Language Is Primary, Script Is Secondary:

The Importance of Gaining a Strong Foundation in the Language Before Devoting Major Efforts to Character Recognition


James E. Dew

Santa Barbara, California


Perhaps most of us would agree that the principal problems for Western students learning Chinese are (1) lack of cognate vocabulary, (2) very different grammar from Western languages, and (3) the morphographic script. It is often assumed that the script is the most important of these problems; however, I would like to argue that this assumption is not necessarily valid.

In the announcement for this conference it was noted that it takes Chinese schoolchildren six years to learn the characters necessary for reading competence; however, no mention was made of the crucial consideration that before they begin to learn characters those children have already spent five or six years learning the Chinese language. Although there are undoubtedly significant differences between young children and adults in their neural capacities for language and script learning, recognition of the importance of gaining a strong foundation in the language before devoting major efforts to character recognition should greatly improve the success of programs designed to teach Westerners to read Chinese.

Some General Considerations in Second Language Learning

Learning a language can be seen in terms of the following three tasks: The sound system of the language should be mastered, both passively and actively. Though I realize that language teachers do not universally agree on the importance of this principle, I think that for most language learners this task should come first chronologically. The second and third tasks are the learning, for passive recognition and active control, of vocabulary and grammar. At the lower levels of language study, acquisition of a basic vocabulary and control of basic sentence patterns - and for many languages, morphology - must go hand in hand. The effort and time required to master, or even, say, to gain working control of the grammar of a language varies greatly from language to language. However, we like to assume that eventually a point is reached where the learner has gained control of the grammar, while vocabulary expansion is open-ended and continues through years of study and use of the language.

I have outlined three basic tasks of language learning without mentioning reading and writing. I do realize, of course, that literacy is an essential part of competence in a language. However, I don't think that gaining literacy is basic in the same way that mastering phonology and grammar and acquiring vocabulary are. Fortunately for the second language learner, in languages whose writing systems are alphabetic, learning to read and write is generally closely congruent with learning to speak. Almost from the beginning of study, acquisition and improvement of reading skills and of speaking skills easily and strongly reinforce one another. And this, of course, is the point at which the task of learning to read and write Chinese is radically different from that of languages with alphabetic writing systems.

Use Phonetic Script to Build Basic Competence in the Language

Because the morphographic, non-phonetic Chinese script does not provide ready mutual reinforcement to the three basic tasks of language learning, the early stages of learning the Chinese language are accomplished much more efficiently if they are separated from the secondary task of learning to read and write. I make this statement on the basis of my own experience in learning Chinese and on more than four decades of teaching the language and administering Chinese language programs. Though I don't have objective data or statistics to support the statement, I would like to hope that future research might provide scientific basis for this view.

The 46-week army course in which I began my study of Chinese consisted of intensive spoken language drill six hours a day in classes with a maximum size of six students. Emphasis was very much on listening and speaking skills, with the students working entirely in romanized materials for the first few weeks of the course. From the point when characters were first introduced into the curriculum, careful attention was paid to stroke order and structural composition of the characters. The elementary level reading texts were, like the Yale Far Eastern Languages Institute Read Chinese series,[1] carefully coordinated with the spoken language materials so that we learned characters for words which we had already learned in spoken form. The need to produce coherent dialogues and brief narratives with an initially very limited vocabulary of characters was met by use of what was called the "rebus" method, inserting romanized words into the character text as needed. Though only about twelve hundred characters were taught during the course, the solid foundation in the language with which students completed the course made it relatively easy for them to expand their vocabularies and improve their readings skills - as well a spoken skills - independently. In my own case, when later on in graduate study I took more advanced reading courses, in literary as well as modern Chinese, I moved ahead smoothly and with relative ease while my classmates who had not had the intensive army training struggled.

