ChiJi/Zher4zi4 Mastering Asian Languages

Frustration with their inability to actually use the language even after years of schooling is the number one reason students of Asian languages quit before they attain fluency. For the dedicated student of Chinese or Japanese, a preponderance of sometimes overwhelming obstacles must be overcome before even a modicum of fluency can be attained.

Chinese and Japanese Are Harder

For English speakers, Chinese and Japanese are much harder to master than European languages. The English language and culture share common roots with the European languages and cultures. Chinese and Japanese, however, have substantially different sentence structures and are based on radically different conceptual frameworks and cultural assumptions. For example, a simple exclamation in English or Japanese could require a paragraph in the other language.

Learning Thousands of Characters Overshadows Listening and Speaking

As daunting as the cultural and conceptual barriers are, the Japanese and Chinese writing systems deliver the coup de grace to erstwhile language students. The ability to recognize, interpret and pronounce thousands of Chinese characters - each individually challenging to learn and remember - is essential for any measure of proficiency.

Asians spend years learning their own language. Traditional Asian education emphasizes the memorization of large quantities of seemingly unrelated facts. Their languages are no exception. Chinese character writing and reading are taught according to established curricula which introduce specific characters in succeeding school years.

Accordingly, memorization of the Chinese characters is mandatory. However, memorization (rote learning) has been repudiated in U.S. education in favor of a conceptbased approach aimed at developing critical thinking facilities. Most U.S. citizens have not practiced rote memorization since learning the multiplication tables. This situation leaves the wouldbe Asian language students ill prepared for studying Asian languages. They are not accustomed nor inclined towards investing long hours memorizing Chinese characters from thousands of flash cards.

The demands and strain of rote memorization deplete the students's time and enthusiasm for learning the spoken language. Typically, students quit their study of Asian languages as a consequence of their inability to master their written forms.

Asian Language Learning Is Slower

After one year of study, an English speaking student of German, Spanish or French would be able to converse minimally in the language and read and compose letters with the aid of a dictionary. But even assuming diligence, a student of Chinese or Japanese may not be equal to the task. An Asian language student may not be able to recognize a suitable number of characters and may not yet be capable of using a dictionary (while Smart Characters allows the user to do this immediately!).

Complexities of Chinese

Beyond the enormous task of learning sufficient numbers of hanzi, spoken Chinese has its own unique set of complexities.

First, Chinese uses several phonemes (sounds) not found in English which English speakers must learn. Further, Chinese distinguishes syllables by tones, the pitch at which a syllable is uttered. Of course, all languages make use of tones to some degree. English, for example, uses tone to convey the meaning of a word or phrase (consider the many ways you can say "oh, really"). But tones are not part of an English word's spelling. Chinese pronunciation is further complicated by rules specific to the tones themselves that change the tone of a syllable under certain circumstances. For example, a third tone preceding a second or third tone is pronounced as a second tone.

Many Chinese Dialects

Mandarin, also called Beijing, uses five tones. Spoken by the citizens of northern China and the governments of both (mainland) China and Taiwan, Mandarin represents the standard Chinese pronunciation. Cantonese is the most common regional Chinese dialect, spoken by the people in southern China and Hong Kong. Cantonese uses nine distinct tones!

Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters

Furthermore, there are two sets of Chinese characters in use: traditional and simplified. Taiwan and Hong Kong use the Traditional chinese character set, while mainland China uses a newer, simplified character set. The Smart Characters system encourages beginning students to learn the traditional character set first, then move to simplified characters after familiarity is attained.

Complexities of Japanese

Because the Japanese adapted Chinese writing to a completely different spoken language, kanji are even more difficult to master than Chinese hanzi. Additionally, the student seeking fluency must also overcome other inherent grammatical complexities of the Japanese language.

For example, Japanese uses an inverted word order and a word stack concept to construct complicated compound sentences. Lengthy phrases are used to modify words which may, themselves, be a part of other phrases, etc. On top of that, key sentence elements are customarily omitted if they can be deduced from "context," but what is context in absence of comprehension?

Also, as a spoken language, Japanese uses fewer phonemes than English, giving rise to repetitive, confusing sound combinations. For example imagine aurally distinguishing "atatatakatada" from "attakatada". Additionally, because the Japanese writing system was "borrowed" from the Chinese system, the written language is highly irregular. Both pronunciation and meaning of kanji can vary according to context, with kanji capable of having up to five or more different contextspecific pronunciations!

Finally, Japanese is highly inflected (words change form) to handle dimensions of interaction which are less important to English speakers, such as the use of honorifics. Inflections signify the relative status of the speaker, listener and the subject of the conversation, as well as "politeness level." For example, a verb (e.g., "to eat") can be inflected to indicate that the action was unfavorable to the speaker, was caused by someone else, and is not in polite form, as in "unfavorably eaten (by someone)[nonpolite]."

Understanding the refinements of this type of communication requires fine nuances of expression. The Japanese language relates to a schema for categorizing human interactions and relationships containing degrees of subtly, precision, structure, and rigidity completely foreign to Americans. Foreigners who ignore these distinctions will receive their comeuppance according to the proverb "the nail that sticks up will be pounded down," while those who do subscribe sometimes may find their thinking affected in ways they did not anticipate.

Asians Find it Hard, Too

Additionally, calligraphy is a primary part of Japanese and Chinese education. At an early age, Chinese and Japanese children learn to draw characters that fit into a box on a fixed grid page. The aesthetics of well drawn and proportioned ("beautiful") characters are appreciated by almost every native speaker.

Pedagogical Problems

Asian language study suffers from retarded pedagogical development! Modern Spanish and French foreign language textbooks represent 5th (or later) generations - focusing on aural comprehension and vocal expression to prepare students to be able to think in and use the language.

However, the burdensome task of learning Chinese characters masks deficiencies in other areas. Consequently, pressure to improve the Asian language pedagogy is lacking. Japanese and Chinese texts wallow in their 1st or 2nd generations, teaching the language in a fashion reminiscent of "the pen of my aunt is on the table of my uncle," a rote learning pattern taught in classical French texts.

Ironically enough, the same phenomenon works against Asians learning English because their traditional English language instruction concentrates on the written language and grammar rules. The result: most native Japanese can hardly speak English at all, despite 5 or more years of intense English study.

This background information is provided to help those unfamiliar with the Chinese or Japanese languages understand the terms and concepts discussed in the Apropos Smart Characters product literature.

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Last Modified: August 28, 1996

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