The bottom line is: why should we teach Chinese idioms to our children?
1. Cultural Literacy
It is virtually impossible to entirely avoid idiomatic language since idioms are ever-present in daily life and daily Chinese speech. Without some knowledge of the more common idioms, it could be very difficult to follow and grasp the true meaning of everyday conversation.
Furthermore, many Chinese idioms are based on ancient Chinese literature, history, and myths. They are also often closely linked to Chinese cultural morals and values. Learning these stories will expose our children to a common cultural literacy that native speakers are naturally steeped in by virtue of living in a Chinese speaking country.
2. Improve Language Comprehension
Idioms are widespread in both spoken and written Chinese. Having children understand even just a few of the more popular idioms will allow them to read the news, stories, and text with greater facility. It is difficult to want to read something you don’t comprehend - so at the very least, this eases the obstacles to reading higher level books or those geared towards the native speaker.
Most idioms condense a full story into 4 characters. Thus, teaching our children what they mean will also increase their comprehension of the actual characters in the idiom, what the Chinese in the expanded original sources mean, and how the idioms fit in context of conversation.
3. Learn Metaphorical Thinking
Understanding idioms requires children to expand their thinking from the literal to the figurative. As we tell the idioms’ original stories, they will see and absorb how language can be metaphorical and symbolic. They will passively learn how simple words can encapsulate huge, complex ideas.
For example, take the idiom 井底之蛙 (a frog in a well) and its related idiom, 坐井觀天 (looking at the sky while sitting at the bottom of the well).
The story behind the idiom is that a frog lived at the bottom of a well all its life. One day, a turtle comes by and tells the frog about the sea and the sky. The frog scoffs to the turtle saying that there is nothing bigger or better than the well and that the sky is just a tiny round circle.
The idiom conveys the narrow-mindedness of people who have never ventured beyond their small spheres and think the well is an ocean or that the vast expanse of the sky is just a tiny circle. It is an illustration of people who have no idea about anything outside their world.
4. Increases Communication Options
When we equip children with a rich bank of Chinese words, idioms, and stories, we allow them to more fully engage their minds and express themselves. The more comfortable they feel with Chinese, the more agile and versatile their abilities, and the more confident and willing they will be to actually speak Chinese.
Without a stocked repertoire, children may feel as if the words and concepts they can verbalize do not adequately represent the complexity of their thoughts, feelings, and questions. For many children, that inability to accurately represent what they want to say is enough to prevent them from speaking in Chinese.
5. Forges Connections to Other Languages and Cultures
People share much similar thoughts and emotions despite differences in culture and languages. We can show our children how small the world is as well as how universal ideas are by comparing idioms across languages. By giving our children all these examples of similar idioms or concepts in other languages, we make them even more ingrained in their minds and show the relevance of Chinese idioms in their lives.
For example, 破釜沉舟 (break the cauldrons and sink the boats) means to commit oneself irrevocably. It is very close to the phrase, “Burn the ships.” The origin is from a commander trying to conquer a new land ordering his men to burn the ships so that they would have to conquer or die with no option of retreat.
Interestingly, the Korean and Japanese languages have their roots in Chinese. Coupled with the proximity of their geographic locations, the three countries share a lot of similar idioms (eg: the frog in the well).
With the several inspiring examples that we have used in this post, we hope it whets your appetite and makes the prospect of teaching Chinese idioms much more palatable and appealing.