by Antonio Graceffo
Language is not genetic. Taiwanese children have all of the same difficulties you do in learning to read Chinese. When I was teaching at an elementary school, I used to sit down next to my students in study hall, and practice writing my Chinese characters exactly as they did. To learn the pronunciation of the characters, the children read Bo Po Mo Fo, the same as me. One day, one of my second grade students teased me, “Teacher, your book is baby Chinese.”
“Really?” I said, “I bet you can’t read it.” It was a dialogue about going to the bank and exchanging traveler’s checks and currencies. Of course, three words in, the boy was already pointing at the Chinese characters asking, “Teacher, what is this word?”
“That’s 銀行, it means bank in English.”
“Teacher, what’s this word?”
“押金, it means cash deposit in English.”
When you are struggling with the language—and everyone struggles—just remember that native speakers had trouble learning it, too. The upside is that the native speaker was seven when they were reading at the level you read after only two or three years of intensive study!
John’s Two Cents
Do not, I reapeat, DO NOT, try to learn Chinese characters solely by rote (i.e. writing them again and again). This will indeed help improve your handwriting, but it will do little for your retention. The absolute best method I have found to date (and the method I used to learn both Japanese and Chinese) is “imaginative memory.”
In a nutshell, you assign memorable meanings to common “chunks” used in several characters and then create a highly visual, colorful, zany, altogether unforgettable mental story that connects the chunks together. What’s the point of all this? It’s hard to remember random squiggles on a page, but stories and pictures stick like overcooked spaghetti.
Also, make sure to write Chinese out by hand as much as possible (as opposed to typing on a computer.) Just as you don’t realize that you can’t spell an English word until you write it out by hand (usually when in front of your ESL class no less!), you won’t know which Chinese characters you have truly mastered until you write them out by hand.
Passive recognition is very different from active production. Or in other words, just by being around Chinese all the time, you will be able to read far more words than you can write (just as you can understand far more than you can say.)