Teaching Chinese Characters to my multilingual children has become one of the most challenging tasks after moving to Spain. We are a multicultural family; my native language is Chinese; my husband speaks Portuguese. Our family language is English, and our community language is Spanish and Catalan. We are fortunate to be a multilingual family, and we certainly want to take advantage of this. Furthermore, introducing heritage and culture, including parents’ native language, is an effective way to help your biracial kids to develop self-identity.
A Simple Way of Explaining Chinese Characters
Alphabet vs Chinese Character System
An alphabet consists of a number of letters, and each letter represents a different sound. English, Portuguese, and Spanish are alphabet form. English has 26 letters, Spanish contains 27 letters, and the Portuguese alphabet has 23 letters. One of the common characteristics among them is they spell out how words should be pronounced. Each letter does not have any meaning by itself.
Chinese characters are not based on an alphabet and are rather complex. All Chinese characters are structured by a number of strokes, and each contains a pronunciation as well as a meaning. However, when two or more characters combine can mean something entirely different from the Character itself.
There are two types of Chinese Characters: Simplified and Traditional; Simplified Chinese characters are used mainly in China, Singapore, and Malaysia. while Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
How Do Taiwanese Children Learn Chinese Characters?
In a Chinese class of the primary school, students usually begin with reading the story out loud from textbooks together, and sometimes the teacher will select an individual student to read alone.
After the reading session, the teacher will teach students a set of Chinese characters from the reading materials. In other words, the teacher will proceed to show the correct order of strokes of each Chinese Character. All students will raise their writing hands high up and follow the teacher’s instruction on the blackboard.
Homework will be assigned to practice each Character by writing it multiple times in a square notebook, and each square looks like a “田”. Eventually, the student needs to be able to write the characters as if in an invisible square with the correct order of strokes.
How Many Characters To Learn?
There are over 50,000 Chinese characters in total. An educated person will know about 8000 characters. However, around 2000-3000 characters are sufficient to read a newspaper or get through daily life.
Most Chinese students learn around 3500-4500 characters by the end of primary school (12-year-old), as for the middle and high school are focusing more on poetry, classical Chinese, literature comprehension, composition, and exposition writing.
Teaching Young Multicultural Kids Chinese Characters
90% of Brain Growth Happens Before Kindergarten
The neurological processing in the 3- to 5-year-old preschooler’s brains is double in speed compared to a young adult. A preschooler has 100 billion brain cells, with 77 percent located in the cerebral cortex. Cerebral cortex is the area known to control language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem-solving. Preschooler’s brain is very active.
According to Ibuka Masaru (1986), who is the founder of Sony Corporation, he is also a well-known Japanese educator who promotes early childhood education through Sony Foundations. Sony Education Foundation discovered that there is a significant difference between how a preschooler and an adult learning Chinese characters; An adult learns Chinese characters by analyzing the structures, the meaning, the strokes, Chinese radicals, or imagining it in Chinese pictograms. Adults see Chinese characters as a formation of an image build with a specific structure and form by multiple strokes! On the other hand, preschoolers learn Chinese by memorizing it as an entire image, similar to a camera captures the moment as a whole instead of breaking it down with logic.
Featured Image & book image: Chineasy
Here are a few suggestions to start:
Begin Learning with PICTOGRAM
All Chinese Characters are logogram, and they are categorized into several different types; Roughly around 600 Chinese characters are pictograms (象形), they all look like an image icon, and these are generally among the oldest styles. Pictograms are a good starting point as the “graph” seems very similar to the character itself already. Some of them are also Chinese Radical, which is one of the critical knowledge to learn before continue learning more Chinese Characters.
Without an appropriate environment, it is challenging to adopt a traditional Taiwanese education methodology with my multicultural kids in Spain. If you are also facing the same situation as a multicultural family, it is vital to be flexible, let go of the traditional teaching method. Instead, focus on tailoring the lessons and materials for your multicultural kid’s learning style and build a positive interaction. For example: If the animal group is a big topic at home, then animal pictograph set is the “go-for” materials.
Be a Story-teller
Teaching vocabulary using storytelling techniques can lead your little learner to be more actively involved in learning.
For example, “口” which means mouth in Chinese, you can point to your mouth as the character “口” looks like an open mouth!
Another example is 森林, which means forest in Chinese, is composed of five woods (木). You can start counting the number of woods with your children. Things like this can engage and motivate your child to learn.
Flashcards & Memory Games Learning
Flashcard and memory games learning for children is quite popular and, they are widely used in Taiwan kindergarten to introduce new words. Both types of learning methods involved repetition and visual memory; memory games require effort to identify the similarities and differences. This process helps your multicultural kids to learn about the characters through problem-solving.
Use “Meaningful Noun”
Each Chinese Character may represents multiple meaning in it, preschoolers at this stage won’t be able to comprehend them individually. For example 森林 (Forest in Chinese), as the word 森 can mean dark and forest; 林 can be woods or a last name! However, if you combine both characters to become a “meaningful noun”, toddler can associate the vocabulary better.
The length of each Chinese learning session should be designed according to your multicultural kid’s attention span. Be patient, mixed new words, and reviewing old words in every session. Keep in mind that the most critical part about successful learning is to spark your child’s interest. Don’t force, be consistent, practice regularly, and praise your child for hard work, self-control, or improvements.