The cost of illiteracy in China

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In yesterday's South China Morning Post (Saturday, March 31, 2012), Education section, there is an article by Raymond Li entitled "US136b — Cost of Illiteracy on Mainland". Here's the link (sorry I can't send a link that provides full access for non-subscribers).

Just a few things to note:

1. The illiteracy figures for China seem very low — said to be around 4% of the population in 2010. That doesn't square with my own experience in the countryside and in remote areas where large segments of the population (especially women and peasants) are illiterate (knowing only a hundred or so characters at best).

2. The article states that recognizing 950 characters is considered as being literate, but we know from pedagogical standards outside of China that this figure is woefully inadequate for functioning as a literate member of a society that uses Chinese characters for daily communication in a variety of fields, literature, news media, instructional manuals, high school and college textbooks, and so forth.

3. It is disappointing that the article doesn't mention pinyin as the current best hope for overcoming illiteracy in China, nor does it have anything to say about the increasingly important role pinyin plays in IT, advertising, signage, indexing, and so forth.

A person must write 950 Chinese characters to be considered literate.

4. The strained look of the little girl in the photograph accompanying the article speaks volumes! One often sees exactly that look (note especially the pinched brow*) on the faces of children (and even adults!) who are trying to extract sounds and meanings from the densely packed, complicated strokes of the morphosyllables on a page. This is not to mention that the texts children are asked to read at a young age are poorly written, employ an execrable style (too wooden and grown-up, semivernacular-semiclassical, etc.), and are on dull subjects that are completely inappropriate for elementary and middle (junior high) school pupils.

*I also found that look exists in the vocabulary of Russian male facial expressions; see under "Physical Suffering" here (The Exile [January 24, 2008, reprinting an article of October, 2002).

[A tip of the hat to Linda Wu and thanks to Gordon Chang and Stefan Krasowski]



  1. Yang said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

    A Chinese writing system cannot be purely phonographic. Nuff said?

  2. Nathan said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    @Yang: Is your objection that there are too many Chinese languages in which the same character is pronounced differently, or that one particular Chinese language (Mandarin, say) has too many homophones for a purely phonographic system to work?

    I don't know any of the Chinese languages, but the second option seems fishy. If homophony doesn't cause practical problems in spoken language (due to context, etc.) then it couldn't be any worse in writing, right?

  3. Brian R said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

    I've worked teaching children in Taiwan for many years and literacy doesn't seem to be a problem, despite the arguably more complex traditional characters. Quoted illiteracy figures in Taiwan are low, but I haven't scrutinized how those numbers are arrived at. As well, living in the capital city may not give a representative picture of literacy across Taiwan, but it does appear rare that children have trouble learning to read when they have access to good (enough) education.

    It's also possible that the practice of using zhuyin (a Taiwanese phonetic system) alongside the characters in early children's readers helps learners. I've been surprised, however, at how soon kids eschew them in favour of books with just the characters (about second or third grade).

  4. George Corley said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 2:12 am

    I really don't think the nature of the writing system is the problem. Certainly 950 characters is too low a standard, but eschewing the logography altogether carries too much cultural baggage to be practical. (Also, I thought China used a standard of 1500 characters — is this a change? Of course 1500 is still a bit low.)

    Anyway, however you do it, the answer is education, not changing the writing system (at least not by fiat).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    @George Corley

    Who is suggesting that the "logography" be "eschewed"? What script reformers in China are seeking is more use of pinyin for introductory educational purposes, employing proper word division (according to the official orthography) and punctuation. Among the proposed applications are phonetic annotation of character texts the way zhuyin (bopomofo) is used in Taiwan, as correctly pointed out by Brian R (that is how I learned most of my Chinese — painlessly), and greater flexibility in allowing students to resort to pinyin when they forget how to write certain characters, as was encouraged in the very successful experimental program called "zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dúxiě" 注音识字,提前读写 ("using phonetic annotation to recognize characters, speed up reading and writing"). My wife worked with such programs 20-30 years ago, and she documented on film the miraculous efficacy of pinyin in overcoming entrenched illiteracy in villages where many of the people had never been to school.

    Now that students — even from a tender age — rely heavily on pinyin-entry computers to write the characters for them, they are increasingly unable to remember how to write them by hand (see "Character Amnesia" This is true even of students at such prestigious institutions as Peking University and Tsinghua University. Permitting the use of pinyin to fill in for the missing characters would be a wise step (similar to the use of kana in Japanese).

    Reformers also advocate a digraphia in which those who are unable to invest the enormous amount of time required to attain character literacy (such as peasants and rural women) may be permitted to read and write in pinyin until they master enough characters to read and write.

    Finally, it is easy to mouth the mantra of "good / enough education", but in a country where there are no public school buses (with disastrous results from relying on overcrowded and unsafe vehicles that are forced into service, as we read with horror in the newspapers every week), to mention only one limitation on resources devoted to education, that simply is not going to happen. More realistic and workable proposals are needed, among them greater reliance on pinyin in appropriate circumstances.

    I do not know anyone who is suggesting that the characters be eliminated (at least not since Lu Xun [1881-1936], the preeminent writer of the 20th century), precipitously or otherwise.

  6. Yang said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 7:42 am



    Pinyin doesn't work for anything but Mandarin. Characters work for almost all Chinese languages. A fully pinyinised approach in teaching will be the execution of minority languages in written form.

    But I suppose generation after generation of self-appointed reformers have already executed most of the minority languages, so it shouldn't be a problem.

    I am less confident about the theoretical issue behind the homophony problem. But why does an educated Chinese speaker read much, much slower in a fully Pinyinised passage?

    @Victor Mair

    My objection to your proposal comes down to this: With all the talk of not eliminating characters, your solution will do nothing short of that.

    In any case, public opinion is impossible for any such attempt. I thank God for that.

    And of course, pouring more taxpayer money into local educational bureaucrats and trusting them to do think for the children is much better than whatever the their parents are doing.

