Character amnesia down under

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From Brendan Corney, a Chinese teacher in Melbourne, Australia, who relays a good anecdote of how bad character amnesia has gotten among native speakers:

I was hand marking some student work, and I wrote the character 冷* by hand. A native Chinese student teacher, who has a Master's degree in Chinese as a Second Language, came up and corrected my 冷, saying the right part should be 今**. I had to look it up in order to convince her. By the way, I learnt my characters via the Heisig method, so I have less character amnesia problems.

Notes by VHM

*lěng 冷 ("cold; frosty; sarcastic; unfrequented") — Unicode U+51B7

**jīn 今 ("this; now; today; present; current; modern") — Unicode U+4ECA

Both of these are very high frequency characters:

lěng 冷 is frequency 700 out of 9,933 characters on Jun Da's list

jīn 今 is frequency 336 out of 9,933 characters on Jun Da's list

In terms of phonological analysis, jīn 今 is a unitary character, and cannot meaningfully be broken down into smaller components, whereas lěng 冷 consists of the semantophore bìng 冫(Kangxi radical 15; "ice") and the phonophore lìng 令 ("order; decree; command; make; cause; season; your").

One of the problems surrounding how to write lěng 冷 and lìng 令 (frequency 378) is that there's a difference of opinion among Chinese themselves about how to write the last stroke of these two characters.  Namely, should it be vertical, as you see here, or should it be slanting downward to the right, touching the next to the last stroke at its middle point, as you can see for the Unicode Standard (Version 3.2) for 令 (U+4EE4) here.

Such differences of opinion exist for many other common Chinese characters, e.g., xué 學 ("learn; study; imitate; -logy", etc.) and huì 會 ("meeting; association; society; can; be able to", etc.).  I remember my own Chinese teachers fifty years ago (they were all mainlanders from Taiwan) arguing vociferously over the placement and sometimes even the number of the strokes for various characters, which left me confused and troubled.

Such things as Brendan experienced with lěng 冷 ("cold; frosty; sarcastic; unfrequented") have happened to me as well, and I'm sure they happen to all teachers of Chinese languages.

Here are some earlier posts on character amnesia:

See also "Characters in Search of Writers" (The Pennsylvania Gazette, 2/27/14) and the Wikipedia article on "Character Amnesia".


  1. David Moser said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    Not to pile on needlessly, but just today a Chinese friend of mine (in her 30s) wanted to write quegai 缺钙 (calcium deficiency), and said out loud "Ha, I can't quite remember either of the characters." She paused for a second, was able to recall the first character 缺, but then gave up on the second, and wrote in English "lack calcium". Then she said to me "That's embarrassing, I'll bet you can write them." I knew the character had the "metal" radical 钅but struggled to remember the other component for a few seconds. In the end, I also, a student of Chinese for over 30 years, couldn't write the character for "calcium."

  2. WSM said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    Kind of a strange character to be blanking on … leng3 is phonologically very close to ling4, and compound characters involving 今 tend to morph into cen/ qin: I wonder if being from southern China (and being unable to distinguish between "n" ㄣ and "ng" ㄥ) weakens the usefulness of such phonological references

  3. Jim Breen said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    I didn't know Heisig was used with Chinese. I know it only in Japanese (Jim Heisig lived there.)

  4. S Frankel said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    @ Jim Breen: There are Chinese adaptions of Heisig by Timothy W Richardson, "Remembering Traditional Hanzi" and "Remembering Simplified Hanzi." Never worked through them myself, so I can only attest that they don't do much good sitting unopened on the shelf.

  5. Rubrick said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

    I'm a bit confused by the phrase "mainlanders from Taiwan".

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    "I'm a bit confused by the phrase "mainlanders from Taiwan"."
    O tempora, o mores! How soon we forget.

  7. John said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

    I wonder if this is really character amnesia or whether the person has always written 冷 wrongly. Many people write certain characters wrongly all their life until it is pointed out to them. If they don't handwrite characters often, then it is much harder for anyone else to notice. This happens with English spellings as well.

    With regards to WSM's comment, I wonder how the interaction was actually phrased. Did she actually say that the right part of the word should be jin1 rather than ling4 (and say those characters aloud) or that there should have been no "slanting downward to the right" stroke?

    And did Brendan Corney try to correct her by pointing out that a character pronounced leng3 would be more likely to have ling4 (which IIRC can also be pronounced ling3 but not sure of meaning) as its phonetic component? Was that insufficient to convince her?

  8. Jim Breen said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 8:32 pm

    Thanks for that information about the Chinese versions of Heisig.

    Some years back I discovered that Heisig's method was popular with French Japanophiles. A friend remarked that he thought the French version was better than the original. I later met and became friends with the author of the French version: "Les Kanjis dans la Tete", Yves Maniette, an electron microscopist for whom Japanese is a hobby interest.

  9. languagehat said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    "I'm a bit confused by the phrase "mainlanders from Taiwan"."
    O tempora, o mores! How soon we forget.

