Push-to-talk

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Here's another eye-opening article from Quartz:

"Stop texting right now and learn from the Chinese: there's a better way to message" (7/02/15) by Josh Horwitz.

I missed the article when it came out back in July, and even now wouldn't have known about this new fad that is sweeping China if Kyle Wilcox hadn't called it to my attention.

What the article describes is the craze for sending short audio clips instead of text messages.

Since the technology enabling voice messaging has been around for a long time, why is this happening in China now but not before and not in other countries?

One of the reasons cited by the author is this:  "Most Chinese will say it's because the language is notoriously hard to type."  I fully agree with the Chinese people who say this.  Chinese characters are so annoying to type, even with the best pinyin inputting systems, that many people who know English strongly prefer to message in that language rather than in their native tongue.

"Chinese character inputting" (10/17/15)

"Language notes from Macao and Hong Kong" (6/22/14)

One reason not cited by the author is the fact that it is easier to escape the ever-watchful eye of the censors with voice messaging than with text messaging.

I like everything about the article except the title and the closing, which enjoins people outside of China to stop texting and start voice messaging.

I don't think that voice messaging will ever catch on in the West.  First of all, typing languages written with an alphabetical script is relatively easy.  Even if you misspell, people will still understand you, and the spellcheckers help you to avoid that problem anyway.  Then there's swype-typing which, in the hands of an adept like my son, can be graceful and seemingly effortless.

"Swype and Voice Recognition for mobile device inputting" (1/22/14)

I see people doing it intermittently on the train every morning.

Another reason is that, in the West, if everybody (or even half of the people) who is text messaging at any given moment were voice messaging, it would very quickly become socially unacceptable.  Tolerance for public noise is much, much lower in the West than in China.

Yet another reason why I doubt that voice messaging will replace text messaging in the West is that — as I have observed over and over again (even though I don't do it myself) — people love to look back over the conversation they had with someone last night, and they might want to do that repeatedly, as well as show their conversations to friends.  Moreover, you can scan through text message records as quickly or slowly as you wish, and can linger over the parts that you want to focus on or skip over the parts that don't matter that much.  You can't do that with voice messaging, since all you see on the screen is a succession of blank cartouches.



27 Comments

  1. Michael Watts said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 3:40 am

    It's much easier for me to type in chinese on my phone than to type in english. This is probably an effect of my limited chinese, but I can actually use the input prediction there. The english input prediction doesn't work for me at all, so I end up having to enter the entire text by hand.

  2. Joseph said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 3:51 am

    Living in Toyko one way of recognizing a Chinese person before hearing what language they are speaking is to see that they are holding their cellphone to talk into their WeChat app as they are walking down the street, something that would never be socially acceptable to the Japanese especially.

    The problem is not volume, because even on the street where it would be acceptable to make a phone call of the same volume there remains an eerie distance to the voice messaging in the sense that you are no longer talking to a person directly even if through a phone but listening to a message that has been recorded into a computer program at the time of your convienece. In this sense I think voice messaging is unacceptable in public in a way similar to that of using voice-controlled features of a smartphone, like the Siri iPhone app, is rude in public.

    In addition, with the way computer voice recognition technology has been developing I can't agree with Professor Mair that using voice messaging would be a good way to avoid censors. One reason I would never want to use voice messaging even in private on these Chinese apps is that I wouldn't want recordings of my voice to be out there in the digital world to who knows what future use.

  3. krogerfoot said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    It may not catch on everywhere in the West, but it seems to be popular in certain parts of it. According to this article, entitled "Everyone in Buenos Aires is communicating by voice memo now," everyone in Buenos Aires is communicating by voice memo now.

  4. mendel said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 5:00 am

    I think you're drawing conclusions from your own personal preferences. In Germany, I notice some of my son's friends prefer to send voice over Whatsapp rather than text.

    I know some people prefer to use Youtube for information rather than text, even though it is less efficient – much less so for those of us who read and write regularly. And it is quicker to "dictate" a message than to type it up, so that saves time for the sender.

