Learning Chinese through Spoken Language
by Chou Sing Chu Foundation
Learning a new language means learning how to read and write in that language. Limiting the use of language to only writing is like building a house without a door. As the most basic usage of language, speech preceded the written word, as humanity passed on its history through the generations by oral narratives and songs. A great majority of the classics have exceptional rhythmic qualities, and can certainly be recited. For example, The Classic of Poetry collects several folk songs that have been passed down over more than 3,000 years through singing. In that case, how can we help children become proficient in spoken language?
Reading and Recapitulating: A Two-Pronged Approach
The first step, reading aloud. Students are often asked to read texts aloud in classes. Such reading requires accuracy in pronunciation, clarity in articulation and rhythm. Indeed, reading is the first segment of the Chinese oral examinations. Reading can be practised at any time, and the materials can be adopted based on local requirements — for example, by making full use of Chinese textbooks. The Chinese textbooks used in schools are typically compiled and edited with care by education experts, ensuring suitability for use across different grades. Words and phrases new to students are indicated in each text as well. Simply pick one or two paragraphs of approximately 200 to 300 words in length, and read it out loud. Reading aloud can uncover gaps in learning that writing alone cannot. For instance, uncertainty about the pronunciation of words makes it impossible to read them out aloud, while failing to understand sentences affects expression.
The second step, recapitulating the content of the text. Recapitulating a text is more demanding than simply reading it aloud. Without a thorough understanding of its contents, it is impossible to accurately recapitulate a text. Besides comprehension, students also need to master the structure of the text and arrange its contents as they re-present it in their own words. These processes are unique to spoken language, and are difficult to achieve on the page. Additionally, recapitulation is not just reciting from memory, it requires the reorganisation of content and the use of one’s own words. As such, it demands a definite grasp of word choice, synonyms, phrases, grammar, and so on. In other words, the ability to completely reiterate the contents of a text confirms a level of comprehension.
Storytelling to Discover Creativity in Language
There is no doubt about the effectiveness of using spoken language to improve the learning of Chinese. Many students and parents have the impression that Chinese is difficult to learn, or that it has no practical usage in Singapore. As one of the oldest languages, the beauty of the Chinese language is expressed all over the world today through its words and rhythm in various forms like words games and opera. Learning Chinese can be interesting and enjoyable. Mastering Chinese is like holding a key in one’s hands, allowing one to open the massive door leading to endless knowledge.
In 2015, Chou Sing Chu Foundation began organising storytelling activities in Singapore’s public libraries. Dubbed “Stories Come Alive”, they address the capacity of children for reiteration by using language creatively. Vividly presented by our volunteers using creatively designed panels and storytelling aids, these activities demonstrated the re-presentation of content to the children. Pick up an article and read it out loud; take part in a story and give it a creative new expression—just speak up to begin learning Chinese!
Please visit our events page to check the latest storytelling schedules.
The stories used in these storytelling sessions are taken from the Chou Sing Chu Foundation’s educational repository and are suitable for children between the ages of four and ten. Please visit our publications page for more information.