Pessimists and alarmists have long been lamenting the negative impact of computers upon the ability of Chinese to write characters by hand. See, for example, Jennifer 8. Lee's article entitled "In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate" in the Technology section of the New York Times for February 1, 2001.
If the situation was bad already a decade ago, it is far more grave now that short text messaging is so wildly popular. In "China worries about losing its character(s)," Los Angeles Times (July 12, 2010), Barbara Demick provides graphic evidence of the starkly diminishing powers of supposedly literate Chinese to produce many characters that are essential for daily usage.
I've seen people stumped by even the simplified form of the character for "shrimp," xiā 虾, never mind the traditional form, 蝦, and Demick tells of "literate" people who cannot write zàijiàn 再見 ("goodbye") or "shampoo" (there are several possibilities). Even before computers, exceedingly few people could write both characters for "sneeze" (pēntì 噴嚏, simplified 噴嚏 [same]); though I've asked scores, I personally have never met any Chinese, including individuals with master's and doctor's degrees, who could do so, and David Moser — much to his astonishment — had similar results (see his classic piece entitled "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard," written nearly twenty years ago; further extensive and very recent research by Moser has only strengthened and confirmed his original findings). Given that such a common word as "sneeze" cannot readily be written out by the vast majority of allegedly literate Chinese, one can only imagine what trouble they would have with a word like zhā 皻 or 齇 ("red flecks on the nose of a drunk person"). Well, they wouldn't have any trouble with the word zhā or the word pēntì (I hear people say the latter all the time; I've only heard the former spoken a couple of times); it's the characters for these words that flummox people.
Because of their complexity and multiplicity, writing Chinese characters correctly is a highly neuromuscular task. One simply has to practice them hundreds and hundreds of times to master them. And, as with playing a musical instrument like a violin or a piano, one must practice writing them regularly or one's control over them will simply evaporate.
Demick's article ends thus:
"It will take a lot of effort to preserve our Chinese characters. It is the same way they try to preserve these old hutongs," said Zhu Linfei, 24, a Beijing graduate student, referring to the traditional Beijing alleys, now rapidly succumbing to the wrecking ball.
Zhu, who was touring the old bookstores of Liulichang with her classmates to buy calligraphy books, estimated that she had already forgotten about 20% of the characters she knew in high school.
"But it's not such a big problem," she said. "If I don't know a character, I take out my cellphone to check."
Zhu Linfei is mistaken. It is a big problem that she cannot write 20% of the characters she knew just 5 or 6 years earlier. By relying on her cellphone to check those characters she can't recall, that percentage will increase with each passing year. Furthermore, every time Zhu Linfei has to stop to take out her cellphone crutch to remind her how to write a character, she is wasting time, and that in itself is a problem.
Unlike aphasia, a type of language disorder that usually occurs suddenly because of physical injury, the impairment brought about by frequent cellphone checking is gradual. Nonetheless, the attrition that results is just as real as that brought about by dysphasia (limited aphasia).
Last year, I surveyed nearly two hundred individuals who are literate in Chinese, asking them what their preferred IME (Input Method Editor) was. About half of them were professional teachers of Chinese, and they hailed from around the world. Around 98% of the respondents used Pinyin (romanization) to input Chinese characters, with the remaining tiny handful using a shape-based system such as Cangjie or a stylus to write them on a pad or window. Both of those who used Cangjie were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a couple of respondents from Taiwan said that they used bopomofu (Zhuyin Fuhao), a phonetic inputting system somewhat reminiscent of Japanese kana, though it is not strictly syllabic.
Computers, cellphones, smartphones, and all other such electronic gadgets are wonderful tools for communication, but they all exacerbate the predicament of declining ability to write characters among the Chinese population, and they are hastening reliance on alphabetical access to literacy, instead of a direct approach through the 11 or so basic strokes, the 200 or so radicals, and the 850 or so phonetic components. Are these worrisome trends? Can anything be done to stanch the hemorrhaging of active character proficiency at the hands of cellphones and computers? Finally, is romanization inevitable? That is a question to which I shall return in a future post.
[A tip of the hat to Stefan Krasowski.]