Word-driven and character-driven approach for learning Chinese

Discussion in 'Chinese Language' started by Shun, Apr 20, 2017.

  1. Shun

    Shun 状元


    I’m going to write down why I feel a mixed word- and character-driven approach is more efficient than a purely word-driven approach for learning Chinese. I think the question shouldn’t be whether to use one or the other approach exclusively, but rather when to study words and when to study characters.

    I think it's obvious that the word-driven approach is how one should start learning the language, for maybe the first 1'000-2'000 words (which corresponds to about half a year of studies), to get a feeling for how sentences are constructed. But after that, I think taking the character-based approach complemented with learning words made of these characters is clearly superior for building one’s vocabulary. (based on my experience)

    By focusing on the characters only, one gets closer to the root of the language and gets more of a sense for how words are formed from characters. This can also be taken advantage of directly while using the language, for example when trying to construct words out of characters that one didn't know existed, but actually do exist. Or when remembering a word, you first think of one component character, then you or the Chinese-speaking listener will quickly complete it to form the actual word. In the brain, it is all just more associatively linked, rather than remembering individual words that are more easily forgotten.

    One condition being that for every Chinese character learned, one also studies 2-3 words along with each character. (by checking the WORDS tab for each character)

    Of course, one also needs to study all important meanings a character can have. These are often linked together in an interesting and sometimes miraculous way, making them easier to learn, so that isn't a big obstacle.

    If one has learned to work like that, it’s clear that learning 4’000 different characters leads to language competence in >50’000 words, and quickly growing, if words are learned along with them. It’s much easier to extend one’s vocabulary and tell nuances of meaning between words with similar meaning this way, just because the word’s compound meaning results from characters whose individual meanings are well-known in a pattern that is also well-known.

    Naturally, this isn’t scientific all, it’s just the impression I got from taking this approach. I just find that scientific studies are often too concerned with one another to really include all of the effects encountered by the language learner comprehensively.


    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017
    feng and rizen suha like this.
  2. rizen suha

    rizen suha 秀才

    fully agree. i want to study words in a setting that does not drive me nuts, that takes advantage of my inner association wheels and keeps them lubricated: reading a story that can maintain my interest, "simulating" a "near-real-life" usage and utility of my hanyu studies. and, likewise, i want to study characters in a setting that does not drive me nuts: studying them in the context of the words, as a "by-product" of reading the story. to me, thats why, in the reader, it would be a great boon to have easy access to the constituyent characters in a word. presently the "back-forth-arrows-dance" does not work.
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  3. Shun

    Shun 状元

    Yeah, thanks! I also think the associative and the 'deeper understanding of meanings' element is the best part of this approach. You just have to get used to making these associations, not just study individual characters and do nothing else.

    Reading any text and encountering a new word of which you already know one character individually, chances are you can already figure out what it means. Even more likely is that you will more easily remember its meaning after checking it.
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  4. rizen suha

    rizen suha 秀才

    fully agree with this perspective.
    Shun likes this.
  5. rizen suha

    rizen suha 秀才

    to clarify: "easy access" to the _definitions_ of the characters in a word. if these could be automatically presented, maybe in a tiny (configurable) font; each character with its 3 dominant / most frequent meanings... next level genius would be if these ("3") meanings could be chosen / identified contextually: within the specific word, what are the semantics of each character, what semantic role does it play. that would of course requiere that such a dictionary exists: word X ~ {primary meanings of each of the characters in word X}. in any case, just providing an easier access to characters from the arrows menu, would be great.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2017
  6. Shun

    Shun 状元

    That sounds interesting, though I think that part (figuring out which meaning of a character was used in a particular word) is also fun and useful to figure out for our brains. :) I think our brains do want to do part of the work, they just want to do it as efficiently as possible. Though I don't know, I'd have to try it first.