  7. Apollo Wu said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 8:04 am

    The unfortunate reluctance to use word-based Pinyin in Chinese education reflects several core issues:

    1. The inability for Chinese teachers to adhere to Pinyin orthograghy. They may vaguely heard about it but fail to learn and apply it consistently. The fundamental problem is that there is no word separation in Chinese text, which many Chinese the text are composed of individual separately. They tend to write geographical names syllable by syllable, like Ke Xue Yuan for 科学院,Hong Kong for 香港 unless when the original name was English as Robinson for 罗便臣[HSBC formal name is the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, with Hongkong as one word as in Shanghai]. When left alone, Chinese would render names in characters separately. Only last year, probably due to the influence of the World University Athletic Meet, Shenzhen subway change the name of Ke Xue Yuan to Kexueyuan.
    Chinese never perceive their character text as all linked together, which is actually the case. Because of it, long Chinese sentence is difficult to read, hence good Chinese writing is supposed to contain short sentences. The inevitable word separation effort or character chunking into meaningful chunks tends to slowdown the reading of Chinese text. However, most Chinese intuitively consider four character idoms as inseparable chunks as 山穷水尽,说三道四,马到功成 etc. Yet if they are ask to spell them out ,they may relapse back to shan qiong shui jin rather than shanqiongshuijin.

    2. The development of lianxiang 联想 approach in Pinyin Chinese input methods let the computer to form linked words for user to select rather than having user type out the word actively. This relieve the pressure of learning to use Pinyin words correctly. instead of inputting zhe shi shenme dongxi? 这是什么东西,they just type in syllabic form: zhe shi shen me dong xi, and the outcome will be correct.

    3. The daunting challenge now is misreading of unseparately Chinese text as: 亚历山大王 as 亚历山 大王 or 亚历 山大王 instead of the correct version of 亚历山大 王。The unwelcome of monosyllabic character in a string is the reason of people tend to make the wrong choice. Interesting to know, UN Chinese translator translate the UN Water Conference as 联合国水源会议 in the same vien as UN Energy Conference 联合国能源会议。The correct translation should be 水会议 和 能会议. The former give an unstable feeling which the latter is ambiguous.

    4. Despite the ambiguity, most Chinese are not aware that the lack of explicit word separation is a major stumbling block for effective language use, in particular, the use of Chinese to interact with intelligent machines. The words 烘手机 may become a wrong command as heat dry the mobile phones rather than the correct meaning of hand dryer.

    5. Another possibility for the reluctance of the use of word-based Pinyin may be due to a irrational fear of the possible phase out of the use of Chinese characters by the more powerful Pinyin text. Hence, there were efforts to use the term of 注音符号 rather than 拼音字母(particular in Taiwan),the latter relates closely the alphabet. Do Chinese realize that rose by any other word would smell as sweet? Will the different label change the significane of Pinyin script? In any case, we are witnessing the dismantling of the Experimental Pinyin Informational Superhighway similar to that of dismantling the railway in the Qing Dynasty.

    6. China is in the historical stage of the second Yangwu Yundong since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world. English has become the most popular alphabetic language. Chinese elites are eager to learn English and don't bother to think too much about Pinyin except using it as a mean to input Chinese text. One may have to wait untill a later stage of language evolution when Chinese are confronted with the rapid shrinking of the use of the Chinese character scripts due to the onslaught of technical advances as well as the lack of time alloted to study the difficult Chinese scripts.

    - Apollo Wu

  8. Ken Micklas said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    I think one the biggest things holding back digraphia might be that pinyin mixed with characters is the ugliest script I've ever seen. Other mixed systems like kanji and kana or hanja and Hangul look much nicer because kana and Hangul fit in nice blocks like the characters.

    Someone should invent a Hangul-like alphabet for Mandarin (and possibly other Chinese languages) that puts each syllable into a character-sized block.

  9. languagehat said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    A Chinese writing system cannot be purely phonographic. Nuff said?

    How absurd. If Chinese can understand each other when they speak, they can understand the speech when it is written down phonetically. Nuff said?

    (I keep encountering that absurd statement and keep producing the obvious refutation and being met with the supercilious statement of "obvious" "facts" like "all Chinese 'dialects' [i.e., languages, though these people never accept that fact either] have to be written the same way." As we say on the internet, ORLY?)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 11:22 am


    My comments on your comments are interspersed interlinearly, all the way down to the bottom and marked thus: VHM:

    Pinyin doesn't work for anything but Mandarin.

    VHM: Any of the Sinitic topolects can easily be written in Roman / Latin letters, and many of them have been very successfully (e.g., Church Romanization for Taiwanese).

    Characters work for almost all Chinese languages.

    VHM: What Chinese languages beside Mandarin and Classical have ever been written in characters? It is possible, through a tour de force combination of nonce usages of characters, over a thousand specially invented characters, and resort to roman letters when necessary, to write Cantonese in characters, but I'm not aware of any other Sinitic languages that have been fully expressed in characters.

    A fully pinyinised approach in teaching will be the execution of minority languages in written form.

    VHM: In the context of the PRC, "minority" usually refers to non-Sinitic languages, which would not be affected by pinyin one way or another. By "minority", perhaps you mean "non-Mandarin", in which case, romanization of these languages would have a better chance of rescuing them than the characters, which have actually worked strongly to inhibit their development.

    But I suppose generation after generation of self-appointed reformers have already executed most of the minority languages, so it shouldn't be a problem.

    VHM: Zhou Youguang, Ni Haishu, Wang Yuan, Yin Binyong, and many other reformers were actually appointed by the government to do their work. Zhou Enlai personally asked Zhou Youguang to undertake language reform. They were not "self-appointed". And are opponents of language not "self-appointed"?

    VHM: It is difficult for me to fathom what you mean by "executed most of the minority languages".

    I am less confident about the theoretical issue behind the homophony problem.

    VHM: "Less confident" than what / whom? You have not responded to Nathan's cogent point.

    But why does an educated Chinese speaker read much, much slower in a fully Pinyinised passage?

    VHM: Simple: because he / she has never practiced reading texts written in pinyin. Zhang Liqing read and wrote pinyin as easily as she read and wrote characters, and she was a very highly educated Chinese.

    My objection to your proposal comes down to this: With all the talk of not eliminating characters, your solution will do nothing short of that.

    VHM: Has bopomofo / zhuyin eliminated characters in Taiwan. Quite the contrary, Chinese character skills in Taiwan are arguably at a higher level than those on the mainland.

    In any case, public opinion is impossible for any such attempt.

    VHM: I think that you are misinterpreting ("such attempt") what I am proposing. Please go back and reread my post. The public has nothing to fear from my modest proposal.

