How are non-phonetic (i.e., pictographic) languages taught?

How do the Chinese, Japanese, etc. teach their children to write if their language is not a direct representation for the spoken language? What are the pictographs based on, how are they organized? Is it just thousand of unrelated symbols that one must remember? I am writing a paper on “whole-language” vs. “phonics” and, although I defend it, many Asian written languages would seem to fly in the face of phonics.

To bowdlerize a bit … yes – it’s just thousands of symbols that one must remember. They’re not usually wholly unrelated, however (IIRC).

I’m not sure if learning Chinese logograms slows down Chinese children in learning how to write or not when compared to children learning under alphabetic systems. I’d suspect not a whole lot, but I’ll defer to China Guy and others on this point. is a site dedicated to Mayan hieroglyphys and is pretty cool all around. This particular page discusses the format of the Mayan writting system. Granted, it is much harder to understand when you don’t know the spoken language that it represents.

All written languages have heavy phonetic components. The first chapeter of Michael Coe’s The Breaking of hte Maya Code cs a great summary of how different writing systems work.

Well, I can answer for Japanese.

Japanese has three writing systems. Hiragana, the basic phonetic letters. Katakana, phonetic letters primarily used for foreign words (eg. camera, video, kangaroo, etc). And kanji, the Chinese style pictographs.

There are 45 hiragana and 45 katakana. It seems a lot to remember, but since they are based on phonetics, once a child has remembered the hiragana they can write (there are very few spelling hassles like we have in English). Kids learn hiragana first, because anything in Japanese can be written in it, and then katakana, because its the same phonetic system.

Then they start on kanji. They start with the basic kanji, because many of the complex kanji are combinations of basic ones. So they learn the numbers and very simple kanji (eg. mountain, river, moon) first. And they gradually build up from there. They stop formally learning kanji in junior high; from there they are expected to pick it up as they go along. I know it sounds kind of lax, but that’s how I’ve learned most of my kanji.

My six year old son can read and write hiragana and katakana, and some basic kanji. My four year old daughter can read and write hiragana. So they are basically literate in Japanese. They can read kid’s books on their own, and write letters to each other.

I hope that answers your question!

And you can map this experience somewhat onto learning to write English. The spelling of English words might have a historical basis in phonetics, but to a kid learning it now the spellings might as well be arbitrary, because they don’t know the history. Few adults do. Spelling in, say, Spanish is far easier and probably takes up much less of a student’s time.

Only about 50% of that last paragraph was spelled how it actually sounds, and that’s being generous by being loose about the vowels.

I was under the impression that the Chinese writing system was purely logographic and had no phonetic basis. For example, Japanese isn’t purely logographic because they still use kana (syllabic alphabets) for verb endings, particles, postpositions, etc. And if you wanted to, you could just write everything in kana. But I thought Chinese didn’t have an alphabet.


IANALin (I Am Not A Linguist), but, best as I can tell…

A logographic sysem like Chinese still has a phonetic component even without syllabic indicators, supposedly because each symbol has become stylized enough to no longer be recognizable as the thing it represents, and as such represents words of a language and not just objects like in a pictographic and ideographic system. Sounds like a pretty fine distintinction to me, though.

Chinese characters are organized by the number of brush strokes needed to write out the character and by the radicals, which are the primary “portions” of the character. Thus, when learning Chinese, the student typically learns the simpler characters first, that is, the characters requiring the fewest brush strokes. These simple characters tend to be the most basic words in the language, since the simpler words are usually derivations of pictures used to represent those words. For instance, the Chinese character for “person” is supposed to look like a picture of a stick figure running; the Chinese character for “moon” is derived from a picture of a crescent moon, etc.

In turn, some of these basic words form the basis for more complex words. For instance, a word containing the “person” radical (which is very similar to, but doesn’t look exactly like the character for “person”) usually relates to people in some way. The rest of the character usually (but not always) gives a clue as to the character’s meaning. As another example, the Chinese word for he/she is a combination of the radical for “person” on the left and the character meaning “also” on the right. Of course, not all the characters work out so nicely. The word for “good” or “well” (Are you well? I am well. And you?), is a combination of the radicals for “girl” and “boy”, which isn’t terribly intuitive at first glance. As for phonetics, sometimes the word will pick up the phonetics of one of it’s constituent radicals, and sometimes not.

In the end, there is quite a bit of rote memorization involved in learning written Chinese. This is sometimes complicated by the fact that the phonetics of written Chinese and spoken Chinese are different. If I were to memorize a short story and recite it in front of a classroom, word for word, the phonetics and some of the sentence structure would be somewhat different than if I were to just sit around recounting the same story, word for word, to a group of friends. As a result, you often encounter the situation in classrooms where the teacher will point out a character and say “that is the character <whatever>” so the students can associate the character with the written form of the phonetics. Then, when someone asks what the word means, the teacher will proceed to define the character using the equivalent word in spoken Chinese (assuming of course the student can actually speak Chinese in the first place). I still remember my second grade Chinese class where we were writing essays and one student piped up (in spoken Chinese), “Teacher, how do write ‘eat things’?” To which my teacher replied (using the written Chinese phonetics) “Eat things.” Since the written characters were fairly basic, the student immediately knew how to write the characters. It’s frustrating at times, but you get used to it.

