While the last few decades have seen the Chinese world consume western publications of all kinds in enormous numbers (usually via translations into Chinese or original copies published in English), the increasing number of genuine Chinese publications remains almost hermetically locked away from the western world for lack of sufficient capable readers and translators, especially in Europe. The reasons for this lie mainly in the complexity of the Chinese writing system, which consists of thousands of characters (sinographemes / 汉字 Hanzi).
Reading is considered to be one of the most complex activities that our brain engages in. Visual signs need not only to be decoded linguistically, but also simultaneously linked with the reader’s personal and cultural knowledge. An experienced reader is able to process and evaluate the content of a written text at speeds far beyond that of phonetic reading, as well as anticipate syntactic and textual elements – something that especially applies to reading in a foreign language.
But while all Indo-European languages possess a primarily phonographic writing system, with the Chinese character system we face the world’s only writing system which not only carries a stock of more than 100 (in fact, several thousand) graphemic elements, but also contains semantic units (e.g. elements containing meaning) in the majority of its graphemes. This complexity has significant consequences:
- It takes Chinese school children six years to fully master (both passively and actively) the basic 3500 sinographemes (which, on average, account for 99.48% of the sinographemes used in Chinese texts).
- In contrast to what students learning Western languages typically achieve after a year (e.g. 800 teaching units), alphabetic learners of Chinese are not able to read an average Chinese text aloud correctly, let alone understand it completely, and often read significantly slower than people with Chinese mother tongue for years. As a consequence, only a very small number of western learners are ever able to read Chinese texts selectively or excursively at an economic speed, and most Western learners of Chinese will never be able to get over a certain state of “deciphering” Chinese texts.
This issue, which affects alphabetic learners of Chinese (who form only a minority among the world’s learners of Chinese, who are mostly of East Asian origin) first came to light at a conference on teaching the Chinese Writing system held in 1997 in Yichang. At this conference, the text-orientated teaching progression of Chinese Characters (sui wen shi zi) in CFL Teaching – based on traditional teaching at Chinese primary schools on one side and Western Foreign Language teaching of alphabetic languages on the other side – was called into question for the first time. The proceedings at the first international symposium on that topic (held in Paris in 1998) can be found in Lü Bisong (ed.), 汉字与汉字教学论文选 Hanzi yu Hanzi jiaoxue yanjiu lunwen xuan, Beijing 1999, Beijing Daxue Chubanshe, which focuses even more on the inherent systematics of the Chinese character system in the teaching of Chinese.
In recent years, the teaching of Chinese to alphabetised learners has increasingly become a scientific and political topic in China. The currently developing interdisciplinary field of “sinographemedidactics” needs to combine the results of sinographemics (xiandai hanzixue), L2 foreign language acquisition, and cognitive and reading psychology.
Writing linguistics shows that the Chinese writing system is the only active writing system that uses different means of visualizing language than the phonetic writing systems otherwise prevalent. Even its smallest grapheme inventory of 3500 characters (to be learned in the first six school years) is about 100 times bigger than that of alphabetic languages and at least 30 times bigger than that of any other writing system in use. This leads to the hypothesis that a different perception of writing generally exists in China and that the process of Chinese reading acquisition differs from the one of phonetic writing systems. This subject is thus of significant interest to cognitive psychology, whose latest results concerning reading Chinese will be presented to sinologists and CFL teachers during the workshop, keeping in mind that native speakers acquire the Chinese Writing system at a different age and under completely different conditions. While it can be proven that single characters are perceived by the right hemisphere of the brain because of their iconicity, while reading texts requires processing the underlying language and thus activation of the left hemisphere.
Most reading psychology study results are still limited to the question of word processing (the much more complex process of perceiving texts is still far from being understood). The average process model of an “indirect access hypothesis” via phonemic recoding for beginners of a phonetic writing system cannot be applied to CFL beginners, but rather only to advanced learners who, at a certain stage, are able to deduce the approximate pronunciation from the subgraphemes they are already familiar with. Due to the difficulty of decoding Chinese writing phonetically, this “direct access” should play a much more significant role for beginners. This means that single letters in familiar words (resp. subgraphemes in familiar characters) are not perceived as units anymore, a phenomenon that could also occur with characters of common polysyllabic words. Familiarity = frequency of characters plays a significant role in this research.
