Pre-Primary School Language Education!

We were so excited to report the progress we are making after only two days of language school to our young Chinese colleagues in Henan by phone. One of them remarked affirmingly, “Oh, good! You are learning Chinese the traditional way at the pre-primary level.” We had a good laugh, but she was right. We are beginners. This is just fine with us. We are learning quickly and having fun.

The traditional way is to learn the 6 basic strokes and 22 compound strokes in forming a Chinese character. We are learning their names and how to make them. Today we learned 15 characters, which are commonly recurrent in speech and writing, 11 of which also form radicals. We we learned their meaning and pronunciation, how to write them in both character form and in Pinyin, and determined which ones serve also as radicals and how to write them. Today we learned the characters for: middle, door, person, female, mountain, sun/day, mouth, moon/month, small, big, king, tree, water, fire, and earth. Our teacher showed us how these basic characters are used in compounds to form other common words.

Chinese characters have undergone four evolutions. Originally pictographs, the early characters actually make a lot of sense. For example, imagine an eye. Look at the photo below.

The first two pictographs are obvious but the last two are not. In the 1950’s Chairman Mao launched a simplified Chinese character reform to help the average peasant/famer to read. Literacy, up to that point was the privilege of the elite classes, who had time and money to spend on education. This literacy program simplified the characters. The more complicated, traditional characters are still used to day in Japan, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong.

In addition to the characters, we reviewed the Pinyin system’s 21 initials (consonants) and 36 finals (vowels) and 4 tones (plus a neutral tone). Our teacher informed us that native English speakers actually have an easier time learning Chinese pronunciation, since all the sounds within the Chinese language are contained within the English language. Japanese and Korean native speakers have to learn new sounds for which they are unaccustomed. It is a matter, however, of training our ears. Each person has their own way of speaking with a slight accent.

We learned grammar points involving tone placement when it involves the finals: “a,” combinations of “e/i/u” (always goes on the “e”), and combinations of “o/u/i” (goes on the “o” or most open vowel, and combinations of “u/i” (goes on the last vowel). Another grammar point involves how to write vowels starting uen (un), uei (ui), iou (iu), uo (wo), ia (ya), and u-umlaut + e (yue).

We practiced pronunciation using phonetics and places of articulation. I have never watched a person’s mouth so intently as I am now trying to pick up how our teacher makes certain sounds with her the tongue, vocal chords, and glottal express of air.

Lot’s of fun! Lot’s of work.

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