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Cracking the code
Online learning technologies are especially effective in addressing some specific challenges faced by students learning Chinese and Japanese. ANDREW SCRIMGEOUR explains how learning objects help students understand and recall Chinese characters and Japanese kanji.
THE RESOURCES DEVELOPED BY The Le@rning Federation aim to improve the quality of teaching and learning of character-based writing systems by ensuring learners have a deeper conceptual understanding of the nature of the character system and engage with a process for learning characters in which they are explored and explained in a systematic way, and therefore may be learnt and recalled with greater efficiency and accuracy.
Second language learning
Learning a second language, and becoming a successful user of a second language is undoubtedly dependent on social interaction with proficient users of the language and interaction with texts in the target language. In most second language contexts in Australian schools the relationship between the spoken and printed word is close, as learners’ dominant language, English, and the second or target language share the same orthography or writing system. The familiar (Latin) alphabet is common to most Western European languages, and to other world languages that have adopted the alphabet as a form of printed representation of speech. As a consequence, there is no particular issue for learners in dealing with the printed word, beyond developing awareness, and an ability to frame new sounds or pronounce familiar letters in unfamiliar ways as required by individual languages.
The issue for Chinese and Japanese writing is considerably different. Their systems of writing are in no way related to English or the Latin alphabet. The manner in which sounds and words (meanings) are constructed, and the degree of accessibility and reliability of the sound and meaning information that characters contain is totally unrelated to the (Latin) alphabet-based assumptions and practices second language learners bring to the study of these scripts. Consequently, learners need to develop particular ‘low-level’ text processing skills in order to access the sounds and meanings of the language, before they can begin the ‘higher-level’ task of understanding the linguistic and cultural meaning of texts they encounter.
To date the process of character learning has been problematic. A lot of attention has been paid to character practice and, in the case of Japanese in particular, to visual-and story-mnemonic devices that attempt to connect the form of the character to its meaning. These approaches have not been entirely systematic or accurate in their portrayal of the semantic and phonetic information that characters actually contain. In general, learners have been largely reliant on committing whole of character form, sound and meaning to memory without significant understanding of the actual nature of how the form itself relates to sound and meaning of a particular character, or how a familiar character component is applied in other characters, and thus how this information may be used for efficient character memorisation and recall overall.
These languages require additional resourcing and pedagogy focused not on the nature and process of communication itself, but in dealing simply with basic metalinguistic awareness; the visual information processing and functional awareness aspects of reading an orthography unrelated to their own prior orthographic experience.
Benefits of online learning technologies
Online learning technologies provide an ideal medium for addressing these particular issues in ways that face-to-face or print-based instruction may not. Learners need exposure to features of the orthography, in particular its unique forms; the components that make up the system, and the manner in which they are constructed and organised; the semantic or phonetic functions these components perform in certain structural positions; and the frequency and reliability of those functions across the character system. Online learning can provide opportunities to explore, organise, classify, compare and make judgements about form, frequency, function and reliability in interactive and meaningful ways across a range of character examples. This has the potential to enhance learners’ metalinguistic awareness and, consequently, their ability to process with greater efficiency and accuracy the specific characters they require for communicative use within the classroom context and beyond.
Chinese character catalogue
Japanese character catalogue
Broader access through learning objects
A major issue facing the project was which characters to include in learning objects in order to develop awareness of features of form and function overall. The main issue is that determining character learning sequence by communicative value denies learners the broader exposure to the structures and features of the system that can prepare them for the longer-term task of learning characters in an efficient and meaningful way. The learning objects and Character Catalogue developed by The Le@rning Federation allow learners to explore the character system more broadly in order to enhance their overall conceptual understanding. The content is therefore not tied to any sequence of character introduction in communicative or classroom contexts. Learners can explore the system well beyond the likely exposure in current textbooks and programs in order to enhance their potential to learn characters efficiently in the longer term. The learning objects demystify the nature and function, and provide the fundamental metalinguistic awareness necessary for analysis and storage of any character encountered—a feature seldom seen in any character learning resource for school-based learners, which generally restrict exposure to the prescribed minimum characters required for communicative use.
The learning objects each relate to a particular key concept identified as part of this required metalinguistic awareness for efficient character learning. At the earliest levels these relate to the range and relationships between strokes in characters, providing activities involving identifying, sorting, classifying and then using strokes to construct simple character forms (components). At the next level the learning objects introduce learners to the range of component forms, the key functional units in characters, and draw their attention to the relationship between their forms and meanings, and how to discriminate between forms of similar appearance. Other learning objects focus on the structure and arrangement of these components in compound characters. Overall, these learning objects are enhancing learners’ capabilities in dealing with the visual information contained in characters they encounter. The remaining and more demanding learning objects draw learners’ attention to the challenges of dealing with function and reliability, the two most demanding and uncertain aspects of the character-based writing system. In this case, learners are provided opportunities to organise and classify characters according to the presence and potential function of common components, and then make judgements as to the reliability of that function within each group. These activities enhance learners’ awareness of the limited reliability of some semantic and phonetic information, and also enhance their ability to learn characters by association. Their ability to use the Character Catalogue can be a key tool in their character learning in classroom contexts. The final set of learning objects focus on the function of individual characters in the construction of words, naturally a key resource in the interpretation and construction of texts for communicative purposes.
What is a Character Catalogue?
Overall the learning objects are designed to make the task of character learning less daunting and demanding, and to prepare learners to make efficient use of the Character Catalogue in school learning contexts. The Character Catalogue itself is designed to provide all relevant information on the form, structure and internal functions of characters that learners encounter in their learning for communication purposes, and to provide broader exposure to the system so learners begin to learn characters by association rather than in isolation. The Character Catalogue provides an interactive display of the internal composition and interrelationships between nearly 2500 Chinese characters and nearly 1000 Japanese kanji. All relevant information about character and sub-component form, sound and meaning is provided.
The information is displayed at three levels. At level one all component parts are organised into groups primarily according to their pictographic meaning or similarity in form. At level two lists of all characters containing a common component are provided, organised according to the location and the potential function of the component in characters in which it appears. These lists provide the opportunity to explore and make judgements about the frequency, location, function and reliability of that function across the system. This is important metalinguistic knowledge that can be applied when encountering, learning or recalling related characters in the future. The third level provides intra-character analysis maps where an individual character is deconstructed to display its internal components that apparent functions (or any useful information that might assist in memorising the specific form), sound and meaning can be accessed. Each character or component is hyper-linked to related pages so that all three levels are available as required.
The learning objects and Character Catalogue provide a unique and highly interactive resource that has much potential to enhance the outcomes of Chinese and Japanese learning in Australian and New Zealand schools.
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