Learning spoken Mandarin first and the characters later

Yvette wrote to me in response to my new blog on my wall and, rather than taking up all the space on her wall, I thought I’d move the discussion here. Here’s what Yvette originally wrote:

Hi, David. I read your new post. I think your approach to learning Mandarin is wonderful. I’m curious, in any case, about what you wrote regarding children learning language and how you want to mimic this type of language learning. Children do begin learning to read and write around the age of four or so: there are building blocks with letters, toddler cardboard books with pictures and words, crayons etc. My point is that children do utilize the written form and learn to read and write the words that become part of their vocabulary, their understanding, their language development. The notion that children learn to speak first without the aid of written and visual implements, if you will may be underestimated to some degree. Children reach fluency with the incorporation of oral, audile, visual, and through application. (Please note that I am referring to ‘literacy’ as well as fluency.)

And my response:

Hi Yvette, thank you again for your interesting and insightful comments. You’re right that children immediately start learning how to read and write when they enter school, but you must also take into consideration that by the time this happens, they’ve already listened to many thousands of hours of their native language being spoken and are already speaking to some extent. Of course reading and writing help them to learn new words and become literate, but they are not necessary for speaking fluency - just think of all the fluent but illiterate speakers of different world languages .

My point in learning the spoken language before learning the characters is that learning the characters requires memorization, where you have to learn and memorize the pronunciation along with the meaning. This ‘memorization’ of pronunciations without speaking the language reminded me of learning a language from a book or wordlists like in school, and I found myself resisting it when I started to do it at the beginning of my Chinese studies 3 months ago. Children don’t have to do this, as the word is already in their heads - they just have to associate it with a certain character. Consider this excerpt from page 2 of the introduction of Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Simplified Hanzi’ :

“The Chinese themselves are not faced with (the) problem (of learning a character’s meaning, pronunciation, and writing at the same time). As children, they are exposed first to the spoken language, learning how to associate sounds with meanings. When the time comes to learn how to read, they already have at their disposal a solid basis of words whose sounds and meaning are familiar to them; all that remains is to associate those words with written forms. Doing so opens them to printed texts, which, in turn, helps them assimilate new words and characters. Those of us who come to the language as adults can gain a similar advantage by tying each character to a particular unit of pronunciation and meaning, a ‘key word’ in English, that we already know.”

So you see, it IS possible to learn the meanings of the characters without learning their pronunciation - I simply have not started doing this yet because I prefer to spend my time listening to the spoken language intensively in an effort to reach a level where I can understand authentic material as quickly as possible, and I am getting there fast after only three months:)

Also confer this post from my language learning blog entitled ‘Improving your Mandarin reading and listening without having to learn lots of characters’

This method is quite effective, but a bit time-consuming. I have since been learning primarily using podcasts from ChinesePOD, as they already come with a transliteration and translation below the phrases and include wordlists, as well as an extracted audio version of just the dialogues to listen to (all of which can be imported into LingQ), and there’s thousands of interesting dialogues.

I’m following more or less the same approach, using Heisig to learn the characters, while using Chinesepod and their pinyin transliterations to get exposure to the language. That way, once I know the meanings of enough characters, I can go back over the same content I’ve studied, which I’ll know very well by that point, but this time read the characters and not the pinyin. The pinyin is just a very convenient crutch that allows to you actually learn spoken Mandarin while your character-proficiency is still in progress.

I also went with Heisig as i figured i’d get some grasp on characters first so that my choice of input would be much bigger. I alraedy had some basic knowledge of words/word order from pimsleur/FSI/CLOnline (waste of time)… After Heisig i started reading simple comic books and picking out things i didnt know from there to learn. I was basically following the alljapaneseallthetime.com method… characters first then sentences… although i wasnt listening enough, and even felt like i could read better than listen, which is why im now at lingq lol

Thanks for the interesting post. From experience I would definitely backup David’s approach.
I started learning Chinese about 3 and half years ago and really got into learning the characters but I didn’t do that much listening.
This was a mistake as I learnt a lot of characters but mispronounced most of them.
Last year, I changed my approach to mostly listening and now my comprehension has really improved and my speaking is better.
I know that Chinesepod is very popular, another podcast worth listening to is http://www.chineselearnonline.com — from the free lessons, I really like their setup.

If you have access to native speakers, then I think children’s books could be very useful for beginners, especially if the focus is on the story (not on the reading) and the story is told in a similar way to how you would tell a story to a very young child. Using the pictures and ‘story games’ to help comprehension, the learner could get a lot of useful language input.

I live in Taiwan and I found another useful listening source to be children’s programmes. They are by far the easiest and most useful programme’s to watch on TV for beginners. What they are talking about is much more obvious than adult’s programmes and the language tends to be much more simple. After getting used to a few programmes I found that I could work out a couple of new words per programme.

Anyway, if I could start out again, I would definitely do a lot of listening before I start out reading, especially with an Asian language. Good luck with your Chinese!

I don’t think I could learn the spoken language and not the characters. If I waited to learn characters, I think this sense of incompletion and half-assing it will only grow deeper the more I learned.
If I could i’d want to learn both simultaneously. Some would argue that this is hard work and unnecessary. I would argue otherwise. Besides I’m a visual learner, tactile learner, writing them, seeing them, would only help me cement the language.

There’s nothing wrong with learning them at the same time, Aubaine - I simply do not recommend ‘memorizing’ the pronunciations of the characters before you’ve heard much of the language.

To learn the meanings of the characters without the pronunciation, I recommend Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi combined with Anki. If you want the characters and meaning in text format so that they can be imported into Anki, just let me know. There’s also Skritter David Allen Martin II's Blog on Language Learning: Skritter : Learn Chinese and Japanese characters faster and retain them longer if you want to check that out. Good luck with your Chinese learning, and thanks to everyone for their posts here:)