To answer the OP - by rote, rote, and more rote. Walk past any school of 5 or 6 year olds and you’ll hear the chanting as the teacher points to characters on the blackboard.

It’s not totally different from the way we in English have to learn how to spell many of the words in our own not-very-phonetic written language. Remember endless spelling tests at school?

quick and dirty of chinese:

If you look at most characters, there are more than one element. The main exceptions are very common words.

Putting it very basically, one part is semantic (meaning), and the other is a phonetic cue or hint. In theory, one puts them together. In practice, it’s memorize, memorize, memorize. I wrote a paper for linguistics contending that the structure of the language has dictated an educational style (memorizing, rote learning) that has profoundly affected East Asian cultures.

Awesome, easy to understand site:


To be very politically incorrect, if they all learn phonetic first why do they still bother with kanji?

I should clarify: an individual logograph is phonetic in and of itself in that, apart from semantic associations, the symbol represents an individual sound: that word. Looked at that way it’s not completely different from a purely phonetic alphabet, like the International Phonetic Alphabet, just a million times less efficient.

Don’t worry about being PI, I think it’s a valid question.

One of the main reasons, in my mind, for keeping kanji is that Japanese is absolutely loaded with homophones. For example, kouka, depending on what kanji are used, can mean:

  1. the engineering department
  2. performance evaluation
  3. effect, effectiveness
  4. school song
  5. high price
  6. elevated, overhead
  7. descent, fall, drop
  8. harden, stiffen
  9. coin

Once you’ve learned kanji, reading with them becomes much easier than trying to read something written completely in phonetics. Another factor is that written Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words, so the kanji/kana mix helps to show where one idea ends and the next one begins.

Some educators have proposed getting rid of kanji and going comepletely over to kana, or even to the western alphabet. Most of the proponents, however, are non-Japanese, which makes me suspect they’re just getting frustrated in their studies and are looking for someone else to blame. I always thought kanji were cool.


You know, I see a distinct relationship between definitions 2, 5, and 8 there. One pays a high price in an attempt to get a good performance evaluation and can still get stiffed by the boss!

Sublight, you are my hero! You manage to write everything I want to say so coherently! Arigatou :slight_smile:

This is how Chinese is taught in Singaporean schools:

  1. Primary school: simple characters are introduced to the students. This is the part where rote memorization plays a very important role. To accomplish this, teachers make students write out the characters in an exercise book (or something like that), around 10 times for each character.

Emphasis is placed on getting the stroke order correct, which is done by getting students to write 1, 2, 3… on each stroke of a character. (i.e if the character is, say, T, “1” would be written on the ----, followed by “2” on the | stroke)

All these are consolidated by giving “spelling” tests where teachers read out a character (or phrase) and students write them out.

  1. As the students learn more and more characters (progressing from simple textbooks to more difficult ones), the learning switches from getting the characters correct to reading and remembering the sounds. Here it is done with the introduction of hanyu pinyin (the roman alphabet-based phonetic aid to reading chinese). All the while students continue to remember characters by the exercises and spelling.

Teachers will also get students to read out passages, as well as explain the usage of the characters in lessons. Similarities and differences between other characters are also pointed out. (see Caldazar’s post for more info)

  1. The above method is repeated all the while until students accumulate enough vocabulary to read newspapers and other publications, which also helps to increase the vocabulary. Students learn to associate sounds with characters due to prolonged exposure to the language, and the (slow but steady) input of common phonetic cues in characters (see furt’s explanation)

  2. By end of primary school, students are weaned off the boring and tiring exercises of writing characters. In secondary school, the emphasis is moved to getting the syntax, grammar, pronounciation correct and the vocabulary built up. This is done through the process described in step 3, rather like the way Japanese is taught.

Cool, my first groupie! :slight_smile:

IANALinguist. the question has been more or less answered when it comes to Chinese characters. It’s worth reiterating that Chinese characters are made up of radicals. IIRC there are 188 simplified radicals and 212 traditional. Chinese characters are then made up of an “alphabet” of 188 radicals. Characters maycontain a “pronounciation radical” that will give a clue as to how to pronounce the character. So, a character is made up of different radicals, and some characters may be a pronounciation guide.

Therefore, even though the average Chinese may know 8,000 characters, the number of unique characters is only a fraction of that.

In my experience, when I learned characters at University. The first thousand or so were a real pain in the ass. Brute memorization. After that, characters got a lot easier. Either I got better at memorizing them, or they started to make more sense or both. Even so, for 4 years of University, I spent between 2-8 hours a day, every day, memorizing characters.

Chinese school kids do the same. Memorize, memorize, memorize. As alluded to in an earlier post, this has to have a significant impact on thought processes, cirriculum, and a whole host of other issues.