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Say It Right Series

A case against the 'Vacuum Approach' Benefits of Learning All Characters Upfront

Posted by furyougaijin April 13, 2008 in the Group General Discussion.

This is a LONG post, so quit reading NOW. :-) No other way to demonstrate my point, though...

As promised, my thoughts on the usefulness of the 'vacuum cleaner' approach. Years ago, as I was actively studying European languages, I went through various extremes myself, from looking everything up to periods of never touching the dictionary at all. I have also observed quite a few people adopting either strategy. It is, of course down to everyone's personality... Yet the 'vacuum-cleaner' types in some extreme cases were on the verge of OCD, while the latter types displayed a tendency to skip a significant number of details. 

If 'vacuum cleaning' were 1 and zero-dictionary policy were 10, my current personal approach would fit at mark 7, i.e. to look up:

- things that are essential for following the story line
- details that elicit a particular interest
- grammar constructions that seem unclear.

Two things are important: (1) learn to trust yourself and (2) learn to let go. To illustrate (1): words that are new yet clear from the context most probably really mean what the context suggests; grammar constructions that appear obvious probably really mean what they appear to mean. And if they don't - (to illustrate (2)) - who cares?!.. Aren't we learning this for fun?

With any language, and especially Chinese, massive exposure and lots of context ensures fast and solid progress. More is gained from seeing a word in 10 different texts than seeing it in one and learning everything about it from a dictionary. And if at the 8th text it transpires that in the first 7 cases out of 10 you assumed a wrong meaning - (1) who cares? and (2) the better you will remember the word going forward, and (3) time has been better spent on getting more exposure...

...which is particularly imporant with a character-based language such as Chinese. I have to admit that I still have a mental barrier to cross every time I see a hanzi text. The only way to overcome it is to read lots and to learn to skim the text as we have all learnt to do in European languages.

Enough talking, though, what I really wanted to do was to come up with a specific example. This is a shortish real-life text from a news feed that I try to force myself to read every day. I want to illustrate the efficiency of (not) looking up. Obviously, the below notes are only relevant to my current personal level but the conclusions should have some general value, hopefully.

(At the same time it is an illustration of how learning all characters in advance helps one to read... (^_^) ...See my earlier posts to understand why I don't have to look up the readings.)

So here goes, the original text (very dramatic):

中新网4月4日电 哈尔滨阿城区警方日前证实,哈尔滨一动物园发生了一起老虎吃人事件,被老虎吃掉的是3月24日失踪的平山镇居民张亚春。4日,事发地哈尔滨北方森林动物园园方介绍了此事的相关情况。

Now the same text with my comments, at the first reading. The words in comments are all new TO ME.

哈尔滨北方森林动物园通报老虎吃人事件 (Ok... I recognise Harbin as I happen to have a particular interest in Manchuria... 森林 is clearly the name of 动物园 which I have never seen in Chinese before but luckily it's exactly the same in Japanese. So far so good. 通报 - 'communicate', most probably, from the character components.)

中新网4月4日电 哈尔滨阿城区警方日前证实,(阿城 is clearly a proper noun, 证实 most likely means 'to confirm' - from the character components 'prove' and 'real'.)

哈尔滨一动物园发生了一起老虎吃人事件,(Here is something that DOES merit a look-up: 一起...事件... is 起 a counter word for 事件? Looks like it is...)

被老虎吃掉的是3月24日失踪的平山镇居民张亚春。(I have never seen 吃掉 before but heard someone use 走掉 in a context where it could only mean 'to bugger off'... so 掉 (to lose) is clearly helping to form verbs that show a change of state to indicate that something goes missing... so 'got eaten up'. 失踪 from its character components is 'lose'-'trail'. Rather self-explanatory. Two proper nouns again.. with 居民 in between - once again, from the character components this can only mean 'a resident'.)

4日,事发地哈尔滨北方森林动物园园方介绍了此事的相关情况。(事发地 probably means 'place where it happened'. 此事 clearly means 'this affair' and the whole bit 此事的相关情况 actually merits memorisation as it is a nice way to put it.)

据哈尔滨北方森林动物园负责人4日介绍,3月25日上午8时40左右,(Nothing new here, just a lot of proper nouns that we have already seen...)

该园狮虎馆四名饲养员在进行日常馆舍巡查和卫生清扫时,(Not sure what 该 is doing here exactly - might be something like 'it must have been (around that time)'... But the gut feeling dictates to link it with the following 园... Definitely worth checking. Yes, it is 'the forementioned garden.' 饲养员 from the component parts can only be 'a feeder'. Similarly, from the component parts 馆舍巡查 is 'inspection of the premises' and 清扫 is 'cleaning'. All rather blatantly obvious.)

在狮虎馆1号散放区发现残缺的人体尸骨,并及时通知了辖区派出所,并向阿城区公安分局报案。(散放 - the 'scatter' and 'let loose' bisyllabism could possibly mean 'scatter'... but because it's followed by 区 and is preceded by a number, it probably means a place were these big cats are kept. 残缺 is 'to harm' and 'lack' so probably means 'to hurt'... 人体尸骨 - 'bones'... 并及时 - don't trust myself to parse it properly so will double-check... but must be 'and at that time'... and it is! 通知 - 'passed knowledge' hence 'notified'... 辖区派出所... something that has this 区 under its jurisdiction (辖)... 派出所 is unclear and irritating to the point that it is worth looking up straight away. 'Local police station'. Ha. I knew it. 分局 is 'local department', 报案 is 'inform', both meanings rather logically follow from the character components. Phew... this was the most difficult sentence so far.)