Of course one could easily say that a person favors the program that worked for himself. But in my observations of others of my generation, it has always seemed that high levels of competence in speaking and reading usually went hand in hand, and the best readers as well as speakers were often those who had had the army "basic training." This observation continued to be valid throughout the earlier years of my teaching of the language, and as the numbers of those who had begun their study in the army diminished, the strong connection between speaking competence and improvement of reading skills was demonstrated in other ways.

Between 1966 and 1991 I spent a total of twelve years directing the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Study in Taipei (often referred to as "IUP" or "the Stanford Center"; and relocated in 1997 to Tsinghua University in Beijing). This program did not (and still does not) offer basic language training, two "college years" of study being prerequisite for admission. Given that students entered this program from many different universities and basic language programs, the balance of speaking and reading skills varied widely from one student to another at the outset of each academic year. However, the program emphasized active spoken language skills as prerequisite to more advanced and specialized reading courses, and there almost always seemed to be a strong correlation between speaking competence and rapid progress in reading competence. Students who had gained firm control of spoken language patterns were able to move ahead in vocabulary expansion and reading competence more rapidly and easily than those who did not have a good foundation in the patterns of the language.

The "ZT" Experiment

Although the mission of this conference is to study non-Chinese learners' acquisition of Chinese reading competence, there is an ongoing experiment in China, aimed at helping native speaking Chinese to learn to read, that I think has important relevance to our objectives. This is what is known as "The Z.T. Experiment."

ZT stands for Zh-T, which in turn is taken from 注音识字;提前读写, or "Phonetically annotated character recognition for earlier reading and writing." As reported in a 1983 article in Jiaoyu Yanjiu,[2] this experiment began in Heilongjiang Province in 1982, and then spread across the country, to the point where in 1996 it was reported that more than two million students - children and adult illiterates - were involved in the ongoing experiment.[3] Traditionally children have been taught pinyin for the first two months of their first grade classes and after that use it only as phonetic annotation for Hanzi, dictionary lookup, etc. But in the 注提 program, students actually use pinyin as an orthography and are thus soon able to read and write anything they can say. Careful studies of the results of the experiment show that students using this program not only become literate in pinyin more quickly than those in traditional programs become literate in standard Chinese script, but as they learn characters along with pinyin and are free to mix the two scripts in their written materials, they also learn characters faster than the traditional students do.

A 1999 article in 《语文教学》[4] notes that in 1998 there were more than three million students involved in the experiment, and a 2002 article in 语文天地,[5] referring to a People's Daily report on a conference held on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the experiment, reports that the number of students involved was more than four million. A 2002 web page of the 教育科学出版社 lists five 《语文》texts in a 注音识字,提前读写实验教科书 series, and a 2004 webpage for 语文出版社 shows the series of twelve volumes for use in grades one through six.

Currently this movement is also known as the 语文教改实验, or more fully, as the语文教学改革实验. Advocates of 注提 say that freeing students in the lower grades from the restrictions of the limited number of characters that can be taught by traditional methods results in overall improved intellectual development. Reports claim that on end-of-school-year tests, elementary school students participating in in the 教改 curriculum score 4 to 12 percentage points higher than students in the regular curriculum, and math scores are 7 to 20 points higher.[6]

Is This Relevant?

Of course one might ask, "Is all this relevant to the question of how students from phonetically written languages might most efficiently learn to read Chinese." I think it is relevant. As I noted at the beginning of this presentaton, when Chinese students set out to learn to read, they already know the language. Even if their dialect is something other than Mandarin, they have an enormous head start in ingrained familiarity with the syntax of the language and closely cognate vocabulary. The 注提 experiments indicate that even with these advantages, the processes of learning to use the written language are significantly speeded up by becoming literate in a phonetic orthography of the language before becoming burdened with the necessity of learning characters for all the words that they know. How much more important it is, then, for our students to gain at least a foundation of competence in the language, by working with romanized transcription, before beginning to devote a major part of their energies to memorization of characters.

And How Are Our Students to Learn to Read Chinese in Its Regular Orthography?

