Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using Meaningful Interpretation and Chunking to Enhance Memory: The Case of Chinese Character Learning

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using Meaningful Interpretation and Chunking to Enhance Memory: The Case of Chinese Character Learning

Article excerpt

Abstract: Learning and retaining Chinese characters are often considered to be the most challenging elements in learning Chinese as a foreign language. Applying the theory of meaningful interpretation, the chunking mnemonic technique, and the linguistic features of Chinese characters, this study examines whether the method of meaningful interpretation and chunking (MIC) can promote learners' immediate learning and retention of Chinese characters. Mandarin Chinese learners at two high schools were randomized into a treatment group and a control group. Students in the treatment group learned Chinese characters with the MIC method, whereas their peers in the control group learned characters by the traditional method of rote repetition according to the stroke order. Four balanced character sets were introduced each day for four continuous days with three different interventions: teacher-instructed method on Day 1, teacher-cued method on Day 2, and students' independent work on Day 3 and Day 4. Students' learning outcomes of the characters were measured with (1) immediate quizzes given each day after instruction, (2) a retention test (after one week) that integrated all the immediate quizzes, and (3) an application test administered two months after the experiment. The findings suggest that MIC enhances learners' immediate learning and retention of Chinese characters. In addition, the teacher-cued method and familiar independent work were more effective for learning and retaining Chinese characters than the teacher-instructed method and unfamiliar independent work. Furthermore, the treatment effect also varied across the measurement components (meaning vs. perception), levels of instruction, and heritage versus non-heritage groups.

Key words: Chinese characters, chunking, meaningful interpretation, radical knowledge, teaching methods


The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. Department of State has categorized foreign languages taught in the United States into three classes based on linguistic distance and the length of time it takes English-speaking students to achieve general professional proficiency in speaking and reading ("Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers," n.d.). Mandarin Chinese is one of just a very small number of languages assigned to Category III, which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn. The FSI estimates that it takes approximately 2,200 class hours, with at least half of that time spent in immersion study, to reach the level of proficiency needed to use a Category III language in a professional setting ("Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers," n.d.).

The most challenging task in mastering Mandarin is learning the Chinese characters. While English is an alphabetic language whose writing system roughly represents its sound system, the Chinese sound system and writing system seem to be independent of each other. Thus, mastery of Chinese characters is difficult because of the large number of nonphonetic, visually complex symbols that constitute the orthography of the language (Packard, 1990). Students without sufficient knowledge of Chinese characters often encounter considerable difficulty in reading (Shen, 2005), with novice learners of Chinese claiming that Chinese characters are like "random symbols" that are beyond mastery and retention due to their large quantity and lack of regularity (Wu, 1992).

Contrary to students' beliefs, Chinese characters are not random symbols without patterns and regularities. An exploration into Chinese characters1 reveals that traceable patterns exist that students can use to facilitate learning characters, reading, and writing. Linguistically, the composition of Chinese characters is categorized into six types: pictograms, simple ideograms, ideogrammic compounds, phono-semantic compound characters, phonetic loan characters, and derivative cognates (Boltz, 1994; Wang, 1993; see Appendix A, Part I). …

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