Opting for characters over pinyin
By Burcu Celebi(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-06-16 06:19

I am a Turkish woman, aged 29, who has been living in Yantai of East China's Shandong Province for more than a year. I have come to this country because of my husband's job and had high hopes of finding a job and continuing my career in China.

On top of my list was, of course, learning Chinese. However, I did not imagine that it would be my only purpose at the time.

After realizing that my English in Yantai was as useful as my Turkish and neither was particularly so I decided to take advantage of this break from professional life. I thought, if I could learn Chinese language within this break, it would lead to different career paths in the future.

There was one small problem I totally neglected: How?

I talked to some of the foreigners who have tried different methods since their arrival and made up my mind that learning pinyin (the phonetic system for Chinese characters) was easier and faster than learning Chinese characters.

At that point I met Wang Shuda, my current teacher, who has been studying this language for many years and developed his own method of teaching Chinese to foreigners. We decided to have one-on-one lessons and in the first lesson he convinced me that learning Chinese characters would provide a stronger base for my further studies.

He explained that although pinyin is easier, it may cause a lot of misunderstandings in the future. He proved it by simply choosing a sound and showing the dictionary pages of that sound. The example was "shi" and there were at least 10 pages of characters with this sound. Some even had the same tone.

After nine months I am still having trouble with the tones, so if I had studied only the pinyin I would still be having difficulty. At least now I can read some of the characters and I am not totally lost.

He showed me his own books, which were hand-written and copied for me. The first one consisted of the most common characters, their pinyin and English translations starting with basic and relatively simple ones and continuing with more complex characters.

He included not only the characters but their combinations with other characters so that once I learn a new character I would learn at least six to 10 combinations and expand my vocabulary.

The second book contained simple sentences constructed using the characters in the first book and very little grammar. Characters were written big and very clear, so as not to scare me.

Finally the third book contained sentences, dialogues and stories prepared by the characters in the first book. But this one contained more grammar and writing examples and was closer to handwriting, which made it overwhelming at first glance.

In the beginning it was painful for the same reasons of learning any foreign language making very slow progress, losing motivation, and "losing face" trying to practise what I have learned with locals who didn't seem to understand what I thought was correct.

I started to have fewer classes and even thought about giving up though I was so determined and motivated in the beginning. It was my teacher who saved me from my dilemma and helped me re-build my interest.

First he suggested I practise writing the characters. He told me that for other languages the key to learning is to speak as much as possible, but with Chinese the trick is to write and repeat the process as much as possible.

So I bought a notebook, which has boxes instead of lines and in which you repeatedly write the Chinese characters. Then he began to relate some of the characters with well-known legends, stories and sayings.

This way he pulled me into the culture and, as he always, "created an interest" in me to continue learning.

Thousands of years of history has made this culture so rich that once you have a taste of it, you really want to pursue more. This helps your motivation stay fresh and furthermore gives you a totally new perspective.

And finally I realized that self-study is one of the most important things to learn Chinese, as it is with all other languages. I started to study at home at least three to four hours a day and come up with my own questions.

I don't know if I would have the same determination if I had a job and was working here. Depending on the nature of this language, the progress is still slow no matter what I try and I have to keep my spirits high through this interesting adventure.

I consider myself very lucky to have met my teacher and have taken his advice of studying the characters in the first place.

It is much easier to find the right way and to stay on it rather than changing paths and trying different methods.

(China Daily 06/16/2006 page14)