    I thank God for that.

    VHM: God has nothing to do with whether or not to utilize pinyin to help eradicate illiteracy; only common sense and reason do.

    And of course, pouring more taxpayer money into local educational bureaucrats and trusting them to do think for the children is much better than whatever the their parents are doing.

    VHM: I cannot comprehend what you are saying. Do you want all children to be home schooled?

    VHM: Bottom line: nobody (at least not Victor Mair) is seeking the abolition of characters or their replacement by pinyin. So you have invoked a strawman to argue against.

  11. Amanda said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    I perceive the debate to be more about nationalism and pride than anything else, and that is usually what I tell people when they present me any of the above justifications for eliminating characters. The Chinese characters are one of the greatest national prides and connected to a particular interpretation of what it means to be modern and yet still "Chinese" – particularly among educated elite. I think Lu Xun may have realized this, but I wonder if the current official/school-taught historical narrative in China bothers to reflect upon Lu Xun (or others who suggested elimination of characters) without also following with "but we can see how bad of an idea that was!"

    But more to the point, I agree with Victor Mair. What suggests characters would be eliminated?

  12. Andy Averill said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Just for fun I thought I'd check Google maps to see what system they use. The answer seems to be, almost all of the above.

    If you zoom in all the way, you can see a street in Beijing labelled Yaowu Hutong. One block to the east it's labelled Yao Wu Hu Tong, and one block to the west it's 姚武胡同

    No bopomofo as far as I can tell.

  13. George Corley said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    @Mair: Alright, I think I understand you better. Of course pinyin or some other phonetic system should be used as an adjunct to the logography (in fact, I had thought this was already happening to an extent). Despite the problems involved, there's no real substitute for widespread public education, though, yes, it can be hard to lobby the Chinese government to invest in anything, and it would certainly take more time to implement, so there is an issue there.

    Perhaps we should look for (or encourage the founding of) some literacy-promoting NGOs in the mainland? So long as they remain apolitical they could probably do such things as offer tutoring to adults and produce better reading materials.

  14. Ryan said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    Have there been any serious proposals for another round of character simplifications?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 11:13 pm


    Another round of character simplifications is not in the works and, in any event, would only exacerbate the problem, since it would further vitiate whatever morphosyllabic integrity the traditional character system once possessed.

    @Ken Micklas

    Allowing the alphabetic part of a multiscript system to escape from the blockishness of the characters would enhance the flexibility of the overall orthography. Even the devisers of bopomofo / zhuyin fuhao had the good sense to recognize this advantage, arranging its symbols linearly instead of squarely.

  16. Amy said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    What's the point of more character simplifications? Unless the round merges characters, all that's accomplished is more confusion. Most articles on character simplification I've read lately talk about a drift back towards traditional characters for artistic writing.
    Wikipedia has an article on the second-round simplified characters:

    There are obsolete hangul characters for Chinese rime tables of the 15th century, so at a glance hangul could be used for a practical transcription of Mandarin after adding a few tone marks or tone letters. I'm sure it'll never happen for reasons of national pride, but it could be a workable system.

  17. John said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 5:53 am

    Why isn't the PRC using zhuyin/bpmf if they are concerned about "losign face" to westerners? Zhuyin is in the xinhua zidian afterall.

  18. joanne salton said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    It seems to me that childrens books containing both characters and pinyin are widespread across China, and I also thought that such teaching methods were standard in schools. Everyone seems to at least accept that they are a good guide to help pronunciation.

    Also, I don't see how somebody who can only understand Pinyin, due to supposed time constraints that prevent them learning characters, will be "literate" in any meaningful sense unless the characters are abolished. It would be a great help if we taught English speaking kids to read and spell using the IPA – but what would be the point since they would then have to go on and learn the "real" spellings?

    Anyway, since the Chinese seem to wish to remain wedded to history and elegant aesthetics and are willing to sacrifice a little of their rampant GDP growth in order to do so, then why don't we in the west just applaud it?

  19. leoboiko said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    In my opinion, traditional characters are much easier than simplified. Simplification solves the wrong problem. The only way in which they’re easier is that they’re easier to draw; but the problem in learning Chinese writing is not that the characters are hard to draw, is that there are too many of them. Simplified characters are 1) easier to confuse visually and 2) less consistent regarding the internal system of phonetic and semantic hints, which are our best mnemonic hook. Besides, they ruin the calligraphy.

    @Yan: You’re right that pīnyīn is too Mandarin-centric. But I don’t see what do you mean by “characters work for almost all languages”; hànzì writing is absolutely Mandarin-centric (or, previously, wényán-centric). You can’t simply read Mandarin text with the Hokkien or Min pronunciations and pretend the result is Hokkien or Min. The solution is not to ban pīnyīn, but to develop and promote romanizations for all Chinese languages.

  20. greg said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    Have there ever been attempts to introduce word spacing and standardize sentence punctuation? That seems like a very simple change that wouldn't drastically alter the written language, but would certainly improve learning by children, foreigners, and machines, for all the reasons Apollo points out. I am rather surprised that nothing like this was raised during the first round of character simplification.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    1. Why wouldn't bopomofo work just as well for teaching elementary school kids on the mainland as it does on Taiwan (in both instances for Mandarin)? It seems arguably a better fit than pinyin both phonologically and aesthetically. Is it just that the historical baggage of having been favored by the ROC/KMT is too difficult to overcome?

    2. Is the PRC doing worse on literacy (if one discounts the too-happy gov't figures to get something considered more meaningful) than India, where the local scripts are all pretty much phonetic?

    3. How does elementary school instruction work scriptwise in Singapore, where I take it the majority of the population ends up being literate both in English and some Sinitic language?

  22. Vanya said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 1:58 am

    J.W. Brewer raises good points. Has Mair ever addressed the issue of why illiteracy doesn't seem to be a problem in Taiwan (or in Japan for that matter). Maybe a native solution like bopomofo is simply better than cumbersome and foreign pinyin? Or does Mair feel that literacy in Taiwan is overstated? From my experience in Taiwan – where people seem generally to be literate and well educated – I can only conclude that learning characters doesn't really put much of a strain on society. I would say the same about Japan (or even English) -seemingly illogical writing systems don't seem to have much in the way of negative consequences for a society. That may be counterintuitive, but I don't see much empirical evidence that hanzi have held China back, that was a late 19th century European prejudice.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    Yes, Vanya, Victor Mair has considered all of these things, and he has been considering them for more than four decades, since he first went to Taiwan to teach at Tunghai University.

