On learning to read Mandarin

I've been pondering the divide between learning reading through a 'phonics' approach and a 'whole language' approach. While acknowledging that much of the 'war' between these pedagogic approaches is a bit of a storm in a teacup (the best approach is no doubt hybrid), it is fascinating to ask how critical the 'sounding out' strategy is when we learn to read. After pondering the case of profoundly deaf children learning to read as one extreme case (for them sounding out is impossible – so how do you teach a deaf kid to read?) it occurred to me that a completely non-phonetic alphabet would also be impossible to learn phonetically. So… how do the Chinese manage?

A quick search turned up a forum thread about adults learning Cantonese. One of the responses to a query on how this was achieved given the nature of the language fascinated me;

"In my personal experience learning Cantonese, I've found it impossible to use the learn-by-reading approach. Instead, I've been collecting more and more recorded dialogues and have learned the majority of my vocabulary this way. …

I took the dialogues from a Teach Yourself course, stripped out all the English, put them on my MP3 player and just played them over and over and over again. Even if I was doing something else, I'd have them on in the background. As a result, those conversations are now permanently burned into my brain and I can recite most of them word for word without looking at the book. …

As for learning characters this becomes more practical once you have a basic grip on the spoken language. What I've been doing lately is trying to read the character versions of the dialogues which I'm already very familiar with. This way, I already know what the text is about, and can kind of fill in the blanks for those characters I don't already know. Once you see them in context enough times it becomes easier to recognize them (the caveat here is that I can only write maybe 20% of the 800 or so characters which I can recognize). 

In summary, you'll probably need to adapt your existing approach and embrace the fact that the spoken language will come before the written one. It's a long road ahead but definitely enjoyable and worthwhile!"

(my emphasis)

This experience sounds strikingly similar to the approach of 'whole language' learning that relies not on bottom-up phonics, but on top-down sight recognition.

3 thoughts on “On learning to read Mandarin

  1. Emily B

    Hi Brett,
    The whole phonics/ whole language debate is an area which I still need to get my head around. I still can’t figure out why one seems to preclude the other.
    For what it’s worth – I’ve also been trying to learn Canto, initially from my husband who is a native speaker. But, I found that when I got a Cantonese grammar and cd out of the library then I began to learn much more quickly (I’m still absolutely rubbish though!). I found the tones really hard to recognise and remember – but when I saw the words and phrases written down in the (phonic) Yale system, with the tones marked in, I found them much easier to recognise and to learn. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.
    Of course I’m speaking as a literate (in English) adult – but maybe kids learning to read for the first time also need a range of approaches?

  2. Heather

    From my very vague memories of Linguistics, there are also some interesting some interesting studies done for languages that are entirely regular in their spelling (as phonetic as you get without using the IPA). I think the ones I saw were about German. It had interesting implications for those with dyslexia.


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