ZHOU, Jing-Schmidt: Teaching meta-knowledge as key to acquisition of Chinese characters
The role of the Chinese writing system as vehicle of Chinese culture is undeniable. The acquisition of Chinese characters is an unavoidable path toward a deeper understanding of the cultural uniqueness of the world largest population. From a more pragmatic perspective, character acquisition is the tool to reading Chinese texts that have so far remained largely hermetic to Westerners.
This paper makes an attempt to address one of the possibilities of improving the efficiency of character acquisition by Western students—That is, through teaching conceptually accessible meta-knowledge about the writing system. This set of meta-knowledge pertains to an analytic view and understanding of the compositional principle of characters and the systematic relationship between the graphic, phonological, and semantic components of characters. The establishment of the meta-knowledge draws on the cognitive theory of metaphorical transfer and Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance in conceptual categorization. Such a set of knowledge shall enable the students to see meaningful connections not only between components of a character but also between individual characters as part of a vital system. In so doing it enormously reduces memory costs which would otherwise be high when the students view characters as more or less arbitrary and have to learn them in an atomistic fashion by rote. The reduction in memory costs provides a significant psychological advantage in learning because it combats the common fear of the ever growing body of characters to be acquired. It restores the students’ feeling of control and boost their confidence in success.
It is not unknown that many potential learners give up the attempt to learn Chinese characters because of the fear of “an arbitrary collection of thousands of writing signs”. It is time that the Chinese writing system got demystified. The demystification shall begin with a conscious pedagogy of teaching the meta-knowledge to every Western student we can reach in classrooms and elsewhere.