Thursday, July 5, 2012

Radicals - the Real Building Blocks of Chinese Characters

Learning to read Chinese isn't as difficult as you have been told.  Yes it will take a lot of time to learn to recognize characters, but there is a method to break through the madness.  Should your child start learning Characters right off the bat.  I my opinion no.  I'm a proponent of audio learning first.  But, there is a definite place for starting early with Chinese radicals.

What is a radical?  Radicals are the building blocks that make up Chinese characters.  There are 214 traditional Chinese radicals and around 189 listed in simplified Chinese dictionaries.  Each character is made up of one or more radicals.  Learning to break up characters into their component parts will make memorizing and reading characters much much easier.

Here are my favorite radical books I own and use frequently:

Wei Chu-hsien's How to Recognise Chinese Characters, an Introduction to the 214 Radicals of Chinese Thought and Script.  This very old volume is still available (Google it) but note that it is out of print.  Note - this book is not intended for nor of interest to young children.  It includes fabulous origin diagrams (illustrations of early Chinese characters starting from Oracle Bone through modern script), stroke order diagrams, zhuyinfuhao and yale romanization.  There are two different numbering systems at work in this book - the standard KangXi numbering system and the author's own frequency order.  I found this book available from AbeBooks.

Best Radical Book:  The Composition of Common Chinese Characters an Illustrated Account.  Note that this is not a book on radicals, but includes many many of them.  This book has online reviews stating that it's selection of Oracle and Seal script is the "most definitive."  I like the bilingual definitions, the origin diagrams and the cute illustrations.  This volume could be used with kids as it tends to avoid unpleasant or inappropriate illustrations.  Parent's, always look at the illustrations before showing your kids - some of these may contain topics you find inappropriate.  I found and purchased it from Amazon. You can look up characters by subject category, pronunciation (pinyin), or stroke number.

My Favorite:  The Origins of Chinese Characters By Wang Hongyuan.  Although this volume was not written by a scholar of ancient Chinese, it is a very interesting fun book.  I love the fact that the author includes multiple versions of Oracle Bone and Seal Script for each entry.  The illustrations alone make this book worthwhile.  It is a trip through history.  The author categorizes characters by subject category, by pinyin and includes an English glossary.  It is a great way to build character knowledge by seeing where characters came from.  Although not a book on radicals per se, just as with the volume recommended above, it will have many radicals listed.  This book is also available on Amazon

Chinese Calligraphy from Pictograph to Ideogram, the history of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters is a book on radicals.  It seems to have questionable oracle bone and origin information but is highly useful.  I always cross check the information provided in this volume with those listed above.  Also available on Amazon

There are other books out there and a few that I own.  For those not listed - I either don't like them (due to inappropriate illustrations for children, lack of origin diagrams - you can tell I really really like oracle bone script/bronze script/seal script diagrams) or I haven't had a chance to see them.

For a free resource, check out my Twitter Feed @CHForFamilies #RadicalADay.  I feature 3-5 radicals a week Monday-Friday.  In one year, you can learn all 214 Traditional and Simplified radical variants.

I have written a workbook introducing the first 50 common radicals.  If you are interested in a fun, child-centered workbook in English and Chinese filled with puzzles and interactive activities, contact me at to purchase a copy.

How to choose a dictionary for you and your child

Old Fashioned Bound Dictionaries - fpr the nostalgic and everyone who is a serious Chinese student

For all of you old enough to remember thumbing through a dictionary to find a word, here are some recommendations. As an adult learning Chinese (or if you have a teen or college student) you should have two dictionaries in your home library.  One comprehensive Traditional Chinese and one Simplified Chinese dictionary.

The BEST Traditional dictionary I have used is the Far East 遠東 published by the Far East Book Company of Taiwan.  My current favorite is the English-Chinese/Chinese-English version 2 in 1 dictionary.  I like having a comprehensive Traditional Character dictionary I can use to look up a Chinese or English dictionary at my fingertips in one book.  This dictionary has never failed.  If you can't find a character in this dictionary, it is likely a very very old word.  In the newer Far East Dictionary versions you can look up a Chinese character 2-4 ways - by stroke number and radical, by radical and stroke number and by pronunciation (zhuyinfuhao aka bopomofo, or by pinyin).  No matter where you live or what you study, there will be a day when you need to look up a traditional character.  Buy one fabulous traditional dictionary and use it forever.  I am still using my first Far East dictionary I purchased 25+ years ago in Taiwan.

