Amazed at what she had achieved in just a few weeks of attending Professor Zhang Pengpeng's Chinese class, Lucia Shuk Ying Cheung, an American student attending Beijing Language and Cultural University, felt she ought to let others know his techniques.
She wrote to university president Yang Qinghua and said: "My Chinese language ability has improved beyond my expectations. I find that the teaching method devised by Professor Zhang is tremendously efficient and practical.
"When I first arrived in Beijing, my speaking ability was at a minimum. However after the first 6 weeks of class, I was able to comfortably speak to the locals."
Similar responses can be heard at the University of Zurich, the University of Mainz in Germany, and the University of Paris, where Professor Zhang has taught his new approaches of teaching Chinese during the past few years.
His approaches are grounded in 26 years of experience teaching Chinese as a foreign language.
Summarizing the approach in his most recent set of books New Approaches of Learning Chinese, which came off the presses of Sinolingua, Zhang has attracted equal attention from scholars and teachers in various universities home and abroad.
While teaching abroad, Professor Zhang Pengpeng noted more than half of the students would drop their Chinese class in mid semester.
"I was especially ashamed 10 years ago when a student excitedly told me his discovery: the Chinese characters for ‘shout, sing, yell’ all share the same component - a small square signifying the mouth," he recalled.
"I felt instantly that these basic rules of characters should be taught at the beginning. There must be something wrong with the old textbooks which simply adopt the same teaching method as teaching English or other alphabetic languages."
For several decades the spoken and written form of Chinese have been taught simultaneously to beginners. So whatever is learnt in the spoken language will be followed by a corresponding written character.
Obviously, in this way the characters are not chosen systematically according to their structural compositions, and the rules that govern the writing of Chinese characters are not reflected, making the teaching and learning of characters only more chaotic and difficult.
Also, Chinese characters developed from ideographs and cannot be read phonetically. This means that there is no direct relationship between the form and structure of characters and their pronunciation.
So the old approach of teaching both spoken Chinese and the characters at beginners level will not help foreign learners master pronunciation. The characters will, if anything, only be stumbling blocks to their acquisition of oral fluency.
After pinpointing the problems with the old teaching approach, Professor Zhang started new experiments, and incorporated responses and suggestions from his students and colleagues in and outside China.
In his new set of three textbooks, spoken Chinese and character recognition/writing are taught separately. Intensive Spoken Chinese for oral classes only concentrates on speaking by using pinyin (Chinese phonetic symbols).
During the first six weeks, as Cheung wrote in her letter, the students were introduced to approximately 50 new words each day. The new words were incorporated into practical conversations as part of the daily lessons.
In each lesson, these words were necessary vocabulary that they needed to know in order to use the language daily.
"For example, the conversations in the lessons include but are not limited to the following: health items, booking airline tickets and hotel rooms, buying clothes, dining at restaurants, sporting events, furniture items, directions, etc," she wrote.
"What I found most useful was that the conversations were tailored to our everyday needs. It was absolutely crucial for me to come to class each day if I wanted my stay in Beijing to be more enjoyable."
When teaching spoken Chinese, Professor Zhang also started to introduce systematically the form of Chinese characters: from the strokes, radicals (the basic components of characters), the structural components to the whole characters.
Students are asked to write the strokes and characters using the most common Chinese radicals. The unfamiliar characters became much more friendly in this way because the students are given a key to the secret of Chinese character structure.
"Professor Zhang's textbook is excellent because he explains the origins of the characters, which aid the recognition of the characters. Although reading Chinese characters has not been introduced during the first six weeks, I find that writing the characters has prepared me for the second six weeks when we began our reading lessons," Cheung wrote.
After the student is able to speak and has learnt the form and structure of characters by finishing intensive spoken Chinese and the most common Chinese characters, Professor Zhang began to use rapid literacy in Chinese to teach them how to read.
"During the second six weeks of the course, we concentrated on reading Chinese characters," Cheung explained. "Recognizing the characters was a more difficult task when compared to speaking, but because we had already mastered the speaking portion and we had been writing Chinese characters for the first six weeks, the reading was unbelievably easier."
She said that most of the characters they learned, they already knew how to pronounce from previous lessons of the first six weeks.
They learned about 30 new characters daily which were all used in one sentence. Learning only one sentence a day with 30 new characters in that sentence was definitely easier than just learning 30 new characters in a dialogue because the sentence was short and even enjoyable to memorize.
"Finally Professor Zhang used the new characters to form new groups of words with different meanings," she said. "This even further expanded out vocabulary. I never would have thought I could read the Chinese newspaper as a level A student!"
In a month, students can learn 750 characters and about 1,300 words formed from them with ease, and can comfortably cope with the Chinese media.
When Cheung and her classmates are able to quickly acquire the oral fluency by using pinyin and are given the key to the secret of Chinese character formation, they can quickly acquire reading ability and enlarge their vocabulary by using the characters to form various words and phrases.
For her and her classmates, learning Chinese has become so much easier and simpler.
The fascination with Chinese characters leads the students step by step to the depth and beauty of the Chinese language and culture, and this is what Professor Zhang Pengpeng has long hoped for in his painstaking efforts.
(China Daily 07/16/2001)