Learning to read and write Chinese

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Responding to "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08), Alex Wang writes:

Thanks for the great blog.  I have also enjoyed the articles of David Moser.  My path toward your blog started when I decided to teach my younger son, 4, to start to read Chinese and English.  It also was heavily influenced by watching my elder son, 7, struggle with learning how to write characters.  He is attending public school here in Shenzhen.  Both were born in HK and raised in Shenzhen.  Moreover, my wife's side is from the mainland.  After analysing the issue at length I have come to many of the same conclusions as your colleagues and you have.

I can't imagine how much more innovation or progress China would have made if they took the Korean route.  Moreover I think there is a large and silent middle class who can not write and are silent due to face/mianzi.  Even the native born parents all say that Chinese is the hardest subject for their children grades 1-6.  My wife who writes government grants (using a laptop) for a large public company has a hard time remembering how to write some of the words that my 3rd grader is learning.

Although I haven't read all the comments on all the relevant blog entries, I am wondering if what I consider the biggest limitation of Chinese has been addressed by a blog.  As the world becomes global, English easily absorbed many foreign words.  With China having opened up in the past 40 years, many loan words have arrived.  For example, "salad", the green leafy stuff people eat :-).  At least here in Shenzhen it is composed of the word for "sand" (shā 沙) and the word for "pull" (lā 拉).  If they are already using characters as phonetics for new words, why not go all the way?  I guess the answer must be to keep the culture.  That said, it's seriously hindering their GDP and literacy. Moreover parents and children suffer terribly, and those who can't afford tutors watch their children slip further and further behind.

Does anyone know if the upper echelons of the Ministry of Education are trying to figure out a way forward, aside from making kids turn in handwritten reports so that they have to write more? (This fails as kids create and edit on Word and then print it out and then copy the finished paper by hand. LOL).  I am sure the government knows the issues and the economic effect, so am just curious as to historical proposals.

Mainly I would like to follow the discussion to learn more.  Although expected, it's disappointing to see some nationalism pervade the arguments.

There are so many words other than "salad" that are entering the language.  I wonder how the government or whatever organization in China determines which characters to use for such borrowed words or is it just the public consensus. It truly seems inefficient to use complex characters as "letters/phonetics". Unfortunately, I don't know how other languages handle word borrowing, but am always looking forward to learning new things.

It was not very easy for my younger son to learn to read Chinese, but I know that learning to write will be brutal as well.  I am seriously considering not sending him to the public school here.  Instead of mindlessly writing each word tens if not a hundred times, he could be learning programming, drawing, playing, sleeping, anything but mindlessly muscle memorizing characters.

Another issue that I have with the teaching of the language in schools here is the text books. With English there is a natural progression

dog
dog runs
black dog runs
black dog runs quickly

Here it seems they make kids memorize many Tang dynasty poems, or the language reminds me of the miniseries "mi yue"* where the people speak with what I call Shakespearean Chinese for lack of a better word.

*[VHM: I think that Alex may be talking about "The Legend of Mi Yue", a popular Chinese historical TV drama.]

They make the kids memorize and try to understand hundreds of historically dated idioms.  It seems that in common conversation these idioms are rarely used, yet they choose to teach them starting in 2nd grade, and many of the tests weight these over 40 percent.

One teacher told me this is political due to trying to protect the culture.

If this is true it reminds me of the British government trying to protect the British pound against all fundamentals.  I view this is the case with Chinese characters.  The loss in potential GDP is staggering when one thinks of the millions of Chinese kids wasting millions of man days/years just mindlessly writing characters instead of reading and learning new things.

Among many other Language Log posts concerned with learning to read and write Chinese are these two:

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

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



61 Comments

  1. Dick Enzyan said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

    The dead hand of tradition weighs heavily on education systems. Friends tell me that much time is wasted similarly in the Arab world learning forms of language of no current relevance. In the UK, too, much school time used to be wasted on Latin and Greek. As a law student, I studied Roman law, the purpose of which, according to student rumour, was simply to employ unemployable but very erudite classicists. So tradition, and the need to protect the culture, can often be a mask for vested interests: teachers had to learn something, and they earn their daily bread by teaching the same thing, ad infinitum it seems.
    There must be a constructive way of dealing with this – even in the regimented type of society that is China.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    Táng-dynasty poems in 2nd grade?!? That's like Beowulf in modern pronunciation in 2nd grade. This is madness.

  3. Bill Benzon said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

    Q. The "Korean route"?

  4. Eidolon said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

    @Bill Benzon adopting an alphabet, such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul

  5. Bill Benzon said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

    Thanks!

  6. Jim Breen said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 6:06 pm

    Re: "… I think there is a large and silent middle class who can not write ,,,", one hears similar comments in Japan, although it's often said quietly as the official line of near-universal adult literacy is not something anyone wants to challenge in public.

  7. Travis said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    This is a topic that has been discussed much here at Language Log, and elsewhere, and I am sure there are plenty of other aspects I won't be addressing, but, two things come to mind for me:

    1) GDP, and future growth and progress and whatever is not all there is to life. Culture, history, and identity are not meaningless or empty pursuits, and they are not evils imposed by the government. They are things everyone ought to value, albeit in their own diverse ways (what culture, what form or version or variety of that culture), but, there are myriad reasons to defend and promote such a thing, a tie to one's past, a tie to one's cultural identity.

    That's nothing new.

    2) But, here's another thought. Yes, learning all these characters can be difficult, and can take a long time. But, first of all, I think that a lot of people who make this sort of argument (clearly not Mr Alex Wang here, but others) simply don't understand how the system works – that all of these thousands of characters are made up of combinations of relatively frequently-occurring parts, parts that are comparatively easy to learn, and that hint towards the reading and/or meaning for the writer/reader.

    So, that's first. But, second, once one has learned enough characters, one can understand the vast majority of words that might come up, just from the characters alone, without having to parse it out to roots from other languages (e.g. Greek or Latin). I would love to see someone write out an essay along these lines, arguing that writers/readers of English (or other European languages) should shift to characters, because after all, students spend so long having to learn new words that can be so long, and bear no easy way of parsing them out if you don't know Greek or Latin (or certain other languages)…

    I'm constantly having conversations with people in which they're so impressed that I know Japanese, or in which they express how difficult it is. But, you know what, "saying" 言 + "tongue" 舌 = "speaking" 話, and electric 電 + speaking 話 = "telephone" 電話, without me having to wonder or think about, or look up in a dictionary what the Greek or Latin "lang" and "-uage" and "tele-" and "-phone" mean.

    This is why you can write things in Japanese like 白血病 ("white blood illness") without having to learn "leukemia" as a whole new word unto itself. Granted, admittedly, understanding the specifics of one disease versus another is not so simple as "white blood disease," but hopefully my point comes across.

    The examples are basically endless. I cannot count the times I have been reading some Theory book – Foucault, Bourdieu, whatever – and come across some super-lengthy word or phrase that I just did not know at all unless I knew Greek or Latin or French. And, granted, in Japanese they might just borrow that word directly, phonetically, like オブジェ (obuje, for the French "objet d'art"), or even if they put it in characters, the nuances of meaning might not be fully evident (does 愛国主義 mean the same thing as the English "nationalism" or "patriotism"? What exactly does it mean?) … But, still.

    And that's not even mentioning the issues with dealing with the countless homophones. The Vietnamese and Koreans seem to have gotten away with it, seem to be managing just fine.. But, let me tell you, trying to read Japanese in all kana (phonetic characters), or in all romaji (romanization), is a bitch.

  8. Jim Breen said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

    Just to pick up on a couple of Travis's points:

    – you can only go so far deducing the meanings of compounds from the constituent kanji. Puzzling over 魂柱 (spirit? pillar?) will probably not lead you to the actual meaning (the sound post in a violin, etc.)

    – reading kana-only text, just as with hangul-only, is possibly more a matter of familiarity and practice. Kids reading the early hiragana-only books don't seem to have a problem grokking the text. I've read that blind Japanese function just as well with the kana-based Braille as do their peers from other language backgrounds using other Braille systems.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 9:25 pm

    From a specialist on the Japanese script, in response to someone's statement to her that literacy levels in China are vastly inflated by the government:

    Probably very similar situations [in China and Japan]. Research into literacy levels in Japan is not exactly encouraged. I have heard of attempts to organize adult literacy classes being blocked because they were "not necessary". Yet Japanese society is full of examples of subtle arrangements to help people who can't read get by. Much of the honne / tatemae stuff is overdone, but this is probably a real example.

  10. shubert said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

    @David: It is madness. At my age 13, schools used a theoretical article without discussion, which is used in college again.

