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Character Amnesia: Negative Impact of Computers Upon Writing Chinese by Hand (nytimes.com)
23 points by libpcap on July 23, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments



In Japan, the phenomenon is called "ワープロ馬鹿" (roughly, "word-processor-induced idiocy". I have it bad, which is unfortunate because particularly for foreigners it is easy to confuse with illiteracy. Luckily, I'm very rarely required to handwrite anything more complicated than my name and address. (Work once gave me a surprise skills evaluation which included a (handwritten, timed) essay test, which very nearly reduced me to tears.)


A "surprise skills evaluation?" Wow, Japan is like another planet to me.


This is probably even worse with Japanese, because if you can't remember the kanji, you just write the kana. Since pinyin isn't used the same way for Chinese and zhuyin is mainly used in Taiwan, mainlanders are still forced to somehow figure out the character (probably ask someone else) if they really want to write something.


While I notice a lot of people falling back into kana (especially for harder kanji) when writing by hand, it's usually rather embarrassing to have to write common words in kana when in front of other people. If you're making a presentation or doing sales, you definitely don't want to be writing in kana.

I'm in the same boat as patio, as I write notes by hand MAYBE once a week (now that patio quit the dayjob, I'm sure he writes a lot less often).

While my reading is still at a high level (Lv 2 of the Kanji-kentei) my writing is worse than an elementary school student (currently lv 8 in writing).

As an aside, in this post I misspelled about 3-4 words and would never have been able to correct them if I didn't have spellcheck... so this definitely isn't a problem limited to character-based languages.


It's an interesting article for me because right now I'm trying to learn Chinese. I'm mostly interested in learning to speak the language, but I've discovered that it really helps to be able to read as well. Chinese has a very small palette of sounds, which means that there's a lot of ambiguity. The same sound and tone could be represented by many different characters and have many different meanings.

But there's no way I can do the traditional approach of writing out each character hundreds and hundreds of times. I don't have the time or temperament. So I'm hoping a combination of flashcards and watching TV (most Chinese programs seem to have Chinese script subtitles, I assume to serve the various dialects that share the writing system) will do the trick.

That's one issue the article didn't fully address: the importance of that muscle memory in learning and retaining the characters.


Since we are talking about Chinese learning, I will be shameless and pitch my own startup: Popup Chinese (http://popupchinese.com). We are based in Beijing and are the learning site recommended most heavily by pretty much everyone who speaks Chinese fluently, including top-tier academic immersion programs in Beijing like the CET and IUP programs (Harvard, Stanford, etc.). We focus mostly on producing audio and text materials, but somewhat relevant for this discussion is our interactive iPhone software that teaches how to write Chinese characters (http://itunes.apple.com/app/chinese-writer/id374152537?mt=8). It helps people solve this problem and has the extra merit of being totally free.

Not intended as a sales pitch since most of our materials are actually free. But if you haven't dropped by you really should. I think you'll find our stuff will push you to genuine fluency a lot faster than Chinese television and flashcards. Especially if you are an elementary or intermediate-level learner and have already advanced to the stage where most Chinese textbooks are suffocatingly underwhelming.


No need to deny the sales pitch aspect so long as you have a product. What exactly is recommended by the CET/IUP folks (I know both FYI) ? Everything?

There were a bunch of sites like yours awhile ago, although I'm not sure how many have survived or become profitable.


If you know the academic directors at these programs you know the same people we do. They say they recommend us to their students and we believe them. Feel free to contact me by email if you'd like more specifics.

My impression is that most of the players in our industry are VC-funded and losing money. Their economics are quite different from ours though. Since it sounds like you're a fellow speaker, I'd suggest checking out our Intermediate and Advanced lessons, along with our selection of manually annotated short stories. If you're accustomed to standard mandarin as actually spoken (with the neutral tone, proper erhua-ization, etc.), or are good enough to try your hand at Dream of the Red Chamber or Journey to the West, I think you'll see and hear the difference right away.


Muscle memory was entirely neglected and is, in many aspects, the most important "memory" for writing Chinese characters, esp. under time pressure. The way that characters can be reconstructed that are "forgotten" by your Chinese speaker is simply that they go back to their visually retained memory of what the character looks like and then render it piece by piece. I've seen this happen to a Chinese lawyer friend of mine who was Peking University grad -> Harvard JD (not a dumb cookie), but after time in an English speaking law firm tripped up when asked to write even simple phrases that I, a foreigner, could still write fairly easily.

