How do Chinese kids learn their ABC when there's no ABC to learn?

Serious question. In countries with alphabetic languages children will be taught the letters of the alphabet as a basic step to writing and forming words. But how do Chinese children learn to write? Are there basic characters that make up words or do they just have to take each word as it comes and remember how to write it? Please excuse my complete ignorance of the Chinese language, or rather languages, I at least know there are many. I guess my question addresses Mandarin but could equally apply to other non-alphabetic scripts.

A Chinese friend, from Taiwan, once asked me about spelling, because her kids were just starting it in school and she never had it growing up for the reasons you mentioned. So I suppose the answer is that they don’t.

They learn the characters one at a time, but because there are so many they will still be learning them in high school.

In the case of Chinese kids, they first learn the Latin alphabet, and their first reading books will be in the pinyin romanisation of Chinese. Then they start learning the most common Chinese characters.

In the case of Japanese kids, the first script they learn is hiragana, which is phonetic, and has about 50 characters covering all the sounds of Japanese. They will then learn katakana and romaji – katakana is a parallel phonetic script to hiragana, mainly used for foreign words, while romaji is the Latin alphabet. Then they start learning about 2,000 kanji, which are Chinese characters used for writing Japanese, and will learn more and more of them until the end o high school.

So in each case they first learn a script that can be used to write all the words of the language.

Yes they do, since Pinyin uses the alphabet. They also frequently study international phonetics.

For their language, they study the pinyin, then begin learning the most common characters in their language using flash cards. They read, in unison, stories and poems and gradually build a large visually-based vocabulary.

I taught 12 year-olds when I was there and they could easily read and write, but they told me there are still a lot of characters they do not yet know.

Any Chinese bookstore is going to have a truly amazing selection of flash cards, posters, pads with pre-printed characters to trace, and other learning materials. Kids start these as toddlers, and study them intensively for years. It’s a lot of work.

There are lots of “roots” that are put together to form words.

For instance the symbol for water is this.

The symbol for alcohol is this

The three lines on the left are a squashed-up “water” root added to another character. This is very common.

A more obvious example are the Han characters for tree, for woods, and for forest.

Wow. That’s complicated. And I thought English was bad.

And in Taiwan, instead of using the alphabetic Pinyin system, they invented this weird-ass system of phonetic squiggles called bopomofo.

So “Ma” (for mom, the same in Chinese) is ma in Pinyin but ㄇㄚ˙ in bopomofo. Chinese is a silly language.

It’s pretty much learning a foreign language. Especially since the written language is the generally the same regardless of the dialect (or language) you speak. So, you may speak a non-Mandarin dialect or language, but you’ll learn written Mandarin. Even if you don’t speak Mandarin, you can communicate through written form.

When you jump over to Japan, a lot of the characters have changed meaning over the years and Japanese also uses 2 syllabaries in addition to the charters (kanji), so the written forms aren’t quite so mutually comprehensible. But, many of the characters are the same, so a Chinese menu, for instance, is not going to be particularly confusing for a Japanese person. I spent quite a bit of time in Japan, and learned a good number of kanji. I was pleasantly surprised how much I could read the first time I went to Taiwan even though I spoke not a word of Mandarin or Taiwanese.

In China (PRC), kids learn ABCs at the same age pretty much as kids do here in the US. Heck, the “ABC” song is quite popular.

These days, kids don’t really start with characters, but start with ABC. They also get some simple characters in parallel. For decades, China has used the pinyin Romanization system. Kids start with the Romanization, which means a US style ABC system. Character memorization starts in first grade.

Reply - the zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo system is truly a weird ass system that is not surviving the computer age. I wonder how much longer it will hang on before dying out?

I know that you know this, but it’s worth pointing out that knowing roots can give helpful hints, but isn’t anything like a coherent system for reading and writing. It’s kind of like learning Greek roots in English-- sometimes it is helpful hint as to the meaning, but sometimes the word doesn’t have a root, or the root is used in a weird way, or is being used inconsistently. It’s not like you can just learn some roots and then be able to decode new words. For the most part, it’s still going to come down to rote memorization.

Mostly, but there still are regional variations. There are some differences between written Mandarin and written Cantonese, for example. And China uses Simplified Chinese whereas Taiwan uses Traditional, two similar but not always mutually intelligible scripts.