    Before I begin my response, I'd like to ask whether you are fluent in Chinese. If so, which topolect? Are you a native speaker? The reason I ask these questions is because you often comment on Victor Mair's posts as though you were an authority on Chinese. But your observations frequently reveal an evident lack of familiarity with the fundamental issues at hand.

    Be that as it may, let us proceed.

    A recent (April 2, 2012) Wall Street Journal article by Melissa Korn entitled "Chinese Applicants Flood U.S. Graduate Schools" describes the massively growing number of students from the PRC who are studying in the United States.

    Every day on the radio and in the newspapers and magazines here in China, I hear and read laments about how practically anyone and everyone who can afford it or who can get a scholarship wants to go to the United States to study. Chinese parents are even sending their high school and junior high school children to the United States if it can be arranged (those who do so [come under the age of puberty] usually forget how to read and write Mandarin, and many of them can barely speak or understand it).

    Over 65% of the wealthy and an even higher percentage of the super wealthy send their children abroad for study (that naturally includes the children of the highest ranking officials), and the number one destination is the United States. And if you can't send your children to American, then you try to bring American education to China (Duke, NYU, countless English language kindergartens, schools, and even whole villages, etc.). The same holds for Taiwan. I was amazed when I went to Taiwan in the mid-80s, after a 15-year absence, to find how many people spoke good English there, and indeed how many people in government, business, education, and other fields had been educated in the United States. During the 70s, Taiwan vied with Iran (the Shah of Iran awarded tens of thousands of generous fellowships) for sending the most students to be educated in America. That was before the flood gates opened from China.

    What does all of this tell us?

    The analyses of this undeniable phenomenon usually begin with the recognition that students from China (and Taiwan) rush to America so that they "can get a better education", so I guess we have to accept that as a given.


    Others can no doubt point out scores of factors that make an American education far superior to any that may be had in China, even at the very best universities. Most of these are obvious, so I won't bother to mention them. But there is one factor that I have never heard anyone point out: the archaic, cumbersome script that is unfriendly for use with IT and partially incompatible with modern scientific terminology and conventions. Education in China is perforce delivered primarily through that script (except to the extent that English is being used in various schools and courses). The only scholar who has attempted to examine the relationship between the script and performance in solving problems related to education and science at all levels, including advanced levels, is William C. Hannas in Asia's Orthographic Dilemma and The Writing on the Wall. It may be anathema to raise this issue, but no one in educational circles has confronted it.

    Why is it that East Asian scientists educated and working in the Western world — by a hugely lopsided margin — excel in science over their compatriots who remain exclusively in China (take Nobel laureates as one index of that disparity).

    Of course, there are other factors for wanting to send one's children abroad for their education — such as a better, safer, healthier environment, more opportunities for interesting jobs after schooling is completed, and so forth. Strangely, no one ever mentions the vastly greater amount of freedom in America than in China. In China, one is forbidden from saying what one thinks, if it goes counter to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Mercantilist Confucian Party (CCMCP), while most students wouldn't dare to question anything their teachers tell them either, even about purely academic subjects. And the choked, blocked, censored internet in China is a travesty compared to the rich, vibrant, thriving source of knowledge, information, entertainment, and sheer, unfettered communication with an unlimited world of the internet outside of China (beyond the Great Firewall).

    But the underlying reason for the rush to America is the simple fact that the education they receive in America is vastly superior to that which they would have received if they had remained in China. Instead of wringing hands over this predicament and pointing to false scapegoats, Chinese politicians and educators should question basic premises and foundations, such as the choking of information flows and the archaic writing system.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    @ Vanya

    "that was a late 19th century European prejudice."

    Who says so? Why do you speak with such an assured ex cathedra tone? What do you know about it?

    It was Chinese intellectuals, social reformers, and activists — the best, most concerned and committed minds — of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote passionately about the defects of the Chinese script, NOT Westerners. You're just spouting a bunch of rhetoric when you say that it was Western prejudice. You don't know what you're talking about. There are plenty of good, detailed histories of Chinese language reform efforts during the last century and more, but they are mostly in Chinese. Maybe you don't read Chinese, so they're not accessible to you. Or, if you do read Chinese, you are being highly selective in what you read, and obstinate in not facing history. If you can't read Chinese, but are interested in learning more about this important subject, there's a good chapter on early efforts at script reform in the new version of William Theodore de Bary's Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 2.

  25. arthur waldron said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    Anyone ever try multiplication and division with Roman numerals?

  26. Apollo Wu said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    One may miss the point with regards to the 4% illiteracy in China. Even if the figure is correct, statistical figure can't provide qualitative information. It fails to show the great difference between literacy, from barely literate to well educated persons. It can be used to tell lie by hiding the facts. Language certainly affects personal as well as national destiny. It should be clear to most rational persons that East Asians have been handicapped by their non-alphabetic writing systems. Historically, countries around China have struggled to free themselves from such a common language heritage, albeit with different degree of success. As to ordinary Chinese, the simplest way to get ahead is to study abroad and learn to use a more efficient language tool for personal advancement. This long established trend is getting stronger everyday. Prof. Mair has conscientiously pointed out a lot of verifiable language predicaments that speak much louder than abstract statistics and their related inferences or speculations. Only truth can set us free. Those who have changed their working language should turn around and help their fellow compatriots to modernize their own language and not to put up irrational or misleading arguements to counter the effort for the modernization of the Chinese language. – Apollo

  27. joanne salton said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 10:16 am

    The Koreans have an easily learnable alphabetic system.

    They also suffer in a similar way from many of the problems that Prof.Mair blames on Chinese characters.

