefKiasu » Sat Jun 14, 2008 11:52 am
I'm pretty bad at Chinese primarily because there is no culture in my home from young to speak that language. But I am very comfortable with speaking Cantonese because that is how I converse with my mother from young. My English is developed primary from my daily interaction with my siblings and friends.
So if your children are not good at a specific language, just ask yourself whether they are given a culture to speak that language. Going to enrichment classes for an hour a week does not make a culture. You need to be fully immersed in it.
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by tianzhu » Wed Jun 18, 2008 8:29 am
June 18, 2008
Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way
I THANK readers who wrote in to discuss my article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (June 4). By so doing, you have provided the authorities feedback on the views, concerns and issues about the bilingual education policy. Hopefully, the Ministry of Education will take note and take appropriate measures to improve its implementation.
My message in the article is very clear: The right mindset, attitude, interest, motivation, time and effort are success factors for language learning, however difficult a language may be, including the absence of a supporting environment. These factors override linguistic difficulty.
Some readers have tried to read my mind, inaccurately for that matter. They say that in my mind, 'If I can, so can others'. The truth is it is just the opposite, that is, 'if others can, so can I'. Let us look at the statistics.
I (and others) believe that people can succeed in learning and acquiring a language if they want to. The Singapore Census of Population 2000 shows that Chinese Singaporeans (48.3 per cent English-Chinese bilinguists and 32 per cent Chinese monolinguists) have reached the high of 80.3 per cent acquisition of literacy in the Chinese language (CL). These figures speak for themselves and highlight the point that Chinese is not that difficult as perceived, at least to the vast majority.
Those who harp on CL's difficulty may unconsciously develop the negative mind-set, reluctance and resistance to learning the language. So unintentionally and unwittingly, they add on to the perceived difficulty and do themselves and their children a disservice.
Let us think positive. Look at it this way: When you love a language, it will love you and stay with you. I have read the Chinese learning experience of Joseph Needham in the book The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (HarpersCollin Publishers Inc 2008).
The late Cambridge University don was a biochemist by training. Unlike a professional sinologist 'who had gone through the mill of formal academic teaching in Chinese', Joseph Needham learnt Chinese, an unrelated language, without this benefit in his late 30s.
With great interest, enthusiasm, love, passion, effort and diligence, he attained his linguistic competence of 5,000 or 6,000 Chinese characters for full literacy in two to three years. By comparison, students in Singapore learn 3,500 Chinese characters in eight years, four years in primary school and another four in secondary school. This works out to 8.4 characters a week, including school holidays.
His experience shows that where there is a will, there is a way. So long as one wants something and is willing to work for it, one will get it. Many other non-Chinese Westerners have also got it.
Joseph Needham was the great author of the voluminous book (18 volumes) Science And Civilization In China. His mastery of Chinese gave him the key to unlock the door to the treasure of Chinese science, culture, history and civilisation. With his book, he became the great man who has made a tremendous contribution to the world's understanding of China.
As far as learning Chinese is concerned, 'he fell in love not simply with the language, but with China itself'. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, has done so with the same spirit.
In conclusion, if you think CL is a useful key, learn to get it. If not, forget it. There is no need to justify your choice.
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by augustinesim » Thu Sep 25, 2008 3:21 pm
My problem ease off after reading ZHI SHI BAO.... the articles and contents were interesting and simple to understand.
Not sure if this publication still exist... if yes, I will strongly recommend anyone to starts from there.
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by Pen88n » Fri Sep 26, 2008 1:21 pm
Not only are our kids finding it difficult to learn Chinese, we are losing touch on all the dialects as well. Personally, I think immersion is the key. In addition to Chinese and English, I speak 3 other dialects. No one teach me those dialects "formally", I picked them up when I was young playing with neighbour kids, listening to the adults talk, listening to redifussion, etc. Our kids are not exposed to these at this time. Even if they master Chinese, that's only 2 languages - not a lot to ask for.
I believe parents play an important role in cultivating the interest of languages in kids. Let's not deprive our kids of that environment to learn languages - turn on TV Channel 8, or the Chinese radio channels. If possible, expose your kids to dialects as well (or these languages will be lost in no time).
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