A ‘new’ way to learn Chinese

When we say ‘new’ in the world of Chinese learning you may think this method just came up in the last year (or month), but it didn’t. The background on Chinese Alphabet Logical Language System (aka CALLS, but let’s just call it ‘the system’ from now on) started over a decade ago…

The Chinese language, especially the written language, has a lot of history (or baggage depending on how you look at it). We wondered how we could use this relatively new thinking to make learning to read and write Chinese easier if you let go of some of the history. Or at least relax it until people are ready to take it all in after learning the basics.

Dr. Huang first created the system to help those native speakers with cognitive diseases such as strokes. For people that had problems accessing parts of their brain that would allow them to parse or recall Chinese characters, but by breaking them apart it was easier. It was akin to finding a side channel to understanding.

In the system every Chinese character is broken into a set of different symbols that can be used to then recall those characters. Here are the 21 symbols that are used: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTU. They correspond to A through U of the English alphabet. There are more, but they are just further combinations for the first 21 (as some of the later 21 are just combinations of the earlier 21).

Here are some examples of how to break up (simpler) Chinese characters using the system:

  • 不 (no): BDCA
  • 上 (above): CBB
  • 中 (center): RC

The use of this system is meant to help English speakers learn how to read and write Chinese in multiple ways:

  • Memorizing characters as pictures are difficult and learning that they are made up of parts should be easier
  • Adding new characters to your learning is easier because you can actually write them down from the first time you see them
  • Once the system is learned a certain muscle memory can be created to ‘type’ Chinese characters from any English keyboard – this requires that you install an IME, have a custom keyboard or use a website with the system enabled
  • Searching, sorting and other general computer operations make ‘sense’ (no longer dependent on radicals, stroke count, etc.)

The last one is what really interested me. There is a huge opportunity to change how everyone that uses Chinese in computers for the better! The list above is very compelling for English speakers to learn Chinese, but this system isn’t without its problems…

First, I have found the difference between a dot (A) or a slash (D) is actually quite difficult unless you know Chinese calligraphy. In the case of 下 (below) it looks like it should be BCE, but it is actually BCA.

Also, it can be challenging to pick up the rest of the rules for calligraphy. There are different number of rules depending on where you look (Wikipedia only shows 9, this one shows 8, and this one has 12). At the least there are many more than the three that we put in the introduction to writing Chinese in the Whizz app, but we don’t see learning all of them up front is necessary. I have found personally, that I start picking up more advanced rules by seeing the system in action.

What do you think? Have you tried alternate input systems like this in your learning? Have you found it easier or harder?

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