Embarrassing amnesia

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[This is a guest post by David Moser]

Part I

I was giving a talk the other day, in Chinese, to Chinese students, about English pedagogy (go figure).  I wanted to mention something about the difficulty of remembering how to write Chinese characters, and I chose to use an example of the idiom 韬光养晦 tao1guang1yang3hui4, "to hide your light under a bushel."  Now the interesting thing about this example is that I had used it several times before as an example, in talks about the difficulty of Hanzi, and I said to the audience something like:

Now here is an idiom that I encounter probably 2-3 times a year.  The context is always the same: It is the idiom Deng Xiaoping used to characterize Chinese diplomatic strategy in the 90s, which was 'Hide your strong points and bide your time.'  I've studied the idiom, I've written it down dozens of times, and it stands out for me as an important idiom to know.  Yet every single time I encounter it in pinyin in the newspaper, I can never remember how to write the first and last characters.  I have to look them up nearly every time.  And when I see the characters in a Chinese text, I can never be sure of the tone of the first character, whether it's first tone or second tone, never.

Etc. etc.  So this is a string of characters I've put considerable effort into memorizing, for obvious reasons.  And so then I started my spiel for the students, saying how hard it was for me to solidify my memory of these characters.  One of the students raised his hand and said "So now you can remember how to write them?"  I sort of nervously went to the board with a piece of chalk.  At first my mind was a total blank for the first character.  But after a second, I remembered the phonetic on the right, 舀, and wrote that, but couldn't get the left-hand radical.  And I got the 日 radical for the final character but couldn't quite recall what the phonetic was. They all chuckled a bit, and a few said "Pretty good for a foreigner, though", and I've lost face so many times over characters that it didn't bother me much at all. In fact, it just vividly proved my point.  Still, I was pretty disappointed in myself personally, since I had tried so hard to imprint this idiom perfectly in my mind, many many times over the course of the last few years.  I mean, damn, this has been one of my favorite examples for audiences for a long time!

After the lecture ended, a woman came up to me and said "You know, I couldn't remember how to write tao1, either.  I had to look it up. But can you tell me the English translation again?"  So I repeated for her "Hide your strong points and bide your time," aware as I said it that "bide" is certainly one of the lower frequency words in English.  She nodded and wrote down "bide" PERFECTLY, saying "I never studied this idiom 'bide your time' before, thank you."

Sheesh.  The irony.  This is one for the books.  Love it.

[VHM:  Of course, nowadays David and others — both native and nonnative speakers — would just enter "taoguangyanghui" (without tones) into their electronic device and the correct characters, 韬光养晦, together with the correct tones, tāoguāngyǎnghuì, would pop up instantaneously, along with a usable translation, "keeping a low profile".  So there's really no need to memorize all of the strokes of the characters or to engrave them into the neuromuscular pathways between one's brain and fingers.  The sounds alone are quite sufficient to call up the characters.]

Part II

I have occasionally taught English to Beijing schoolchildren, and one day many years ago I was helping a class of Beijing third graders review English words for body parts.  One little boy wrote “knee” on the blackboard, and then, as he attempted to write the Chinese translation xigai 膝盖, found he could not write the characters.  I found it interesting that the boy in third grade could not yet write such a common word in his own language, yet had no trouble writing the equivalent word in English.   Intrigued,  I begin to quiz the class for spellings of common words for everyday objects and concepts in English, and within a few minutes I came up with a list of words that many students could easily write in English yet could not successfully render in Chinese script.  The words included   yaoshi 钥匙 “key”, niaochao 鸟巢 “bird’s nest”, lajiao 辣椒 “hot pepper”, gebo 胳膊 “arm”,  and jugong 鞠躬 “bow." Abilities varied somewhat, of course, and a couple of the brighter kids could seemingly write almost any Chinese character you could name, but for most of them, there were many words they could effortlessly write in English (or make a good guess) but had not yet learned — or could not remember — in their own writing system.



  1. Eidolon said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    It is telling that all of the words in the list are compound words. Even the pinyin for a lot of these words in MSM are more complex than in English. I wonder about the % of them that are loans.

  2. JS said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

    Tao1guang1yang3hui4 韬光养晦 (just tested it to be sure) and thousands of other similar fixed expressions may now be entered with Google Pinyin Input and probably other systems with only four letters — tgyh. For basically this reason, I feel confident I text in Chinese more rapidly than I do in English (though it may be scandalous to say so on this forum, and I also lack experimental evidence.) This is possible, ironically, because of the internal structure of Chinese words, one key factor contributing to the long persistence of character-based writing and thus to the difficulty of the script in the first place.

