If the following email offends, GOOD! It is the truth as I see it about this issue which has wasted a lot of time in my Mandarin I classes over the past 3 years AND IT NEEDS TO STOP. As I tell all of my beginning Chinese students (Cantonese and Mandarin):
IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW YOU THINK [CANTONESE OR MANDARIN] CHINESE IS SUPPOSED TO SOUND. IT ONLY MATTERS HOW EFFECTIVELY YOU ARE ABLE TO ACTUALLY COMMUNICATE WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE TRYING TO SAY.
This is a class in SPEAKING basic Mandarin Chinese. Unlike other teachers in our program, I do not and will not teach characters, because it has been proven time and time again through extensive linguistic research that learning to SPEAK a foreign language with a complicated writing system will come much faster and much more effectively in a shorter period of time if the learner focuses on getting THE SOUNDS right first (pronunciation and tones in the case of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese) AND THEN begins to learn an entirely new writing system with thousands of characters TO SUPPORT the basic knowledge of the new language already gained through initial efforts to understand and speak the oral version of the language.
So, here is my diatribe about a very annoying issue that has pervaded my beginning Mandarin classes for the past 3 years. THIS HAS TO STOP, AND I PLAN TO PUT A STOP TO IT THIS ACADEMIC YEAR:
Here is my humble opinion about a slightly different and larger
issue behind the notion of teaching Chinese characters to beginning
students who meet for an hour once a week in a free program with very
little accountability and where many students do not do any work or
studying outside of class:
In my experience with ALESN (and
only with ALESN, because I do not have the benefit of having attended a
dedicated university Chinese program as a non-Chinese person like two of our other Mandarin instructors), absolute beginner students who try to learn to read
characters at the same time that they try to learn to speak Chinese from
zero make their lives harder and set themselves up for extra work. It
has been proven over and over again through linguistic research that
non-native speakers can learn to SPEAK Chinese faster and more
effectively if they focus on pronunciation and learning concepts and
sentences first -- and then add reading and writing later on, some
months or years later. Of course, there are exceptions to this notion,
but not in our specific ALESN program with classes that meet once a week
for just over an hour each time, I think.
My real concern, and
this has been true in my own classes as well as in every other teacher's
beginning Mandarin classes that I have sat in on at ALESN, is this: ethnically
Chinese students in our program who can already read characters and who
already speak a different Chinese dialect, who have insisted on only
reading characters in Mandarin I class instead of learning pinyin.
These students have consistently butchered their pronunciation of
Mandarin and set a horrible example for non-ethnically Chinese beginner
students in our program, who see and hear these ethnically Chinese students with
horrible pronunciation and subconsciously assume that these students must be correct BECAUSE THEY
This is especially bad in a class with, say, I don't know, A WHITE TEACHER, because subconsciously
every non-ethnically Chinese student in the class will expect the
ethnically Chinese students to speak Mandarin more accurately than a
white person. This phenomenon has also been proven through
psycho-linguistic research. I challenge the other teachers in our program to point out
even one example from last year of an absolute beginner Mandarin student
who came to class already reading characters and already speaking
another Chinese dialect, who insisted on only reading the characters and
not ever learning pinyin, who produced anything even remotely sounding
like standard spoken Mandarin by the end of the year. It is simply not
possible because of a well-documented phenomenon known as interference.
Our ethnically Chinese beginner Mandarin students need all the
pronunciation help they can get, and forcing them to learn pinyin is the
better option of the two when teaching from the first textbook.