    While I sigh along with John Rohsenow, for the benefit of Rubrick and others who may have forgotten or never known: After WWII, a flood of people fleeing the coming Communist takeover of China came to Taiwan (Formosa, as it was usually called then in English) and took over what had been a Japanese colony for decades. The locals, henceforth known as "native Taiwanese" (confusingly, since an outsider would think this applied to the indigenous, or "aboriginal," Austronesian population), naturally resented the newcomers, known as "mainlanders," and for a long time there was considerable mutual suspicion and dislike between the groups, which was very much still alive when I was teaching English there in the late '70s. I don't know what the situation is like now, but I presume it's less fraught.

  10. languagehat said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    As an example, I was sharing living quarters in Taipei with a woman who taught grad school and two of her male students, who both happened to be "native Taiwanese." (My girlfriend had asked her for help finding an apartment, and she had asked her students, and when they found one everybody got to live in it, a standard arrangement in that time and place but one that initially surprised and irritated me when I arrived and found myself living with people I didn't know from Adam. They turned out to be excellent apartment-mates.) The woman and her students appeared to be the best of friends, but one day they got into a political discussion and one of the students said to her bitterly: "What do you know, you're a mainlander." She was crushed; at the time I compared it mentally to how a white American would feel if a black person they considered a close friend said to them "What do you know, whitey."

  11. Chris C. said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

    Isn't that kind of an odd mistake to make, substituting a character's phonophore with a different character having a different pronunciation? You'd think the pronunciation would be a clue that it was incorrect, unless perhaps the student teacher didn't analyze 冷 that way.

  12. Chas Belov said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:19 am

    A fine dramatization of this period of Taiwan's history would be the film A City of Sadness 悲情城市 by Hou Hsaio Hsien.

  13. leoboiko said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    I agree with @John that this doesn't look like character amnesia, at least not in the sense frequently discussed here in LL.

    In memory retrieval, there's a huge cognitive difference between recall and recognition. These two tasks are not the same, and any discussion on memory problems must perforce distinguish the two. For example, everyone can recognize more words than they actively employ (meaning everyone's "active vocabulary" is a subset of their "passive vocabulary"); one can readily recognize a friend's face even if one can't draw it from a blank; one can recognize a melody even if one can't whistle the tune from memory, etc. And, naturally, any reader of a morphographic writing system can recognize more characters than they can recall.

    As far as I can recall (heh), posts about "character amnesia" here usually refer to difficulty with that hardest of memory tasks, active recall—you have a morpheme at hand and blank paper, you want to write the morpheme, and you need to pull the character's shape out from your brain. This is a distinct task from recognition (when you have a character before you, and want your brain to spit out the corresponding morpheme).

    Traditionally (i.e. with paper-based technology), one needs recognition to read and recall to write. But, when writing Chinese (or Japanese) in a computer, the software will present the user with lists of plausible characters for the specific linguistic context, and the user only needs to recognize which character they want. That is, computer input methods obviate the need for recall when writing. Given that recall is by nature harder, it seems quite plausible that computers are eroding people's recall skills; after all, if they don't even need recall anymore, they won't practice it, and memory skills depend on practice.

    However, I'm not at all sure that computers are affecting people's recognition skills. For example, all Japanese kanji usage standards (1946's Tōyō, 1981's Jōyō, 2010's new Jōyō) have only increased the number of characters, never decreased (meaning a 2011 newspaper will have more unglossed characters than a 1950 issue, not less); and all Japanese criticism I've seen of the standards was of the form "they should have included character such-and-such too". If, on the one hand, computers lead to less recall practice, on the other hand they increase the need for recognition; because any writer easily have access to a variety of characters that ordinarily they wouldn't recall, which means that texts end up with a larger gamut of characters.

    The Chinese speaker in the anecdote wasn't trying to recall a character (the common "character amnesia" case), but rather to recognize one. And she didn't fail to recognize it at all; rather, the character in front of her conflicted with her mental model of the character's structure (=which components is it made of), and the resulting dissonance (plus self-confidence as a native) led her to dispute it. I agree with @John that she likely acquired the character in a variant way ; and with @Chris C. that this is evidence that she didn't acquire this character as a phonetic compound, but as an opaque compound.

    To make a rough comparison with English, I've learned written English from American texts, and so the spellings most easily available to my mind are the American ones. However, for reasons I don't understand, I seem to have acquired "favour" (and "favourite") before "favor" and "favorite". As a result, I often write the British variants unconsciously, and then some spellchecker yells at me. (Indeed, I mistakenly wrote "favourite" twice in the preceding sentence, without meaning to…)

  14. Chas Belov said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    Ha, I'm a native American-English writer (not to be confused with a Native-American English writer). Several years ago, I wrote a play My Visit to America, set in an alternate history in which, among other things, American English never existed.

    I set the file's language to UK English. Even so, it was hell avoiding American spelling, Americanisms, and various other usages that conflicted with the world of the play; dozens of drafts later, I would still discover such usages, and every edit risked introducing them anew.

    Ever since then, I've noticed a tendency on my part to stick a "u" in words like color, favorite, and have to (immediately) catch and delete it.

  15. KeithB said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    Interesting. In the Lovecraft Mythos Leng is a very cold place, usually associated with Antarctica.

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