Some researchers actually presume that learning Chinese stimulates the right hemisphere, which would further underline the distinctiveness of Chinese away from general assumptions concerning Foreign Language Teaching. This workshop will discuss the role of the right hemisphere in teaching Chinese writing to non-native speakers and the possibility that the right hemisphere might be activated even more in non-native speakers than in native speakers when learning characters or reading texts because of non-native speakers’ insufficient language knowledge. We would like to know to which extent the right hemisphere can and should be activated in CFL teaching and which measures and tasks could support these processes.
The synchronic discipline of modern sinographemics (现代汉字学 xiandai hanzixue) has been in development in the People’s Republic of China since the 1980s. This deals only with sinographemes in use today, differing from the more philological and diachronic aspect of the wenzixue field, which deals mainly with the history and development of sinographemes. While the findings of 文字学 wenzixue could deliver mnemonic devices with which to learn Chinese Characters, the results of sinographemics provide basic statistics about use, compatibility, frequency, subgraphemes, construction, inventory and systematization of sinographemes – all of which are necessary to ascertain the most economic way and order of teaching sinographemes to Western learners.
In terms of cultural diversity and intercultural communication, the “vagueness” of the written (esp. classical) Chinese language combined with the complexity of the sinographemic system leads to a different value of written documents in traditional Chinese society compared to inflecting, alphabet-written languages – something that may foster special attitudes among Chinese towards written languages and their teaching. Because of this, the workshop will also cover the functions of written documents and their liability and validity in different cultural areas as well as discuss ways to define and overcome the influences of the Chinese writing system in methods of teaching CFL to western learners.
Chinese as a Foreign Language (CFL) teaching is the field objected to profit most from this workshop. Not only reading experience, but also the way how the Chinese character system is taught will influence motivation and the speed with which certain stages of reading ability are reached. Based on the fact that Foreign Language Teaching is dominated by phonetically written languages (and not only in the Western world), questions like the following will be discussed by the specialists attending the workshop:
- Does early Hanzi acquisition stimulate certain brain regions?
- Can Western learners ever master a reading speed of Chinese texts comparable to that of Chinese readers?
- How do we succeed in making the world of written Chinese more accessible for Western recipients?
- What are the connections and differences between Chinese Language acquisition and Chinese character acquisition?
- How many Hanzi do we need to cross the border from deciphering to reading?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using transcription systems (like Hanyu Pinyin) in CFL teaching?
- If there were sufficient teaching materials, how would Western learners master Pinyin texts compared to Hanzi texts?
- What is the function of mnemonic helps, linguistic and etymographical knowledge in reading Chinese texts?
- What are the global impacts caused by the seclusiveness and “hermeticity” of Hanzi?
Especially this last question is of great importance for the future contact between China and the western world. Though English will remain the prevalent communication language in world trade and science, but while in China the number of readers of English publications and documents of all kind increases rapidly, the hermeticity of the Chinese Writing system will not change. If the disinterest of the Western world in learning Chinese will not change, this could lead to a shift of the world’s knowledge to China. We hope that China will further support the learning of Chinese among Western Learners in Western countries with manpower and teaching material, not only in English, but also in other languages. The western world itself should much more focus on the teaching of distant languages and cultures than before, to actively improve the exchange of knowledge and to help more and more European and American Learners to reach the end of the tunnel of deciphering Chinese and see the light of the world of written Chinese, because the interactional imbalance between mankind’s largest two cultural areas described at the outset of this presentation cannot be in the best interests of a globalizing and unifying planet.
We sincerely believe that this conference can contribute to the mutual understanding and closer cooperation not only of different scientific disciplines, but also of the two most different writing cultures of our world.