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Wired Youths In China & Japan Forget Character Forms 508

Posted by timothy
from the ain't-got-no-good-grammar-neither dept.
eldavojohn writes "The AFP brings a story of a growing concern that children in China and Japan suffer from 'character amnesia' when asked to write the complex characters they are so used to inputting via alphabet-based systems. The article claims this is a growing problem. In China, they have a word for it: 'tibiwangzi,' which means 'take pen, forget paper.' China Youth Daily polled 2,072 people and found that 83% have problems writing characters (although there's no indication if that was an online poll or not). A young woman who was interviewed explained her workaround: 'When I can't remember, I will take out my cellphone and find it (the character) and then copy it down.'"
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Wired Youths In China & Japan Forget Character Forms

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  • by martijnd (148684) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:13AM (#33390140)

    The only way to learn how to write Chinese is to write it out for years on end, from kindergarten until university. It ain't much fun.

    Since I am a bit older than this and like to write at least basic chinese in this lifetime I am just letting the computer pick the characters for me when I type.

    My brain then tells me which of the offered characters feels "right" ; but it does that by looking at the overall shape, not the individual strokes.

  • So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:19AM (#33390166) Journal

    If you ask my mother to spell a word, she often can't. If you ask her to write it, she'll spell it correctly. If you ask me to write a word, I may not be able to spell it, but I can type it with the correct spelling[1]. This isn't a problem for me, because I type more words in a typical day than I write with a pen in a typical year. It wasn't a problem for her, because being able to spell words aloud is not actually a useful skill (except in the USA).

    This study is showing the exact same thing. That people forget skills that they don't use is not news. The only question is whether this is a particularly useful skill for them to be retaining. To answer that, I'd point out that Korea went from the nation in south-east Asia with the lowest literacy rate to the nation with the highest within a few decades of abandoning the Chinese ideographic writing system in favour of a phonographic one.

    [1] Owing to an immutable law of nature, this post is now guaranteed to contain at least one embarrassing typo.

  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:21AM (#33390172) Journal

    I started off with reading the last three sentences of your post and it reminded me of century-old racist propaganda.

    Then I read back a bit and realised that actually it had the Politically Correct upgrade applied, with the same purpose of preserving an underclass but selecting a different collection of unfortunates.

  • Re:Time to change? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Haedrian (1676506) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:27AM (#33390194)

    Sure, lets enforce our culture on other people!

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:31AM (#33390212) Homepage Journal

    Cursive is useless.

    If written with care, it is readable and beautiful. The only argument that people seem to have for it is the potential speed. If you write it out in speed, it /literally/ comes out as a squiggle with irregular bumps or loops. Completely unintelligible.

    I didn't fail to learn it. I outright refused. I took zeroes. My teachers were pissed off about it, but guess what? It doesn't seem to have mattered any.

    I'd even risk being an ignorant asshole when I say "if it's in cursive, it's not worth my time reading it." - I know it's wrong to say that, but damn does it feel good.

  • Re:Time to change? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by X0563511 (793323) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:44AM (#33390260) Homepage Journal

    Yea, because that's exactly what Vincenzo said!

    Try reading it again. I'd suggest you get off your horse first though, hard to read from way up there.

  • by Half-pint HAL (718102) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:47AM (#33390278)

    Writing is technology, and like any technology, it underwent many incremental improvements and adaptations to different media.

    The Latin character set evolved initially for stone carving. Germanic rules evolved to be chiselled in wood. Sanskrit's Devanagari script evolved to be written in soft clay. The script used in Malayalam is an unrecognisable derivative of devanagari, evolved to suit a population etching their texts onto banana leaves.

    So yes, writing is a technology, and technology is not culture. The Amish community say they reject technology as it degrades their culture, but that is not true. They have simply "frozen" the evolution of technology at one point. The cart-building and barn-raising techniques they use are (in historical terms) fairly sophisticated and efficient examples of engineering. They could improve on that engineering by incorporating newer technologies.

    Giving an Amish family a solar-powered flourescent lamp would not be imposing our culture on them, it would be providing them with a tool to improve their lives. Similarly, in providing Chinese kids with a more efficient tool to write (a phonemically regular alphabet), we are not imposing a culture, just providing a technology.

    In fact, by claiming that the alphabet is a cultural imposition, you are encouraging the suppression of technology in the east, which will stunt their potential for intellectual and economic growth.

    HAL.