  11. Alyssa said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 10:32 pm

    Rather than throw away the characters themselves, I think a lot of the pain of learning them could be alleviated if we instead threw away two things:

    1) The idea that it's important to be able to write all characters from memory. I still remember how many times I was told as a child that writing cursive was an essential skill I needed in the adult world, and that turned out to be dead wrong – computers had already made cursive obsolete. The only things that are hand-written nowadays are either very formal (wedding invitations) or very informal (notes, to-do lists). Why *shouldn't* students compose their essays on a computer, and then copy it out by hand? In formal contexts, this is a perfectly reasonable technique. And in informal contexts, it's fine to mix in some pinyin as needed.

    2) The idea that the best way to learn characters is to copy individual ones over and over and over on a piece of paper. This is a terrible pedagogical method, and torturous for the learner. I don't think characters need much direct instruction at all – if we simply expect students to read and write in characters, they'll pick them up quickly enough from the acts of reading and writing. Not well enough to hand-write them all, but that's okay! Certainly well enough to function in a world where computers are a given.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 11:02 pm

    @Alyssa

    Very sensible on both counts. I especially liked this part: "…it's fine to mix in some pinyin as needed."

  13. Noel Hunt said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 12:02 am

    The idea of repetition of a task to learn it thoroughly is absurd, and this applies to learning characters as well as to learning a musical instrument. I have learned piano and the violin without once indulging in the nauseous tedium of having to play scales! Thank heavens for the wonderful insights of modern pedagogy.

  14. peterv said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 12:59 am

    My opposition to rote learning of anything is not merely that it is mind-numbing and soul-destroying, and thus very likely to demotivate the learner. It is also ineffective. How did learning the times tables ever help anyone master mathematics? Only with the advent of the New Math did children actually acquire understanding of mathemematical concepts, and thus have the possibility of themselves growing up to use or create mathematics. Of course, acquiring an understanding of concepts is harder for both student and teacher than rote recitation of useless facts. It may also possibly lead to independent thinking, which is no doubt why so many people oppose it.

  15. Noel Hunt said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:34 am

    A remarkably pellucid description of the problem. I was fortunate in being able to discern the concept behind the form of the Chinese characters and thus was relieved of the burden of ever having to practise their stroke orders and now can write myriads of characters. My teachers at university did indeed come to see my independent thinking in this regard as a threat.

  16. APOLLO WU said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:41 am

    Cultural concern is the root cause of the blocking of the use and further development of Hanyu Pinyin. Many senior persons in the Chinese Language Authority (语委)ignore the need of further development of Pinyin, and the People's Education Press [人民教育出版社) reverted from the word-based PInyin to syllabic Pinyin in its textbook publication. In general, its appears that the Roman alphabet has not been naturalized in China. People prefer to use transliteration such as '沙拉' instead its requivalent alphabetic term 'salad'. Chinese media was reprimended in their liberal use of English Acronyms such as GDP, WTO, NBA etc. It is ironical that the complex Chinese Writings System with no word separation and poor funtionality in indexing can probably be used only by the smart Chinese people, who should see the point that 26 alphabets are much better than thousands of irrational Characters.

  17. Alyssa said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 2:11 am

    I am not opposed to repetition in learning. This kind of repetitious copying is helpful if you want to be able to write accurately and legibly by hand. But with computers, that's just not very important anymore. And copying characters only helps the student learn to be better at the physical act of writing that character. It does not, in any way, teach them the meaning or the pronunciation. It will not help them recognise that character if they encounter it in a text, and it will not help them remember which words contain that character.

    What a student needs for basic literacy is to repeatedly encounter the character as part of a word they are trying to read, as part of a text whose meaning they care about. If they want to be able to write it as well, they also need to repeatedly include that character in a meaningful text they are writing. Both of those things should be happening as a matter of course with all common vocabulary, in the normal process of attending school.

  18. flow said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 5:49 am

    Certainly, to write Chinese characters—by hand!—makes people the world over suffer terribly.

    Also, the biggest problem of China, today, is that the PRC's GDP lags far behind what it could be if only people would be allowed to write 'salad' instead of the cucumbersome 沙拉.

    What years wasted, for all those useless 叮當動 when all you need is ABC, and the utter simplicity that is, of all things, English spelling.

    Why use a map, why go there at all, when you can plush-plush your way, with your finger on the Device, on Google Maps?

    I do not want to come down on you too hard, Sir, but may I point out that your complaints are rife with illogical oversights and unspoken assumptions. You write, I quote, "making kids turn in handwritten reports so that they have to write more? (This fails as kids create and edit on Word and then print it out and then copy the finished paper by hand. LOL)". This does not fail, obviously, when kids still copy the stuff they just wrote—like it or not.

    One comment says, "rote learning of anything is not merely […] mind-numbing and soul-destroying [and] also ineffective". No ballerina, no violin-player, no impresario have, ever, put on stage anything as fruit of this soul-destroying and, in the end, useless thing called repetition.

    "I can't imagine how much more innovation or progress China would have made if they took the Korean route". Not sure what you want to say; I am likewise unable to imagine what China would look like if they had introduced letter-based spelling at some point in the past. What would the country look like today? Like the U.S.? Germany? South Korea? North Korea? Switzerland? Taiwan? Surely, if people in the past had only be more **efficient** in their ways of writing, we wouldn't have to face the mess that it is today. It is logical: since this country has problems, and its writing system is more complex than another one I know of, certainly the orthography is the root cause!?

    "With English there is a natural progression

    dog
    dog runs
    black dog runs
    black dog runs quickly

    Here it seems they make kids memorize many Tang dynasty poems"—Which is, of course, utterly harmful to the GDP. 疑是地上霜,低頭思故鄉。One can only guess what a genius like Li Bo *could* have written if he hadn't be hampered by characters. But characters or letters, all the same, that would be a thousand years ago by now, and we shouldn't concern ourselves with reading or memorizing or teaching it, because that is inefficient, repetitive, and the kids suffer.

    Could go on, but I guess u get the point.

  19. JK said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Related to what Appollo Wu said, the Xinhua English version of today's PRC government statement on the SCS ruling appears to have inconsistent pinyin usage, does this mean there is still no mainland editorial standard?

    "China' s Nanhai Zhudao (the South China Sea Islands) consist of Dongsha Qundao (the Dongsha Islands), Xisha Qundao (the Xisha Islands), Zhongsha Qundao (the Zhongsha Islands) and Nansha Qundao (the Nansha Islands)."

    "To strengthen the administration over Nanhai Zhudao, the Chinese government in 1947 reviewed and updated the geographical names of Nanhai Zhudao, compiled Nan Hai Zhu Dao Di Li Zhi Lue (A Brief Account of the Geography of the South China Sea Islands), and drew Nan Hai Zhu Dao Wei Zhi Tu (Location Map of the South China Sea Islands) on which the dotted line is marked."

  20. Vanya said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    Thanks to the use of Kana it is much easier to acquire basic reading fluency in Japanese than in Chinese. At least that is my experience having studied both. Moreover most Japanese grow up speaking dialects that are reasonably close to the standard language, which is not the case in the PRC. No doubt basic adult literacy in Japan is worse than official figures suggest, but I would be surprised if the problem is as serious as it is in China. On the other hand, since Kanji have multiple readings in Japanese, and since the phonetic component of the character is far more obscure or just non-existent to a Japanese speaker, remembering characters is probably more of a cognitive burden in Japanese than in Chinese.

  21. shubert said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Hangul might be more clearly designed by phonetic analyzing since it started over without too many Hanzi's trace.

  22. shubert said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    The trick of "independent thinking in this regard as a threat" was in the Cultural Revolution in China.

  23. Ken said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    Wouldn't lack of progress and innovation in China be more a symptom of their governmental repression of free speech and democracy, plus the purge of a generation of intellectuals in the '60s, than of the writing system? The natural experiment between the very two countries that went "the Korean route" illustrates this.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

    But, first of all, I think that a lot of people who make this sort of argument (clearly not Mr Alex Wang here, but others) simply don't understand how the system works – that all of these thousands of characters are made up of combinations of relatively frequently-occurring parts, parts that are comparatively easy to learn, and that hint towards the reading and/or meaning for the writer/reader.

    These hints are vague enough, however, to be often useless and sometimes downright misleading.

    For an actually systematic version of this combination of parts, look to the Tangut script, the most wrong-headed idea in the history of… a lot of things.

    But, you know what, "saying" 言 + "tongue" 舌 = "speaking" 話

    As opposed to some other kinds of saying that don't involve the tongue…?

    But, second, once one has learned enough characters, one can understand the vast majority of words that might come up, just from the characters alone, without having to parse it out to roots from other languages (e.g. Greek or Latin).

    You're confusing languages with their writing systems!

    Written Chinese is very reluctant to accept incoming loanwords. Part of the reason is of course the writing system, which doesn't provide an easy way to write words that didn't use to exist; and indeed, Japanese is now full of English words that are readily spelled in katakana. But that's far from the whole story. German calques a lot where English uses loans, and Icelandic is almost devoid of loanwords, yet all three of these languages have only ever been spelled in alphabetic scripts. Navajo practically lacked loanwords within living memory, and hasn't been used in writing much at all.