For Simplified dictionaries, the obvious choice is the Xinhua Dictionary.  I currently have a 2000 edition with English translation.  It enables lookup by pinyin and radical/stroke count.  It is organized alphabetically by pinyin allowing for browsing based on pronunciation.  I like that this version includes traditional variants and zhuyinfuhao pronunciation systems along with pinyin.  There is something for everyone here.

I own but no longer use the Oxford Concise dictionary.  Although my 2nd edition contains fairly up to date vocabulary, I haven't opened it in years.  It simply is neither convenient nor comprehensive.  When I really need to find a word, I turn to an electronic dictionary and when I can't find it there, I pull out the Far East Dictionary.

Electronic Dictionaries - the Good and the Great!

Android Users - I LOVE Hanping Pro.  It is a very very GOOD electronic dictionary.  This was my first dictionary on my Android phone and I've found the paid Pro version to be worth every penny.  You can get it for free and it is still wonderful, but it is better in the paid version.  Now, before you download this dictionary, read about Pleco below.  Hanping Pro lets you set your preferences to Traditional or Simplified, Pinyin or Zhuyinfuhao, keeps a list of your most recent words looked up, has audio if you want, includes Idioms 成語, lets you input English, pinyin, handwriting or speech without the need to have additional keyboard input languages installed on your device.  If you are new to Android, you must download and install additional input languages - they don't come pre-loaded as on an Apple device.  I tested the speech input and found it to be weak when speaking Chinese, but fine for English.

Best Electronic Dictionary - the Great
Pleco is absolutely fabulous.  It runs on Android and Mac devices (Ipad/Iphone/Ipod).  Pleco is a free dictionary with many many paid extension to choose from.  I have been teaching my students to use Pleco and highly recommend the paid handwriting input extension.  It tracks your handwriting stroke by stroke updating selections as you write the character.  I have not experimented sufficiently with it yet, but initial testing with two 10 year old intermediate students has been highly satisfactory.

I have the benefit of having both Android and Ipad/Ipod devices in the house and like to switch between both platforms and programs - Hanping and Pleco.  I'll be focusing on Pleco more intensely over the summer as the kids I work with are primarily Iphone/Ipad/Ipod device users.

For Cantonese & Mandarin speakers/students using Ipad/Ipod/Iphone devices -  a student of mine strongly recommends Qingwen.  This dictionary allows the user to hear and input Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciation. 

Recommendation - download both free versions if you are an Android user - give them a good trial then choose which one you want to add and pay for extensions with.

Children's Dictionaries:

I have not seen any electronic children's Chinese dictionaries so I will ONLY comment on the bound book versions I personally own.

Favorite 2:  Usborne's First Thousand Words in Chinese and Times 500 Chinese Words for Children.  Truth be told, these aren't really dictionaries.  They are thematic picture books  with illustrations, simplified Chinese and pinyin.  When you want to cover one particular topic such as the kitchen, they provide one stop shopping.  There is some but not 100% overlap between these two volumes so I recommend both.

Good Supplemental Book:  Another volume to consider if you can find it is the Mandarin Picture Word Book by Ling Li and Barbara Steadman.  This is more coloring book than illustrated picture dictionary.  It makes a nice supplement to the two children's dictionaries listed above.  I don't like the very busy black and white line drawings.  I don't find them to be appealing to kids in any way.  I do find them to be incredibly useful to parents who want to get a quick list of relevant vocabulary they can use with characters and pinyin.  Again, this version only includes simplified characters.

I'll feature a list of Radical Books in an upcoming post.  Radicals are what you really need to focus on when starting Chinese, no matter what your age.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Children's Audio Books for Ipad

For the last 6 months, I've been following the 5Q Channel.  This innovative resource offers audio Ebooks for Ipad and Iphone.  Books are available in Traditional, Simplified, with Zhuyinfuhao or pinyin.  The content is suitable for children/students at the ACTFL Novice High to Intermediate High levels. 

