The Graphic Factor in the Teaching and Learning of Chinese Characters
Chinese characters often leave people with a strong image due to the fact that meanings are conveyed through the graphic shapes of the characters. Most learners who are literate in Chinese and Japanese are able to recognize characters by identifying and matching them with lexical items in their languages. However, for learners who are European and American, or whose first language is phonemic and who have little previous exposure to Chinese characters, the meaning of a character is created based on their own interpretation of the graphic shapes of the characters encountered. Unlike learners of Chinese and Japanese, whose decoding strategies for characters are rule-governed, the American and European learners treat a character as a whole graphic unit and, regardless of a lack of knowledge of the formal rules of dismantling a character, which Chinese and Japanese learners use, take the characters apart and attribute meanings to the strokes and parts according to their imagination and likeness to the shape of the characters. Although the decoding process is also based on their previous learning experiences and the cognitive processing of graphics, their manners of decoding characters are spontaneous and imaginative. Nevertheless, both types of learners demonstrate that the visual stimulation induced by the graphic shapes of the characters is an indispensable source for recognizing characters even for those whose first languages may be quite different. Experimental research about the cognitive processing of Chinese characters proves that the shape of the characters is always the first element to be visually stimulated, i.e. the first step in the whole cognitive process of recognizing the characters. Although the process starts with characterizing the shapes of the characters, the characterization is not to any degree enhanced by or interfered with the frequency of the characters. In this study, the authors confirm the critical role of the graphic shapes of the characters in the cognitive process of recognizing the characters and in the pedagogy of Chinese as a second language. We discuss why and how the knowledge of the graphic shapes of the characters is essential to the understanding of both sounds and meanings of the characters. An analysis is made of the types of errors in character recognition made by learners of Chinese as a second language and how those errors interfere with the cognitive process of recognizing the characters. With regard to the pedagogy of Chinese as a second language, the authors believe that it is important to systematically and selectively introduce the etymologies of certain characters so as to overcome the difficulties and confusions raised by the polysemous graphemes, homophonic characters, phonetic loan-characters, mutilated characters and the characters that were simplified. Since many characters have been transformed and thus have lost the etymological connections with their original forms, it is reasonable to adopt modern interpretations that may not be based on the true etymology, but have become accepted in the interpretation of the graphic shapes of the characters.