Is "Character Amnesia" Here to Stay?

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A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog about what I called "Character Amnesia." Today, half a dozen readers have called my attention to an Aug. 25th article by Judith Evans for Agence France-Presse entitled "Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan" (and other titles) that refers to "character amnesia" and quotes from an interview with me on August 9.  The article is also being sent around on Facebook and other sharing services, so it is getting a lot of coverage.  I cannot guarantee that I coined the expression "character amnesia," but it does seem to be meeting a need.


At the end of the "Character Amnesia" post, I mentioned that I would write a future post on the question of whether or not romanization is inevitable.  Since many people have been asking me about that, I just want to reassure them that it is indeed in the works.

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13 Comments »

  1. Dan T. said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    "Character amnesia" could also refer to a plot device in a fictional story in which a character loses his/her memory; stereotypically, this happens when the character is hit in the head by a hard object, and is undone by another similar whack in the head.

  2. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    We have over half a dozen Amnesia tropes over at TV Tropes. I like "Laser-guided amnesia" myself.

  3. Doctor Science said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Early comment on the "is romanization inevitable" question:

    When you're trying to figure out the costs & benefits of any modern writing system, you have to factor in the cost of dyslexia. Dyslexia is a strictly modern problem, because it's only an issue when the population literacy goal is above 80%.

    In any event, dyslexia is supposed to be *far* more prevalent for alphabetic scripts than for logograms. It's my understanding that syllabaries are the easiest scripts to learn, because you can sound them out (like alphabets) but the phonetic units are easier to grasp. I have heard, for instance, that once the Cherokee Nation decided to adopt Sequoyah's syllabary, much of the population was literate within a week.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    I thought "character amnesia" was what I succumb to while working my way through the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    I'd forgotten all about it until you mentioned it.

  6. marie-lucie said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    once the Cherokee Nation decided to adopt Sequoyah's syllabary, much of the population was literate within a week.

    Even with the ease associated with a syllabary (especially in a language with few consonants and vowels, like Cree, for instance), "within a week" seems quite exaggerated.

  7. John Smith said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    Interesting — the first article you linked says, "Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorizing _tens of thousands_ of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system." The second article corrects this to just "thousands", and is otherwise identical except for British spellings. Someone realized there was a mistake….

    And the notion that people will forget how to read is ludicrous.

  8. Ellie said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    "Tens of thousands" instead of "thousands" may be the only solid error in the article that isn't embedded in a quotation, but the rest of the article is also tabloid-worthy, starting with the title. "Forget how to write" hardly describes what's going on, since people are only forgetting the relatively uncommon characters. (When was the last time you wrote "embarrassed"?) I think this ranks with the rest of the misleading journalism about linguistics that Language Log usually inveighs against. The author claims, "Character amnesia happens because most Chinese people use electronic input systems based on pinyin" even though the only evidence of a causal link is people's intuitions that it must be so.
    That doesn't mean that cell phones don't facilitate character loss. They likely do. But truth alone doesn't make good science. And what we have here is only plausibility. Would it kill a reporter to say "probably"?

  9. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 3:12 am

    I'm in agreement with Ellie on this. And further, how much more actual experimental evidence for this "character amnesia" is there than, for example, the commonly expressed belief in popular press that texting is leading to English speaking youths to forget how to spell English correctly? Or for that matter, what about the argument that computers and the growing prevalence of auto-correction and spell-checking of writing is leading to the Death of English(tm) Spelling. (*gasp*)

  10. ?! said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    I'm learning mandarin and Japanese and I can see this process in action. I send texts to a friend in Shanghai using pinyin IME, and I send emails in Japanese on my ipad. It all "just happens" without having to think much about the characters, which I can sort of reproduce to a limited extent. How often would I be hand writing kanji or hanzi, even if I lived in these countries?
    And can I ask the commenter above, how do you say "dyslexia" if you live in Greece?

  11. Nanani said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 6:51 am

    I live in Japan where there has been a veritable Kanji Boom in the past few years, notably characterized (ha!) by the "Kanji Kentei" series of proficiency tests.

    If people actually thought getting rid of characters would be good, romanization might be likely, but that's overwhelmingly not the case.

  12. Danny Bloom said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    Victor, i saw that AFP article, and thought of your earlier post here. You got there first….but remember AFP is a notoriously inaccurate and tablodiy news service from France. It is the least trusted news service among newspaper editors in the USA. Most of their reports are shite. as this one is.

  13. Austin Like said,

    August 27, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Victor, i saw that AFP article, and thought of your earlier post here. You got there first….but remember AFP is a notoriously inaccurate and tablodiy news service from France. It is the least trusted news service among newspaper editors in the USA. Most of their reports are shite. as this one is.

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