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Does the answer to teaching Hong Kong’s children Chinese lie in the language’s ancient past?

In new approach, children use their intuition for recognising and writing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 11:10pm

An alternative approach to learning Chinese by focusing on ancient characters has captured the attention of Hong Kong educators and parents.

A difficult language for many to master, the Chinese writing system consists of thousands of characters, which mostly represent a word or a minimal unit of meaning – in contrast with English and its 26-letter alphabet.

But Chao Li-chen, a Taiwanese educator, is hoping to turn the tide. At least two private schools in Hong Kong have adopted her alternative system, known as Children’s High Sense of Chinese Characters Class, which is aimed at six-year-old children.

Chao came up with the approach after suffering a brain injury in 2002, and spoke to the Post about its creation during a recent visit to the city.

The injury took Chao, a secondary school Chinese teacher at the time, and her family to a mountainous area of Taiwan, where they moved so that she could recover; the process took two years. When she was finally better, Chao realised that her daughter, then 10 years old, had difficulty recognising words.

“She could speak and come up with Bopomofo, but she could not recognise and write many Chinese characters,” Chao said, referring to the major Chinese transliteration system for Taiwanese Mandarin.

After her recovery she began teaching at a local primary school and discovered that while the children, aged six to eight, did not understand many words, they could intuitively recognise what an ancient Chinese character represented.

“The children staying in the mountainous area were quite poor and did not study much,” she said. “Realising they did not understand [many] words, I tried different methods and through trial and error, we found that using ancient Chinese characters to teach them was the most effective.”

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Taking her findings, Chao began a study in a primary school in 2006 on the effectiveness of using ancient Chinese, where the characters are closely associated with image and meaning, to teach children contemporary Chinese.

Through her new approach, children use their intuition for recognising and writing ancient characters, before making the connection with modern Chinese characters.

Chao noted that a study performed in 2006 found that pupils taught using her method scored between 2.8 to 12.6 points per 100 higher than a control group for four different examinations at Primary One level.

Chao believes children under the age of six should be allowed to go outdoors and play, instead of being forced by their parents to read and write at an age when they are not necessarily ready, mentally or physically, for word recognition and writing.

This, she said, would help children absorb scenes and have a better sense of ancient characters.

Using the example of the Chinese character for paddy, Chao said if a child had visited a paddy field, he or she would recognise elements of the ancient character: a rice grain plant on the left side of the character, a hand holding motion on the top right part and bottom right part as a container with sharp teeth to remove the dry husk of the grains.

The educator has trained some 1,000 people in Taiwan, including in a programme at the National Dong Hwa University in Hualien county. According to Chao, there are about 100 teachers using her approach in 40 to 50 schools, including private, public and Waldorf Schools, which is based on the educational philosophy of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and emphasises the role of imagination in learning.

In Hong Kong, Island Waldorf School and Forest House Waldorf School recently incorporated this approach in their teaching.

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John Ng Sun-kit, a retired lecturer at Baptist University’s department of education studies, said that many Hong Kong children start learning writing at too young an age, with kindergartens asking them to memorise and write Chinese characters.

This, he said, resulted in many pupils fearing the study of Chinese at the lower primary levels.

Ng, who learned about Chao’s approach when he was in Taiwan, helped to bring her to the city for workshops with parents and teachers after realising its effectiveness.

He said Chinese teaching in Hong Kong did not focus on meaning, and instead placed greater emphasis on memorisation.

By taking reference of ancient characters, Ng said, the lives of these characters could be revealed, making learning more engaging.

Chao also shared her insights on the debate of whether traditional Chinese script, or simplified Chinese script, was better for young children learning the language.

“I feel that pupils in the lower levels are suited to learn the traditional Chinese script, as it is closer to ancient characters and better for understanding the surroundings.”

After mastering the traditional script, they can learn the simplified script from age nine, Chao added, noting the learning process could then be faster.

She said the simplified script could often be too abstract for young children, hence requiring memorisation rather than linking with meaning.