As for your problems learning the language, there is no other way other than rot memorization, and if you don't have the time, you shouldn't even bother. Seriously. If you can make the time but don't have the temperament, go somewhere where they will beat it into you Chinese-style, because there really is no other way to memorize the thousands of characters necessary to be proficient in Chinese. If you become serious and are looking for recommendations ping me and I will give you some.


If you can make the time but don't have the temperament, go somewhere where they will beat it into you Chinese-style, because there really is no other way to memorize the thousands of characters necessary to be proficient in Chinese.

Please, some practical advice:

Learn your stokes and always follow stroke order. Each stroke has a rhythm, and each character has a composite rhythm. Rhythm is an excellent mnemonic device.

An hour a day, everyday, is enough to make good progress. Half an hour twice a day is better. Your nervous system forms pathways between sessions, not during, so you want to optimize for that, not the session itself.

Throw out the flash cards, and throw out the books of pseudo-etymology. Find a book of pen calligraphy, and focus on strokes, positioning, balance.

Here's one place to start:

http://www.amazon.com/Learn-Write-Chinese-Characters-Languag...

And once you're further along:

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Cursive-Script-Introduction-Pu...


I'm sure practising the writing is a very effective way to learn, but I'm more than a little skeptical when people tell me there's 'only one way to learn'. I've been at it for two years now. I'm not moving very fast but I've learned about 1,700 words so far and reasonably pleased with my ability to communicate. This is all from self study with flashcards and audio (ChinesePod, Assimil etc) plus a weekly hour and a half with a tutor. Whether I can retain the characters over the long term is another question, especially since my interest is really in speaking and not reading and writing, but so far the flashcards and tv are working well for me.


Since we are talking about practical advice, I strongly recommend calligraphy lessons which allow one to connect to the beauty of the traditional characters as opposed to simply their simplified versions, which will presumably help with retention in the long run.


I'm not so sure about the Chinese-style beating. At least use a structured approach; Chinese characters aren't random strokes, they have rules and history, and learning it can help your memory a lot (especially if you're like me - I just can't memorize something I don't "understand"). The Japanese version of this book is quite well-known and I found it helpful: http://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Traditional-Hanzi-Meaning-... (this is the trad. Chinese version)


I mean beating figuratively. Spending a lot of time each day doing something that might be perceived as uninteresting and menial is largely a matter of personal discipline, but this discipline can be imposed (or amplified) by the environment you are in.


> I mean beating figuratively

Haha, don't worry, I know this.

I've seen people beat themselves into doing what I consider an extremely boring way of studying, telling themselves "there's no other way". My point is that using a method that stimulates your imagination, or links the character to words, or explains how it got its shape, helps a lot to make things interesting and meaningful compared to studying it "in the vacuum".

Discipline and time are always required, but some methods make it less painful. My impression is that most people don't spend enough time to plan their studies. They take a class, get told "you must know these 50 characters for next week", and then just learn them with almost no context, pure raw memorization. After trying this, many people think they "don't have the temperament", like you said. My point is, sometimes it is, but more often than not I'd put it on bad methodology. It's possible to make it more interesting and learn them without a flogging ;)


IMO it is both/and not either/or. Flogging + making things as interesting as possible. As I suggested on the other branch, I highly recommend calligraphy as, in my experience, appreciating the beauty of the characters helps with retention.

Unfortunately getting good at calligraphy also takes time and effort...


The disconnect between being able to read Chinese and write Chinese can be huge for a foreign learner. We're always reading Chinese when we walk the street, look at the menus, and watch local TV (most Chinese TV has Chinese subtitles). When typing Chinese using the pinyin input method, we use our Chinese reading skills, not writing skills, to select the correct character from the popup box. We virtually never practise writing skills, consequently I can read over 2000 characters, but only write 100 or 200.


Who is "we" ?


Whoops, sorry. Although I'm a native English speaker, in my dialect of informal spoken English (New Zealand English), people sometimes say "we" to mean "I". I try to avoid this ingrained habit when out of town or on the internet, but sometimes slip back into it.


Gotcha


Two easy solutions come to mind:

1) Use pens and pads for computer character entry so the same characters can be used by both. 2) Switch to a new written form that can also be typed.

I'd personally love to see global adoption of a new language designed from the beginning to be simple, unambiguous, and easily written and typed. It'll never happen of course.


I don't necessarily think it's bad. It's evolution. It's much more efficient to have each character represent a sound (western way) than a word (Chinese/Japanese/etc way), anyway. The cultural loss is sad, sure, but in the end, it's survival of the fittest.