  3. Jacob Li said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    There are words more difficult to learn in Chinese than in English, such as "膝盖" vs "knee", but there are plenty of words whose difficult works the other way around.

    e.g. If you ask a 12-year-old native Chinese speaker, he/she probably can write and use the idiom “幸灾乐祸” correct. On the other hand, I am not sure if many 12-yo native English speaker can spell and pronounce "schadenfreude" correctly. Heck, sometimes English speakers can't even pronounce "pronounce/pronunciation" right, while not many Chinese speakers get “发音” wrong.

    I get that everyone feels that learning Chinese writing is extremely difficult, but as someone who took great effort to learn English I'd say English has its own extreme difficulty in its irregularities of spelling and pronunciation (for example, I have to spell/pronounce "repertoire" like in French, and "schadenfreude" like in German). And English spell-checking software are just as prevalent as pinyin input methods.

    I reckon that every sophisticated language has some extremely information-dense (hence difficult) part like Chinese written characters or English spelling/pronunciation. It just has to have enough amount of complexity to carry enough information in the compact way that a language does.

  4. C Baker said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

    And, you know, knee is not really the most intuitive word to spell in English either, what with that tricky kn and all.

  5. leoboiko said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    When I want to etch such fixed expressions in my mind, I use spaced repetition systems such as Anki. It doesn't scale to memorize an entire lexicon, and when trying to acquire a language I find it to be an ancillary tool at best. However, it works great to get a few hundred difficult characters down to memory and showing off in bars. (Also, memorization-based exams.) I've memorized 甲乙丙丁戊己庚辛壬癸 and 子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥 (their order, pronunciation, and writing) in this way, as well as a lot of specialized tea ceremony vocabulary.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:36 pm


    Plus you're texting with romanization.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:37 pm


    None of these are fancy, scientific, technical terms borrowed from abroad within the last century. They are the common Mandarin words for these items.

    The simplified forms are in the second column, the traditional forms in the third column. As you can see, some of the traditional forms — like the characters for "key" — are killers in terms of their complexity, despite the fact that these are all quotidian terms. Despite the drastic simplification of the word for "key", the students still stumbled on it. Even highly literate adults have serious trouble with the first character of the traditional form.

    1. xīgài 膝盖 膝蓋 knee

    2. yàoshi 钥匙 鑰匙 key

    3. niǎocháo 鸟巢 鳥巢 bird's nest

    4. làjiāo 辣椒 辣椒 hot / red / chili pepper

    5. gēbó 胳膊 胳膊 arm

    6. jūgōng 鞠躬 鞠躬 to bow

    1 goes back around five centuries, 2 and 6 go back at least to the Han period (about 2,000 years ago), 3 to the Tang (about a thousand years ago), 4 is a New World crop probably brought to China around 400 years ago, and 5 is a vernacular Mandarin term (probably at least a couple of hundred years old). Dates are ballpark figures.

    In addition, I should note that the average length of a Mandarin word is almost exactly two syllables. So these are just simple, normal words in Mandarin.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    @C Baker

    Still and all, those Chinese children that David Moser taught learned "knee" more readily than they learned 膝盖.

    @Jacob Li

    You picked two very bad examples in "schadenfreude" and "repertoire" to compare with the common Chinese words for "knee", "key", "nest", "pepper", "arm" and "bow".

  9. Chris Kern said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 9:24 pm

    One thing that I always find interesting about Japanese, in comparison, is how some of these words are written more simply. So bow in Japanese is just 弓 (yumi), and arm is 腕 (ude). Eye is still written as 目 as opposed to 眼睛.

  10. Sniffnoy said,

    October 20, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    Wait, does that phrase literally translate as "to hide your light under a bushel"? Because that comes from an English idiom, which itself comes from the Bible… though I guess the Chinese meaning is a bit different, and the English idiom is disused.

  11. CThornett said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 12:34 am

    The 'knee' example makes me curious: one important factor in the irregularities of English spelling is the persistence of spellings derived from the different languages that blended to make modern English, to put it simply, such as the now-silent 'k' in 'knee'. Is there a similar factor in Chinese characters? And have you posted about this before, as an unreliable memory suggests you have?

    It could be possible that young Chinese children might be less fazed by silent letters than young children whose first languages have more transparent or regular spelling systems.

