I am learning to read, and it is really hard.
I'm referring to reading Mandarin Chinese, something I find increasingly necessary as my six-year-old daughter progresses in her classes at the Fremont Taiwan School. Although I speak conversational Mandarin, and am proficient in the Taiwanese dialect (which has very similar grammar), my reading vocabulary is probably only a few hundred characters. Increasing this has been a slow and arduous process that has given me tremendous insight into the way that people learn and helped me appreciate the privileges I had during my childhood education.
Learning Mandarin within the Taiwanese culture is significantly different from learning it within the mainland Chinese culture, or within the American culture. For one thing, in Taiwan only traditional characters are used. There is a long-standing debate on the use of traditional versus simplified characters, but there does seem to be a general consensus that traditional characters are more difficult to learn. Furthermore, while pinyin is the phonetic system of choice in China (and most other places), Taiwan uses the bopomofo (zhuyin) system. (This caused me tremendous confusion about pinyin for a long time, because until a few years ago I had thought that pinyin was a crutch used only by Westerners, since I had never been exposed to it myself.) Unlike pinyin, which uses familar Roman letters, the bopomofo phonemes (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) are completely unrelated to anything an English reader might recognize.
So the process of learning Mandarin characters that I used, and that my daughter is using in her class, involves first mastering the bopomofo letters. There are 37 of them, and while I knew them all as a child, I've long forgotten most of them and have had to relearn them along with my daughter. The difficulty of remembering the particular sounds associated with the letters makes me appreciate what my girls must have been going through as they were learning to read with phonics. It's hard to keep b and d straight, just as it's hard to keep ㄉ and ㄌ straight. Moreover, even if one knows all the sounds of the letters that make up a word, it's not obvious how one blends them all together correctly. "Er - uh - guh" can be concatenated into "eruhguh" rather than "rug". Similar challenges arise when using bopomofo to pronounce a Chinese character.
I also believe that having my daughter enrolled in this class, which is intended for the children of Taiwanese immigrants who are fluent in Mandarin and speak it at home, has helped me understand the huge role that parents must play in successful education, even with a highly competent teacher. My daughter gets little to no reinforcement at home of the letters and characters she learns, because neither I nor my husband find it natural to use them. When she doesn't understand the instructions to her homework, I can't easily help her because I can't read them either (this site has been an absolute godsend). Strategies like using an object to remember an initial sound, like "A is for apple", don't work for us unless we happen to know the Mandarin word for "apple". So there's a lot that we struggle with. Fortunately, I have the time and resources to mostly overcome my lack of knowledge in this area, but what of those who do not? I can finally understand the helplessness a parent must feel when she sees her child struggling in calculus and doesn't have the experience to assist her. Yes, you can get where you need to go with hard work, but there's a lot more hard work required for some than for others.
I have a fuller appreciation now of the privileges I grew up with in having parents who highly valued education and were highly educated themselves. Getting a Ph.D. in physics wasn't a walk in the park, but it was definitely easier for me than it is for some; I had parents who could coach me in advanced math, a physics professor father with a multitude of contacts in the academic world, and---perhaps most importantly---the expectation that this was something I should and could achieve. With my daughter's Mandarin class, we lack many of those advantages, so we are highly dependent upon and grateful for the assistance of her excellent teacher and her classmates' parents. So yet again, language study has broadened my view of the world and, I hope, made me a better person.