    Latin "lang" and "-uage"

    Langu- and -age, actually (and Old French rather than Latin). [gʷ] was a single consonant, and still is in modern Italian.

    And that's not even mentioning the issues with dealing with the countless homophones. The Vietnamese and Koreans seem to have gotten away with it, seem to be managing just fine.. But, let me tell you, trying to read Japanese in all kana (phonetic characters), or in all romaji (romanization), is a bitch.

    What's going on here seems to be that written Japanese, thanks to kanji, gets away with containing homophones that spoken Japanese cannot accommodate. The famous shi shi shi shi text is legible, too. Frankly, this artificial advantage does not outweigh the disadvantages.

    Similarly, I don't think English would keep the whole triplet of the verbs cite, site and sight if it had a more phonemic spelling system.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    The natural experiment between the very two countries that went "the Korean route" illustrates this.

    Well, that experiment demonstrates that a (morpho)phonemic writing system isn't on its own enough to trigger "progress and innovation". It doesn't tell us if this insufficient condition is a necessary condition. I find it telling, though, that the last step in getting rid of hanja in South Korea was taken while the country was becoming democratic.

  26. leoboiko said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    @Vanya:

    On the other hand, since Kanji have multiple readings in Japanese, and since the phonetic component of the character is far more obscure or just non-existent to a Japanese speaker, remembering characters is probably more of a cognitive burden in Japanese than in Chinese.

    That's true, but then again Chinese texts use a higher number of hanzi.

    Also, despite growing digraphia, they don't seem to have an established culture of glosses like the Japanese (which allows the writer to enlist any obscure character they want, because they can use phonetic glosses simultaneously for the same word, getting the best of both worlds – a staple of Edo-era fiction as well as modern-age comics, and of popular writers such as Natsuhiko Kyogoku). Without digraphic glosses, the Chinese must deal with all characters they stumble upon; no fallbacks.

    I've always wondered if the total cognitive load is similar – if writing-system education goes on until some practical upper bound, then stops. A common estimate for a skilled Chinese reader is recognition of some 4 thousand characters. Japanese school education teaches 2136 (the Jōyō set), but (by my own count) 4407 readings. So the practical limit could be around 4 thousand morphemes.

    Japanese kanji aren't nearly as phonetic as hanzi, but then again this is just because kana take up most of the role that phonetic components perform for the Chinese – I'd go as far as saying that kana are nothing but phonetic components taken independently (from 架 茄 伽 etc., all ka, take 加 and draw it abbreviately as か/カ; from 耄 耗 髦 etc., all , take 毛 and draw it as も/モ, and so on).

  27. leoboiko said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    Perhaps this wasn't clear – Japanese education teaching 4407 readings for 2136 kanji means that one is theoretically expected to be able to recognize these without glosses (in adult-level texts at least); and, conversely, that readings and kanji outside of this set are typically expected to be provided with glosses.

  28. flow said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 1:59 am

    @leoboiko your point seems to touch upon what Ian Maddieson in http://wals.info/chapter/1 formulates like this: "All human languages are capable of expressing the range of human needs; it might therefore be assumed that they would be similar in their level of complexity. […] complexity in one aspect might be balanced out by simplicity in another, so that in aggregate all languages are similarly complex."—This enticing hypothesis would not seem to bear out for e.g. size of consonant inventory vs size of vowel inventory across languages, but that doesn't mean it is wholly unfounded.

  29. Matt said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 3:06 am

    Frankly, this artificial advantage does not outweigh the disadvantages.

    This isn't an argument, though, it's just an opinion. Personally, I feel exactly the opposite way– the advantages of using kanji in writing do, it seems to me, outweigh the disadvantages.

    And I use "feel" and "seems" intentionally because there is no real way to decide the matter objectively. We can't rewind to the Heian period and restart Japanese literature and scholarship with a purely alphabetic tradition and see how that works out, and we don't have two Japans to do A/B testing on whether "eliminate official use of kanji" or "retain kanji as today, but devote much more time and attention to accommodating the kanji-illiterate" does a better job of raising civic participation, innovation, global engagement, GDP, and/or happiness.

  30. Linda Seebach said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    I know this is Language Log, not Math Log, but peterv asked "How did learning the times tables ever help anyone master mathematics? " and the answer is that knowing the times tables (about 35 separate facts, allowing for 0, 1, and symmetry) frees up working memory during the process of solving multistep problems. A similarly obtuse question would be "How did learning the alphabet ever help anyone master reading?"

  31. JS said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    Yes, I interpreted peterv's remark as sarcasm up until the last couple sentences. A more general response is that to everything there is a season: a certain amount of early rote learning gives access to larger ideas, with the latter in many cases not presented explicitly — and for heaven's sake not to begin with, as if they were the foundation without which mastery of individual facts would be meaningless — but left as exercises for the learner, perhaps much later in life. So it is with math, Tang poetry, etc…

  32. Not a naive speaker said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    With all this discussion about ease of reading /writing /homphones and such
    – if you have mastered an enormously labor intensive reading/writing system you might be loath to give it up to an easier system which is easier to learn
    – how come Chinese can have a conversation on the phone? What about the homophones?
    – an efficient reading/writing system should put the burden on the writer

  33. leoboiko said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 4:05 pm

    how come Chinese can have a conversation on the phone? What about the homophones?

    This comes up often. The answer is that written and spoken vocabulary differ. This is true of any written language, but if your writing system has a great many distinct homophonic symbols, then you can use greater homophony than you'd use in spoken language (for example, written Japanese uses about double as much Sinitic (kango) words than spoken Japanese; and these tend to be highly homophonic).

    If you like this feature, you can see it as the writing system allowing different, nuanced forms of expression. For example, many Japanese words which were originally a single word can now be written with different spellings, each drawing forth a different nuance; a simple Japanese verb au "to meet; to match" got distinct representations including 会う au "to meet", 合う au "to match", 遭う au "to meet misfortune or an accident"…

    If you dislike this feature, you can see it as the writing system making language needlesly confusing (in extreme cases, a written text might become unintelligible by sound alone, if it relies on characters too much).

    At any rate, it's not true that Chinese or Japanese need the characters because they have too many homophones. The order of causality goes the other way: Chinese and Japanese writers can write with more homophones than they speak, because they have characters available. If they're writing in a phonetic script from the get-go, they'll naturally avoid excessive homophony, and the text will be perfectly readable.

  34. Matt said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

    – an efficient reading/writing system should put the burden on the writer

    The interesting thing is that in the age of the brush, this was relatively true: it's much harder to recall which character you need, and exactly how to write it, than to recognize that character on the page. The computer and now the cellphone have reversed this, allowing people to compose messages much more easily, even alphabetically (depending on input method), but with the output still in characters. So the relative balance of the burden has changed to drastically disfavor the reader, and even their absolute burden might have gotten worse now that writers can easily access very difficult characters they might have used replacements for or just avoided in the past.

  35. elessorn said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:11 am

    How does this canard about writing systems shaping the fate of peoples and nations persist? With all the phonetic writing systems out there, why do claims like those made above by Alex Wang–and implicitly endorsed by their posting–seem to derive from a drastic winnowing of the data that narrows it to the subset of: a few Western European languages in a few countries in the last few centuries?

    I feel certain that no one on this honored Log would dispute the fact that native intuitions about language are routinely and mercilessly contradicted by the evidence of linguistic science. It has to be admitted that if you start from Indonesian or Turkish or English, it can seem ridiculously intuitive that children growing up in Tbilisi, or Helsinki, or even Moscow must suffer under some kind of comparative cognitive burden. But I bet that almost anybody on here would be able to explain why we know such an intuition is patently false–no matter how objectively complex, say, the Georgian verb system or Finnish declensions might be shown to be.

    Why does this evidence-sensibility seem to fly out the window, at least sometimes, when it comes to scripts? Fair enough that it seems intuitive that the extra effort needed to master an objectively more complex writing system would work out to some kind of setback. After all, unlike speech, writing has to be actively taught, and this takes time. But is there any proof that communities blessed with phonetic writing systems excel as a rule, or even as a trend, over countries not so blessed? A subsection of a subsection of Western democracies over a subfragment of human history seems a very poor evidence base.

    I don't see how this avoids ultimately becoming a mere contest of competing just-so narratives ("the countries of the West dominate in scientific achievement because the alphabet…", "China recorded the greatest single advance in human material progress in history because characters…", etc.), and I think we have enough evidence to avoid it.

    @Matt above is right: there's really no objective way to argue that one system is/would have been more ideal for any given linguistic community at any given time. We can't run experiments in a lab. However, we can evaluate claims about reality as it exists, as far as it can be observed. Alex Wang's self-reported experience is one data point; the people of the city of Shenzhen around him is another. Hopefully, someday, we'll actually be able to settle the question of how comically fudged or not current official PRC literacy statistics are. Until something like a Chinese FOIA makes that possible, however, we can make do by observing actual readers: all the people in Shenzhen glued to their phones, all the bookstores, all the newspapers, all the signs, all the documents produced daily by all the businesses there, and of course all the students learning all their subjects in the same character script. A conspiracy of silence, an elaborate Potemkin performance piece of mutually-hidden pseudo-literacy shame? The answer does not seem unknowable.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:03 am

    "How does this canard about writing systems shaping the fate of peoples and nations persist?"