I don't think it's bad at all. Anyone who is concerned about the loss of Chinese culture is invited to spend their own time mastering it and passing it on. Complaining that culture is being lost is, if you really unpack it, just a way of insisting that a billion other people burn their lives away using an inefficient writing system so that you can feel good about their culture. It's obviously not what they want to do, or they'd be doing it.

Culture is living things, like butterflies. It's good to pin a few down for the museum, but on the whole they needs to be left to roam free. This is not sadness; this is life. You won't be able to see tomorrow's wonders if you're too stuck on today's, or worse, yesterday's, and all three are worth seeing!


I find it interesting that you say that each character represents a sound in western language, while not in Japanese or Chinese.

In Japanese こ can only be pronounced one way.

In Chinese (I believe) 子 can only be pronounced one way. It also has an associated meaning which is handy for learning new words.

In english, what sound does C make? ex) Chair Care cycle

Why can I pronounce Ghoti as 'Fish'?

Read <-- How do you pronounce this? Is it Red or Reed?

I actually find the looseness of English spelling to be much more of a hardship than learning a number of different pronunciations.


English is a bad example of a phonetic language. I prefer Latin: everything has one pronunciation (at least, when rendered in the Greek alphabet), and character-strings act as combining forms for words just as characters do in ideographic languages ("electro-" works in all the same situations that "電-" does.)


I don't speak Chinese or Japanese, but people that do told me that there are more than five ways to pronounce "yi", they all mean different things, but they're all transliterated to English in the same way.

However, that's not what I meant. I meant to say as far as ease of transcribing spoken word onto paper, alphabet system is fundamentally easier, because you only have to remember 25-45 (approximately) number of characters. While in hieroglyphics, the number is much much larger.


I don't speak Chinese or Japanese, but people that do told me that there are more than five ways to pronounce "yi", they all mean different things, but they're all transliterated to English in the same way.

That's because Chinese is tonal. There are 5 different tones in Standard Mandarin. When transliterating Chinese to the English alphabet, there is no way to write the tone, so you introduce ambiguity that wasn't officially present.


I find it funny that you bring this up. How many ways can 二 be pronounced in Japanese?


That'll teach me to omit details for simplicity. ;)

Kanji is an exception in Japanese because it was forcibly shoe-horned into the language. (Granted, Kanji came before kana, but as far as 'purely Japanese' scripts I think that kana takes precedence). Thus it really doesn't fit well with the Japanese pronunciations because sometimes it was brought in for meaning (火山 vs 火) without any care for how it was pronounced -- either forcing the pronunciation to conform to the original Japanese word, or creating a new word from the Chinese.

Also the fact that Kanji entered japan at different points in history means that there were different interpretations of how the kanji should be used. (I see something similar with katakana -- you can generally tell the timeframe in which the word entered the Japanese language depending on whether the word is based on the English spelling, or the English pronunciation. Or is even from another language such a Portuguese or German)

:: End Sidebar ::

Not that I think that Japanese is a great example of a "logical language." But one of the things I always liked about Japanese is the fact that (with a few exceptions) the kana can only be pronounced one way.

Btw, as I'm sure you know the pronunciations for 二 is に. But when you combine it as part of a word can also be pronounced ふた、ふ、ふう or じ


Kanji is an exception in Japanese because it was forcibly shoe-horned into the language.

Much like how the English alphabet ultimately originates from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and was forcibly shoe-horned into the language by the Romans as they spread Christianity across Europe.

But one of the things I always liked about Japanese is the fact that (with a few exceptions) the kana can only be pronounced one way.

Well, it does omit pitch accent. Reminds me of how my Japanese professor mentioned that she went almost a decade without realizing that in the こ-, そ-, あ-, ど- series, ど- involves a decrease in pitch, whereas the others involve an increase. Something that would be very useful to include in the orthography ;/

Btw, as I'm sure you know the pronunciations for 二 is に. But when you combine it as part of a word can also be pronounced ふた、ふ、ふう or じ

Which is somewhat analogous to how 'p' and 'h' have one pronunciation (that I can think of off the top of my head), but when they're combined, you get an 'f' sound.


It's comments like this that makes me wish that Hackernews had a "follow" button. =)

The problem with the pitch accent is that it varies so much by region that if you included them in the kana (like the universal phonetic alphabet) you would end up with something that was completely unreadable by people from a different prefecture. (Ok, I'm taking that to an extreme, but still. The Japanese have enough problems with various dialects without putting pitches in the written language. I think I would cry.)

