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To Read Chinese One Must Start Early

In any written language, words are subject to a triple association: sound, spelling and of course meaning. For example, the English word horse refers to the working and racing animal, is pronounced /hɔː(ɹ)s/ and spelled h-o-r-s-e. Anyone knowing how to read will be able to pronounce the word relatively correctly even if they have never seen it in writing before, as English is written in the Latin alphabetical script.

As explained by S. Dehaene, the reading process takes place here through the so-called phonological route: graphemes are mechanically converted into phonemes without resorting to deeper semantic representations.

cheval

The situation is quite different when it comes to Chinese. All Chinese languages are written in the unified system of Chinese characters. These Chinese characters are pronounced differently in each of the languages of the Chinese linguistic branch, for instance in Mandarin, the most widespread. Non-Chinese speakers often claim that the mapping of a Chinese character and its pronunciation is completely arbitrary; therefore it is said to be impossible to pronounce a character, even when knowing its meaning, unless its pronunciation has been learnt by rote beforehand.

The reality is slightly more subtle. Indeed, it is often necessary to learn simultaneously a word’s character and its pronunciation. But it must be stressed that 80% to 90% of Chinese characters are actually compound characters. They often consist of at least two subcomponents: a phonetic root (there are about 200 of them) and a semantic root (there are about 1000 of them). The phonetic root, often on the right side of the compound character, may give clues as to the pronunciation of the character. The semantic root, often on the left, tells about the word’s meaning, or at least the lexical category it belongs to. For instance, the Chinese character for a horse is马in simplified Chinese, and is pronounced  (third tone) in Mandarin.

The word for mother is pronounced mā ma (ma is doubled, the first one is pronounced with the first tone); the compound character for each ma has the semantic root of woman on its left and the phonetic root of horse on its right.

ma ma English

In a paper dated 2007, Bao Guo Chen and colleagues proved that the more arbitrary the mapping between meaning and sound or spelling, the higher the effects of the Age of Acquisition (AoA) on Chinese reading (for native speakers). Characters acquired early would be read with ease; characters acquired at a later stage would be more difficult to read if the correspondence between writing and sound or spelling was difficult to predict.

In other words, the more difficult it is to deduct meaning and spelling by reading a character, the more detrimental late acquisition is to quality and speed of reading.

Thus, within Chinese language and for native speakers, the impact of the Age of Acquisition increases with the arbitrariness of the mapping between meaning, pronunciation and spelling. What is the situation for alphabetical languages? By definition, reading an alphabetical language gives a very valuable clue as to what the pronunciation is going to be*.

Taken as a whole, the Chinese language is significantly more arbitrary than alphabetical languages in terms of mapping from character to sound and meaning. One can therefore assume that for Chinese even more so than for other languages, there is benefit in learning the language early so as not to be negatively impacted by the enhanced effects of the Age of Acquisition on reading.

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Chinese learning :
Chen, B. G., Zhou, H. X., Dunlap, S. and Perfetti, C. A. (2007).Age of acquisition effects in reading Chinese: Evidence in favour of the arbitrary mapping hypothesis. British Journal of Psychology, 98: 499–516. doi: 10.1348/000712606X165484

Stanislas Dehaene (2007). Les neurones de la lectureEditions Odile Jacob

 

Note : * The situation varies quite significantly from language to language. Italian or Turkish, for instance, are very easy to pronounce when reading a text, while a given spelling in English can be read in multiple ways (refer for instance to  toughthroughthorough, etc…)

Erika and Romain’s Interpreter Was Three and a Half Years Old

Today we are hosted by Erika and Romain who just came back to France after many years abroad.

 

  • Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

My husband Romain and myself, Erika, came back last month from Singapore where we lived for nine years as expats. We work with a large construction company. Our two boys were born in Singapore – they are 4 and 2 years old.

 

  • What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we ask Maxence, our elder son, his citizenship, he replies : « Moi, I’m Chinese, et mon (petit frère) Amaury il est French » (“As far as I am concerned, I am Chinese, and my little Amaury, he is French”, in a nice mix of languages). I must say we laughed a lot, but jokes aside it shows a great openness to other cultures and languages. Last May, we travelled to Yunnan, in South China. Needless to say that very few people speak English there. On the second day, we bought a mango on the market. We could not manage to explain to the hotel staff that we needed a plate to cut it. They were rather surprised, to say the least, when a little three and a half year old kid asked them for a plate in Mandarin !

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 2

 

  • What is your children’s linguistic journey ?

In Singapore our kids went to a local playschool and kindergarten. They would hear and speak Mandarin and English every day. We would speak only French to them to avoid confusion (and because our accent in English has room for improvement). Maxence had reached a point where his Mandarin and English were getting quite good, and it seemed to us a real shame to drop everything just because we were going back to France. He started Mandarin sessions with VivaLing in June, one month before we came back, to ease the transition. I must admit that we were not very confident as to the next steps, because at the beginning he completely refused to speak. However I could feel that he understood everything. After a few weeks, he uttered a “ni hau” (hello in Mandarin). Persistence paid off: now he interacts with his coach Sunny and speaks with her with an impeccable accent. He repeats, and plays while speaking in Mandarin in front of the ipad.

