“Ei,” “ui,” “ai,” “ao” – this is the closest thing you’ll find to the rote recitation of verbs (“I, you, he/she, we, you (pl.), they”) in a Chinese immersion classroom.
In the Chinese immersion classrooms of the Avenues Early Learning Center, 3- and 4-year-olds gain their first exposure to the language. As it is for toddlers in China, the language is made available to them as a tool for communicating needs and wants. Learning to read and write Chinese characters is deferred until kindergarten, leaving children to focus their energy on acquiring the spoken vocabulary necessary to get them through the day. (That, and play.)****
For a first-time visitor to the third, fourth and fifth floors of Avenues, the classrooms of the ELC and the Lower Division are a blur of tiny chairs, primary colors and festoons of paper lanterns. But if you look closely, you’ll spot a few differences between the grades. You don’t see a lot of Chinese characters in nursery classrooms. Some in pre-K—the daily schedule, weather words and classroom materials—are labeled in Chinese. There are more in kindergarten classrooms—strung together in sentences now—and still more again in 1st-grade classrooms. By 2nd grade, the classroom walls are a hash of the swoops and dashes of characters: questions in Chinese, stories in Chinese, prompts for all manner of classroom activities in Chinese. But below each character, there’s something else, too: English letters, a mark over each. Ei, ui, ai, ao. Nǐ kànjiàn le shénme?
This is Hanyu Pinyin (literally, “Han language spelled-out sounds”): the official system for transcribing the pronunciation of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet. Pinyin makes it possible to speak Chinese without having to memorize, one by one, the hundreds of Chinese characters necessary to have a substantive conversation—which makes it by far the most useful tool available to learners of Chinese as a second language.
Pinyin exists because with no clear link between characters and the sounds that correspond to them, Chinese phonology is utterly alien to speakers of languages with alphabets. A Mandarin Chinese syllable—the sound of a character—has three components: an initial, a final and a tone. Or, to put it in more familiar terms: a consonant, a vowel sound (either alone or with “n” or “ng” at the end), and a pitch. For example: “good,” in Chinese, is 好, pronounced like the English word “how” and written as hǎo in pinyin*.* That’s the initial “h” plus the final “ao,” in the third (or “low”) tone, indicated by the little mark above the “a.”
For the first 3,000 years of its history, the Chinese language existed only as characters or, as linguists call them, logograms. Systems for transcribing the pronunciation of Chinese only became necessary when speakers of alphabetic languages, such as English, began learning Chinese. The first system to be widely adopted was devised by British diplomats Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles in the late 19th century. This system, known as Wade-Giles, was replaced by Hanyu Pinyin in 1958. 谢, formerly hsieh in Wade Giles, became xie in pinyin. Ch’ing became qing. Pinyin was developed as part of the linguistic and educational reforms initiated by the Chinese Communist Party after coming to power in 1949. The majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Chinese speakers now use it every day to type on their computers, tablets and cell phones. At Avenues, beginning in the 2015 academic year, pinyin will be taught from grade 1 onwards (a grade earlier than last year, when this video was shot).
If it’s so useful, why don’t Avenues students encounter pinyin until 1st grade, their fourth year of Chinese? The answer is the difference between immersion and other, more traditional forms of language learning: in immersion, you aren’t learning Chinese as a second language but as a “second first” language. Instead of thinking first of a sentence in English and then translating that to Chinese, students are being trained to think in Chinese. The younger the learner, the less daunting this proposition becomes.
For me, an adult learner who was made to grapple with all four skills—listening, reading, writing and speaking—from my very first class, this is where the magic of immersion lies. When students learn to speak Chinese before they learn to write it, they acquire the language in the same way that Chinese babies acquire it—as an extension of themselves, which allows them to access all kinds of information about the world. Instead of relying on pinyin—as I did, and still do—to conceptualize sounds, students in the 2nd grade (and from this year, 1st grade) and above use it to consolidate and grow their pre-established vocabularies.