    —–

    canard: An unfounded or false, deliberately misleading story.

    —–

    Do we have enough data to determine that is, in fact, the case?

    This week, we at Penn are proud to host the 62nd annual conference of the International Association for Assyriology, a venerable institution that brings together scholars of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology. It is called Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Annual Assyriological Conference). The first one was held in Paris, June 26-28, 1950. The theme of this year's conference is "Ur in the 21st Century CE".

    Here at Penn, we also have a distinguished program in Egyptology.

    In my course on "Language, Script, and Society in China", we discuss Vietnamese chữ nôm and other extinct Asian logographic writing systems, such as those of the Khitan and the Tanguts.

    We also look at Phoenician and other phonetic scripts that derived from it, including our alphabet.

    While we're on the subject, don't miss this entertaining and edifying post:

    "Are there Phoenicians in phonology?" (10/15/15)

    So we are familiar with the history of writing in general.

    As for censoring readers of Language Log who wish to debate the pros and cons of different writing systems, that is not my business.

  37. Alex Wang said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:33 am

    Thank you all for your feedback. As I mentioned, my purpose was to learn and understand the "Why". To understand why it was good to see opposing viewpoints.

    I was happy to see some discussion concerning the Government's view point.

    It seems one of the main points brought by those who embrace characters is "Culture"

    I think there are many ways to remember/keep culture. We can remember and appreciate Beowolf without being able to read or write this in the original language.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf#/media/File:Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f._132r.jpg.

    More importantly I believe somewhere else on this super discussion board it was pointed out that most classic Chinese poems were written in a much earlier language/character set and some nuances were lost via translation into modern Chinese. Definitely not originally written in simplified Chinese. Furthermore I have nothing against my children learning Tang Dynasty poetry or complex idioms. In fact I welcome it. I just wished it could be at a more "efficient" age where they can better comprehend it by themselves.

    To me the primary purpose of language is to facilitate communication and learning. I dont think modern English is the most efficient so those who have taken on sarcastic or nationalistic posts can hopefully try to be more constructive.

    To further my point that I am someone who calls a spade a spade. I think an example in the US that hurts GDP is the English measurement system vs metric that I "had" to learn. Learning another/secondary system "metric" though was relatively easier than learning an entire language. Do I beleive that the "English" measurement system will die out? Sure. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_units https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_units It will just take "longer" as the US is a "larger" country.

    Language is a "living" thing, constantly adapting. Just look at internet lingo its about efficiency LOL Laugh Out Loud, btw By the way. (which btw is creeping in weixin/wechat here wonder if the gov will ban the use of English acro's) A good book that shows the changes for English that I have found is "Garner's Modern American Usage" "Undoubtedly the most interesting new feature of this third edition of GMAU is the language change index, etc. Its purpose is to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations has become."

    Many people say Chinese has been around for 1000's of years but they cant say the same thing about Simplified Chinese. It is clear the reason for the simplification of Chinese from traditional characters (which hasnt been codified for "1000's of years") was to improve literacy. Therefore the government understood and understands the issue. What is amazing is that within 1 generation or 2 they changed an entire writing system of the nation. Then they had the second roll out of the simplification. Two of my colleagues here who are older remember this second but aborted roll out. So if the government wanted to it could rather easily introduce a new language system. I also understand that perhaps characters made "sense" as a first step due to the many different dialects/pronounciations. Now that the government has unified the oral part in school perhaps the written can continue to evolve and take the incremental ways by adopting some of the suggestion that the experts on the board have suggested.

    "Ken said,
    July 12, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    Wouldn't lack of progress and innovation in China be more a symptom of their governmental repression of free speech and democracy, plus the purge of a generation of intellectuals in the '60s, than of the writing system? The natural experiment between the very two countries that went "the Korean route" illustrates this."

    I am sure there are many things holding back the GDP's of countries. I do equate governmental repression or any form of repression a possible hinderance to GDP such as the Catholic Church way back in the day. I am sure Galileo, Newton and other scientists throughout time was hindered by religion/gov. The two points are not mutually exclusive.

    I hate to discuss politics and this is not the board for it. So will just say this I dont beleive that democracy is the best form of government. If you wish to have discussion or hear my thoughts on it feel free to email me :-)

    "No ballerina, no violin-player, no impresario have, ever, put on stage anything as fruit of this soul-destroying and, in the end, useless thing called repetition."

    I absolutely agree muscle memory or memorization is required for many arts, sports, etc. Even my hobby chess has for a big part become a war of who can memorize chess openning to the nth degree.

    However as I believe and said in the above "To me the primary purpose of language is to facilitate communication and learning." to the "masses. The government clearly had this in mind thus simplification. My question is has the government reached the "right" balance now between the trade offs of literacy, efficiency, protecting culture and all the intangibles. I am sure my child is gaining some skill set memorizing characters by writing them over and over again and yes i understand "bu shou" and he is gaining some skill set remembering the characters that sound like salad "sha la" but in the same vein my child can get some exercise if he walks the 10 flights of stairs to our condo each day and certainly he can get even more walking the 3 km to school but i certainly don't want him to "waste" his time doing so. If I wanted him to exercise for health them Id rather him do an activity for that purpose. I am sure he can increase his hand strength and other attributes if he washes his clothes by hand rather than put them in washer and dryer. But the purpose is to have clean clothes not increase hand strength and coordination. FYI – not trying to be sarcastic. The purpose of learning a language is to be able to consume and communicate information efficiently. Is English the best? Is Klingon better? Every country needs to decide for itself what is the right balance. I currently feel that China hasnt struck the right balance yet.

    I fully understand how hard it is or how much thought there needs to be in officially changing a language at the educational level via school systems. However I do believe its a very important issue that seriously impacts GDP and the economy. Even in the US the government is worried that children aren't learning enough to be competitive. They point to Chinese test results. I am saying here in China they (which include my children) study more, i cant imagine how much higher the math scores across the board would be if a child here didn't have to spend 1000's of hours writing the same words or how much more innovation there would be if children had more time to play or learn other things. In the same way I like how technology, medicine, payment and communication systems iterates and tries to improve, languages should as well. (bonus points for the example Steve Jobs gave to convince his engineer why it was imperative to shave a few seconds off the boot time)

    Warm regards,
    Alex
    Btw, my primary question is about loan words and how other languages handle it.

  38. shubert said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 11:01 am

    @alex Well said! We are waiting for reform as washing clothing by hands is in outdated.

  39. elessorn said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    @Victor Mair

    If "canard" came off as too harsh, then I regret the choice of words, and apologize if offense was given. But I am very comfortable calling the intuition unfounded by everything I know, and constantly surprised that any professional linguist feels comfortable making such assertions, or letting them pass unchallenged. Note that this is quite distinct a question from the issue of script reform advocacy ("debating pros and cons"). It is easy to understand scholars or anyone advocating for various kinds of script reform, given the various advantages they might be reasonably argued to offer. It is also perhaps understandable why reform advocates would seek to strengthen their case with assertions that current scripts are hurting children, holding back progress, etc. But should a scholar let dubious claims fly just because they might lend support to a cause she happens to advocate? I truly cannot imagine anyone involved in Language Log being comfortable with such a position, or willingly arguing it, and yet here we are, debating whether character practice holds back GDP or innovation, and hardly for the first time.

    And to what avail is it to be aware of the history or writing, if those thus knowledgeable are content with implications like "alphabetic countries show higher degrees of scientific advancement"? If there is any consistent principle for relating known historical conditions to the details of national scripts, I would like to see it argued, not intuited or assumed.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 1:32 pm

    "It is easy to understand scholars or anyone advocating for various kinds of script reform, given the various advantages they might be reasonably argued to offer. It is also perhaps understandable why reform advocates would seek to strengthen their case with assertions that current scripts are hurting children, holding back progress, etc."

    We shall continue to hold open discussion on these matters at Language Log. If someone is opposed to certain positions that are advocated, they should feel free to voice their disapproval. But they should not feel empowered to close off debate on matters of interest to a broad spectrum of readers from a variety of backgrounds, including Chinese parents, Chinese computer programmers, Chinese language teachers, and so forth.

  41. Max said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    In this video of Japanese people in the street trying to write various words from the Jōyō kanji, one of the surveyed people says "We can just use hiragana". This is an idea that "the woman on the street" can agree with, apparently :)

  42. leoboiko said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    @Max: I feel that video is related to what Matt was saying earlier: the difference between reading and writing characters (which is a consequence of a general phenomenon: the difference between memory recall and recognition).