Another interesting thing is that even within the kana there are slight variations in pronunciation. in 三年、三万、三月 all the んs are pronounced differently.

I think we should agree that all language is fubared. Except for Esperonto. And no one uses that (no matter what the wikipedia page says).


The problem with the pitch accent is that it varies so much by region that if you included them in the kana (like the universal phonetic alphabet) you would end up with something that was completely unreadable by people from a different prefecture. (Ok, I'm taking that to an extreme, but still. The Japanese have enough problems with various dialects without putting pitches in the written language. I think I would cry.)

Yeah, that's definitely true. You would have to use it just for 標準語, sort of like how pinyin with tonal diacritics is primarily used for Standard Mandarin, since something like 関西弁 would look completely different.

By the way, I remember reading (on HN, I believe) that a lot of the problems with English spelling are a result of the original typesetters (i.e., for Gutenberg-style printing presses) being Dutch, so they failed to accurately spell a lot of English words.

And Esperanto is for noobs ;) If you want to see a real conlang built from the ground up, check out Ilaksh: http://www.ithkuil.net/ilaksh/Ilaksh_Intro.html


Fubar can be a design principle. Perfect transparency is not desirable in every and all circumstances and often hoops are constructed just so that people will jump through them.


> It's much more efficient to have each character represent a sound

I disagree

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1505584

If you learn Chinese by young, you'll have helluva advantage on pattern recognition and memory.


Let's put it this way: most symbol based systems (Chinese and Japanese kanji) aren't very scalable because each symbol represents multiple objects/ideas. The only way these languages can grow to incorporate more and more modern ideas is to get deconstructed into characters that represent sounds (Japanese hiragana).

I for one think that it's a positive thing to move away from the symbolic characters - it'll make languages easier to learn and let more people communicate with each other.


It's like saying the assembly language is much more scalable than a higher level languages.

Separating the meaning from the sound is like naming variables with meaningless short combination of letters.


Since 2001, has pinyin begun to appear in day-to-day writing? Cursory image searches puts it on street signs and a mention of National Common Language Law promulgating its use.

If someone forgets a hanzi, is a pinyin substitute acceptable?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language#Other_phonetic...


Even though the problem is probably much worse in ideographic scripts, we alphabet users haven’t been immune. (We had a head start, after all.) About the only thing I can write reliably any more is my signature; every once in a blue moon when I need to write a check, it literally takes me over five minutes to write it out legibly.


Yeah, I'm really really bad at writing by hand now. It physically makes my hand hurt if I have to write more than a few sentences, because I've gotten totally unused to it (the callouses I used to have on my ring finger, where the pen/pencil sit, have long since gone away as well). But I suppose it's a bit less of a problem because I do at least know how to write all 26 letters when I need to.

I did recently though want to write something in cursive (jokily flowery greeting in a card) and I couldn't remember how to write a bunch of stuff, especially capital letters. Had to go online to remind myself how you write a cursive capital Q.


I dunno. My friends with iPhones in Taiwan preferred the handwriting recognition to phonetic IMEs. I think the article is a bit sensationalist.


Have your friends actually put themselves to speed and accuracy tests in writing through each method? Of course most people do best what they practice most, but one of the reasons phonetic input (Hanyu pinyin on the mainland, still BO PO MO FO mostly in Taiwan) is the predominant way of entering Hanzi computer data all over the Chinese-speaking world is that other methods were tried (since the 1980s, repeatedly) and found wanting. It would be interesting to see if handwriting input on the latest generation of pads could ever catch up to moderately proficient typists.

P.S. This reminds me of the days in the 1980s when I had to translate handwritten manuscripts by magazine reporters in Chinese into English. There is a lot of nonstandard handwriting in the Chinese-speaking world, as I discovered when I would ask colleagues to read one another's handwriting to get a reality check on how I read it.


I doubt anybody has subjected themselves to a rigorous study on the subject. What the people I know have done is this: try the handwriting recognition for a few days, go back to zhuyin or maybe wubi for a day or two and then go back to handwriting because they believe it's faster based on their own experience.

Non-standard writing and simplifications are recognized in many cases. It's far from perfect; it's just a bit faster and more convenient than their old phones.


Apples and oranges. I believe the discussion was of standard input systems (i.e. keyboards) not iPhone keyboards for which I can easily believe that handwriting outperforms pinyin and/or wubi.


(2001)

Still interesting, but it would be good to put in the title.




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