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Learn to read a sentence of Chinese in 3 minutes!

By Memrise Blog


Do you have no idea what that means?

Well allow me, for a moment to set off on what might appear to be a bit of a tangent and all will soon become clear.

I want to talk about the way children learn, and the way that I believe that they should learn. Since this is the main thrust of this post, I am going to be talking about children quite a bit. I am incurably idle by nature, and detest expending unnecessary effort. So would you mind if I just created a bit of shorthand for the word “child” or “children”? How about a picture of a child? a simplified line drawing so that I can type it easily. How about this one below:

“”a CHILD”

Right, that will be much easier. I can just fit that into a normal sentence like this: 子. So if I need to write “child” or “children” I will just write 子 instead, ok?

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, how 子 learn. 子 are exceptionally imaginative people. Much more so than adults. They also have much shorter attention spans and much more energy to go rushing about and generally wreaking havoc.

When we teach 子 though, we often seem to teach them as though they were adults. We try to force them to sit still and concentrate for long periods and try to hammer facts into the poor little heads without taking advantage of their most powerful skill: their imagination.

This is well exemplified by the old teaching style for teaching Chinese characters. 子 just had to write out the characters over and over again, thousands and thousands of times. Nothing could be less imaginative. It was miserable and it made 子 miserable and it stopped them from enjoying the process of learning. And that is a truly detestable thing to do to a 子.

Sadly, because this practice is so widespread and has been around for so long, it has become the way that characters are thought of in China. Every Chinese adult thinks of characters and immediately pictures their childhood spend sitting inside copying characters.

I am writing “characters” quite a bit too, so let me just sum up this loathsome attitude to characters with a picture of a 子 sitting inside under a roof, copying character and feeling bored and miserable. Like this one:

“a child under a roof, copying out CHARACTERs. Tedious.”

I want you to really imagine and to empathise with the boredom that the poor 子 is feeling while copying out those characters, those 字. Isn’t it just dull? What 子 could enjoy 字 if they are taught like that?

What we want to do with Memrise is to bring the process of learning to life. Even the process of learning something so traditionally dull as learning Chinese 字. We want to change the conception of what it is to learn.

To contrast the kind of learning that I am talking about with the traditional ways of learning 字, it seems to make sense to just tweak the boring 字 shorthand and make it a bit more lively. Let’s put some sparks on the top of that symbol. like this:

“injecting a touch of colour helps children TO LEARN”

That should make it clear: it is like the way that children are made to learn 字, but supercharged with some flashes of lightening to make it more fun. 学 – the symbol to represent what it should be like to learn, and hopefully that will take the form of this more exciting, imaginative form of learning that I am going to tell you about.

Now this might be controversial, but my experience is that more men tend to be advocates of the old rote way 学 than women. In contrast, women seem more naturally drawn to a more creative way of to teach. Women, in general, seem more inclined to try to engage with children and to tap into their imagination rather than to lecture and drill them.

We are doing pretty well on this shorthand, so let’s throw in another bit: how about this to represent “woman”:

“a WOMAN; the more imaginative sex?”

女. Woman. Because of their generally superior ability to engage with children’s imagination (and I am not suggesting that no men are good at engaging, just that the proportions might be less) I might argue that the only 女 should be allowed to teach 子 because it is such an important task, and men are too imagination-less and boring to do it.

So in terms of methods of teaching children, I am suggesting that 子 can be helped 学 best when their teachers engage their imaginations rather than force them to learn by rote. 女 tend to be better at this than men.

In fact I might even try to argue that when a 女 and a 子 are combined, it creates that very magic that lies at the heart of this imaginative way 学. So a 女 teaching a 子 is the very epitome of goodness. It is the very best thing that can be, in my view. It means that all is well, and that the 子 are going to find is very easy and enjoyable 学.

Try to remember all those concepts together: good-ness, well-ness and things being easy. We don’t have a single word for that in English, so let’s just create one: a picture of the 女 and a 子 combined will tell the story nicely. Like this one: 好 – good, well and above all, for these purposes, easy.

So, to recap, I think that 子 being made 学 字 by just sitting inside and copying them out is not a good plan. It is the sort of scheme cooked up by overbearing Victorian fathers to force knowledge into helpless 子. In the modern age it is surely better to rely on the creativity of 女 to bring dry 字 to life and really get 子 to 学 in a fun way. I am summing up the easy-ness and good-ness of this kind of study in shorthand to distinguish it from the difficult and tedious teaching that happens otherwise: 好. Easy and good.

Actually, I should just clarify for a second. I am not talking about Victorian fathers, but their Asian equivalents; stern Chinese fathers.

Since we are talking a lot about China, it seems strange not to have a shorthand for that as well. So let’s make one.

I am going to take advantage of an arbitrary instance of two words sounding the same in English: China the country and China the substance that teacups are made of. So let’s make a picture of a China tea cup to remind us of China. And you will just have to remember that it means China or Chinese as in the nation, not the material, China. Shouldn’t be too tough though, should it? So, here is the picture:

“a CHINA cup, to remind you of CHINA”

So there it is, 汉 as a shorthand for China or Chinese.  Well, it seems that 汉 fathers in the past were keen to punish their 子 by tedious and repetitive methods 学 字. In fact, to be precise, 学 汉 字, because they are having 学 汉 字 and not any other 字, aren’t they? But in my opinion, this is ridiculous because if you use the right methods, and engage your imagination, then, as you now know,  汉字 are 好学.

Or, in a condensed form,


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