For dualist approach to the teaching-learning of Chinese


The fundamental difference between Chinese and most other languages lies in its writing: unlike the alphabets (Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew or Cyrillic), Chinese writing does not analyses sounds, it is made up of characters 汉字 that are units of meaning.


For example, in Chinese the word "country" is called "guo jia", and is read and written by using two characters: 国 country (guo) and 家 family (jia) (the character 国 means country, kingdom, state, but is not sufficient for meaning "country" by itself).


This example illustrates the originality of Chinese language:

Word词, most often polysyllabic word, is the minimum unit that governs the oral language;

on the other hand, it is character 字, unit of meaning, that is the basic unit of the language on its "semantic side".


If we respect Chinese language as it is, we must start from the fact that two minimum units (the word and the character) are the basis of the teaching-learning of Chinese, and not only one (the word), as in English, French, Spanish etc..


Over the last 20 years, the teaching and learning of Chinese has made considerable progress on all five continents at all levels of education (primary, secondary, higher education, associations). However, internationally it is also in a state of true pedagogical "split", divided by two diametrically opposed viewpoints and orientations.


These two different tendencies are manifested in:

  • On the one hand, in the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language advocated by China, the mainstream view is to westernize Chinese, just like other foreign languages, such as English, French, Spanish etc., to teach with "words" as the smallest unit, simply extracting new words 词 (such as "guojia", meaning country) from the texts or dialogues used for Chinese teaching-learning, instead of breaking words down into smallest semantic units 字 that make up the words. This point of view contradicts the essential characteristics of Chinese language.


  • On the other hand, the viewpoint adopted for a long time in Europe and systematically developed by Prof. Joël Bellassen since 1980s is the so-called "dualism" method of teaching-learning Chinese. Dualism Method recognizes and comprehensively treats the two units of Chinese word and Chinese character. From this perspective, the singularity of Chinese compared to other languages must be respected: in other languages, writing is regarded as a simple transcription tool for spoken language, is fully transparent and does not constitute a specific pedagogical dimension. Chinese learners, however, have to confront with two kinds of related but relatively independent knowledge, which have their own rules respectively and need to adopt different strategies for learning spoken language and written language.


This dualistic approach is of great significance for reducing the cognitive burden and the learning burden for Chinese learners, thus optimising the learning effect:

  •  Dissociate more or less communication and language activities (oral expression, written expression, listening comprehension, reading comprehension) from the graphic side of Chinese (the characters, the identification of components, visuographic and kinesics memory, graphic execution).


  • In the case of early Chinese learning (primary school and pre-school), it is recommended that communication and graphic sides be totally dissociated: on the one hand, learn everyday words orally (thanks, colours, animals, parts of the body, etc.); on the other hand, learn characters according to the logic of graphic composition (木 "tree", 林 "woods", 森 "forest" etc.).


  • Give Chinese characters the place and time they deserve to be learned and exposed, and use evidence-based mnemonics to facilitate their memory.


  • In teaching, pay attention to lexical frequency and recurrence (words), but also the graphic frequency and recurrence (characters).