Among the many papers offered at this conference, I am sure that we will find excellent proposals put forth by experienced teachers who have found special procedures that work well in their classes. Undoubtedly some will advocate strikingly new ideas. I am especially looking forward to hearing the results of cognitive studies that will present new information on visual and mental processing of written text. It would be quite wonderful to find breakthroughs that would enable our students to learn to read Chinese quickly and easily. However, I think it is also possible that we won't find such breakthroughs and will conclude that learning to read, as well as speak, Chinese will continue to require a lot of time and entail a fair amount of hard work. I would be happy to be labeled a conservative, optimistic skeptic.

It should be clear from what I have said above that to my mind the most important key to learning to read and write Chinese is to begin by learning the basics of the spoken language through oral-aural practice and use of romanized texts. Beyond that, there are of course additional important considerations in learning to read and write Hanzi and Chinese texts. I think students should be encouraged to approach the learning of characters without fear but with a clear understanding that hard work is required and that memorization and rote character-writing practice is necessary.

Through the early stages of study, students should be asked to learn characters only for words that they already know from their spoken language practice, while lesson materials are presented in a mixture of romanization and characters. The importance of proper stroke order should be emphasized, and individual characters should be written repeatedly until once pen is set to paper, the character "writes itself." Careful attention should be paid to the construction of characters from radical and phonetic components. While the primary consideration in determining the order of introduction of characters should be frequency of occurrence in ordinary everyday language and in the lesson texts that are being constucted, attention can also be paid to grouping newly introduced characters so as to make use of already encountered phonetic and semantic components in building a character vocabulary.

Reading and writing should go hand in hand in development of the curriculum, and printed texts should always be accompanied by voiced tapes or audio texts on compact disks. Continuing development of spoken language skills should accompany instruction and practice in reading and writing, and indeed for many students is essential for the development of higher levels of reading and writing skills. Accuracy as well as fluency continues to be important at the higher levels of competence, and students should not be allowed to forget the importance of good pronunciation - especially tones - as they turn more and more of their attention to reading and writing.

In the later stages of study, after students are capable of reading controlled-vocabulary materials presented entirely in Chinese characters, students should be aware that by and large each character represents a morpheme and the bulk of the vocabulary of the language is made up of words consisting of two or more morphemes. Then maximum use should be made of the "transparency," or ready recognizability of individual morphemes in rapidly developing a vocabulary of compounds, and students should be encouraged to think of the writing system not as a hindrance but as a help in further expanding their vocabulary.

One final note: Students should always be encouraged to see learning Chinese - reading and writing as well as speaking - not as disagreeable hard work but as enjoyable hard work. Help your students continue to see learning Chinese as great fun!

[1] Most notably the first volume in the series, first published in 1953 as Read Chinese, then later reprinted as Read Chinese--Book One (New Haven: Yale University Institute of Far Eastern Languages, 1961).

[2] Ding Yicheng, Li Nan, and Bao Quanen. 1983, Zhu Yin Shi Zi - Ti Qian Du Xie Shiyan Baogao. Jiaoyu Yanjiu (November) and Yuwen Xiandaihua 1985 No.8:134-148. Reprinted in Li 1985, pp. 46-63.Translated in Chinese Education , l985, XVIII, No.2, pp.57-85. These references are from the first of the two Rohsenow articles referenced here in note 3.

[3] See John S. Rohsenow, "The 'Z.T.' Experiment in the P.R.C.," Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 31:3 (Oct. 1996), pp. 33-44, and "The Present Status of Digraphia in China," International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150 (2001), pp. 125-140.

[4] 小学语文注音识字提前读写教学实验, written by唐宏建 for黑龙江省语言文字工作委员会。(Seen at

[5] 董洪亮,小学生读写教改实验获成功。(Seen at /content_5210.htm. Also a more succinct article, same author and title, from 《人民日报》, at

[6] For example, 小学语文注音识字提前读写教学实验, by 唐宏建, writing for the黑龙江省语言文字工作委员会 on中国语文网 (, 19 Feb. 2003.