Language As Pattern Recognition

By Dr. Haiyan Fan

Why does a foreign language sound and look foreign to us? Why do we easily get lost and confused in a foreign country? Succeeding in a new environment is largely a task of pattern recognition. Language is composed of patterns, and learning to recognize them is essential for language learning success.

Once a pattern is identified, one can form an assessment and respond to environmental cues.  For example, a driver, upon seeing a red light, will come to a stop in front of the traffic light. A class of chattery kindergarteners will suddenly quiet down after hearing their teacher’s rhythmic hand clapping, which they all recognize as an indication that it is time to be quiet.  Once we identify these patterns in a new language, we can set up "beacons."

The word beacon comes from an Old English word meaning “sign." The Oxford English Dictionary defines a beacon as "a light or other visible object serving as a signal, warning, or guide." Beacons are beneficial for pattern recognition because they are easily recognizable.

The reason a new language sounds and looks foreign to us is because in our brain, the beacons that help us decipher the code and to interpret meanings are non-existent. The goal of language learning is to establish three types of language beacons in our brains. 

  1. Visual beacons help identify patterns in written characters or pictographs

  2. Sound beacons help us recognize patterns in pronunciation and tone

  3. Semantic beacons help us identify and recognize patterns in meaning.

Establishing these three types of beacons is essential for any language to be heard, spoken, read, and understood. 

Because Chinese is a pictographic language by nature, the visual appearance of the written characters reveals their meaning. Hence, by “beaconizing” the building blocks of Chinese - that is the singles and radicals - we can establish strong links between appearance and meaning. 

For example,

日 (rì) resembles the pictorial image of the sun, while 月 (yuè) resembles the pictorial image of the moon.

When you assemble these two characters together, you get (míng). 

The new compound character 明  depicts the light of (rì, the sun) and (yuè, the moon) and thus derives its meaning -- bright. 

The efficacy of learning Chinese is thus greatly enhanced through repeated exposure to the“beaconized” building blocks from which modern Chinese characters were derived.

All images in Chinestory are created based on research of the original Shang Dynasty (c. 16th-11th century B.C.) inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells, known as the oracle bone scripts. The book introduces each Chinese character one by one in juxtaposition with a corresponding image so that learners can easily recognize visual cues and establish these beacons of pattern recognition.