    What cannot be (non-patriotically) disputed – which is quite something when you think about it! – is that the Chinese writing is more attractive than the Korean. It also allows Chinese people to read their own history, and therefore is a barrier against "newspeak" government tendencies.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 4:15 pm gives some statistics for foreign students in the U.S. by country of origin – raw numbers not adjusted by population of source country or relevant subset by educational level. The PRC is #1, but more-rationally-scripted India is #2 and some-say-most-rationally-scripted-in-the-world South Korea is #3. Irrationally-scripted-modulo-kana Japan is sending fewer students than irrationally-scripted Taiwan, which has a much smaller population. Fully-Latinized Vietnam sends more students to the US than I would have expected. The two Muslim-majority countries in the top 10 (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) have different scripts. People can draw their own conclusions but script does not really appear to be the main variable here.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Thanks for the stats, but they don't prove anything about motivation for studying abroad, since — as I pointed out in my original post — there are multiple factors involved in the mad rush to America. All they show is that China is indubitably number one in the number of its students studying abroad.

    "…script does not really appear to be the main variable here."

    Interesting how you put that, including the use of "really". So, you do concede that script is a variable, though not necessarily the main one. We're making progress.

    Chinese students now amount to nearly one quarter of ALL international students, and that group grew at a rate of 23% for all Chinese students and 43% for undergraduates in one year. In many departments and programs (chemistry, economics, engineering, even landscape architecture) with which I am personally familiar, Chinese students amount to between one third and three quarters of all students enrolled. These mind-boggling figures make you wonder why this frantic compulsion to study in a country that, judging from the daily rhetoric of the Party, is China's greatest enemy.

    I certainly am not the only person who has noticed this exponential growth in the numbers of Chinese students in America, since I hear about it every day in talk shows on China Radio International, and read about it in Chinese, American, and European newspapers and magazines. At the very least, the vast numbers of Chinese students studying abroad should put the lie to those who argue that education in the Chinese script alone accounts for China's economic rise. The situation is much more complicated than that, and I thank you for recognizing that the Chinese script is a variable in the mix of factors that drive Chinese students abroad at such a frenetic pace.

  30. arthur waldron said,

    April 4, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    Having talked now to quite a few high school and undergraduate students from China, I would say the primary motivation is to get OUT of China, where opportunities are perceived as limited and difficult of exploiting, and INTO the United States, which is felt to offer opportunity, security, a legal system, and a clean environment. Several of my students are children of Chinese who left in the 1980s and the motivation is very clear. To be frank, I don't blame them, though we certainly can't take everybody. They discard the Chinese language with few regrets. I recall one Chinese lady, now a famous scholar here, saying that speaking English, as she did and in her family, was "more convenient." How can that have been true for her, a native speaker? But clearly she meant something by what she said.

  31. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    I consider it as a historical anomaly that the Chinese are still using something which, for most of us, is analogous to the very earliest forms of writing that our current writing systems are descended from.

    The idea of writing, apparently, usually takes initial root in the form of having a symbol for each word (Heiroglyphs, Akkadian, Sumerian, etc) – but the vocabulary of symbols is always incomplete relative to the vocabulary of words, and besides you have to have a way to record the names of foreigners and other proper nouns. So 'rebus writing' – in which some subset of symbols are used primarily for their pronunciation rather than as markers for whole words, rapidly emerges.

    Usually there's some kind of break in the lineage of tradition, where the 'rebus characters' are preserved and the rest fall out of use. This has happened when "uneducated" people need to be taught how to write some sort of reports that others can read and there's no time to teach them the whole set, or when laws have to be written so that judges in a conquered territory can read them without spending years learning the alphabet, or when a traveler who hasn't learned much of the repertoire teaches everything he knows to people in some remote location and they use it and find that it's enough, or when a "barbarian" takes the throne, learns barely enough of the local script to read the rebus characters, and demands that everything be written that way, etc. At that point, a syllabic, or possibly alphabetic system, arises from the logographic ancestral script. And at some subsequent break in lineage, syllabic scripts usually give way to alphabetic ones.

    But this kind of break in lineage has not happened in China. China, with its infamous hydraulic empire, consolidated central power early and has maintained it. Dynasties have come and gone, but the Empire itself was never broken, never conquered by outsiders. Its intellectual infrastructure was never rendered obsolete or considered unusable by those who came next into power, and the people educated in characters always found their skills fully applicable under the next Emperor, or, if times went that way, under the next Dynasty. The kind of isolation or break that shifts most script forms from logographic to syllabary, or from syllabary to alphabetic, simply never happened in China.

    Whether it's good for the Chinese people or not, I leave as a debate for the Chinese people. But whatever else it is, it's an amazing and unique opportunity to see and study a fully developed logographic system, refined by actual continual use, with a huge population of fluent users and its own huge body of literature, complete with its rebus-writing bits and syllabic hints and etc, and its own peculiar relationship to several different spoken languages and co-extant scripts of different types. It's living, breathing history of a far earlier period in script development than most of us can ever have experienced in our own languages.

    My interest (and work) in language is mostly about the written rather than the spoken forms, so this is particularly compelling for me.


  32. joanne salton said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    It seems rather fascinating to a large percentage of the planet, Ray, and most people here I would imagine.

    When De Francis first posited the "Chinese are held back by their characters" view oddly common among Western people who are experts in that very subject, China seemed to need help. No longer, I would think.

    Of course the awkward characters make learning a little more difficult. Speaking minority languages also has some economic and educational drawbacks. Linguists seem to think is their duty to defend this though – why not Chinese characters? Tradition has an intangible value in many ways.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    For such brief compass, Ray Dillinger's comments constitute one of the most sensible accounts of the evolution of writing that I've ever encountered. (For a moment, I wondered whether he was related to David Diringer, the preeminent historian of the alphabet.) In contrast, joanne salton's two sets of comments are confused and misinformed. Her remarks about Korean are particularly offensive. And, when it comes to "'newspeak' government tendencies", Chinese officials and politicians are masters of the trade. That was the whole point of my recent post on fèihuà 废话, which I encourage Ms. Salton to read:

  34. julie lee said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    @ Ray Dillinger: "Dynasties have come and gone, but the Empire itself was never broken, never conquered by outsiders. Its intellectual infrastructure was never rendered obsolete or considered unusable by those who came next into power, and the people educated in characters always found their skills fully applicable under the next Emperor, or, if times went that way, under the next Dynasty."