    Edit: To clarify, if I don't know a character at all, I think it's good to see all the meanings first, so I can study them. If I already know the character, the choice of which meaning of the character applies to a word is already happening automatically. [end Edit]

    However, I would definitely welcome a feature that immediately shows the main meanings of the component characters of a word at a glance. Something like a switch between normal word translation display and component character translation display, where one character's translation is displayed next to the other and can be swiped from left to right (for longer words). The only limitation I can think of is that iPhone screens are a little small, though on an iPad screen, it would be perfect.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2017
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  7. Abun

    Abun 探花

    I agree with you in principle that word-based and character-based approaches both have their value and should complement each other. However I personally tend much more to the word-based end of the spectrum. For me learning (unfree) characters is comparable to looking up the etymology of a word in any other language. It helps to look up the components and over time get a feeling for their nuances and how they combine with each other, but I wouldn’t learn the components seperately.

    So for example in English, a learner might see the word “construct”, maybe look up where it comes from and find out that the “con-” part means “together” while the “-struct” originally meant “piled up”, ergo “piled together”. This can help them when they learn words like “obstruct” (pile against), “destruction” (un-piling), “converse” (turn together) or “conflict” (striking together). After seeing a number of such words they would get a feel for how they are used and their quirks (e.g. “con-” becoming “com-, col-, cor-” in front of certain consonants).

    For me it’s the same thing with the characters in multi-syllable Chinese words. The only difference is that the etymology is more overt, which of course often is a benefit as it makes it easy to look up, but can also be a danger. One is that it’s easy to get confused when you are presented with often dozens of meanings for each character and multitudes of seemingly synonymous characters. For example, let’s say we’re looking up 興建 “to construct”. The first obstacle is noticing that the first definition Pleco gives you when tapping on 興 is for xìng rather than xīng. And when you have gotten to the correct page, you get “prosper; start; encourage; get up” as well as an adverb “maybe” (also a dialectal meaning which is probably the easiest to rule out). For a beginner, it will be difficult to make sense of how any of these may fit into “to construct” (“begin (the construction)” maybe? Luckily 建 is fairly straightforward), especially since they can’t possibly know that the correct interpetation isn’t even on the list because characters could stand for their own causatives in Classical Chinese: get up --> raise. So in a character-based approach they are left with a number of seemingly unconnected meanings, making learning more difficult than it has to be. Or if they are lucky the teacher tells them that 興 means “to raise” in this context, but that doesn’t help them interprete new words where 興 has a different meaning (like 復興 for example) or see how the two readings xīng and xìng are connected.

    The second, and in my eyes biggest, problem of the character-based approach is that it’s too easy to get the wrong impression that character=word --> can stand on its own. It is just very easy to forget that 興 cannot be used on its own while 建 can (and that’s provided the learner was told that fact in the first place).

    For these reasons, I personally advocate a pure word-based approach when active learning is concerned. But at the same time I also highly recommend looking at the words’ internal structure, individual character meanings and how they interact with each other. I just wouldn’t advise learners to make a flashcard of those components (unless they are informed that they are looking at a productive pattern such as 好X “good/easy to X”) but rather let them get a feel for them by seeing them in different words, just like I wouldn’t recommend an English learner make flashcards for “con-” and “-struct”. And even at an advanced level, I would say that if you want to learn about character meanings in isolation, why not up the ante and study some actual Classical Chinese, including grammar as well.
  8. Shun

    Shun 状元

    Thanks for this! I agree with you that choosing to study characters individually as well as words definitely makes the learning experience more complicated, but also more interesting and, probably, rewarding and efficient. All it takes, in my view, is the rule that one studies at least three words from the WORDS list one didn't know before, for each character. This way, our brain learns to integrate the character in a word rather than using the character by itself. Since most characters that aren't used by themselves have a common two-character word that means almost the same as the character by itself, our brain also quickly learns to use that if it is told to do so.

    I believe your comparison to Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes is slightly exaggerated, though. :) Since in Chinese, almost all words result from combinations of meanings and 4'000-6'000 characters lead to 100'000< commonly used words, it's different from English, for example, where you have tens of thousands of different stems, each having their own meaning and history. There, of course, such an approach wouldn't make any sense, since there can also be fewer combinations of meaning elements and fewer reproducible rules of how they are combined. I did, however, study Greek prefixes once, and benefited greatly, since I only know Latin. :)

    Also, I must say most characters in Modern Chinese have at most 5 completely different meanings. Within those five, there can be gradations or language developments, like the factitive or causative form from Classical Chinese or just different applications of a word, but these are should also be easy to learn because of their internal relationship. Especially if you've studied an individual character before, finding the right meaning is no problem.

