• Sunny Zeng

The Science of Words in the Chinese Classroom


When I first started teaching, I was asked by my colleague who was teaching a series of lessons on Chinese history to deliver an introductory lesson about the Mandarin language. I thought long and hard when preparing this lesson, and thought about its morphology (the building blocks of a language). I then described Mandarin morphology as putting together puzzle pieces. For instance, the character for a person is 人. When you put two people together, it becomes 从, which means to follow. Three is a crowd, which is 众. In addition, I can also combine two characters to form a word like 众人, meaning the public.

One student raised her hand and asked me: How come one character alone, such as 人, be a word while two characters together like 众人 also be a word? Where does a word start and end? Evidently, there is no space in Mandarin writing to help indicate the boundary between words.


The confusion also arises in how one thinks about the language. In the Mandarin writing system, each individual single-syllable character is referred to as a 字 (zì). One zì can be a word. Meanwhile, many words are multisyllabic, and are composed of more than one zì. This composition is what is known as a cí (词), and more closely resembles the traditional Western definition of a word.


In sum, a Mandarin word can consist of one character zì or more. I then asked myself the question: If a morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit of meaning, would one character always correspond to a morpheme? The answer is “not always.”


The Building Blocks of Chinese

In a character like 人, there is only one morpheme. However, others such as 河 (river) can be further broken down into particles. 氵 means that the meaning of this character is related to water (not surprisingly, this particle actually looks like three water drops). The other part, 可, indicates a phonological similarity between 河 and 可. There are different ways particles work together, but it is fairly common that one particle tells the meaning while the other part informs us of the sound. Mandarin is like putting together a puzzle after all, and explicitly teaching its character structure and morphology can help students access the semantic or meaning patterns of this language.


Applications for Learning Chinese

I have also explicitly taught Mandarin morphology to help students grasp the grammatical structure of the language. To illustrate using English, the sentence He is walking contains the inflectional morpheme -ing, which makes it clear that the event of walking is currently in progress. Similarly, these are the common morphemes that mark verb tense in Mandarin: the progressive morpheme 在 (zaì), the durative morpheme 着 (zhe), the perfective morpheme 了 (le), and the experiential morpheme 过 (guò). For instance, the perfective morpheme le is often used to indicate that an event or action has been completed. Explicitly teaching students these morphemes can help them make sense of a given sentence’s meaning as well as syntax.


Lastly, homographic morphemes (language puzzle pieces that look the same) in Mandarin can be both fascinating and confusing to learners. For instance, a homographic morpheme such as 公 can convey dramatically distinctive meanings when combined with different characters. In words such as 公园 (public park) and 公 (the public), 公 means shared by the public. In contrast, in 公鸡 (rooster), 公 means male. It is a male chicken, not a public one. Not surprisingly, language is always contextual. Our goal, as a bilingual teacher, is to equip students with the knowledge of these potential meanings and the skill to apply them to the appropriate linguistic context.


Sunny Zeng is a Master of Arts in bilingual education from Columbia University. She also holds a Masters of Education from Vanderbilt University and is an associate librarian at The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn. Sunny is fluent in four languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and French.

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