    China's empire was conquered by foreigners (non-Han peoples) or outsiders many times, with the Empire broken and replaced by fragmentation. However, until the twentieth century, foreign conquerors, notably the Mongols and Manchurians, did not, as Ray Dillinger points out, render the intellectual infrastructure or writing system (script, characters) obsolete, probably because they did not bring a superior infrastructure or script. In the most recent episode of the Chinese empire breaking and fragmenting– the warlord period of the early twentieth century– when China was in effect carved up or partitioned by foreigners/outsiders, namely the Western Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Germany) into spheres of influence, one can say that the intellectual infrastructure and script (characters) were rendered obsolete (out of date) though not defunct. This is attested by the heated debates among Chinese intellectuals of the time about whether the intellectual infrastructure and the script should be retained or discarded or radically reformed. The debate continues among Chinese intellectuals.
    It is attested by what has happened in China. For instance, algebra, geometry, science and other Western subjects have replaced the old curriculum consisting of the Chinese classics.
    It is also attested by the rush to learn English and to emigrate to, or study in, the West (America, Europe, etc.) or at least to receive a Western education. A survey has said that whereas Beijing University used to be the top choice among top high school graduates in China, the top choice is now Hong Kong University and other leading universities in Hong Kong because of the better chance to learn English, to receive a Western education, and to use that as a springboard to go to the West. Ray Dillinger is right to suggest that a breakdown of empire by foreign conquest and thus exposure to outsiders can bring about radical reform of entrenched tradition.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

    All courses at the new New York University in Shanghai will be taught in English.

  36. Brian R said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    I believe this link should allow others to see the original article.

  37. Brian R said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    Sorry, I tested it and it's no better than the original link. I was able to read it however, by doing a google search for the title.

  38. Matt said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    The kind of isolation or break that shifts most script forms from logographic to syllabary, or from syllabary to alphabetic, simply never happened in China.

    Surely it is because Chinese simply has an isolating, mono morphosyllabic form that is well suited to rebus writing?

    Japan and Korea were never conquered by outsiders, yet abandoned characters because their languages were not as well suited as homophonous Chinese to make use of the rebus principle, necessitating further simplification. Chinese, by comparison, is in a position where the rebus is inadequate, but not quite ill fitting enough to go through a more full scale simpliciation.

  39. julie lee said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    Yes, @Matt raises an interesting question.

    Meanwhile, a postcript to my own previous comment:

    On second thought, I recall that the Manchu conquerors who started the Qing dynasty in China did have an alphabet script :

    "Its script is vertically written and taken from the Mongolian alphabet (which in turn derives from Aramaic via Uyghur and Sogdian)." From Wikipedia, "Manchu Language".

    "A European author remarked in 1844 that the transcription of Chinese words in Manchu alphabet, available in the contemporary Chinese–Manchu dictionaries, was more useful for learning the pronunciation of Chinese words than the inconsistent romanizations used at the time by the writers transcribing Chinese words in English or French books.[9] (Wikipedia, "Manchu language")

    In other words, the Manchu conquerors of China did have an alphabet script that could better represent the sounds of the Chinese language. Then why didn't the Manchus use it to replace the Chinese characters? I guess because, even though the alphabetic Manchu script was superior in representing sounds, there were other factors. One would have been elitism. Education was elitist. Mass illiteracy was not a concern. Education in the character-based literature (belles lettres, philosophy, history, etc.) was the privilege of the upper-class with money. The character-based elite education required enormous amounts of time, and the rich had time because there were the poor and the slaves to serve them, and labor was cheap.

  40. Doc Rock said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    As a retired Korean teacher and life long student of scripts [decipherable and not], I would take some small exception to Ms Salton's remarks in re the aesthetics of Chinese characters versus those of Korean script. We have wandered into a realm of acculturation and tastes that may reveal more of the critic's experiences and prejudices than insights into art. Perhaps that is what Victor Mair found offensive? [My minor fields at Princeton, BTW, were in T'ang-Sung Poetry and Chinese intellectual history and I do have 50+ years experience with Chinese characters as well as Korean]

  41. Vanya said,

    April 11, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    Professor Mair,

    I agree that my point on 19th Century prejudice was essentially completely wrong. Well and good, I didn't think that through before I posted, mea culpa. On my main point though I still don't see that you have actually responded, has the use of characters retarded Taiwanese (or Japanese) cultural and economic development over the last 60 years? One probably doesn't have to have any knowledge of Chinese to look at this issue empirically. Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all use the Latin alphabet, they are not doing noticeably better. I think it is very difficult to prove any relationship between script, language and economic growth. Your long post about education being superior in America to China, and the popularity of English, could just as well have been written about Russia. I am not sure how it proves your point. I am not even disputing your basic premise – if one were to start from scratch then of course pinyin makes more sense than an archaic cumbersome character based system. My take on the debate is more economic than linguistic – the cost of replacing an empirically inferior system with a better system can often outweigh the benefits of the new system. In your writings I sense no willingness to address the costs of abandoning the old writing system, and the benefits seem to be mainly intangible.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 7:20 pm


    (VHM: it will be most convenient to respond interlinearly)

    "I agree that my point on 19th Century prejudice was essentially completely wrong. Well and good, I didn't think that through before I posted, mea culpa."


    VHM: Thank you. Apology accepted.


    "On my main point though I still don't see that you have actually responded, has the use of characters retarded Taiwanese (or Japanese) cultural and economic development over the last 60 years?"


    VHM: How about science and technology? It is particularly in these essential fields that the hanzi / kanji / hanja-using nations have been concerned about their relative backwardness and reliance on English-medium instruction and publication in an attempt to keep up. This has been a theme of Chinese language reformers for the past century. A related issue is that of industrial espionage and theft of research and development results. I know someone who is writing a book on this subject, and I can assure you that it will make a very clear case that China invests a huge amount of resources and effort in acquiring vital innovations through these methods rather than by developing them at home themselves. Since you seem to be concerned with economic indicators, you'll be happy to know that the forthcoming book I mentioned will provide massive amounts of empirical evidence.


    "One probably doesn't have to have any knowledge of Chinese to look at this issue empirically. Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all use the Latin alphabet, they are not doing noticeably better. I think it is very difficult to prove any relationship between script, language and economic growth. Your long post about education being superior in America to China, and the popularity of English, could just as well have been written about Russia."


