This article is a rant based on more than a decade of observing how Chinese characters are taught in classrooms around the world. What I portray here is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at bad teaching.
However, my goal is not to attack teachers; most do their best and simply don’t have the education, time or resources to get everything right. If you are a teacher, you can read this article as a guide for what to do (just reverse the wording for each advice). If you’re a beginner learning characters yourself, you should probably read this article instead: How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner.
At the end of this article, there is a poll where you can share what you have experienced yourself!
Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:
Beginners often regard Chinese characters with a mixture of respect, fascination and dread. If you want to make them really scared and minimise the risk of them learning the language, and, at the same time, maximise the amount of frustration and angst students feel, you’ve come to the right place!
Hacking Chinese presents…
How to not teach Chinese characters to beginners: A 12-step approach
Here I present twelve steps to terrible teaching, including links to more information whenever relevant. It’s rare to see teachers who are able to follow all the steps here, but nothing here is made up.
- Teach the names of the strokes, preferably in Chinese – Language learning is all about theoretical, abstract knowledge, so the most important thing is for students to know what things are called, especially the various strokes that all characters are composed of. Don’t forget to include combinations of strokes, including the rare ones. It dosen’t really matter if most native speakers don’t know the names of these, your students definitely should! It’s important to learn all the stroke names in Chinese, because there are no other words with a higher priority for beginners to learn. I wrote more about learning stroke names here: Should you learn the names of the strokes in Chinese characters?
- Test students on their theoretical knowledge, not their practical skills – This is related to the above advice, and means that you also need to test the students’ knowledge of the theoretical, abstract concepts. For example, make sure to include the stroke names in Chinese on the test. It doesn’t matter if the students know what the characters mean or how they are used, what matters is that they can name all the strokes. Avoid practical communication and real-world applications whenever possible.
- Teach how to categorise characters according to the practical and useful 六书 (六書) – When you talk about character formation, the best starting point is 六书 (六書), “Six Writings”, created roughly two thousand years ago. It’s particularly important that you expound on the two categories 假借, “rebus characters”, and 转注 (轉注) “derivative cognates”, since students will find these very hard to understand when they know nothing about Chinese characters. Avoid mentioning functional components and other concepts that could make Chinese characters make more sense.
- Focus on radicals from the very start – First, if you want to make learning really confusing, mix up the words “radical” (being the part of a Chinese character used to sort it in a dictionary) and “component” (being any building block of a Chinese character). The radicals might be bit arbitrary and used only in paper dictionaries, but since one of the most important skills of a student in this modern day and age of computers and smart phones is to look up characters in traditional, printed dictionaries, it’s essential that they can identify what the radical is in each character they learn from day one, including less obvious cases. As I said before, don’t mention functional components and invest all energy into the all-important radicals.
- Tell the students that Chinese characters are pictures – This will make characters look easier temporarily, while making sure they don’t really learn how Chinese characters work. If you can, use picture that aren’t related to either the actual components or true origin of the character. For maximum effect, cherry-pick your examples when showing how Chinese characters are pictures, and make up stuff if you have to! Again, avoid talking about functional components, especially phonetic components, since without these, it might take them months or even years before they figure out how a vast majority of characters work! This also makes sure to keep them on level 1 when it comes to understanding Chinese characters.
- Only tell them what to learn, not how to learn – The students need to spend a lot of time learning characters in the beginning, so just dish out as much homework as you can, but don’t say anything about how to learn. Just give them a chapter reference in the textbook and say that you will test them on everything from how the characters are categorised to the names of the individual strokes. Avoid talking about how to learn Chinese characters as a beginner.
- Ask students to write characters 100 times to store them in long-term memory – If you do tell them anything about how to learn, tell them that they should write the characters over and over until they remember them. Ignore all the science that says that this type of repetition is very ineffective for long-term retention. Also tell the students to look at the model character while writing, making sure that they process it as shallowly as possible.
- When correcting students’ handwriting, nitpick as much as possible – The goal should be to write clean, good-looking characters from day one. The standard should be that of a native speaker with a few years of schooling. Comment not only on strokes that are a bit off, also take things like balance, poise and harmony into account. Beginners have a hard time with these concepts, so you might have to focus on writing 点 (點) “dots” for a month or so before they get to anything else. This is more important than any functional goal, and it’s certainly worthwhile to take time from things like conversations and reading to spend on improving penmanship. If you hand back homework, red ink should cover at least 30% of the sheet.
- Don’t set realistic expectations for character learning – Here you have two options, both widely used and with a long track record. First, you can claim that learning Chinese characters is really easy (see above about cherry-picking picture). Maybe you can claim that you can read newspaper headlines with only 200 characters (feel free to make up your own numbers if you wish). Second, you can claim the opposite, that learning Chinese characters is impossible for foreigners. Stress that there are 10,000 characters (or maybe 100,000 if you want to really scare them) and that it takes a lifetime to learn, even for native Chinese! Whatever you do, don’t tell the students that learning Chinese characters certainly is a challenge, but that it can be done in a reasonable amount of time.
- Require students to learn to write every single spoken word they encounter – This make sure that progress is really slow, and that most of the class can be spent on writing characters. After all, knowing what a word means in a conversation or being able to say it doesn’t matter if they don’t know how to write the characters; the true essence of the Chinese language. Delaying character learning is a sin.
- Inform students that simplified and traditional Chinese are very different – Actually, almost like two different languages. Ignore the fact that most characters are identical (all in the top ten, for example). If you focus on really exaggerated cases like 听 (聽), 丰 (豐) and 议 (議), you can make it look like the two sets are mutually unintelligible. While you’re at it, claim that simplified characters are unambiguously simpler to learn, rather than just simpler to write by hand. Don’t mention that learning the other set is in fact very easy once they’ve learnt the first.
- Recommend only obsolete digital tools and printed dictionaries – Paper dictionaries have been around for centuries, and if they were good enough for generations of Chinese, they’re good enough for foreigners. When it comes to software, nothing notable has happened in the past twenty years or so. In addition, be very careful with anything developed by non-native speakers, as they don’t really understand what they are doing. Definitely avoid recommending tools like Skritter, Pleco or Outlier Linguistics character dictionary. Be extra cautious with over-enthusiastic foreigners with heretical views on how to (not) teach Chinese characters to beginners!
Follow all this advice and your students are guaranteed to feel frustration and angst. They will feel that learning Chinese characters is almost impossible, and even if it were the characters that lured them in in the first place, it will be the characters that make them quit…
…or you can do the opposite of everything I’ve said in the article and teach characters in a sensible way that makes learning both fascinating and useful. All links mentioned in the article lead to other articles with advice about how to actually learn and teach characters, and if you invert the language for each piece of advice above, you will have a reasonable list of things you should do when teaching beginners. For students reading this article, I have created a poll where you can share which of the above you have seen yourself. Am I missing something particularly terrible? Leave a comment below!
Have you seen something terrible that isn’t covered in the article? Leave a comment below!
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