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Language Learning

Language to me is a wonderful thing. With it comes the ability to communicate, gain information, and enjoy other people. Thus, when I approach learning a new language, I view every lesson and every vocabulary word as a tool to help me- not as burden to hurt me. I don't cringe when something is different from English. That's ok if its different. The question isn't if it is different, the question is what do I need to do to be understood. Instead of fearing having to say something, I try to embrace the opportunity. If I am wrong now, it doesn't really matter- I am just learning.

When I study Chinese, I don't try to memorize one word at a time. Instead, I study sentences; how one word is used in conjunction with other words. Having words together in sentences conveys ideas-
I am learning language so I can convey and receive ideas. Therefore, the way I practice is to send and receive messages. I practice sentences with friends and classmates. I greet them in Chinese, ask about their family ask what they do over the weekend, etc. I listen to the dialogues online and seek to understand them. I use the pattern drills in the book to practice using different vocabulary in similar structures. I read the grammar sections for more practice sentences. I translate sentences.

While I realize that time can be short, if you take Chinese class commit yourself to practice and to go over the material. If you do, you will find it very rewarding. The three hours in class per week can never be enough by itself to learn a language, it takes practice.

Good luck and good studying!

-Nolan Shaw

(The author is the one wearing a red shirt in the picuture below.)

Learning Tips: Image Association in Memorizing Chinese Characters

            The written language of Chinese is complex. Its complexity is part of its visual beauty, but it also makes it difficult to memorize the meaning behind each written character. Knowing certain rules about Chinese characters has helped me to memorize characters and their associated meanings. For example, knowing that certain radicals carry the same of similar meanings when used in different characters has helped me to become familiar with new characters more quickly. Another technique that I find helpful is to associate the meaning of the character with its graphic image in terms that make sense to me.

            Many Chinese characters have a pictographic origin – they were drawn to resemble the object that they name. This is clear in the most ancient pictographs of such characters as re (日) which means “sun” or yueh (月) which means moon. The modern Chinese character for “moon” (月) still reflects the physical shape of a crescent moon. However, while some Chinese characters have a visual resemblance to a physical thing, many characters must convey the meaning of an intangible idea or concept such as “good” (好) or “to be” (是). I have found it helpful to associate the pictorial image of such ideographic characters with the meaning though a combination of rational and intuitive connections.

            The examples of ren (人), da (大), and tian (天) may best illustrate how this memorization process works for me. Elementary instructional guides to Chinese writing commonly compare the character for the word ren (人), which means “person” or “people”, to a person with a pair of outstretched legs. The character da (大), which means “big”, consists of strokes found in ren (人) with the addition of a horizontal stroke. This character resembles a “person” with his arms stretched wide, as if to measure the width of a large object or to express the width of an object. The character tian (天), which is interpreted to mean “heaven”, “sky”, or “day”, likewise contains the elements seen in ren (人) and da (大) with the addition of a horizontal stroke across the top. It is not too difficult to make the connection that the line across the top of the “person” that is very “big” represents the sky – a large horizontal field above a person’s head. Thus, by knowing the meaning of one simple character – ren (人) – I am able to easily assimilate and memorize the meaning of two other words which are not closely related semantically to the first.

            I find this technique most needed with complex characters. The character tian (天) consists of four strokes; it is relatively simple and would be fairly easy to memorize even without knowing the meaning of ren (人) or da (大). On the other hand, the character shi (是), which represents the verb “to be”, is somewhat more complex (it contains nine strokes) and therefore more difficult to remember. I am able to remember the meaning of this character by connecting its visual elements in a sort of symbolic story or Gestalt story. A prominent part of the character shi (是) is the radical re (日), which means “sun”. Below this “sun” is a horizontal line; below the horizontal line, a vertical stroke with a branch to the right, and the character ren (人) or “person” to the left. When I see the character shi (是), I associate it with its meaning of “is” or “being” in the following string of connections: “as the sun rises above the horizon, it shines upon everything that is, including people; the sun is above all that is.” While this technique – my instinctive method of learning Chinese characters – may seem cumbersome and impractical for use with thousands of words, I have found it to be useful.

-- Cory Jones 


Links to Chinese Language