    VHM: No, the craze for English and the rush to go to English-speaking countries for education are far greater in Chinese-speaking countries than they are for Russia. You have not grasped one of my key points: English has become a conspicuous crutch for the Chinese, and one that is growing exponentially. Let's just take one index of the way in which science and technology are keyed to English, namely, the constant effort to keep up with terminology in all of the scientific and technological fields. If you spend much time in China, you will note that the scientific and educational establishments devote a huge amount of time scrambling to render English-language scientific and technological terminology into Chinese. In other words, they are continually reacting to advances in Western science and technology instead of making their own advances in an innovative Chinese-language medium.


    "I am not sure how it proves your point. I am not even disputing your basic premise – if one were to start from scratch then of course pinyin makes more sense than an archaic cumbersome character based system. My take on the debate is more economic than linguistic – the cost of replacing an empirically inferior system with a better system can often outweigh the benefits of the new system. In your writings I sense no willingness to address the costs of abandoning the old writing system, and the benefits seem to be mainly intangible."


    VHM: You're making some interesting assessments and speculations here, Vanya, but there's one thing I must reiterate: I do not advocate "abandoning the old writing system". Rather, as I have said over and over again, I am in favor of a digraphia consisting of hanzi and pinyin, in which the two parallel writing systems will be permitted to develop their full potential without restriction.

  43. julie lee said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 1:40 am

    P.S., Re. the Manchu alphabet,

    I forgot to mention in my last comment here that the Manchu alphabet would have been much faster and easier to learn than the hundreds or thousands of Chinese characters required for literacy in Chinese. Another reason the Manchus, after they conquered China, did not promote the Manchu alphabet among the Chinese would have been their awe of the mystique and majesty of Chinese characters and the huge literature they embodied. Because the Manchus were eager to learn Chinese, they under-appreciated their own script, and it, together with the Manchu language, gradually fell into disuse (see Wikipedia, "Manchu language").

    Interestingly, the Manchu alphabet was not taught as an alphabet, but as a syllabary:
    "Despite the alphabetic nature of its script, Manchu was not taught phoneme by phoneme per letter like western languages are; rather, Manchu children were taught to memorize all the syllables in the Manchu language separately as they learned to write, like Chinese characters." (Wikipedia, "Manchu language")

    This reminded me of what I'd read in Victor Mair about the Sapir-Whorf theory or hypothesis—that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, or linguistic categories can shape the way we think (Wikipedia, "Sapir-Whorf hypoathesis")—and how it is true for the way the block-like syllabic structure of the Chinese script has influenced thought. It looks like the syllabic nature of Chinese characters influenced Manchu thinking about their own alphabet. Mair tells me: "The same is true of the wonderful Korean alphabet — it is grouped in block-like syllables, thereby partially vitiating its value for indicating / recording phonemes individually. I've always felt that was a kind of tragedy that befell HANGUL. That is unlike what happened with 'Phags-pa, a universal script invented under the Mongols."

    'Phags-pa, which actually had an impact on the formation of Hangul—Koreans don't like to hear this, because they believe that their beloved King Sejong invented it himself [with the help of his advisers])— was written out linearly. 'Phags-pa had a Tibetan < Indic derivation, but even it oriented vertically on the page to conform to Chinese characters."

  44. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

    from Bob Ramsey

    An interesting post, Victor. Thanks. I'm sure you already know as well as I do that the remarks about Sapir-Whorf are off, though. That particular hypothesis is about language and doesn't have anything directly to do with writing systems and the difference between alphabets and syllabaries. Of course, she's right that all East Asians build their ideas about language around the concept of the syllable, and they see it as the structural building block of language much the way we do the "word". But I think that particular cultural difference is not one that derives from anything you might conclude from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    That one slightly pedantic point doesn't detract from anything else she wrote, though. What she noted about Korean nationalism preventing a fair assessment of the influence of 'hPags-pa is spot on. In fact, to my mind the best things you can read on that issue in any language are the writings of Gari Ledyard, who presents undeniable evidence of that alphabet's influence. Koreans (including my friends and mentors) just don't want to hear about it, so they've never given Gari's scholarship about Hangul the recognition it deserves.

    On the other hand, one thing I would like to correct is that little note she parenthetically adds: "[with the help of his advisors]". That's certainly the common wisdom in Western (and Japanese and older Korean!) sources about Hangul, and it sure makes a lot of sense. After all, how could Sejong have possibly created that ingeniously structured writing system without help? The problem with that logical conclusion, though, is that it's just not true. About a decade and a half ago it was shown, conclusively in my opinion, that Hangul is, after all, truly Sejong's invention, and his alone. The scholar who first produced that evidence is Lee Ki-Moon, who has shown philologically and logically that the only other person who could possibly have participated in the actual work of creating Hangul, even as an advisor, was the Crown Prince. I hasten to add that on numerous occasions Sejong did send scholars on quests to bring him information about other writing systems–including, it seems useful to note, 'hPags-pa. And he certainly used all that information in his own work. But the final work on the alphabet was his and his alone.

  45. julie lee said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    @Victor Mair, from Bob Ramsey.

    Thanks, Bob.

  46. Tyrhonius said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    Languagehat said:

    "How absurd. If Chinese can understand each other when they speak, they can understand the speech when it is written down phonetically."

    Actually, Chinese sometimes CAN'T understand each other when they speak, so they often have explain or describe which character they're referring to. You see this a lot when people are introducing themselves.

  47. Wayne Wong said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    Tyrhonius said:

    “Actually, Chinese sometimes CAN'T understand each other when they speak, so they often have explain or describe which character they're referring to. You see this a lot when people are introducing themselves.”

    Sometimes people have to clarify what they mean when speaking English as well, when a word they’re saying has two or more different meanings, and when with each meaning, the word is spelled the same, as it would be in pinyin. English has no characters to fall back on in such situations, and yet we manage by adding context that explains what we really mean.

    Yes, there are currently too many homophones in Chinese, but several native Chinese-speakers have confirmed to me that still, homophones are basically not a problem in spoken Chinese. Of course, it would be nice if Chinese didn’t have so many homophones, but the characters are not necessarily needed to solve this “problem”. Actually, rather than being the solution, perhaps (over-?)reliance on the characters has helped to cause and perpetuate the current situation in which Chinese has come to have so many homophones, and in which written Chinese has become so terse.

