Monday, May 14, 2007

Professor Zhang's successes in Europe

To read more about the enthusiastic reception of Professor Zhang's New Approach, go here.

Western language acquisition theory inappropriate for Chinese

This blog may be new, but the idea that Western language acquisition theory is inappropriate for learning Chinese is not. You can visit here for more information.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The ease and beauty of Chinese grammar

Chinese grammar is easier than that of any European language. Limited morphology means there is only one verb form no matter whether you are talking about the past, present or future and no matter who is the agent. There is no nominative, accusative or dative (one of the two banes of my existence when I was studying Latin, French, Italian and German).

I am
you are
他/她/它 he/she/it is
我们 we are
你们 you are
他们 they are

There is no masculine, feminine or neuter for nouns (the other bane of my existence).

Simple, elegant and easy to remember.

After the first 2 years of studying Chinese in Australia, I rarely made a grammatical error. There's just not that much to remember! I certainly can't say the same thing about any of the European languages I learnt when I was in High School. I truly sympathise with all students of English, many of whom after studying for 10 years or more still struggle with grammar and syntax.

Who said Chinese was hard to learn?

The basic elements of written words

In English, words are made from combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Before teaching children to write whole words, teachers focus on the ABCs. Once these "building blocks" are mastered, learning words becomes simply a matter of recognising which pattern of letters to use. The problem for the learner of English is that each word has a unique spelling.

Chinese characters are also made of basic elements. They are called "radicals". The vast majority of the tens of thousands of characters that can be written in Chinese use only about 200 radicals. Learning these elements makes the recognition of characters a much easier task and frees the learner to think about the meaning derived by putting the elements together. Characters that look incredibly daunting to the beginner, once broken into their constituent parts, become more manageable, meaningful and fascinating.


日 character for sun
月 character for moon
明 character for brightness (the sun + the moon = bright)

女 character for woman
子 character for baby
好 character for good (a woman with her baby is good)

Add to this the fact that many words in Chinese are actually compounds of 2 or 3 characters and learning Chinese reading and writing suddenly seems much less intimidating. In fact it is the "modular" nature of Chinese that makes it so flexible. Take for example the character 学 which means "to study". It can be combined to make new words very easily:

A character may be added after


A character may be added before


Before AND after gives

生 university student

How beautiful!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spoken and Written Chinese - Two Systems

Even in a language like English, it's clear that spoken language and written language are different. Some people might argue that because written English is (at least partially) phonemic, its relationship with its spoken counterpart is quite close. If one forgets how to say a word, for example, a speaker will be able to remind themselves of how to pronounce it by looking at the written version.

However, written language is not a record of spoken language. If you asked someone to record your voice, they would think of modern audio equipment. Nor does written language require the same senses as spoken language. One requires the eye and the hand, the other, the ear and the mouth. Written language does not require reading aloud for the message to be understood. The deaf and mute have no barrier to understanding the written word. The blind have no trouble listening or speaking.

If this is the case for English, the difference between the two systems is even more obvious with Chinese. Chinese writing is logographic - each character is like a picture - and reading characters rarely aids pronunciation. To the beginner, it offers no help in this regard whatsoever. However, this can lead to a terrible misconception: the belief that Chinese is "difficult to learn". The nature of Chinese writing does make it a challenge. However, if taught in the right way, learning to read and write Chinese becomes enjoyable and interesting.

In fact, speaking and writing are just two different ways of expressing meaning. They should be taught separately using different methods. As Han Dynasty scholar Yang Xiong (杨雄) wrote, "Speaking is sound from the heart, writing is pictures from the heart" (言心声也书心画也) 《法言》.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Zhang Peng Peng visits Victoria, Australia

Victorian Chinese teachers welcome Professor Zhang, Pengpeng from Beijing Language and Culture University. He has been invited here by the Victorian Department of Education to assist teachers of Chinese from all sectors to improve their teaching practice and introduce a new philosophy of teaching and learning; a philosophy which I believe will make both the teaching and learning of Chinese faster, easier and more enjoyable.

His first Professional Development session on Friday the 9th of March was nothing short of spectacular. Prof. Zhang amused and amazed in a full day's presentation introducing the guiding theory underpinning his new approach. His talk included entertaining and enlightening stories taken from his own experience spanning 32 years of teaching Chinese, summaries of the development and influence of linguistic research in Europe and China and a history of China's attempts to grapple with the task of "reforming" the language.

Prof. Zhang challenged us to think about our own practice by asking two deceptively simple questions: "What do we teach?" and "How should we teach it?". It soon became apparent that identifying ourselves simply as Chinese teachers was not entirely accurate. In fact, we are teachers of Mandarin Chinese and Chinese characters. According to Prof. Zhang, lumping spoken and written Chinese together, as has been done for many years, is a hindrance to the learning of both. His analogy was that it is very difficult to walk with both legs bound together, but if each leg is freed, one can advance more rapidly.

Many of the teachers in attendance said it was the most useful and enlightening Professional Development session they had ever attended. I personally feel that I learned more in one day than in my whole year of graduate studies in education. Prof. Zhang has inspired me in many ways and I owe him a debt of gratitude as I believe all of us who teach Chinese do. I have always believed that the perception of Chinese as a very difficult language to learn is inaccurate. Now we have a theory which will aid the teaching and learning of Chinese in a truly revolutionary way.

Thank you, Professor Zhang!

I would encourage every teacher and learner of Chinese to investigate Prof. Zhang's work. Particularly recommended are his "Intensive Spoken Chinese" 《口语速成》 and "Rapid Literacy in Chinese" 《集中识字》 which are both in his "New Approaches to Learning Chinese" series 《新编基础汉语》 published by Sinolingua (华语教学出版社) and also the excellent "Three Sinogram Verses Using Radicals" 《部首三字经》 published by the Beijing Language and Culture University Press (北京语言文化大学出版社)

Zhang, Pengpeng will be in Victoria until May. Any queries can be directed to Ms. Wei, Hongxia at the Victorian Department of Education and Training.

EDIT: You can find some of Prof. Zhang's books and tapes on here.