    With technology, people can input characters by sound and have the computer guess by context, so the burden to recall is completely eliminated. This should increase character amnesia when writing by hand (something a lot of people don't even do anymore, anyway). On the other hand, the electronic writer has a wide swatch of characters available by recognition (because the computer displays suggestions); and we can always recognize more than recall, so that this has resulted in a "kanji boom" – rarer kanji are being used more often (or so I hear – I haven't tried to measure it yet.)

  43. Jim Breen said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:04 pm

    @Max. The "use hiragana" is so true. When shopping in supermarkets, greengrocers, etc. in Japan I have often noticed that my fellow shoppers used shopping lists mostly written in kana. (This is not surprising in the case of fruit and vegetables as many are loanwords anyway.)

  44. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    The video that Max called to our attention is invaluable, not just for the use of hiragana for unknown characters to which it attests (Chinese could just as well do that with pinyin), but for the use of English as a prompt by the interviewer, and the strong positive sense of recognition on the part of those whom he was testing in almost every case. "Oh, 'battle'!"

  45. Alex Wang said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 2:02 am

    I have no issues stating that I am not an expert and that I have come to this board to learn.

    I have been brought up on the scientific method since grade school.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method#/media/File:The_Scientific_Method_as_an_Ongoing_Process.svg

    1 I have developed a theory after teaching both my children Chinese and English.

    2 I have made observations in my environment of other families within Shenzhen and Wuhan and Beijing.

    3 I came to this board to learn what are the prevalent theories of the experts

    4 I want to understand the hypotheses of others.

    5 I want to see what evidence / tests others have knowledge of.

    I am naturally curious and wanted to learn more.

    I wonder what one would say to Galileo, Archimedes, Newton, Einstein, Sagan, Pauling, Hawking, Oppenheimer, Erdos other scientists/mathematicians when they discussed among their colleagues some "unprovable theories" that they had? there needs to be discussions first before "tests" should be created.

    "@Matt above is right: there's really no objective way to argue that one system is/would have been more ideal for any given linguistic community at any given time. We can't run experiments in a lab."

    I don't see why experiments cant be designed and implemented? I understand that such experiments wont provide us with 100% definitive results but they perhaps can help provide more insight and then one day change. I am interested in what experiments people would propose.

    Perhaps I shouldn't have used the term GDP. I think however that most people understood what I was asking so I will continue to use it. Precisely how much a language effects GDP is difficult to measure. I dont think anyone doubts that language does have an effect on GDP. Do you think by standardizing the written and oral taught in school across all the provinces has helped GDP? Do you think simplifying the language from traditional had an impact on GDP? What we can try to quantify is the relative time to learn something. We can propose the why's too.

    Please let me know your thoughts and any data on the use of modern numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 etc

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_numerals
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_numerals
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_numerals

    I'm wondering if hard evidence is needed to be able to say simplifying the numbering system has helped society become more productive and has increased innovation? If we used one of the above 3 systems would have made as many advances in science/technology? Did we need hard evidence to support this theory to exact change?

    In my mind it isn't about East vs West. I just found that some of the ideas on this board might be beneficial to the Chinese Society and then perhaps Society as a whole.

    The easier a language is to learn the more "geniuses" we can discover as the cost will be lower to teach a child how to communicate their future brilliant thoughts.

    I am interested in more information on some of the suggestions as a transitional path that I read on the other posts. Can someone provide me the links? How would one propose to study this if one had the approval by the government here. My son attends public school here.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shenzhen_Foreign_Languages_School

    Shenzhen Nanshan Foreign Language School
    Nanshan Foreign Language School ge Scho(NSFLS) is an experimental school founded by government in September 1995.After over a decade development, NSFLS achieved an integrated group with kindergartens,primary schools, middle school and senior high school,awarded the Provincial First Class School,Green School.
    By 2007 it has 124 teaching classes with total 5417 students and 496 teaching staff.The teachers have strong professional background, among them, there are 1 with Doctor's degree,27 with Master's degree and 272 Bachelors.There are 69 teachers with Advanced Position,152 with Intermediate Position. The school also owns 5 special grade teachers, 7 foreign teachers and 7 overseas returnees.

    They are open to experiments and pilot programs. I often have discussions with their committees during casual social events. I do it because I want to make things better.

    From my experience the saying "If you can explain it to a 6 year old" has merit.

    "A conspiracy of silence, an elaborate Potemkin performance piece of mutually-hidden pseudo-literacy shame?"

    "Eloquence" is in the eye of the beholder. :-)

  46. elessorn said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    @Alex Wang

    First of all, thank you for your detailed reply, which I very much appreciate. And it seems worth clarifying that the questions I addressed to Professor Mair, expressing my honest dismay that knowledgeable language professionals allow statements like "Chinese characters hold back innovation" to go unchallenged should not in any way, repeat, not in any way, imply that non-professionals are to remain silent. I don't think I ever implied otherwise, either, but especially as a happy amateur myself in most of the topics that come up on this log, it is important to me that I not be misunderstood on this point.

    Let me try and express the problem as I see it. I find that many discussions on this topic here tend to confuse the should and the must of script reform. In other words, I find that claims about the potential benefits of reform ("We should change because …") are confusingly mixed with claims about the alleged costs of the status quo ("We must change because…"). Typical of the former are "alphabetization would save time in school", and of the latter, "characters are stunting social/technological/economic progress." I think you would agree–I think anyone would agree, whatever their standpoint–that these are two different species of claim entirely: the former are mere hypotheses, the latter involve assertions of fact. My personal conviction is that getting the latter sort of claim right–claims about actual people actually existing–should be the highest priority, even for fierce advocates of script reform. Some will disagree, but my position is that if you care enough about people to want to improve their lives, you care enough to want to understand those lives properly.

    So getting the facts right is important to me. Since you hold to the scientific method, I'm sure you feel the same. My argument is that you're not following that method.

    Consider: you went from observations about the time-cost involved in children learning characters at school, to hypotheses about the effect of this, multiplied by the total number of children in China, on the national GDP, and "innovation." When challenged, your response was: "Precisely how much a language effects GDP is difficult to measure. I dont think anyone doubts that language does have an effect on GDP."

    I would say this is backwards. It's precisely this last part, the relationship between factors, the nature of the connection between inputs and outputs, cause and effect, that the scientific method is interested in, no? We can't just assume that part, and move on. The hypothesis shouldn't be about the effect on GDP, or even on more abstract concepts like "creativity," given the deleterious effects of character study on lifetime achievement potential. The hypothesis should be about whether such study has such deleterious effects or not. You speak of Galileo, but he wouldn't have gotten very far with, "I don't think anyone doubts heavier objects fall faster."

    And here my consistent claim is that there's a lot of evidence bearing on this proposed connection which suggests it is at worst false, at best not very significant. With a billion people, and the percentage of the population receiving schooling ever on the increase, the number of man-hours devoted to character practice is no doubt constantly reaching new historical heights, and yet, do we observe in China a country of people stunted morally and intellectually, or disadvantaged educationally or economically, either against their parents' generation, or against their peers in countries with phonetic writing systems? You would think that on such a scale some effect would show up by now.

    Of course, you may have an assessment of Modern Chinese society at odds with my own. But if you agree with me that adults in modern China are on average no less educated, no less intelligent, no less creative, no less productive, and no less ambitious than their counterparts (at a similar standard of living) in other countries with simpler scripts, then I cannot see anything scientific in the conclusion that, notwithstanding, there simply must be some loss going on somewhere. Again, assuming that you share my assessment, this seems to me not at all a very scientific response to the evidence. Better to ask: why don't all those hours spent on character memorization in Taiwan, Japan, China, or HK, appreciably disadvantage them in the very competitive global 21st century? If heavier balls don't drop faster, why?

    (I know, I know, air resistance, etc….)

  47. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 11:25 pm

    I find that claims about the potential benefits of reform ("We should change because …") are confusingly mixed with claims about the alleged costs of the status quo ("We must change because…").

    How often does that happen in these discussions on Language Log?

    If it ever does, you are entitled to point that out, but you are not entitled to prevent others from raising and discussing the linguistic (sociolinguistic and otherwise) issues that concern them. Unlike Alex Wang, who provides a lot of specific information concerning Chinese language and language teaching / learning, I haven't seen you bring to the discussion anything about Chinese language per se.

    Now, please don't subject Alex Wang, Apollo Wu, Liu Yongquan, Zhou Youguang (they — and many other Chinese language reformers — all raise the kinds of issues that you want to preclude) or anyone else to another obloquy. You're just going around in circles, and not making much sense. Your denunciations are riddled with illogical assumptions like this:

    Of course, you may have an assessment of Modern Chinese society at odds with my own…. Again, assuming that you share my assessment….

    Why do you make that assumption? You begin by granting that Alex Wang may not share your assessment, but then you quickly turn around and contradict yourself by saying, "assuming that you share my assessment…".