    Before I did this, I also only studied words and checked the meanings of individual characters to understand the meanings better. If you first learn the word, you know exactly one word, and if you're lucky, you will be able to reconstruct its meaning from the individual characters you just looked up. (and maybe remembered partly) But the other way around, you at least have the potential of learning many more, directly useful words, and for almost all modern words, permanently have a better understanding their meaning.

    I agree with you that Classical Chinese knowledge often helps for understanding the meaning of individual characters and of how words came to look the way they do. But I find that most good Modern Chinese dictionaries do include those meanings in their character definitions, as well, under the 书 label (for example, the Neue Chinesisch-Deutsch one)--even the 兴 one "get up" you mentioned.

    I have to go somewhere now, maybe later I will try to elaborate on some more points.
  9. Shun

    Shun 状元

    I sense here that you're basing this on the assumption that you can get the same feel of the meaning of a word component from looking it up as from learning it by heart. From my experience, a lot of things come to my attention only if I learn the underlying word/character by heart. The brain (again :)) just isn't able to take in all the relevant information by just looking a a definition page, even for a long'ish moment.

    I rarely needed to look things up this way, I just study characters and connected words (from texts I read) in parallel. The more characters I know, the easier it gets to add new words. I also often add the compound words to Flashcards and study them separately later. Of course, I started with the most frequent characters, to maximize the chance of their occurrence.

    I had this basic knowledge of Classical Chinese (like for 大 also meaning "to make bigger" or to "consider big"), so I used it. I think that may also be a useful thing to communicate to a language learner because of its simplicity and pretty wide applicability.

    I think "difficult" is always relative, it depends on how much you already know. :)

    The single-character words that can stand on their own aren't that many, and I guess one can discover them through reading, otherwise one can always recall the association with a corresponding two-character word.

    Yes, this is always recommended, though its applicability to Modern Chinese meaning-wise is too limited for me, except that it helps for understanding expressions mostly used in formal written language.

    Edit: I see it always takes some courage, or even boldness, to try something completely new. And, of course, it has to be tried for an extended period to be properly understood. I haven't described the whole process so far, so here comes the whole procedure:

    1. The learner reads a new text from a textbook, or if he's more advanced, from any source.
    2. S/he takes the words from the textbook's vocabulary list, or from the text, and puts them into Pleco.
    3. S/he exports the vocabulary list, takes the Hanzi, eliminates duplicates, and re-imports it into a new category in Pleco.
    4. S/he first studies the character category, then the words. This takes a bit more effort at first, but not long-term, thanks to the effects described above.

    When the learner encounters the next text:

    1. S/he puts the words into Pleco.
    2. S/he takes the characters as above and imports them into a new character category, setting the option "Duplicate entries" to "Skip" to skip characters that had previously been imported.
    3. S/he first studies the new character category, then the words.

    While studying the characters, the user can look at the compound words made of the characters, and add them to a Flashcards category to study later if they find them particularly interesting and useful. (that is, if they fit into the current brain structure well)

    And as I've said, at least in my case, the brain quickly learns not to use single characters as words. If it still does that, the compound words haven't been learned along with them (and used), so they didn't go into that memory slot.

    I just think we have to try to make the best use of our brains' design, and that probably isn't the mechanical type of studying full, mutually unrelated words and remembering those. (a computer could do this, too) We should make full use of the associative ability, creativity, and also discipline, inherent in our thinking organ.

