DEW, James E.: Language is Primary, Script is Secondary. The Importance of Gaining a Strong Foundation in the Language Before Devoting Major Efforts to Character Recognition
The principal problems for Western students learning Chinese are (1) lack of cognate vocabulary, (2) very different grammar from Western languages, and (3) the morphographic script. It is generally assumed that the script is the most important of these problems; however, it is argued here that this assumption is not necessarily valid.
It is noted in the descriptive announcement for this conference that it takes Chinese schoolchildren six years to learn the characters necessary for reading competence; however, no mention is made of the crucial consideration that before they begin to learn characters those children have already spent six years learning the Chinese language. Although there are undoubtedly significant differences between young children and adults in their neural capacities for language and script learning, recognition of the im-portance of gaining a strong foundation in the language before devoting major efforts to character recognition should greatly improve the success of programs designed to teach Westerners to read Chinese.
Working with romanized texts, the sound system of the language should be mas-tered and basic sentence patterns internalized before any substantial portion of student energies is turned to the learning of characters. Then through the early stages of study, students should be asked to learn characters only for words that they already know, while lesson materials are presented in a mixture of romanization and characters. Characters should be introduced in a sequence designed to make use of phonetic and semantic components in building a character vocabulary. In the later stages of study, after students are capable of reading controlled-vocabulary materials presented entirely in Chinese characters, students should be aware that by and large each character represents a morpheme and the bulk of the vocabulary of the language is made up of words consisting of two or more morphemes. Then maximum use should be made of the "transparency," or ready recognizability of individual morphemes in rapidly develop-ing a vocabulary of compounds, and students should be encouraged to think of the writ-ing system not as a hindrance but as a help in further expanding their vocabulary.