    If you cannot do any better than that, then I must ask you to bring a halt to your lengthy fulminations.

  48. elessorn said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 6:58 am

    @Victor Mair

    How often does that happen in these discussions on Language Log?
    I think the record will demonstrate this happens quite often, as has also been pointed out, repeatedly, by many others besides myself. Again, there is no implication the mix-up is in bad faith! But all the more because natural, claims about putative benefits and actual costs need to be weighed carefully and separately.

    Let the record also note this depressing charge:
    …you are not entitled to prevent others from raising and discussing the linguistic (sociolinguistic and otherwise) issues that concern them.

    …I must ask you to bring a halt to your lengthy fulminations.

    Only one party here is seeking to limit the range of discussion, and it is not I. Neither in this thread nor in any other have I tried to prevent people from raising issues that concern them. The very post you quote, I think, refutes the accusation without difficulty.

    But more depressing than the implication that reasoned objections ("fulminations") amount to censorship is the misreading that you offer of what I wrote:

    I wrote:
    Of course, you may have an assessment of Modern Chinese society at odds with my own. But if you agree with me that adults in modern China are on average no less educated, no less intelligent, no less creative, no less productive, and no less ambitious than their counterparts (at a similar standard of living) in other countries with simpler scripts, then I cannot see anything scientific in the conclusion that, notwithstanding, there simply must be some loss going on somewhere. Again, assuming that you share my assessment, this seems to me not at all a very scientific response to the evidence.

    Your assessment (of the part bolded above):
    Why do you make that assumption? You begin by granting that Alex Wang may not share your assessment, but then you quickly turn around and contradict yourself by saying, "assuming that you share my assessment…"

    As a true admirer of your work, this is painful to see. The "Again, assuming that you share my assessment…" part is here obviously a qualification, granting that the second half of the sentence, the conclusion I draw, only follows *if* Mr. Wang shares my assessment. It is a recognition, in other words, that anyone who does believe Modern Chinese people lag behind their international peers in creativity, intellectual accomplishment, etc., would of course think differently than me. To wit: I clarify my initial assumptions, admit my own conclusions depend upon them, and grant that different assumptions would naturally lead one to disagree with me. The "contradiction" you find is the repetition of this concessive qualification, as indicated by the "Again" that you no doubt unintentionally omitted.

    (Now, I do think it would be fair to argue that the phrasing of my concession ("Again, assuming that") reveals a certain bias on my part. It suggests I think someone living in Shenzhen is very unlikely to see Modern Chinese people as comparing poorly to their foreign counterparts in intellectual or creative accomplishment. I admit to the bias, guilty as charged. And here I recall that you do indeed disagree on this point:

    There's something about the intrinsic nature of the education that is imparted in the two systems. This is quite evident to those of us who have taught hundreds of students who were educated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, vs. Chinese who received the bulk of their education in alphabetical societies. And it is not just a matter of English skills, because lately some students from China have decent ability in English. Rather, it is the way students brought up in the two systems THINK (or don't think, as some of my colleagues would put it). [May 18, 2016, Victor Mair, from comment under "Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters"])

    Either way, I respect that this is your salon. If we're openly proceeding on the assumption that the observable and very real technical costs and drawbacks of Sinography must of course somehow add up to a comparative disadvantage for Chinese and Japanese adults vis-a-vis their Western peers (clearly the comparandum is not Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam, etc.), then no doubt this is all just irritatingly off-topic, and I am happy to withdraw as you request, with sincere regrets for the disturbance. You're certainly right I feel like I'm repeating myself.

    Still, I would urge you to consider that your skeptics, who largely share your philological bent, really don't merit this sort of dismissive response. Recall a recent experience of actual obloquy–Mullaney's aggressively uncharitable article, and its even more over-the-top response. The difference, I think, should be crystal clear.

  49. elessorn said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 7:03 am

    (Edit for clarity, final paragraph:

    …Mullaney's aggressively uncharitable article, and his later even more over-the-top response.)

  50. Alyssa said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    It *does* feel that this same discussion has been happening repeatedly, in a number of recent posts on this topic. It takes a different form each time, but at core it's the same disagreement. Victor Mair and others believe certain things about China and the Chinese writing system – beliefs which they clearly consider to be unquestionably true. Elessorn and others, on the other hand, clearly *do* find those beliefs questionable, if not offensive. The first group thinks the latter is trying to derail the discussion with irrelevant digressions, and the latter group thinks the former is treating their own biases as unquestionable truths (which is very bad form for scientists). Is it even possible to a productive discussion on this topic while starting from such divergent base assumptions?

  51. JK said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    I think the discussion has been confusing since so many different concepts and fields are being thrown together.

    IMHO the only hypothesis that has been demonstrated to a certain extent so far is that phonetic spelling has a benefit to early and primary Chinese education. (presumably good primary education would lend itself to better nationwide basic literacy)

    Other hypotheses that I am intrigued about, but have not seen evidence presented for yet are the benefit to secondary and higher education and the benefit to science and technology (in my experience loan words are not used for most Chinese science and technology terms).

  52. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    Thanks, Alyssa. Despite occasional derailments, we'll keep trying to present the views of Chinese language and script reformers, for which there is a more than century-old tradition.

    And thanks to you too, JK, for recognizing that we have made a bit of progress.

  53. Alex Wang said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    @elessorn
    Thanks for the reply. When I make an investment I do like hearing the other "side'. I find it valuable because it would help me avoid making a poor investment since I might not have considered some aspect.

    That said (the" but") :

    I think I understand your point. I will say it in my own words to verify/confirm. So if I misunderstand what you said please let me know. You are saying that you are surprised that "some" "professionals" agree with the hypothesis that Chinese characters might be holding back innovation/productivity.

    "I addressed to Professor Mair, expressing my honest dismay that knowledgeable language professionals allow statements like "Chinese characters hold back innovation" to go unchallenged should not in any way, repeat, not in any way, imply that non-professionals are to remain silent."

    or

    " I find that many discussions on this topic here tend to confuse the should and the must of script reform."

    I doubt most people would read into what I or others wrote and think we were saying China "must" do anything or will collapse because of the use Chinese characters.

    " But should a scholar let dubious claims fly just because they might lend support to a cause she happens to advocate?"

    Are you implying if someone doesn't agree with you on this "theory" that they shouldn't be called a scholar?

    "A theory provides an explanatory framework for some observation, and from the assumptions of the explanation follows a number of possible hypotheses that can be tested in order to provide support for, or challenge, the theory."

    The theory which makes sense to "me" has been stated in many articles. Here is what "I" consider a "well" written article. If others disagree that's ok and I hope they provide their reasons. http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

    I think this part of the article is the critical part:
    3 Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
    "Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for "president" (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won't give you a clue as to how the character is to be written."

    I hope you take the time to read the whole article.

    "You speak of Galileo, but he wouldn't have gotten very far with, "I don't think anyone doubts heavier objects fall faster.""

    Actually I think science is founded on that. People coming together discussing something and actually trying something. The part that I find invaluable in the scientific method is actually the iteration part, the repeating of the cycle to learn more or to fine tune/reduce variables.

    It would be something like this:
    Galileo and friends back in the day of course with their own slang:
    Galileo – Yo whassup
    Friend 1 -sup
    Galileo – The other day I saw this heavier piece of metal fall faster than this lighter piece of metal so I think that heavier objects fall faster.
    Friend 1 – nah the other day I thought I saw this bigger heavier feather fall much slower than this smaller lighter feather so I think there might be some other force involved.
    Galileo – lets think of an experiment to do and try.
    Friend 1- sounds good
    Friend 2 – If you guys do that there is no value and it might cause all kinds of social calamity
    Galileo and friend1 – We will try it anyway :-)

    "Of course, you may have an assessment of Modern Chinese society at odds with my own. But if you agree with me that adults in modern China are on average no less educated, no less intelligent, no less creative, no less productive, and no less ambitious than their counterparts (at a similar standard of living) in other countries with simpler scripts, then I cannot see anything scientific in the conclusion that, notwithstanding, there simply must be some loss going on somewhere. Again, assuming that you share my assessment, this seems to me not at all a very scientific response to the evidence. Better to ask: why don't all those hours spent on character memorization in Taiwan, Japan, China, or HK, appreciably disadvantage them in the very competitive global 21st century? If heavier balls don't drop faster, why?"

    On this part I was very shocked. I was shocked the first time I saw this "argument" from a Stanford professor! I have to say the words again SHOCKED!

    When I came to China, Nokia was the dominate phone. I am sure their excutives were patting themselves on the back saying we are great, there is nothing wrong with our phone. Our phone must be the best because look how well we are doing and our marketshare! I guess we saw what happened.