    I've found that language teaching tends to reduce the active, independent part of the learner to a minimum, while it should actually be promoting it, and guiding it in the right direction. If a learner makes a mistake (like using a non-free single character as a word after learning it), the teaching method per se doesn't have to be at fault. The right answer, then, isn't to change the teaching method and, for example, only make them study full words, but to practice a more active, independent role on the part of the learner in handling their vocabulary (learn to treat characters as structural elements directly behind words, and use words for speaking; train them to write down as many words as possible that contain a particular character, and so on), which should take care of this and allow the learner to apply this distance to other areas, as well. I haven't tried teaching it this way, there may be other roadblocks, and a certain aptitude on the part of the student would certainly be required. But the main idea certainly isn't unworkable, and I'm probably not the first one to go in this direction.

    To conclude, there seem to be three stages to learning:

    1. Acquisition: Trying to understand a new word or sentence structure.
    2. Conscious training: Having taken it in, consciously trying to use it properly. This is where the self-control, as well as all the acquired experience should come in.
    3. Automatic use: Having practiced a word/sentence structure enough, the subconscious takes over and creates the structures based on what had been successfully practiced in 2.

    If 2. isn't done right, then incorrect structures may settle in 3. But that doesn't mean we have to take all responsibility away from the learner in stage 2. Rather, we ought to develop that responsibility. I say this based on what I think is wrong about most teachers' teaching method, even if they are very good and from the Beiyu—actual experience would have to prove me right or wrong. The main experience I have comes from my own studies and from watching how others learn. Thanks, I hope I could make my ideas a little clearer.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2017
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  10. rizen suha

    rizen suha 秀才

    ^ Full and total agree. Important stuff what you are mentioning here.
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  11. Shun

    Shun 状元

    Thanks, so many Likes! ;) I think the main thing is that one tries it out, only then can one confirm the value of this approach or debunk it. It may well be that there are going to be difficulties that I haven't encountered yet. I will tell you about it if I do.

    Edit: One point I already have to correct: One can't just study three words along with a character, since one also has to know how the exact use of a word to memorize and use it properly. This works only by seeing it in a well-written text, placed in a context one can understand. So, one course of action is possible: When you study a character, you search for it in the book (or other long text) you're reading, take note of new words containing the character, and save (up to) three of these to Flashcards. Then the effect of studying these is greatly enhanced, since you will know their components, the words' definitions, and have seen them in use.
    Last edited: May 1, 2017
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  12. sobriaebritas

    sobriaebritas 榜眼

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  13. Shun

    Shun 状元

    Thank you very much, this is certainly a great thing to pass on. (I only knew other books from Yip Po-Ching.)
  14. sobriaebritas

    sobriaebritas 榜眼

    I'm glad you appreciate it, Shun.
    On another subject, does "learning Chinese" in the thread's title include speaking? On yet another one, in my experience there's a complementary or extended approach to the one you present. It consists simply in choosing a two-syllable word, looking for which other characters or characters combine with it, and just have a look at the pollysillabic words found. I enjoy analyzing, or merely browsing, the relations between both the two-syllable word and the pollysyllables, and the latter themselves, mostly because those relations show me the hanzi in a different and interesting light (please, see attached fiel).

    Attached Files:

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  15. Shun

    Shun 状元

    Hi sobriaebritas,

    sure! Yes, let's say that there is a large amount of vocabulary used for both speaking and writing, while some vocabulary is mainly used in spoken language, and some other vocabulary is mainly used in written language. Then there's of course a difference in syntax, written sentences tend to be longer and more complex than spoken ones. Other than that, the ways a particular word is used don't really differ between spoken and written language, so I'd say the results of this method of learning vocabulary can be applied to both written and spoken language.

    I think your method is also a useful path to discovery, made possible by Pleco. Browsing through composite words for bisyllabic words' components is a more passive way of learning, but if you are actively looking at them and trying to recall them, then looking at them again, it can surely be effective, and also fun.

    In any case, and like everyone agrees, it is useful to look at individual characters' meanings. With my idea, I just took it a little further, to make the characters' meanings fixed knowledge which is interlinked with knowledge of words. I wonder if that's also how native Chinese speakers intuitively acquire new vocabulary. They must be using a similar kind of language experience to determine what a non-monosyllabic word means, without having to look it up or ask their parents.


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