  12. flow said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 6:41 am

    @Chris Kern 'bow' 鞠躬 is not 'the' but 'to bow', sth like 敬礼 けいれい in Japanese.

    the other example may also be conveniently countered by quoting 眼鏡 めがね, which 'should' be 目金 as per pronunciation but isn't.

    whether writing 腕 for うで is any simpler / easier than writing 胳膊 for gēbó is also questionable, given that 腕 is a character comprising all of 月 'flesh, meat (not moon/month, which is written the same in this position)', 宛 'winding', 宀 '(cover)', 夗 '(recurrent group with no modern meaning)', 夕 'evening', 㔾 'frequent KangXi radical "seal"'. not sure how that assembly relates to either the meaning 'arm' or the sound うで. 胳膊, by comparison, at least points in the right direction as for pronunciation—you can tell it should be sth like (ge/lu)+(fu/bu/pu/bo). well not really straightforward either.

    i'm a fan of Chinese characters but facts are facts, right?

  13. flow said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 6:45 am

    just realized i managed to disparage English spelling by feeling forced to resort to put the distinction between 'bow' and 'bow' into the 'the' and 'to', as in 'the bow' vs 'to bow'. wonder how many native speakers get that one wrong when reading aloud. in case many test subjects get that one right, i'll have a text about leaders and leading in my briefcase.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 7:14 am


    There's a lot of historical phonological information embedded in traditional Chinese characters, but it takes a specialist to extract it, though it is somewhat more evident to speakers of southern topolects than to Mandarin speakers.

  15. schnoerkelman said,

    October 21, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    To bow a stringed instrument
    Off to practice with my bow and arrow
    To bow at the waist.
    A shot across the bow of the ship.
    Tie a bow in the ribbon.

    What an overloaded little word and that's not even all of them…

  16. David Moser said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 3:47 am

    The "schadenfreude" example also misses the main point. Suppose I said to the 12-year-old Chinese kids, "The English word 幸灾乐祸 is schadenfreude. Please do your best to write it down." I would no doubt get attempts like:


    and so on. All of these guesses would be perfectly communicative in a given context, no more disruptive than deciphering grade school misspellings like "guvermint" or "arithmutick." By contrast, a non-native 12-year-old learner of Chinese, given the phoneme string "xingzailehuo" would be stopped cold. One writing system is extremely tolerant of error and conducive to quick memorization, while the other often short-circuits the process completely.

  17. Rodger C said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 6:47 am

    It just occurred to me to marvel at the fact tyhat the character for "to bow" contains, as a signific, the character for "a bow."

  18. flow said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 7:58 am

    @Rodger C that's because the Chinese come from China, not from Omicron Persei 8 (http://theinfosphere.org/File:ALS-C-17-02.jpg).

  19. JS said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 9:49 am

    @Rodger C
    Probably ultimately the same word; consider gōngshēn 弓身~躬身 'bow at the waist', for example. So the question of "signific" vs. "phonetic" becomes moot.

  20. gaoxiaen said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    I teach English in Taiwan and had an occurrence worse than the "knee" example. Try to imagine an American high school student that can't write "beer".

  21. Jim said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    "e.g. If you ask a 12-year-old native Chinese speaker, he/she probably can write and use the idiom “幸灾乐祸” correct. On the other hand, I am not sure if many 12-yo native English speaker can spell and pronounce "schadenfreude" correctly."

    Jacob Li, that is truly witty. My compliments.

  22. flow said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    @JS the really amazing thing is perhaps not so much that characters like 躬 contain a phonetic that also acts as semantic component, but rather how many people are surprised again and again by this fact that was first published at least by Xu Shen 2000 years ago. I think T. K. Ann claimed that he discovered this 'secret sauce' for the efficient learning of Chinese characters (and then went on and wrote his funny "Cracking the Chinese Puzzles").

  23. Wentao said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    Typically I find characters with unusual shapes the most difficult, for example 彝 弢 and 靈. Some characters look complex, but the structure is pretty clear. Therefore, I find 膝 difficult, but 胳膊 and 钥匙 are relatively easy. 胳 钥 and 匙 have quite straightforwardly phonetic parts, and 膊 shares the part with many common characters such as 博 傅 薄 搏.

    Also, I was very excited to see the idiom Mr Moser brought up – because whenever I want to sound pretentious when people ask me how to write my name, I would always say "tao" as in 韬光养晦! :)

  24. ZZMike said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    English: fewer strokes.
    @Jacob Li: It may be overly picky to point out that "schadenfreude" is a German word. Or that many of out 12-yo even know what it means.

    English's difficulty in pronunciation partly comes from the fact that we have shamelessly borrowed words from other languages. Our letters are merely suggestions of what sounds to make. (The classic example is "tough/through/thought/cough/bough &c.)

    The thing abut Chinese characters is, do the symbols have anything to do with the pronunciation (including tone), or do you have to memorize each character/sound pair? And does the pronunciation change when parts are combined into a larger character?

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