How Clavis Sinica can help

Initially, Clavis Sinica is based on structuralism. For children to learn Chinese characters, the part-whole and part-part relations is essential.

Take what happens to children when they encounter an unknown character 椰 in the context of 椰子[coconut][je4zi2] as an example. It is the possible relation between the character and its linguistic context. That is to say, one can make inferences about the unknown character 椰 from the linguistic context in which it occurs, i.e., 椰子. The 子 here is in Chinese linguistics called 名詞後綴, which means the character at the end of a word that indicates that the word is a noun. For example, 鴨子[duck], 椅子[seat] and 筷子[chopsticks] all refer to a “thing,” not an action nor an event, and probably so does the meaning of 椰子. This is the linguistic context that is useful for guessing the meaning of unknown characters in reading. It is external to the character.

  There are other aspects that are internal to the character itself that provides the clue to the meaning and the sound of the character. In English, for example, the prefixes and suffixes provide clues to the meanings of the words. For example, the suffix “-er” in “farmer” signifies that a farmer is a person who works in a farm. Similarly, in Chinese, there are components which serve the same function but in very different ways.

  Part-whole relation.

As mentioned before, most Chinese characters are made up of a semantic component and a phonetic component, which contribute to respectively the meaning and the sound of the character. These are the two types (semantic and phonetic) of part-whole relation between the components and the characters. In our example, if children’s attention is drawn to the presence of the component 木[tree] in the character 椰, they will probably be able to guess that 椰子 refers to something associated with a tree (i.e., 木). More generally, certain components in a character can provide the clue to the semantic field to which the whole character belongs. For example, having the same 木, the characters 林[forest], 桃[peach], 枝[branch] and 橙[orange] are all in the same semantic field of 木[tree]. An awareness of the semantic part-whole relation between the component and the character is a critical aspect of orthographic awareness.

Another type of part-whole relation is of a phonetic kind. If children focus their attention on the other part (i.e., 耶) of the character, the children may speculate that the sound of the character 椰 should be close to that of the characters 爺[grandfather][je4], 耶 (as in 耶穌[Jesus][je4sou1]) and 揶 (as in 揶揄[to tease][je4jyu4]) because of the presence of the common phonetic component 耶. In light of the speculated sound[je4zi2], the children, who probably have heard of this sound in everyday speech, is likely to associate the character with 椰子 which means[coconut]. In other words, the phonetic part-whole relation is another critical aspect of orthographic awareness that will help children to determine the sound of the character and in some cases to deduce meaning of the character via the sound.