案发后,阿城公安部门和刑侦人员及有关人员,到达现场,进行勘察,(案发后 - 'after it happened'... 刑侦人员 - 'punish and investigate'... can only mean 'detectives'... 到达现场 'arrive' + 'reach' + 'place where 发现'... 'arrived at the crime scene'. 勘察 - 'investigation', from the component parts.)

现场发现部分尸骨及衣服碎片,现场围栏未发现有破损情况。(碎片 - 'break off' + 'pieces'... 围栏 - 'surrond' + 'fence' can only mean 'enclosure'... 破损...'break off' and 'damage'... not entirely clear with the following 情况, worth looking up: 'dilapidated'. Yes, that makes sense with 情况.)

对24日夜间值班人员巡查情况进行了解,未发现异常;(值班人员巡查 - 'officials on the shift doing the rounds'... 'investigated'...(all from the component parts)... 异常 'different' from 'often' - must mean 'unusual'.)

24日当天,无散客购票入园记录。(无散客 - no idea... looking up yields 'group visitors' - kind of makes sense, on the second thought: 'not scattered guests'...)

现经过公安部门调查已初步确认死者姓名为张亚春,家住平山镇。(Lots of familiar proper nouns again. 调查 - 'investigation', from the component parts (and Japanese!). 初步确认死者 - 'first steps'... 'confirmed'... 'the deceased'... 家住 - 'to live'.)

目前,此事件,动物园会同有关部门正在调查处理中。(目前 'in front of eyes' can mean anything... looking up yields 'at present'. Kind of makes sense. 此事 already seen before, reinforces the previous understanding.)

3月24日早晨,黑龙江省哈尔滨市阿城区平山镇居民张亚春离开家后一夜未归。(早晨 - 'morning'... '未归' - 'not yet returned'...)

25日,他的父母沿着公路寻找一日也未见儿子的踪影。(沿着公路寻找 - 'look for'... 'public road'... 沿着 is not obvious... only because I forgot that 沿 also means 'along'. A dictionary look-up confirms it on the spot. 踪影 - 'traces' + 'image''... duh.)

5天后,老夫妻得到阿城区警方的证实,(Seen 证实 in the very beginning!)

张亚春已经被哈尔滨北方森林动物园的老虎吃了,(Just lots of names, nothing new.)

仅剩两根腿骨和头骨。(仅剩 'only' + 'left over'... 两根腿骨... 'two thighbones'... an noteworthy counter word.)

哈尔滨北方森林动物园位于黑龙江省哈尔滨市阿城东南部的鸽子洞地区,(鸽子洞地区 is the name of the district, I think...)

总占地848公顷,一期工程用地558公顷,(总占 - 'generally guessed' = 'estimated'?.. 公顷 - some measurement word, worth looking up on the spot... yes: 'hectare'...)

总投资2.3亿元人民币,(投资 - 'investment', of course: the time preparing for the Japanese Financial Service Authority exam was well-spent, after all...)

于2004年9月28日正式对外开放。(对外开放 - 'let loose for the outer'?.. worth looking up... yes: 'open up to the outside world'.. Kind of makes sense.)

紧临301国道,距哈尔滨市区43公里,交通便利。(紧临 - remains a mystery even after the look-up... By context it must mean something like 'connected by highway 301'... Not really important at this stage of the story. 距 means 'long distance' but worth looking up and turns out to be a preposition 'at a distance' - a nice grammar point. 便利 - 'convenient', from Japanese, of course.)

公园内建有鸟语林、金丝猴馆、水禽馆、长颈鹿馆、犀牛馆、(内建 - 'inner' + 'construction'... '鸟语林' - 'forest of bird tongues'?.. 'golden silk monkey'?... 水禽 - some water bird (in the literal sense)... 长颈鹿... 'long-necked deer'... '犀牛 - 'rhinoceros bull'... All of the above derived from the character meanings.)

极地动物馆等二十几个现代化动物展馆,(极地 - 'extreme' + 'land'?..  still worth looking up: 'polar'!.. )

以及狮虎、草食动物、熊、狼、非洲动物等五个大型散放区。(草食 - 'herbivorous', obviously. 散放区 - as seen before.)

Grand Total of dictionary look-ups: 13. Of those, really needed for a very good understanding of the text?.. Maybe 3 or 4. But additional grammar clarifications are very welcome.

Once again, that's 13 looks-ups. For over 70 previously unseen words.

Now, out of curiosity, let's go back and double-check all the guessed words. Tiny nuances aside, there are three instances that can qualify as missers:

残缺 - deformity, somewhat wrongly guessed, although not really that imporant
尸骨 - 'skeleton', guessed as 'bones'... This kind of error would have surfaced with additional exposure very soon.
长颈鹿 - 'giraffe'. Silly me.

THREE missers. 'Do I look bovve'd?!', as a friend of mine used to say.

Ok, 'giraffe' is a useful word to know... (Well, isn't it?!!!..) But the time SAVED by not looking up every word (and actually getting a very thorough understanding of the article!!!) hopefully makes up for missing it...

I rest my case.

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