Ting Xie, Ting Xie, where for art thou Ting Xie? Deny thy stroke order and refuse thy shape; or if thou wilt not, but be sworn my pinyin and I’ll no longer be a Chinese student.
Clearly, studying has gone to my head and loosened some screws. It has also tightened others– namely, the ones that help me remember the way to write Chinese characters, the same way every time, so that I can produce them on command when I hear them. And that is the essence of “Ting Xie” (聽寫), or in English, dictation (The literal translation is “listen, write”).
I have done a little dictation before in French, but this is a completely different ball game. In my Chinese class, we write pinyin (romanized spelling of the pronunciation), tones (1 of 4, or none), and draw the characters. I prepare by looking up every character’s stroke order, and then practicing each character 5-15 times, as well as writing and reading all of the possible sentences and phrases we might be tested on.
It is a fairly tedious way to study– however, inexplicably, it works. Preparing for and executing each weekly Ting Xie has helped me seal the imprint of a character, and its sequence of strokes, into my (hopefully) long-term memory. And the key to this for me has been practicing correct stroke order. Each Chinese character has a proper order that one “should” draw it in, to ensure a clear and consistent result, and to help you understand each character’s components and how they fit together. Now instead of thinking, What does that character look like? I think, How do I draw it?
Like learning how to play a song on the piano or another musical instrument, my right hand maintains a muscle memory of drawing the character– an imprint of long hours of practice. It’s fascinating, really, to have an interesting procedural and visual facet to learning this language– my friend and I often joke that if someone ever cut off our right hands, we’d forget all of our Chinese characters.
But it raises the question of how to teach foreign languages– is repetition the only option? Our teacher is great; she also works into the lessons structured speaking exercises, unstructured chat about weekend plans, formal presentations, short quizzes, compositions, and games using the vocabulary. But even all of these fun and richly educational tasks won’t have their full impact on our comprehension without preparation at home.
The foundation for learning Mandarin seems to be drilling, because training your brain to recognize and make linguistic sense of characters takes constant practice. And so it falls to us Chinese students to somehow drill ourselves in character writing, patterns of speaking, tonal variations, and grammatical structures–with Ting Xie as one of the most blunt yet accurate tests of how well we do that each week. As time goes on, I’ve found that the more I can drill at home, the more I enjoy class: I can focus on nuances of usage and syntax, rather than spending valuable time trying to decipher vocabulary words.
The many facets of our Chinese class have also led me to think about language pedagogy more broadly, and how I might improve the way I teach English and writing when I return to America. Though it’s been a year or two since I taught Freshman Composition at Emerson College, I do want to teach writing again. Certain facets of teaching composition are controversial among the academic set, like whether or not to explicitly teach and test grammar, how formulaic academic writing should be, and what kinds of prompts encourage students to think critically not only about texts but about the nature of their language.
Granted, this is teaching English to native English speakers, but everyone needs to learn fundamentals of linguistic communication in order to use them successfully. Not that I am suggesting we implement dictation in college freshman English classes, but my experiences in Chinese class have reminded me that mechanical tools are important in any language setting. Without adequate tools, one’s creative and critical exploration of a new language can only go so far.
Also, I would love to hear from English teachers living abroad and/or teaching ESL or TEFL in English-speaking countries– what are some tactics to teach English to non-native speakers? Does English have an equivalent to the Chinese Ting Xie– a practice that reinforces some of the really important basic mechanical skills required to succeed at learning English? Or for that matter, when teaching and learning another language?