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Why does Memrise teach the meanings and pronunciations separately?

If you have just started to learn Chinese on Memrise, then the perfectly reasonable thought might have occurred to you, “Why does Memrise let me choose to learn either to read a character or to pronounce it? Can’t I do both?”

It is a fair question, and one with (I think) quite an interesting answer.

European languages have phonetic written forms; the letters in the alphabet are used to indicate what sounds you should make, and the sounds then contain the meaning. It would be very difficult to imagine how you could learn to recognise the meanings of words in English, or any other European language, without knowing how to pronounce them.

But written Chinese is not phonetic [1]. The characters are there to contain meaning, not sound. This leads to the rather extraordinary situation where speakers of two different and mutually unintelligible dialects of Chinese can communicate through reading and writing, even though they cannot understand each other when they speak. This is because even though the dialects are different, they still use the same characters [2], and the characters still have the same meanings in each dialect. It is just that the speakers of different dialects make different noises to pronounce each character.

So this is one reason why we teach you the meaning first and the pronunciation a bit later. The meaning of Chinese characters is universal, whereas the pronunciation is specific to the dialect that you are learning – in this case Mandarin. This means that it is actually possible and potentially useful to learn the meaning on its own, in a way that it would not be if you were learning a European language. But we don’t teach this way just because its possible; there are two much better reasons to learn Chinese that way.

First off, you might have noticed that Chinese is a fairly unfamiliar language. When you start to learn Spanish, for example, you can get quite a long way by saying English words in a Spanish accent. You can also understand quite a bit because it often sounds like English with a Spanish accent. Chinese, by contrast, sounds like gobbledygook to the untrained ear.

Our memories work best when they have a solid base of knowledge to build on. To learn a hundred new English words when you are a native speaker is a much easier task than to learn a hundred new words in a language that you can’t speak at all. Even though the English words are new, you will be able to see them used in context, and there will be connections that you can make to words that you do already know. When you start to learn a European language you already have a reasonable knowledge base of words that sound quite familiar. This is a double positive: it is encouraging, because you feel that you are making progress, but it also means that it is actually easier for you to learn more words.

By teaching you to recognise a large number of characters very quickly, we are helping you to build a knowledge base in Chinese. This will make it easier for your memory to learn more characters and pronunciations further down the line. If you try to start off by learning to recognise characters and learning their pronunciations at the same time, then building up this knowledge base will be very slow. By cutting the initial learning task in half, you can make progress faster – more than twice as fast. Then when you start to learn the other half – the pronunciations – you can learn that more than twice as fast as well. Divide and conquer.

But the final reason is probably the most important. This reason comes from the neuroscience.

You can study the way that the brain processes written language by looking at the speed with which different types of information are accessed when reading. It turns out that Chinese and English are processed quite differently in the brain [3]. When a native English speaker reads English, they first access phonetic information, and then access meaning. There is a measurable time delay; one leads to the other. In other words, the brain is finding the meaning of a word by first looking at how it sounds, and using that to look up the meaning.

When you look at what is going on in the brain of a native Chinese speaker reading Chinese, on the other hand, you find that they access phonetic and meaning information at same time. There are two processes go on in parallel, and these processes are in fact mutually facilitating. In other words, the process of looking up the meaning helps with the process of looking up the sound, and vice versa.

This makes sense if you think about how Chinese is structured. There are many characters that have very similar meanings, and equally there are many syllables of pronunciation that have several totally different meanings [4], depending on which character they represent. So if you are trying to look up the precise pronunciation, it helps to know roughly what the character means. This can help you to home in on exactly which pronunciation is the right one. Likewise if you are looking for the right meaning, then knowing roughly how the character is pronounced can help you to look it up.

As you progress with learning Chinese, you will probably be able to notice these processes going on in your own brain. It is clearest when you see a character that you have almost forgotten. You will feel yourself grappling to remember the meaning, and at the same time the sound will start to form in your mind. You will have the “tip of the tongue” experience. If the memory is strong enough, then gradually each one will become surer until the meaning and sound pop into your head a virtually the same moment. Sometimes one will be first, sometimes the other; it depends on which memory is currently stronger for that character.

The fact that there are two separate processes going on, rather than the single sequential process used in reading English, has important ramifications. It means that you can study the two skills separately; you can study to improve your brain’s ability to recognise the meaning of a character, and separately you can learn to recognise the pronunciation of a character. This in turn means that each learning task can be reduced in size to something more manageable, with the benefits mentioned earlier – again, divide and conquer.

So there you are: by understanding the pathways that the human brain uses to process the Chinese language, we can make sure that your learning efforts are concentrated in the most efficient way. And this means that you make faster progress, and that none of your effort goes to waste.

Pretty neat, isn’t it?

Footnotes:

1 Although some characters do have phonetic components, but that is a discussion for another time.

2 This is not always quite true – mainland China uses simplified characters whereas Hong Kong and Taiwan use the traditional, full form characters. But that is a technicality for these purposes.

3 Numerous papers, including: Hoosain, R. (1991). Psycholinguistic implications for linguistic relativity: a case study of Chinese. Hillsdales, NJ: Erlbaum; Hoosain, R & Osgood, C E, (1983). Information processing times for English and Chinese words. Perception and Psychophysics, 34, 573-577; Bierdermann, I., and Tsao, I. C.,(1979) On processing Chinese ideographs and English words: some implications from Stroop-test results. Cognitive Psychology, 11, 125-132; Perfetti, C. A., Zhang, S. (1995). The universal word identification reflex. In D. L. Medin (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation, Vol 33 (pp. 159 – 189). San Diego: Academic Press; Chen, H. C., and Tsoi, K. C., (1990), Symbol-word interference in Chinese and English. Acta Psychologica, 75, 123-138.

4 There are 420 syllables in Chinese, ignoring the different tones. This means an average of about 10 or 11 characters, and therefore 10 or 11 meanings, for each pronunciation in everyday Chinese.

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