    Cause an Effect. Some of the reasons why I believe Taiwan, Japan, and China have succeeded are they worked harder but more importantly exchange rate differential. Back to the washing machine example. If a person spent 10 hours and washed 2 loads of laundry by hand vs the one who worked 30 minutes and only washed 1 load by machine, would you show that there is nothing wrong with washing by hand? I dont think many would disagree foreign businesses set up manufacturing in China for cheap labor. This labor did not need to know how to read and write for the most part. All the foreign investment into factories etc raised the standard of living. I would saying protectionist policies and a government aligned with the interests of local companies is another. ( I dont think there is anything wrong with that. All governments need to decide for themselves the fine line between protectionism and risk of trade war. I think the Chinese government has played this poker hand well)

    Just because you are doing well doesn't that mean you cant do even better. All one has to do is watch Chariots of Fire and think would those training methods have worked now? Would those genetically gifted runners of decades ago be able to run even faster with better training methods? China has lost the "cheap" labor advantage. Many multinationals are relocating to other countries. China needs to examine and find different ways to compete. It is just my humble opinion a way of unlocking huge "GDP" potential is via script reform/education.

    Anyway back to Galileo, I will continue to try to learn more and more importantly see if I can actually try to do something than just debate it endlessly as other contributors have mentioned. :-) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizenship_in_a_Republic Man in the Arena is one of my favorite passages.

  54. Alex Wang said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 1:48 am

    JK,

    It is actually loan words that made me really wonder about the ability to scale. The sciences is where I was very concerned, medical which is also part of sciences.

    What percentage of new words are formed with characters based on sound of loan word, such as salad? vs description based on meaning?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_loanwords_in_Chinese

    I wonder how broad is the Chinese character set of commonly used loan words. I imagine some distribution graph of some sort might be helpful.

    If there is an official rule like use this character for this sound in loan words. If not how is it officially decided?

    Finally can someone link some of the transition proposals? I am curious as to the thought process.

    Thanks,

  55. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 8:05 am

    @Alex Wang

    Thank you very much for your careful and patient explanation. Once again, you have demonstrated a concern with the specifics of language learning and application.

    I especially appreciate your analysis of the injection of the extraneous notion of "must" into our deliberations.

    Above all, I admire your willingness to learn.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 8:09 am

    …there is no implication the mix-up is in bad faith! But all the more because natural, claims about putative benefits and actual costs need to be weighed carefully and separately.

    Of course.

    Neither in this thread nor in any other have I tried to prevent people from raising issues that concern them.

    You keep telling us that there are certain things that should not be discussed on Language Log, things that are dear to the heart of all language and script reformers, such as that languages and scripts are not perfect, that we can improve them, and that the improvement will have a beneficial effect on society and its members, young and old. An important part of the May 4th Movement back in 1919 was to call for the rejection of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese in favor of the vernacular. That really happened, and it is the reason we write Mandarin now instead of a dead book language. Those who promoted the vernacular maintained that writing in the literary / classical / dead language was holding China back, whereas writing in the vernacular would be easier for the majority of people and would facilitate development. Do you think that they should have been forbidden to discuss such matters?

    One of the most important units set up during the 50s after the establishment of the PRC was the Wénzì gǎigé wěiyuánhuì 文字改革委员会 ("Script Reform Committee"), which oversaw the development and promulgation of simplified characters and Hanyu Pinyin, both of which are now in use and have had an enormous impact upon citizens of all ages. The motivation for making these changes was that they would lead to greater progress, and that what was there beforehand held people back. The language reformers of China, many of whom were (and still are) my close friends and associates, passionately believed that they were doing meaningful work that was helpful to China. Yet you keep telling us that we are not to talk about the relationship between script reform and progress on Language Log. Unfortunately, that is the whole purpose of language and script reform. It is not carried out in a theoretical vacuum. It is developed in the laboratory of daily life.

    I have seen adult villagers become literate in pinyin within a few short weeks, whereas they were illiterate to adulthood in characters. The people who go into villages and factories to promote literacy are grateful to have the tools that were created for them by language and script reformers who were committed to making their country a better place and enabling their fellow citizens to have a better life. They were committed to these ideals, and they acted upon them. That is why we have written vernacular, simplified characters, and Hanyu Pinyin today.

    As a true admirer of your work….

    Huh.

    (Now, I do think it would be fair to argue that the phrasing of my concession ("Again, assuming that") reveals a certain bias on my part. It suggests I think someone living in Shenzhen is very unlikely to see Modern Chinese people as comparing poorly to their foreign counterparts in intellectual or creative accomplishment. I admit to the bias, guilty as charged.

    Indeed.

    Either way, I respect that this is your salon. If we're openly proceeding on the assumption that the observable and very real technical costs and drawbacks of Sinography must of course somehow add up to a comparative disadvantage for Chinese and Japanese adults vis-a-vis their Western peers (clearly the comparandum is not Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam, etc.), then no doubt this is all just irritatingly off-topic, and I am happy to withdraw as you request, with sincere regrets for the disturbance. You're certainly right I feel like I'm repeating myself.

    Agreed.

  57. Eidolon said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

    I should observe one added complication to this whole debate – which is that it is likely much harder to promote script reform in a country where the vast majority of the population is already literate, than it is in a country where the vast majority of the population is illiterate. All of the sweeping script reforms that I know of were implemented during the 19th or early 20th centuries, during periods when the vast majority of the populations in those countries were illiterate. Common sense argues that it is easier to overcome the resistance of a small group of people who had invested the time & the effort into learning the old script, than it is to overcome the resistance of a vast group of people who have done the same. Any government seeking to implement sweeping script reform today, I think, would have to do so in a gradual manner, through decades of mandatory digraphia, so as to avoid inter-generational illiteracy and popular protest. Further, that government would have to spend a tremendous amount of resources in converting the vast corpus of media, literature, and civil infrastructure into the new script.

    In this matter, China has an advantage in that, if the target script is pinyin, then the vast majority of its citizens might already know the basics of it, or will be in the coming decades. However, China also has a disadvantage in that the Sinitic varieties are not mutually intelligible, and thus developing pinyin orthographies for Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, etc. could render much of the country unable to communicate with one another, since phonetic alphabets are much less capable of supporting differences in pronunciation than logographic characters. It might be, then, that the path to script reform would ultimately lead through universal Mandarin fluency; or that the lack of such fluency would impede script reform, to arrive at a compromise by which the Chinese characters continue to be the orthographic lingua franca between the Sinitic varieties.

  58. Alex Wang said,

    July 19, 2016 @ 2:26 am

    I think the hardest part of script reform is mianzi or face. The government must like other governments construct an acceptable background. That said there is enough historical evidence to say that this was the intended road map of the Party. The other aspect of this is the whole East vs West / culture aspect where it one loses face as our way was worse and loss of cultural identity.

    As for "I should observe one added complication to this whole debate – which is that it is likely much harder to promote script reform in a country where the vast majority of the population is already literate,"

    If majority means over 50 and vast means lets say 85% or more then my "limited" data points doesn't believe it. That also depends on what is the definition of literacy.

    For example: Shenzhen is a rather progressive and wealthy city. However many blue collar workers that I have met drivers, wait staff, doormen, massage therapists, sales staff, cashiers, lifeguards, maids, janitors can not read daily material. As an example the advertisements they are handing out. Of course one can say more kids are in school these days however once again my limited data point suggests many kids in school are not learning past the 6th grade level. Here in Shenzhen kids pass the grade via age. So kids that fall behind fall further and further behind until to they just blankly sit in class. This is especially true for math as math is even more dependent on building blocks and there isnt everyday normal usage like language. Only half the kids go to high school the other go trade school. (nothing wrong with trade school the world needs mechanics, electricians, etc. I tell my kids every job is good and deserves respect)

    I have many details of my limited data points of the both within SZ and secondary cities and some rural regions if someone is interested. The primary reasons for this

    1 The parents may be illiterate and with class sizes of 50 plus kids to 1 teacher it is up to the parents to teach or provide tutors. At 10 (university students) – 40 USD per hour for learning Chinese one on one, this is not possible for many white an blue collar parents. Moreover those who can afford tutors have their kids take English and Math.

    2 Patience of the parents – Bi hua, bi hua, bu hua, the screams echo everywhere coffee shops, building lobbies, common areas, hallways while waiting for some arts/music lessons. Another reason why Chinese writing is so hard :-) More important are the all the 4 character idioms 3rd graders need to learn the meanings of. Using my wife as an example or the mothers of my son's hip hop dance class, I would say within 5 minutes of parental tutoring of Chinese the screaming starts with "write it again it has to be neater" and the Bi Hua etc. With many dual income families parents are too exhausted to teach. Most grandparents just watch kids rather than teach which is a major issue that the government recognizes in the rural regions. There are several good articles on this subject.

    3 Technology means less practice. My personal example is phone numbers. This dates me :-) but when I was young I could remember 50 numbers plus of friends easily. Now only my wife's because I use her number on all the VIP card applications like to movies or bookstores massage places grocery stores etc. For the Chinese kids now with Weixin, I guess we have seen the evidence.