    Having the voice clips makes a lot more sense in private conversations, where having access to the emotions inherent in the voice makes a lot more sense than it does in a business context – both when first receiving the message as well as when re-examining it later. I'd expect that if this catches on, chat apps could use speech recognition to label voice chat messages. These labels need not be accurate, just succinct enough to make it possible to find the message again later.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 6:11 am

    @Michael Watts

    I would love to see you do that with unprepared text. You must be an absolute marvel. Or else your Chinese (Mandarin?) must be really bad (far worse than Mark Zuckerberg's) and you can only write about the simplest of matters.

  6. JQ said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 6:20 am

    I prefer sending texts because I don't need to type "uhh" before each message, and if I change my mind, I can delete selectively rather than having to start over.

    Some of my relatives believe that you need to type an essay into each instant message. Now that they've discovered voice messaging, they draft a script (on paper or in their head), rehearse it and then record it, which may be faster than typing in Cantonese given the difficulty of entering non-standard characters. As they are more elderly, they don't believe in using Romanization for characters they can't type easily

    If I needed to hear intonations and emotions, I'd just make a phone call. I also can't see how voice messaging is ruder than just speaking on the phone

  7. shubert said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 7:06 am

    Text messaging saved time when I suffered Indian accent at Amazon

  8. tsts said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    Agree with Krogerfoot and Mendel. We have to be careful about conclusions based on personal preferences. I cannot imagine ever wanting to tweet, but somehow hundreds of millions do it anyway.

    I think JQ also makes a very important point about Chinese dialects, uh, I mean, other Sinitic languages. Voice chat is quite popular right now with Chinese in NYC, and one major advantage is that it has no problems dealing with Taishanese, Cantonese, and Fuzhounese. I know some older people who use it for hours each day talking Taishanese to old friends and classmates here and back in China.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    Victor Mair, it could easily be true that my Chinese is much worse than Mark Zuckerberg's. But I note that the entire thrust of your piece mocking Zuckerberg was that his pronunciation was bad while his syntax and vocabulary were fine, which would mean he exhibits no problems at all in text. It's a strange comparison to draw.

    Pronunciation problems have very little relationship to language quality.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

    I'll also note that Chinese texting each other in English may benefit in the same way that I benefit when entering Chinese — without the ability to form precise sentences, they end up saying less and not tiring out their thumbs.

  11. JS said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

    I was astounded with the functionality of the Chinese input method on my previous cellphone… but don't know what it was. :( The keys seemed to be excellent predictive capability combined with superb "acronym"-type word entry whereby yq prompts y_q_ options like yi3qian2, yi4qi3, etc.

    No real sense of speed relative to English, but it felt fast — the answer to the question would be simple records of the specific keystrokes used to generate specific messages. The math should be straightforward too… Chinese words average two morphemes, and there are X number of words in a modest dictionary, so consonant combination n_m_ will map to a number of tokens of which the desired one is available at one additional key stroke Y percentage of the time…

    Note this acro-entry meant chengyu almost always popped up after entering the four initial syllable letters.

  12. Guy_H said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

    I think it's difficult to draw any correlation here. Voice messaging is notoriously popular in southeast Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand etc) and they all have native languages which are easy to type.

  13. Guy_H said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

    Also whoever said noise tolerance is lower in the "West" has clearly never been to Spain or Italy!

  14. Michael Watts said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    nm will yield 那么 and 你们 (and, on my phone, also 农民), and I imagine one of those two is what's desired well over 98% of the time. I have a personal entry for 柠檬, but talking about lemons is vanishingly rare compared to "so much" or "you".

  15. K. Chang said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Why does this reminds me so much of that NexTel (RIP) commercial, where everybody in a meeting pulled out a Nextel PTT phone and the meeting was done in 30 seconds?

  16. shubert said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

    @Michael: 那么 well–>we–>you.
    Lemon-ningmen is bad translation

  17. GH said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

    About ten years ago, I worked in an office where most everyone had NexTel phones, and we used push-to-talk quite regularly. I think it fell out of fashion mostly because it was (I believe) exclusive to NexTel, so it really only worked if everyone was on that network. The social protocol around it was quite functional.

    I guess the communication flow was a little different, if this new form allows you to play back recorded messages at your leisure. (PTT, for those not in the know, is essentially walkie-talkie functionality.)