Amaury is still a bit young to stay 15 minutes seated in front of the ipad and take part in a language coaching session, but he will hopefully start a bit later.

 

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

My husband and myself are not really gifted as far as languages are concerned. We speak French of course and English. We have forgotten most of the German we learnt at school. Our careers are much more international than our parents’, and the same will go with our own kids. Mandarin is spoken by a huge share of the population: they are very fortunate to be able to learn while having fun, and without any pain. It will be a door-opener in the future.

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 6

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

I find it extraordinary that a little French boy should be able to interact with a Chinese coach living near Beijing, while himself living first in Singapore and then in France. Ties are built during the sessions which are meant to be fun. So much so that Maxence often tells us that he likes his “Sunny Laoshi” (laoshi means teacher in Mandarin). Coach Sunny adapts the sessions according to Maxence’s mood, by telling him stories based on the toys he shows her, for instance. I enjoy very much the flexibility made possible by VivaLing : as long as we have an internet connection, we can go on with our sessions on ipad, even during the holidays. No need to go anywhere, the sessions are easier to schedule. We enjoy being able to view the recorded sessions over and over again. Once we have settled in with VivaLing in Mandarin, we are thinking of starting English sessions.

 

Many thanks to Erika and Romain for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us!

VivaLing - Erika & Romain - Photo 8

From Shanghai to Dubai – Gaelle, JB and Their 4 Children Fulfill Their Linguistic Hunger

Today we are kicking off a new section of our blog: the linguistic family portraits. Each month, a family shares with us their multilingual experience, the reason behind it, its practical details, the challenges if any and the guaranteed joys. The family also treats us with pictures from their personal media library. For this first portrait we are privileged to be hosted by Gaëlle, Jean-Baptiste (JB) and their four children in the sands of the Arabian peninsula.

  •  Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

From our early childhood, my husband JB and I, Gaelle, have been exposed to a global culture. We were both born in France. When I was 18 months old, my parents moved to the US for 2 years. Even though I do not remember it, my parents often tell me that I started to speak English at kindergarten. Then they moved to Africa, and they tell that I was so happy being the only blond girl among my African friends. On his side, JB moved to Brazil at the same age, and spent 6 unforgettable years in this wonderful country. When we got married, we were eager to go abroad together. We lived 6 months in Vienna (Austria) and 3 years in Chicago (USA). However we decided to go back to France to start our family… but we knew that we wanted to live abroad again with our kids. Our first 3 children were born in France. Then my husband got an offer to work in Shanghai (China) where our fourth child was born. Last year, we moved to Dubai for another professional opportunity. Chameaux - HAZ

  •  What are your best personal memories of multilingualism?

When we travel to a country for business or leisure, we like to be able to interact with the locals and discover their culture – this is how we are. Our best memories are in China where we came across wonderful people. Speaking Chinese allowed us to travel on our own in the remote provinces where guides would not have taken us. Arriving in a village as a family of 6 was highly unusual. The question they asked us the most was whether the 4 children were ours. When they realized we spoke Chinese, they became much more vocal and discussed many different topics. . Chinoise - HAZ

  • What is your children’s linguistic journey  ?

In order to kick off their foreign language capabilities, we put our kids in a bilingual program (French – English) at the French school in Shanghai. They had one day in French with a French teacher and one day in English with a native speaker. They also started Chinese lessons at the age of 5. They learned speaking and writing. As a young kid, writing in Chinese looks like a drawing game, which keeps them motivated. Now in Dubai, they are learning Arabic. They still have classes in English at school but the challenge is to maintain their level in Chinese. Panda - HAZ

  • Why do you want your kids to learn Chinese ?

We believe that in the 21st century, it will become more and more important to be able to do business with China. Speaking Chinese and understanding the culture will be a great asset to be successful in this environment. In addition, it is much easier to learn Chinese for a child than for an adult. And very few people make the effort to learn Chinese. Chinese communities are more and more numerous and powerful around the world. Companies will need people who can deal with them. Shanghai - HAZ

  • What does VivaLing bring you ?

Since the school does not offer Chinese lessons, we have been looking for a solution for the children. We first started with a Chinese teacher but we switched to Vivaling for the following reasons : – Vivaling lessons are at home and save a tremendous amount of time in commuting – Vivaling offers a strong pedagogy which allows the parents to make sure their kids are learning something. The sessions are well structured with focus on vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentences. The coach is great, has a lot of energy and the 25-minute lesson format is very effective. Parents have access to the lesson content, the video, and the coach’s feedback. It makes it easier to follow what the children are learning. In addition, the flashcard activities are a fun way for the children to do their homework. – Before we started with Vivaling, we were reluctant to lessons behind the computer over Internet. Now  we realize that it is great. Children love it and feel very comfortable with it. VivaLing - HAZ   Many thanks to Gaëlle and JB for sharing their experience. If you too would like to be featured in this series, do get in touch with us !