The animation is charming an the content features traditional Chinese folktales, Idiom stories and children's stories from other cultures.  Each story is ranked by level (level 1 is suitable for ACTFL Novice High or Intermediate Low) and age.  Note:  these stories do require a base in Chinese.  If you are unfamiliar with the ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language levels, you can read the proficiency level definitions here:  ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

In a nutshell, a student at the Novice High level is one who has mastered memorized vocabulary, is beginning to "create with language" but cannot sustain conversations beyond predictable social situations.  Students at the Intermediate level are able to begin creating with language - or utilize vocabulary to talk about topics they do not yet possess specific vocabulary for.  This is a fancy way of saying the student can talk around a topic where they lack specific or appropriate vocabulary.  They create rather than utilized memorized words and phrases. 

a.  Appropriate content for young children
b.  Great audio that is easy to listen and understand
c.  Engaging illustrations
d.  Cost is fabulous - US$ .99-2.99 per book (higher priced books are sets of 4-6 books)
e.  New content is added frequently giving you ample opportunity to build an E Library.
f.  Content contains cultural depth presenting an excellent opportunity to study Chinese culture through reading.
g.  This is the best Chinese Children's EBook site in the Apple IStore at this time.  Highly recommended.

a.  Students/children must have a strong base in Chinese to use these Audio Ebooks - Novice High or better.  This is not a product for absolute beginners but IS suitable for children in native speaking homes.
b.  Not all books are available in both Traditional or Simplified Chinese.
c.  Not all books are available with Zhuyinfuhao (bopomofo) for those who prefer this to Pinyin.
d.  If you do not know the vocabulary, you must look it up in a dictionary - the applications lack built-in tappable dictionary functions or comprehensive vocabulary lists in the back of each EBook. 

5 Q Ipad & Iphone apps

or visit them in the IStore.

Happy reading!

A Great Resource for Older & more Advanced Learners

It is so rare to find a great resource for intermediate and advanced students working on reading skills, I wanted to deviate from the theme and recommend this new product.  Decipher Chinese Reader is a new and excellent resource.

Currently available in full version for Android devices and in a trial version on the I Store, it offers reading content for HSK (the mainland Chinese proficiency exam) levels 3-5 divided into three separate applications.  The Beginner level contains 50 articles at the HSK level 2/3.  The Intermediate level features articles at HSK level 4 and Advanced has content at the HSK level 5. 

What makes this product unique?  Each article has a built-in finger tap dictionary/pinyin feature allowing you to get assistance for words you do not know.  The reader can save their progress or mark an article as read.  In the Save Progress mode, you can maintain the "tapped" words with pinyin visible for the next time you review the article. 

a.  The product only provides articles in Simplified Chinese. 
b.  You cannot create a vocabulary list or flash card set of the unfamiliar words. 
c.  This is not a product geared for young children (I'll recommend an excellent source of Ipad Chinese Children's audio books in a separate post). The articles are not selected for young children and may contain content the is unsuitable for children.

a.  Interesting articles geared for adults or teens divided by clearly defined levels associated with a recognized Chinese standard for measuring proficiency (HSK).
b.  The application is mobile.  It works on Android phones/tablets and will soon work in the full version on Ipad and Ipod allowing the student to study whenever or wherever.
c.  Finally something for advanced learners!!!!!!

I have only been using the application for a couple days working my way from the beginning through advanced levels and so far I love it. 

Important series on how to study Mandarin

For all of you studying Chinese, teaching your children, or just wondering how to get started, the following series is for you.  It outlines practical strategies for pursuing language learning based on RESEARCH.  If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Stephen Krashen, please take a few minutes to Google him.  A great place to start is this article in the Washington Post about comprehensible input.  What is comprehensible input you ask, excellent question. 

"The results of studies done over the last few decades by a wide variety of researchers and published in scientific journals support this view: We do not master languages by hard study and memorization, or by producing it. Rather, we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and what we read, when we get “comprehensible input.” As we get comprehensible input through listening and reading, we acquire (or “absorb”) the grammar and vocabulary of the second language." (Stephen Krashen Washintgon Post The Right and Wrong Way to learn a Foreign Language 6/16/12)

In other words - context  matters.  Vocabulary lists, flash cards, books, and videos that  present vocabulary in isolation fail to provide the critical context for language learning.  If your child is learning to count or name animals in Chinese, what can they do with that information?  Vocabulary in isolation is not useful to the learner, no matter how old or young they are.  But, selecting appropriate materials for the age and language level of the learner is not easy.  Our previous posts "Why Authentic Content is Best at Any Level" and "Learn Mandarin with Chinese Teletubbies" address this issue. 

I highly recommend this series of articles on how to increase your listening practice and identify appropriate content for that practice. 

Articles in this series
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)