    I think it is worth noting that it is not just Chinese sounds that can have multiple possible meanings—Chinese characters themselves can have multiple possible meanings too, and even multiple possible pronunciations, depending on the context. (This can easily be confirmed by just looking at a Chinese dictionary.) So, when you get right down to it, the ultimate clarifier in Chinese is really context, not the characters, since context is sometimes needed to clarify the characters. And, just as context ultimately works to clarify things in spoken Mandarin, it can also work to clarify things in pinyin.

  48. David said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

    From Amazon – See What Deng XiaoPing said.

    5.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionary. Should be Read by all Chinese Worldwide, August 16, 2004

    By Charles Darwin (Austin, Texas USA) – See all my reviews
    This review is from: The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture (Paperback)

    Bo Yang's book is a landmark work in the history of China.

    Chinese intellectuals all over the world for the last 200-300 have thought about the incredible backwardness of China in the 18th, 19th, and 20th. Century.

    Most of the 20th century, China has suffered from foreign invasion (from Japan, 1930s), colonization, (from the British, Germans, Portuguese, etc), massive famines (30 million dead in the 1950s), massive chaos, disorders (Cultural Revolution in the 1960s), inept, tyrannical, evil dictators (Mao Zedong from 1949-1976), no progress for over a thousand years (80% still live on the farms), not a single discovery or invention since the year 1500 (electricity, calculus, car, airplane).

    The essential question is what is the cause of this incredible backwardness.

    The late Deng Xiaoping said the two greatest disasters in the history of mankind is the Chinese writing system and the elevation of Confucius as the state religion.

    The incredible backwardness of China has been the thoughts of leaders from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen to the current leadership in 2004.

    Bo Yang's book is really a breakthrough much like Charles Darwin on Natural Selection and Galileo Galileo in the Natural Sciences. Bo Yang's main argument are many but chiefly the mindless reverence for the past and mindless reverence for authority.

    Doing the same thing, over and over again for a thousand years. Ancestor worship, rote memorization in schools, dishonesty, close-mindedness are all essential cultural traits.

    Chief cause of backwardness is killing of anything news or different. The massacre in 1989 in Tiananmen Square is a long, long line of killing of anything new.

    Chinese culture is essentially a strait-jacket that killed anything new in China for the last thousand years. After reading the book, it no wonder, China has contributed nothing in science, technology, innovations in the last thousand years.

    Bo Yang great book and his legendary greatness is to strike at the heart of the issue. Backward looking and fossil-like Chinese culture is at the heart why China is unable to modernize.

    Bo Yang is really a legend among Chinese intellectuals, translated into English for the first time. This is a great book, must read, must buy for anyone interested in China. Recommend for all to buy and read, and discuss thoroughly.

  49. David said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    Is it the culture, WRITING or both (In equal measure?) that has held back China?

    What did Lin Yu Tang have today about the matter?

  50. David said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

  51. David said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    Conclusion, the cost is high, pervasive and recurring but will remain so because of the in-built inertia in chinese culture.

    Most mainland chinese are unaware of this (cost) and are unable to articulate it until they have lived overseas and learned (English?). It is not immediately visible to the "ordinary joe" westerner who wants to learn mandarin but seems to be is the consensus amongst academics who have studied the language.

    The insidious pervasiveness of the cost of the "writing system" in daily communications is hard to appreciate until one deliberates/analyses.

    Despite this, China has "overcome" due to its sheer scale?

  52. David said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 3:46 am

    Any comments on the following link


    Being fluent in both english and chinese, I disagree that rote memorization is always needed for chinese words. many chinese words are formed by combining common characters in a logical and intuitive way. it is actually a very intuitive language once you have a "critical mass" of characters memorized. it's actually english that often requires memorization of completely new strings of characters that have no clear logic to their structures

    For example, from electricity, we have:
    電視 (electricity and vision): television
    電話 (electricity and speech): telephone
    電影 (electricity and image/shadow): movie

    Appreciate your comments.

  53. David said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    Especially those who consider themselves fluent and bi-lingual.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 5:46 am


    "…it's actually english that often requires memorization of completely new strings of characters that have no clear logic to their structures…."

    I see that you've been commenting on a post that is two years old. It's only by chance that I noticed your new comments.

    On this one, for which you have said you would specifically appreciate comments, I'll just say that English writing has no "characters". Rather, it is made up of letters, the relationships among which are determined by phonetics.

    What you are actually discussing in your comment is word formation through the combination of morphemes. The process of forming words in English and Chinese is actually quite similar (e.g., television = tele- + -vision; telephone = tele- + -phone). The relationship among morphemes and the meaning of the overall meaning of the word they form is usually fairly transparent in both languages (e.g., 汽车 [automobile] = 汽 [steam] = 车 [vehicle]; automobile = auto + mobile), but often it is not (e.g., 天花 [diphtheria] = 天 [heaven] + 花 [flower]; diphtheria [from a Greek word meaning "prepared hide; leather"]).

    What people complain about with regard to rote memorization in Chinese is character formation, structure, and stroke order. Hence the huge amount of time necessary to master the 3,000 or so characters necessary for moderate literacy in Chinese and the severe problem of character amnesia. These are all issues that we've discussed many times on Language Log.

  55. David said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    An extract for the link:

    "Susie Dent, lexicographer and expert in dictionaries, the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is of around 20,000 words, with a passive one of around 40,000 words."


    Curious to know what the data is Chinese native speakers – what I speculate is the active (vocab) is smaller and passive (inactive?) is larger for Chinese (mandarin) native speakers?

  56. J. M. Unger said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 8:19 am

    In response to Yang's original comment, my own take on these issues:

    (1) No ordinary writing system is purely phonographic. All ordinary writing systems use both logographic and phonographic means of representing chunks of speech. It's just a question of how they achieve a robust balance good enough for everday learning and use.

    (2) There are varieties of Chinese writing that are both more phonographic than customary script and also used by thousands of Chinese speakers: pinyin orthography, Chinese braille, Dungan cyrillic, and so on. There is no empirical evidence that the specific degree or form of logographic representation found in customary script is necessary for achieving literacy in (some variety of) Chinese in practical terms. To what extent and under what conditions the customary script ought to be perpetuated is therefore ultimately a political question.

  57. David said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:44 am

    Anyone got any data on the inventory size of a native chinese speakers (spoken) vocabulary and how does that compare with other Languages (English?)

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