Paperless reading

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Just a little over a year ago, I made the following post:

"The future of Chinese language learning is now"  (4/5/14)

The second half of that post consisted of an account of a lecture that David Moser (of Beijing Capital Normal University and Academic Director of Chinese Studies at CET Beijing) had delivered a few days earlier (on 4/1/14) at Penn:  "Is Character Writing Still a Basic Skill?  The New Digital Chinese Tools and their Implications for Chinese Learning".

Now David has a new post of his own on the "Hacking Chinese" website about digital tools for learning how to read Chinese:

"The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading"  (4/8/15)

One of the best things about all of David's writing concerning Chinese is that it's brutally honest, while at the same time being full of wit and humor.  He is not one to prettify the Chinese language learning experience:  he tells it like it is — hard.  On the other hand, he's always on the lookout for the most intelligent ways for learners to make progress as quickly and painlessly as possible.

In the old days, two and more decades ago before the advent of electronic tools for learning Chinese, one usually just had to tough it out.  If one wanted to read through the whole of Qián Zhōngshū's (1910-1998) celebrated novel Wéichéng 围城 (Fortress Besieged) and not skip any words or nuances, then one had better be prepared to spend a solid half year of tough labor going through it looking up everything that one didn't understand.  David gives a graphic account of doing just that, and he even shows a picture of an actual page from the book with his pencilled notes scattered all over it.  The Chinese books I read in those days looked the same (or worse).  I remember buying German writing instruments with extremely thin lead (Staedtler Mars drafting mechanical pencils with .3 lead and needle point Rotring ink pens) and later I bought fine tipped Japanese writing instruments (Pentel pencils and Pilot pens [.3 and .4]) so that I could squeeze more information into every nook and cranny of the page.

The big difference now is that, if you have a text that is digitized — and there are so many things available in digital form — there are all sorts of tools for helping you to read them.  David describes these texts and tools (e.g., dictionary apps, translation devices) and how to use them to facilitate reading.

The good news is that any text that is in electronic form (Word, PDF, etc.) or on a web page can be converted to a format that is readable in one or another of the digital dictionary tools available. Thanks to the burgeoning array of Internet sites and digital resources you can begin exploring – relatively painlessly – new textual territories that accord perfectly with your literary tastes, your research, your hobbies, and even your passions.

Don't forget to read the comments following David's post on "Hacking Chinese".  They provide valuable information about the experiences of others who have used the new technologies for reading Chinese.

The question of the best and most efficient way to learn how to speak, read, and write Chinese has come up often on Language Log, e.g., "How to learn to read Chinese " (5/25/08)

Acquiring mastery over Chinese is hard enough no matter how one approaches it.  There's no sense using inefficient, refractory methods (flash cards, mindlessly copying characters hundreds of times, looking up words by radicals and residual strokes or other shape-based systems, and so forth).  We are fortunate to live in an age when much of the unnecessary drudgery of Chinese language learning has been removed by intelligent, new tools.  Take advantage of them before wasting years of your life while making little progress using the old, user unfriendly, ineffective methods based on sǐbèi 死背 ("rote memorization").

1 Comment

  1. Yu Renye said,

    April 12, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    One nice thing about using digitized classical text is the ease with which you can turn on/off commentary with a trivial amount of HTML and Javascript (encase commentary in a span class, add some jQuery, and bam!). No more getting hopelessly lost in Talmudic oceans of exegesis when you just want to read the original ; alternately , you can add commentary without having the urtext basically disappear. A big advantage over physical books of classical chinese; not to mention the cool factor of reading well "printed" Chinese on an iPad- which is surprisingly pleasant, even more so than English.

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