It’s still used a lot in Taiwan; all the keyboards there have bopomofo printed on the actual keys next to the English letters (along with the roots of characters used in another input method). Microsoft even continues to iterate their bopomofo input with newer versions of Windows.

It’s probably a matter of national pride for both stubborn countries (China and Taiwan), and neither one is likely to give up their own writing and spelling system unless forced to by World War 3 or some such.

for Mandarin, pinyin is not really complicated at all and is very easy to pick up, especially if you’re already learning your alphabets for English. imho however, its use is mainly for computers and dictionaries. there are basic characters (a radical and a phonetic component) that make up words and you do just have to take each word as it comes and remember how to read and write it. the writing part, is what makes it complicated to learn Chinese.

With all due respect, the zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo system is “weird ass” only because you didn’t use it to study your Mandarin so you know little if anything about it. It is still used in Taiwan to teach school kids and foreigners Chinese and it is not having any problem with the “computer age”.

Having studied Chinese using both Romanization and zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo systems, I can assure you that the latter is a superior choice.

It is superior, especially for foreigners, because there is simply no equivalent sound in English for many sounds in Mandarin. When a foreigner first begins to learn Chinese and they see “English” letters that are supposed to represent Chinese sounds, they mistakenly believe the Chinese sounds are the same as the English sounds for that letter. This is often not the case.

The word “hot” is a good example. ( 熱 ) Using Romanization it is rè. If a native English speaker pronounces “re” (even using the correct 'fourth tone) like they would pronounce the “r” in English, the sound is just not correct. If your Chinese teacher tells you not to pronounce the “r” like you would in English, that’s fine, but its also confusing. I would much rather completely wipe away any preconceived idea on how a Chinese character is pronounced by totally staying away from “English” letters. I would prefer to be taught a completely new pronunciation symbols that truly represent how to pronounce Chinese sounds. And this is exactly what the zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo system does. The system is easy to learn and has been around for over 100 years and is not going away anytime soon.

I think he was just quoting me. I was the one who called it a “weird ass” system. I grew up with it and still think it’s weird, but then again the whole language is weird and horribly difficult to me. Alphabet-based systems just make more sense and I wish both countries would switch to English, but that’s probably more appropriate for the Pit than GQ.

You do have a good point about the imperfect translation from English phonemes though.

Difference of opinion. I learned pinyin first and then zhuyinfuhao. You’re parroting the Taiwanese line of “have to learn zhuyinfuhao” because there is no equivalent sound to pinyin. Sheesh, as if students learning pinyin don’t understand that it’s not the same as English. To use your example, “re” represents a sound unlike what we know in English such as “remember.” It’s easier for you to learn a completely different script, well wonderful. If Taiwan actually used it like the Japanese katakana system for foreign words, then I would concede maybe it makes more sense. however, it’s only used for school kids, is useless for anyone that hasn’t learned the symbols. However, making someone that knows the alphabet, learn an equivalent symbol system, to learn a character system that couldn’t be used on typewriter is inefficient. At least with pinyin, someone that knows the alphabet can work at it, can type it into documents, can use a translator software, etc instead of a single use learning tool. YMMV.

As a side note, I once read about an study that found there to be no literacy benefit in teaching the order of the alphabet first. Not all countries do that. Not all countries that use the Roman alphabet use the same order, either.

I’m not “parroting” anything. I don’t give a crap what the Taiwan Department of Education thinks. I’m just saying its a better system for the reasons I gave. Students may “know” the English letter sounds are different than Mandarin sounds, but having to pronounce the same “letter” two different ways when speaking two different languages is a little confusing.

You’re not saying that “re” as in the Mandarin for “hot” is pronounced the same as “remember”, are you?

The zhuyinfuhao system is training wheels. Once you know how to pronounce the character, you don’t need it anymore.

Typing is soon going to go the way of the Dodo bird. Voice recognition technology is fast replacing the keyboard. It won’t be long before simply speaking into a microphone on your computer will produce Chinese characters on the screen to be printed out or sent to a recipient.

My generation learned it in 5th grade, when we were taught about dictionaries. My nephews had it shoveled in by their parents but they never really understood it (they pronounced the alphabet as if it had been a single word, trying to say it as fast as possible without choking) and are not expected to know it yet; the eldest is in second grade.

How is that different from how it works with about any other languages? The French R and the Spanish R are different; the Spanish L and the Catalan L are different; they also have different names.