The naturalness of emerging digraphia

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From David Moser:

Filling in the missing Chinese characters (marked in red), which the little child didn't know how to write, here's the full text of the brief letter:

Qǐngjià tiáo

Bàba de lǐngdǎo, nín hǎo:

Shǔjià dàole, Xiǎo Míng gēn tā bàba māmā chūqù lǚyóule, wǒ yě xiǎng chūqù wán, kěshì bàba lǎo shuō gōngzuò máng, néng gěi wǒ bàba fàng jǐ tiān jiǎ ma? Xiǎo Míng shuō xiàtiān bù lǚxíng de rén shì shǎguā.

Qǐngjià rén: Yáng Lèlè



Written request for leave

Dad's boss, hello:

Summer vacation has arrived.  Xiao Ming and his father and mother have gone off travelling.  I'd like to go out and play too, but my Dad always says that his work keeps him busy.  Can you give my dad a few days of vacation?   Xiao Ming says that people who don't go travelling in summer are fools.

Person who is asking for leave:  Yáng Lèlè

Except for one instance, Lèlè omitted tonal diacritics, but I have included them in my transcription.

By and large, the missing characters are those that are difficult to form or less frequent than the more common ones.  In general, they are the same characters that I would have to slow down for and concentrate harder on when I write them.

A few earlier posts on this topic:

[Thanks to Melvin Lee, Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Alex said,

    July 28, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

    The times have changed. Children living here in China have even less time to focus on script than the children born 10 years ago. As the country became "wealthy", kids are packed into "extra curricular" activities: singing, dancing, art, piano, other instruments, and craft studios, but mainly extra English classes.

    That combined with the smart phones/Ipad/tablets heavily used to absorb media and to play games, the opportunity to spend the onerous time writing characters over and over again is becoming increasingly scarce.

    This in turn is causing many parents greater and greater amounts of stress, which is transferred to their children via yelling, hitting, and less sleep.

    The parents who send their kids to international schools or know that their children will be going to college outside of China then ignore the dilemma. That said, the downside of international schools is that, while they teach Chinese as a daily course, science, math, etc. are taught in English. The child doesn't learn Chinese words like millimeter, centimeter, isosceles triangle, obtuse angle, electron, proton, etc. in school. The parents then need to hope that their child reads a lot extra in Chinese, which is doubtful as the many international school kids that I poll who started international school at an early age say they prefer to read in English. Why? Well the reason is always the same. It is easier, even though their home speaking language is Chinese.

  2. Lai Ka Yau said,

    July 28, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

    I was quite surprised that he did not put spaces between syllables as most non-linguists would when writing in pinyin. I thought properly segmented pinyin was a dying art amongst the non-linguistic public – I guess I was wrong about this!

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    July 28, 2017 @ 10:57 pm

    Not really sure where one was intended to find the original letter, but I think that this is the letter under discussion.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 7:44 am

    he did not put spaces between syllables

    In all but one of the cases there's no space for spaces. The kid would have had to plan ahead and make the letters narrower to leave space at the beginning or end of their squares. Are there spaces on each side of ? Is there even a way to tell?

  5. Thorin said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 8:18 am

    That's a wonderful twitter handle.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 9:50 am

    I was going to say the same thing as David Marjanović. Although I would hope that Chinese children grow up with a sense of word division, as they did 20-30 years ago, this student may have just squeezed "shǔ" + "jia" and "ling" + "dao" in those adjacent squares without attempting to join them as lexical units.

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