Chinese is one of the most commonly used languages in the world, spoken by almost one fifth of the world’s population. With the recent influx of immigrants from Chinese speaking regions, in the U.S., Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) is the second most common foreign language spoken by those living on U.S. soil, following Spanish (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).
Driven by the recent rise of China as an active global economic entity with the fastest growth rate, within Chinese communities there emerged great needs to maintain the Chinese language and culture among the younger generations. Therefore, Chinese as a heritage language (CHL) learning is fast expanding in community language schools, mainstream schools, and universities.
From 2002 to 2005, the total enrollments in Chinese community schools reached 160,000, which was four to five times the Chinese enrolment in K-12 schools in 2002 (McGinnis, 2005). Chinese programs in K-12 schools have increased 200% from 2004 to 2008 (College Board Internal Study, 2008). At the university level, based on the 2006 survey of foreign language enrollments in U.S. institutions of higher education conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA), students learning Chinese increased 51% since the last MLA survey in 2002 (Furman, Goldberg, & Lusin, 2007).
With the economic growth of mainland China, Mandarin spoken in the mainland context is gaining increasing importance, and many learners with different dialect backgrounds are learning Mandarin as the heritage language. Realizing the complexity of learning Chinese as a heritage.
In the U.S., the opportunities of speaking Chinese are seldom outside home. Therefore, CHL learners are mainly learning Chinese from three backgrounds. The first setting is their home language background. Chinese is often spoken at home and considered as their “mother tongue” or “home language.” The second context is their interaction background in society. English is the communication tool in the school and other outside communication environments. The interaction in the family is back to the “native language”, which is Chinese. This intertwining language situation makes a bilingual environment for CHL learners. The third context is the community heritage background. Comanaru and Noels (2009) found that CHL learners felt more strongly that Chinese community was a central part of their self-concept. Compared with the non-CHL learners, the CHL learners reported a higher frequency of contact with the community as well as more use of the heritage language outside of the classroom.
The first challenge is helping students to develop the structural awareness of characters. In general, Chinese characters are made of eight single strokes and their variations. Therefore, the understanding of the character’s internal structure significantly affects recognition as well as the reading of the characters.
The second challenge is memorizing proper stroke order for writing Chinese characters. The execution of the correct stroke sequence has traditionally been suggested as the key to accurate production and recognition of Chinese characters. However, it is common for students make errors in stroke sequencing, even after being repeatedly taught stroke order rules.
The last challenge is related to pronunciation. Unlike languages with alphabets, such as English, use letters to spell words, Chinese characters often do not indicate pronunciation. What makes it more confused is that a substantial portion of Chinese characters corresponds to multiple pronunciations. As a result, an extra mental effort must be made to connect the pronunciation of each character with its written form.
The traditional approach to teach Chinese characters is rote learning, which has a heavy emphasis on copying and repeating. To ensure that students memorize the order of strokes in the characters correctly by heart, teachers often ask them to practice writing every character several times until its recall is automatic. As a result, it is common to find students writing a single character one hundred times on their workbooks.
The primary method for assessing student learning in this traditional approach is dictation, which requires students to write Chinese characters upon hearing the words. If students make errors, they usually must write the characters correctly multiple times as a homework. In the light of practices as mentioned earlier, most learners find the traditional approach of learning Chinese characters is laborious, demanding and tedious.
To improve the learning process and make it more appealing to learners, over the years, various teachers and scholars have developed a range of new pedagogies to teaching Chinese characters. Teachers in the Hebei province of China adopted a strategy which emphasizes instruction on structure and form of characters.
This approach helps learners to remember the character by understanding its internal components. In Anhui and Hunan province, the students are encouraged to associate characters and their forms using creative thinking (Li, 1989). Guessing games are common practice in this approach (Dai, 1998). The pedagogy widely used in Tianjin focuses on speech and text association. By listening to the speech and tracing characters synchronously, students integrate the sound and meaning of words with the form of the character (Gu & Tian, 1999). Liaoning province adopts the strategy of teaching character clusters with similar or the same radicals (Zhang et al., 1995), and characters possessing the same rhyme (Jiang, 1997). This pedagogy enables students to memorize many words within a short amount of time. Although no single approach has been identified as the best method for teaching Chinese characters, each strategy has its merits and strengths and appeals to different teachers.