Generally speaking, Chinese is widely considered one of the hardest languages to learn and to teach. What about children who are ethnic minorities (EM) in Chinese societies, those whose first language is very different from Chinese but must learn Chinese in school? How do they learn? What are the issues for them?
EM children, whose native languages are typically written using some type of alphabetic or alphabetic-like system, likely rely heavily on letter-name knowledge and phonological processing skills in learning to read. In addition, EM children and their families often encounter various barriers in becoming literate in Chinese. For example, EM children have difficulties with homework and often feel frustrated in their Chinese classes, which in many cases seem not to match well with their skills. Often, their parents are not proficient in reading and writing in Chinese and are unable to help their children with basic Chinese literacy acquisition. Therefore, it is not surprising that the EM children consistently encounter difficulties in learning Chinese. One of our studies suggested that EM children might rely more on phonological knowledge in learning Chinese as compared to native-Chinese speaking children.
In that research, we also conducted an experiment that included 34 EM children whose native languages were Nepalese, Urdu and Hindi, and 29 native Chinese (Cantonese-speaking—from Hong Kong) children from second and third grades. By comparing four methods to learn Chinese characters (copying, radical awareness, phonological coding and look–say), we found that copying practice is the most helpful method for Chinese writing for both the EM and native Chinese children. In addition, radical knowledge facilitated Chinese reading only for native Chinese children, but not for the EM children. However, phonological knowledge best facilitated Chinese reading only for the EM children.
Practically, school teachers could assist EM children in practicing copying extensively and also in using phonological knowledge, such as the Cantonese pinyin system, in learning to read and write in Chinese. Immigrant parents can also understand the importance of copying practice and can easily learn how to use a phonological system, if advocated/taught by the government, to help their children. Additionally, our findings may be helpful in developing more effective learning and teaching materials for second-language learners, even adults (e.g., EM children’s parents), to learn Chinese during the beginning stages.
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This article was written by our guest blogger Dr. WANG, Ying. Dr. Wang is currently a post-doctoral fellow of the Department of Psychology in University of Michigan. Her areas of expertise are early childhood development and education; early literacy development; development of executive functions and the impact of home and school experience.