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

    A trollish pattern of behavior in comments extending over a number of posts will inevitably be noticed by the folks at Language Log headquarters.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?page_id=72

    There is no place for tendentiousness, accusatoriness, combativeness, twisting the words of others, and making presumptuous leaps of illogic in the comments section of Language Log.

    Assessment should not be construed as mocking, "not bad" does not mean "fine", problems in one area do not mean no problems in another area, etc.

    Please maintain an atmosphere of civil discourse.

  19. K Chang said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 3:03 am

    Having used WeChat in both voice chat (short recording clips) mode and text mode I can't say which one I like better. While voice chat is "noisier", it also means I don't have to fight the IME. Even with Sogou, which is smarter than Google Pinyin, I still have to fight pinyin to get the character I want at times. Sogou's voice input is not bad, but could be better. It also can't handle accents, and only has experimental Cantonese support (forget about other dialects). Voice chat would eliminate all of that, AND avoid the time pressure of a phone call (which WeChat can also do, via VOIP).

    Text mode gives you the ability to throw in puns, emojis and stickers, as well as let you be literal, which can let you hide your accents and such.

    They both have their uses, but I agree with Prof Mair that voice chat is unlikely to penetrate the Western market in the near future. We just have too different culture to adopt such practices.

  20. DWalker said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    I often think that, if texting had been popular first, and then telephones became popular later, that telephones would have a great advertising opportunity: "You can actually TALK in REAL-TIME to your friends! No more laborious typing of messages back and forth!"

  21. Eric said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

    I noticed the trend for voice messaging while I was in Beijing for the summer, but I had rather different ideas of why it has become so popular. My assumption is that the sender finds it very convenient when doing things that make texting a sub-optimal activity, e.g., when walking or driving on dangerously busy streets. On the receiving end, I found it really annoying as it's much more obnoxious to listen to a message than read a text in public spaces.

  22. Other Eric said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    I have seen ads in the U.S. for newer phones touting the ability to send voice via text message (i.e. MMS) and know several English-speaking American 20-something-and-under people who use it with fair regularity. Of course my anecdotal evidence cannot speak to larger trends.

    In the '90s and '00s many construction firms seemed to have contracts with Sprint/NexTel due to the perceived suitability of the PTT feature for their purposes. It's only now occurred to me that that does seem to have fallen by the wayside.

  23. Eidolon said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    I myself am adverse to texting simply because I have trouble typing on the phone. I do think ease of input has a lot to do with it, but level of practice also has a lot to do with it. I use the same hands to type that I use to text, but I can type faster than all but the fastest typists, yet I text slower than an eight years old. Had I grown up texting due to peer pressure, however, I imagine there won't be such a huge disparity, and I'd find it convenient to text. Preference, at times, is simply a function of personal ability.

    As it is, I text only when I absolutely must due to the environment I'm in. Otherwise, I'm well known for calling people back when they text me, unless they specifically tell me not to.

  24. Vic said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    I generally prefer reading over listening. It's easier and faster to skim and find the relevant details. I hate when I go to a news or technical site and find that they want to show me a video full of graphics and sound effects and five seconds of actual content. And if I want to save it, I can easily edit or annotate the text.

  25. brian said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

    Has nobody really heard of Voxer? "Push to talk" is even their slogan. It's quite popular in my circles, even with older folks. I know quite a few people across Canada, the USA, and Scandinavia that use it.

  26. BZ said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

    So let me get this straight. People used to talk. Then they invented writing so people could write to each other. Then they invented the telephone so people could talk. Then email (write), cell phones (talk), SMS (write). So now we're talking again?

  27. liuyao said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    One aspect of it that hasn't been raised in the comments. The push-to-talk served the older generations very well, and has a sociological impact on families that now spread to different parts of the world. In the West, everyone can type, and the keyboard stays the same from a typewriter to a computer, and now on smartphones. But in China, even if you learned pinyin in your grade school, to find the keys on a qwerty keyboard needs a lot of practice (in fact number pad is more popular). Imagine an old lady who has never used a computer, trying to connect with her children and grandchildren via WeChat (well, she'd probably use video chat if WiFi is available).

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