Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Active Learning: Qualitative Inquiries into Vocabulary Instruction in Chinese L2 Classrooms

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Active Learning: Qualitative Inquiries into Vocabulary Instruction in Chinese L2 Classrooms

Article excerpt

Abstract: Active learning emerged as a new approach to learning in the 1980s. The core concept of active learning involves engaging students not only in actively exploring knowledge but also in reflecting on their own learning process in order to become more effective learners. Because the nonalphabetic nature of the Chinese writing system makes learning to read and write Chinese characters extremely time-consuming for native English speakers, this qualitative study was intended to identify instructional strategies, methods, and activities for promoting active learning among beginning learners of Chinese as a second language and to investigate students' perceptions of the identified strategies, methods, and activities with regard to their effectiveness in engaging students in meaningful learning.

Key words: active learning in Chinese, Chinese character instruction, vocabulary learning

As a nonalphabetic writing system, Chinese is fundamentally different from alphabetic languages in its phonology, orthography, and morphology. These differences require cognitive restructuring on the part of students whose native language is a Western language (Everson, 2011; Shen, Tsai, Xu, & Zhu, 2011). Studies have shown that students in both secondary and postsecondary Chinese language classes, especially beginning students, consider learning characters to be the primary challenge in learning Chinese (Hu, 2010; Ke, Wen, & Kotenbeutel, 2001). The current study sought to isolate and better understand the instructional strategies, methods, and activities (SMAs) that support active learning of characters and words and encourage students to become reflective learners in beginning-level Chinese language classes.


Chinese Characters, Words, and Vocabulary

In Chinese writing, characters are free morphemes consisting of two categories: integral characters and compound characters. Integral characters originated from pictographs and ideographs and consist of only one orthographic unit representing the meaning of the character. In pictographs, graphic symbols resemble the ob-means tree. Ideographs are formed in two ways. One is adding a stroke to a means root (of a tree). The second way to form an ideograph is to create a symbol related to the meaning that the symbol number three. Thus, integral characters are meaning-based and have no sound-to-script correspondence. Modern Chinese has approximately 280 integral characters, of which 256 are commonly used (Bie, 2009).

Compound characters consist of two or more integral characters. When integral characters serve as components of compound characters, they are referred to as radicals. In modern Chinese, about 90% of the characters are semantic-phonetic compounds, in which one radical signifies the meaning of the compound and the other hints at the sound of the compound (Zhang, 1992). All phonetic radicals in semantic-phonetic compounds are independent morphemes, but when they serve as the phonetic radical in a compound character, they lose their semantic information. A Chinese word can consist of one, two, three, or more characters, but bi-character words make up 80% of the Chinese vocabulary corpus (Lin, 1971). The morphological structures of multi-character Chinese words are complicated. The meaning of a particular multicharacter word is not often found by simply combining the meaning of its morphemes. For word, though, means contradiction, not spear and shield. Mandarin has approximately 56,000 commonly used words formed by different combinations of only 5,144 characters (Project Team, 2008). Linguistically, Chinese characters, words, and vocabulary represent different concepts. However, in this study, the three concepts are treated as interchangeable because, in the classroom, learning characters cannot be separated from learning words, and learning both characters and words contributes to learning vocabulary. In turn, learning vocabulary encompasses learning both characters and words. …

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