(As promised here, this is my separate post about hanzi.)
Anyone want to make some money? You’re welcome to my idea about how I think hanzi should be taught:
If you’ve never had the chance to play an adventure video game (or even some RBGs), you’re missing out on the virtually-fueled feelings of constant improvement and the thrill of using your ever-increasing resources to make progress. You’ll never know the feeling of coming to a locked door and wondering where the key is, only to find it was in the chest in the very first room of the game and you’ve been walking right past it this whole time! The discoveries, improvements, progress, and collection of items all help you work toward your end goal in those games.
I think the spirit of adventure games could be put to work to teach hanzi a lot more efficiently and maybe even more funly than it is currently. Allow me to explain.
How Hanzi Is Taught Now
The following are currently emphasized when teaching hanzi (as I understand it from people who have actually taken Chinese classes):
- Learning to write hanzi from the first day of class
- Hand writing
- Number of strokes / stroke order
- Radicals (the ones on this list)
- Learning to write 你好 (nǐ hǎo) on the first day of class
Let me go through those one by one and tell you why I think it’s time for an updated approach.
1. No need to learn hanzi until you’re already speaking. You can if you want to (indeed, some people ONLY want to learn the characters because of their beauty, etc.), but for communicative skills I think it’s better to build up a fluency in the language using only pinyin before introducing the hugely time-consuming characters. That is the same order, of course, that Chinese children learn oral and then written fluency.
2. No need to learn hand writing. Again, you can if you want to (and I would recommend Skritter if you want to because I think it’s very cool), but I think recognition is more important than handwriting. (Here’s a 12-year-old article (PDF) that agrees with me … oh … I mean, that I agree with.)
3. (see number 2) Besides, we’re looking stuff up in pinyin dictionaries or computerized / iPhone dictionaries now (one of the main uses for number and order of strokes in the past was to be to help us find things in complicated hanzi dictionaries). If you’re not going to write the characters by hand, the number of strokes and their order isn’t really that important now.
4. Some of those radicals are pretty complicated. Look, 高 (gāo = high) is listed as a radical with 10 strokes! Yikes! Aren’t there smaller pieces? (Yes there are, I’m getting to that.)
5. 你好 is too complicated for a first hanzi lesson. Once you are ready for hanzi, 你好 is not the place to start. I know not every teacher of Chinese will try to get the students writing 你好 on the first day of class, but that’s exactly what happened in some classes I’ve heard about from friends. The teacher’s idea is: “Well, that’s the first thing you say in Chinese so you might as well write it too.” Actually, as long as you accept my idea to get the students’ verbal proficiency way ahead of their hanzi proficiency (see number 1), it won’t matter what the first thing they said was (way back then). You are now free to learn hanzi in any order you want.
I turn now to Minecraft, a game I’ve never played, as the perfect example of how hanzi should be taught. (For my purposes I’ll call Minecraft an adventure game.)
My brother explained to me that, in Minecraft, you walk around and get stuff that you use to make other stuff. You have a 3 x 3 “workbench” that you can put raw materials onto and then: voila! Out come more complicated things.
For example, you can put together 3 bricks of gold and 2 sticks in a certain formation to make a gold pickaxe.
You can then use the pickaxe to do things you couldn’t do before and get even more stuff then make more stuff, and the beat goes on.
That’s exactly how I think of hanzi. Rather than talking about “radicals” in the strictest sense of the word (this list), characters should be broken down into even smaller “items” that you run around and “pick up.” Then, once you’ve got them in your “inventory” you can start making hanzi out of them.
Here’s an example of the difference between my “adventure” method and the traditional thinking:
- Traditional thinking: 好 = 女 + 子
Total parts (radicals) = 2
- Adventure method: 好 = 女 + 了 + 一
Total items = 3
My adventure method immediately shows that 好 is actually 1 “thing” more complicated than the traditional view of it.
I’m interested in learning characters in order of complexity rather than by their radicals or number of strokes. I don’t care if a character has a million strokes as long as it’s made up of stuff I already know.
So just to summarize, the adventure method is about learning characters according to:
- Complexity (which I define as number of different “items”)
- Inventory (what different “items” do I already know)
So here’s how you would “build” 好 in the adventure method:
That’s kind of complicated, and it’s only the second half of saying “hello.” Why are we doing this on the first day of class?
The adventure idea is that you’d want to learn those three “items” that are in red boxes first. But that seems a little bit advanced to me. That’s like asking the students to start making and using the pickaxe before they’ve figured out anything about the sticks and gold.
Here’s how I would start:
Look what I can do with just one “item” 一 yī:
Tada! I’ve only learned one item (一) and I got 2 more hanzi characters out of it without even learning any new pieces. The characters aren’t more complex (according to my new system) if you’re just reusing “items” you’ve already got. The complexity rating could be thought of as “total number of different items needed to make this.” So even though 二 and 三 are 2 and 3 strokes, respectively, they’re still “level 1″ in complexity and “learnable” because I’ve got all the pieces in my inventory.
Now look what I can do when I go “pick up” a 人:
And that’s just the beginning because I can now use those new hanzi to build more stuff. 太 tài would be a logical next step.
So look at how complex 你好 nǐ hǎo really is:
No need to do that until you’ve got all 6 of the items leading up to it, and there are a bunch of other hanzi to “build” first along the way.
A quick word on the “mystery item:” It’s testament to the freshness of this idea that the little cover thing at the top of 尔 doesn’t have a name or it’s own unicode character (that I know of) even though it’s used again here:
I just used 冖 because that’s the closest thing I could find that was like that. It’s ok if the thing at the top of 欠 and 尔 doesn’t have it’s own name or meaning. Some items may be useless unless combined with other stuff. But I still prefer to think of each individual, reusable piece as it’s own thing so I can “build” any characters I need to out of it.
So there it is. That’s how I recommend learning hanzi characters, and I’ve never seen anything that does this (which certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). Some things come close, but not ever quite what I want.
But don’t forget, at the same time you’re learning hanzi (or probably better to do it first), you should use pinyin to get yourself speaking up a storm. Learning the hanzi can and should be it’s own separate adventure.
An Actual Game / App
I seriously think this would be a good game or at least an app. If someone would like to make it, go ahead! I hope I just get to try it.
If you want my help (in spite of my horrendous color choices in this article), I’d love to be a part of the project. (Oh don’t worry. I’ve kept a bunch of fun ideas for the game to myself in case I do get to be on the design team [wink].)
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