    A person might ask even well even if the whole country moves to pinyin etc why wouldn't it have the illiteracy that many inner city schools have in the US. That's a different topic. My gut is that wont be as big as a problem.

    I agree with pilots and roll outs. The country has done this with Real Estate tax. They start things in pilot cities. As for Shenzhen I am seeing more and more English replacing pinyin. So I wonder would it be characters/pinyin and English. The example is street signs before they would have the pinyin for road LU but now they use road because they realize there is no point in LU as non natives probably wouldn't know what that meant.

    " However, China also has a disadvantage in that the Sinitic varieties are not mutually intelligible, and thus developing pinyin orthographies for Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, etc. could render much of the country unable to communicate with one another, "

    The loss of regional languages doesn't seem to matter to the current government. In fact there were protests here in Guangdong when the government mandated no more Cantonese channels. I also think this will naturally happen as mobility has increased with the loosening hukou requirements especially for university kids. Many of my staff met at university or after and married a person who didn't speak their local dialect so their children dont speak either dialect. Moreover the children generally speak the national language at school and with friends now.

    I leave it with this. I am a socialist at heart. I constantly tell my older son he is lucky to be able to have a tutor for his Chinese. He agrees as the tutor is patient and doesn't yell like mom :-). He plays with our drivers' son who also attends public school here in Shenzhen. He is as they write in the US "left behind". He sits blankly. I know the kids of many of our staff. I see their struggles. I hope gradual reform will help many long term.

  59. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    leoboiko early on, and then Eidolon later in the discussion, both touched upon digraphia, but I think that it merits much greater emphasis. Digraphia will play an increasingly greater role, and in fact is already playing a significant role, in enabling Chinese who forget how to write hanzi to nonetheless write what they want to say, just as kana do for Japanese who forget how to write certain kanji. This should be evident to anyone who has been reading Language Log for the past few years.

  60. Alex Wang said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    Thanks, did a search and reading now :-)

  61. Alex Wang said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 6:44 am

    I open by saying please excuse the non sequitur ramblings:

    I was wondering if there was one page where the wonderful third party articles linked from the various blog entries can be found. I found two articles very useful: Cursive writing and the Chinese font creation. I was also wondering if someone could upload the referenced videos to a Chinese version of youtube like youku tudou etc. The reason for this is without VPN one cant watch those video's in China. Finally does anyone know if there is a good Chinese translation of that cursive writing article, I feel it could be very useful. It would be nice if the third party articles and videos could all be on one page.

    After reading some previously missed articles and comments and more thoroughly rereading others, I find it amazing that through observation, a layman like myself came to the same general conclusions as some of the professionals. I think this is important because it means it is something that should be easy to explain and test.

    I found the comment that the day to day ability to be able to hand write characters other than for scholastic tests is not needed to be relatively true. I agree that a good possible transitional way forward was the suggestion that on tests if they would just ask the students to write the pinyin for the character(s) listed than the reverse (pinyin listed and child needs to write the character). I have bemoaned this point for well over a year to my son's tutor prior to discovering this site For composition I like the suggestion that children should be able to put pinyin for those characters they cant write. More importantly this aligns with what is important for day to day communication and "writing/typing" Knowing the pinyin is slowly becoming more important for day to day communication. In the same way knowing exactly how to spell words in English has become relatively unimportant. The right click on the red words and choose has been used extensively on this post :-)

    Unlike the hours of "torture" I had to endure of playing the scales over and over again to be able to play the piano, to be a brilliant author a child no longer needs to be able to hand write characters.

    My analogy is being able to play an instrument vs composing music. If the goal is to "play" the piano then playing scales over and over again to gain muscle memory is vital.

    Mozart and Beethoven did not need to know how to play every instrument proficiently wind, brass, percussion etc to be able to compose beautiful music. I had to briefly investigate music composition software and its acceptance as i had no previous knowledge. I think upon my cursory examination it does seem like there was a debate of handwriting music vs using software. At first the debate was highly contentious just like on this board. "You need to write by hand to feel the music" but that seems to have ended. I doubt Bach or Mozart would have written by hand because they being "geniuses" wanted output. Its like how someone needs to get something down before they forget or lose inspiration. I dont think anyone would argue that the word processor has increased productivity and with the time saved creativity for authors. On note taking paper vs pad I think its just about habit and habits can change with time via technology.

    I think technology within 20 years will make writing by hand relatively unused at the educational level. As Victor said throughout the many posts, kids and adults are voting with their fingers. Text books will be replaced with tablets or some other device and test taking will be more and more device driven as it is efficient grading wise. People think 20 years is too short of a time but that is why technology is often paired with the word disruptor. The first iphone was released less than 10 years ago. Look how alipay or wechat's payment systems as an app has changed things already at the retail level. Small mom and pop vendors rather accept that payment over cash now. In Norway one coffee shop refused to accept cash as cash required counting, worry about theft, delivering cash to bank, etc. the cost of accepting cash was too much.

    I think in China sooner or later we will see technology "drive" this evolution as it did with cursive in the US.

    Usually kids write a character 8-64 times (standard tian zi ben here for elementary kids 8 boxes in a row and 8 rows per page) and repeat the process for the ones they forget before exams. Kids already have to learn 2 languages starting in first grade vs 1 in the US, I hope that we can make it more efficient so kids can play, sleep or learn other things.

    More importantly as I have described before, it could avoid the incessant berating by parents which in my humble opinion is not healthy for parent or child. Parents often forget how hard it was for themselves and say things like how can you be so stupid, you have written it x times and still don't remember. I didn't want to get into the bihua or your handwriting is too messy again but I saw the comments from the guy with the big hands and the discussion on ball point, gel, and fountain pen. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when i read those comments but it is a serious subject. One couldn't believe how many different types/brands/sizes of pens I have bought and tried for my son to make the writing "easier" or neater for his mom's sake. Its sad when one has to extensively research writing tools to be able to try to help make my son's life easier when word processors are available. How many articles do you think I read on the web about how fountain pens can help writing neatness? I will search out Victor's suggested pen but for some reason I think I have come to same conclusions. I advise for those that can afford to, spend a little bit more than buy a cheaper brand because ink flow issues . This is to try to lessen psychological damage to child and parent.

    Parents are tired, parents are worried as the saying here a child's education is like "preparing for war", reread tiger mom and multiply it by 10 times and that's the stress here in China. Verbal abuse heaped on children is frequent and pervasive. I have seen parents brought to tears due to frustration from writing needing to memorize characters. Imagine the child's feelings. So unless we are trying to teach the time revered mantra of "Chi ku" eat bitter perhaps some relief is better than none.

    The below has to due with autism so perhaps not appropriate for this blog but I think it applies to so many parents here, myself included when teaching kids: The point is we are all human and patience is needed, even when "at war"

    http://www.npr.org/2016/07/15/486009997/from-father-to-father-a-few-words-of-wisdom-on-raising-kids-with-autism

    "What was the hardest day he ever had with Malik?

    "It's not his bad days that are hard; it's my bad days that are hard," Jones answers.

    He recalls a time when he was cutting Malik's hair. Scared by the sound of metal grinding, Malik began to resist his father.

    "I got so frustrated, and I forced him," Jones says, "like I held his head, and I could see it hurting him. And then afterwards I broke down."

    He says Malik came to him later and told him not to worry: "I'll be OK next time," Malik said then.

    "It was a stain on my brain for a long time," Jones tells Merkerson. "And I'm working on it. I'm a work in progress."

    And Merkerson understands well: "I've learned — like patience, you've just got to have it," he says. "

    I dont know single parent, my father, myself include, others i have spoke to here who doesn't have regrets on child rearing, yeah i know, perhaps off topic, perhaps not:

    Another suggestion from my personal observation. While it easier for older children to be able to distinguish what are proper nouns like in a set of Chinese encyclopedias. It is hard, at least for my son to sometimes understand this in his Chinese children's encyclopedia. The one my child uses is translated from a French publisher, Larousse. Newton, for the young US kids its easy for them to realize as its capitalized and they dont need to find a definition for a child in 2nd grade reading the characters Niu Dun they wonder. They are just starting to be able to infer context. I wish publishers would bold the Chinese characters for proper nouns and place the real English name next to it. It would save time. Like it or not English is the current global language. An issue my staff has at times when abroad on engagement they often hang out at night with clients or meet people in bars. One would think as an example that the names of movies or movie stars should be close enough so that people easily understand what a foreign counterpart is talking about but from defacto situations it seems not (Tom Hanks).

    My final personal example, yeah perhaps meaningless, perhaps not: I'm playing legos with my younger son on the ground and my older son is across the room at the dining room table reading. "Hey dad what's this word mean?" "Spell it!" ( yeah i should ask him to look it up himself more often).

    To summarize perhaps "Digraphia" is the way to go and change the focus of tests to testing pinyin vs handwriting the character. This way we can still see the beautiful characters and culture without too much "Chi ku"

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