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Chinese Character Learning Strategies

Chinese Character Learning Strategies

Martin Lavicka01 Jun 2016Leave a comment


Chinese Character Learning Strategies

Written by Michaela Zahradníková (Palacký University Olomouc)

Annotation:Chinese characters are generally seen as the most difficult task in learning Chinese as a foreign language. This study focuses on learning strategies applied by beginning learners, namely memorization strategies and metacognitive strategies. Frequency of usage and effectiveness of individual strategies was observed by questionnaire among beginning learners. Statistical analysis indicated a list of successful and potentially successful strategies, based on the results pedagogical implications are derived.

Key words: Chinese characters, learning strategies, Chinese pedagogy

Chinese is rated as one of the most difficult languages to learn for Westerner learners, with Chinese characters, grammar, tones, and a lack of cognate
words being among the main reasons. While pronunciation can be mastered within a few weeks, characters remain an effort consuming task for ever. The study of Chinese characters requires not only a considerable amount of time, but also good memorization techniques and learning strategies. Lack of both might be one of the main reasons causing a high attrition rate among the  otherwise gradually increasing number of students. The purpose of this study is to explore learning strategies applied by undergraduate students majoring in Chinese in the  first year of their studies. Frequency of the strategy usage is then compared with students’ subjective evaluation of the effectiveness of each of the strategies.

Chinese characters are often seen as the most difficult part of the Chinese language which has high demands on learner’s memory and a significant negative influence on the speed of acquiring Chinese. While Walker denotes learning Chinese characters as the  “most time-consuming task for the learner”,1 Allen even calls it a “waste of time” arguing that it is not only a competence that requires an immense amount of time but it is also a  competence that is less and less needed in the  modern computerized world.2
Yet, Chinese characters remain a solid component of the Chinese language and thus are invariably included in most Chinese language courses, and as Walker remarks, it is reading skills that help us further develop our language and therefore, “in the  long run, reading is probably the most important skill a learner can gain from formal instruction in Chinese”.3

1 Literature Review

Learning strategies are defined by Oxford as “actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations”, which help the  student in all stages of learning, from acquisition to storage, later retrieval as well as its usage.4 Even though there is no consensus for categorization of language learning strategies,5 in reference to Chinese characters, learning strategies are usually divided into two basic categories– cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies refer to operations used for perception, memorization, comprehension and retrieval of new language information. Metacognitive strategies are used to review, plan, monitor and assess the learning process.

Chinese character learning strategies have been explored by a number of linguists since 1995.6 Based on observation and questionnaires, previous studies have already established inventories of strategies applied by students when learning characters,7 some of the  strategies were compared in  terms of frequency8 or students’ preferences9. Also, previous studies tried to compare selected strategies in terms of their effectiveness.10 Several interesting points can be observed.

Previous research into Chinese character learning strategies has shown that students tend to rely on mechanical copying and mindless memorization of characters, especially before they acquire a certain amount of characters that would allow them to use the  radical knowledge effectively. Rote learning as a frequently applied strategy was observed for example by Wang, who found that among observed beginning learners, 93% of students memorize characters, yet 53% do not expect to remember them after memorization.11 Similarly, other studies have also described rote learning as the most frequently used strategy.12

Apart from rote learning, component analysis appears in another group of strategies, which was observed as the most frequent, for example by Shen and Ke.13 These strategies are limited in use by the true beginners, as they require certain orthographic knowledge to be able to use character components such as radicals, phonetics or semantics as cues to encode and retrieve new characters. A deeper theoretical explanation of etymology seems to be the premise for application of these strategies.

Component analysis further appears in associative techniques when mental linkage is created between identical or similar components or between components (or whole characters) and already existing knowledge. Associative strategies can also include the sound of the characters or help students memorize its meaning. Last but not least, metacognitive strategies then refer to review techniques and planning.

(to continue reading, please go to our Proceedings from the 8th Annual Czech and Slovak Sinological Conference available for free in iPDF)


1 Walker 1989, 65.
2 Allen 2008, 238.
3 Walker 1984, 84.
4 Oxford 1990, 8.
5 Griffiths and Oxford 2014.
6 See for example Jiang and Zhao 2001; Ke 1998; McGinnis 2000; Shen 2005; Sung 2014.
7 Bourke 2006; Jiang and Zhao 2001; Shen 2005.
8 Tseng 2000; Yeh 2001.
9 Ke 1998.
10 Kuo and Hooper 2004; Shen 2004.
11 Wang 1998, 78.
12 McGinnis 2000; Tseng 2000; Jiang and Zhao 2001.
13 Shen 2005; Ke 1998.

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