  • Re:Ummmm (Score:1, Insightful)

    by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:50AM (#33390294) Homepage
    Oh, that's rich. A suggestion from a Westerner on how Asians can improve their culture. I'm shocked at the audacity, well-done, sir. I note your education level as well, apparently you are totally unaware that they already thought of the idea and rejected it [pinyin.info]. I also note that you labor under the misinformation that German has 27 characters when it actually has umlaut-a, umlaut-o, and umlaut-o as characters that don't appear in English. Please stop talking about this subject, you have no idea what you're saying.
  • Re:Time to change? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by VincenzoRomano (881055) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:56AM (#33390316) Homepage Journal
    Greeks and ancient Greek. Italians and Latin. Egyptians and Hieroglyphics. Iraqis and Sumerian. The list can be very long.
    It's a matter of handing the tradition down along with new cultures.
    It's not easy at all, but not an impossible mission either.
  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:56AM (#33390320) Journal

    I'd even risk being an ignorant asshole when I say "if it's in cursive, it's not worth my time reading it." - I know it's wrong to say that, but damn does it feel good.

    It must be depressing to outright refuse to read thousands of man-years worth of original mathematical, scientific, medical and philosophical works because they used ink and joined letters together. "You historians may have made the effort to carefully collect, preserve and scan these works, but they're just remnants of a past(*) age until you also type them up for me!"

    And I'm sure in the current fashion of style-over-substance you fit right in telling the kids you're not going to look at their technically excellent work because they dared to use a pen rather than master LaTeX (or *cringe* Word - which, unlike TeX, rarely if ever produces something even as neat as fair handwriting).

    (*) To any child, 20 years ago is a "past age".

  • by mutherhacker (638199) on Friday August 27, 2010 @04:59AM (#33390330)
    Elders always complain about youth not knowing history or spelling or this and that. That's how it's always been and that's how it's always gonna be. People just need to realize that even if youth are forgetting to write characters they are gaining other skills i.e. The ability to quickly navigate between the entries of a pop-up menu, or the ability to input text fast via a mobile-phone keypad. You lose something you gain something. Society is changing/evolving and the fact that youth are changing too is not a bad thing.
  • Re:So? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ciderbrew (1860166) on Friday August 27, 2010 @05:09AM (#33390358)
    Yes, I agree. I was taught using the "pho - ne' - tic" system as a child. Which doesn't work. Just ask people who can spell. They do not use that system at all.
    They visualise the word; but more interestinainaly - wHen they see a mispelt words they feel ill. It's the main reason they get so upset when they see crap. Their neurological debugging gives them force feed back. How awfuls for them. :)

    The NLP crowd wrote a lot of interesting stuff on this - http://www.nlpu.com/Articles/artic10.htm [nlpu.com]
  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Friday August 27, 2010 @05:33AM (#33390438) Journal

    I'll take a machine-written copy over the original handwritten manuscript any day -- precisely BECAUSE it allows me to focus on the substance

    So, are you offering to do the typing out? I agree that it's harder to read old handwritten works than their typeset equivalents, if the typesetting is good, but I consider being able to read a useful skill - and "to be able to read" has meant, before the last couple of decades, being able to decipher varying and unclear letter forms from a host of sources, not just taking in the neat, predictable fonts of typesetting.

    You are quite honestly declaring that you don't think you should have to learn to read, except in a limited sense.

    Except the letters ain't the "substance" of a old work on mathemathics.

    This also is often wrong. The development of notation is an incredibly important part of the development of mathematics, and you'll probably become a better mathematician by understanding how notation evolved and bounced between descriptions, words, word-like squiggles, discrete symbols and diagrams. You may also miss a lot of the spirit of an old work by looking at a neatly edited and typeset version.

  • by plumby (179557) on Friday August 27, 2010 @05:53AM (#33390518)

    The biggest challenge I found when learning (very) basic Mandarin was the almost complete disconnection between the sound of a word and how its written.

    With a European language or something like Arabic, once you've learned the alphabet then when you learn the sound of a new word, it's usually pretty obvious how it's going to be written (bar the odd bit of perculiar spelling that you sometimes come across), or vice versa - when you're reading a new word in a phonetic language you immediately have a good idea what it's going to sound like even if you don't yet know what it means.

    With Mandarin it felt almost like I was learning two separate languages at the same time, spoken Mandarin and written Mandarin.

  • by ledow (319597) on Friday August 27, 2010 @05:56AM (#33390528) Homepage

    My mother stormed into my school about 23 or so years ago and gave them a right rollicking. They were marking me down for bad handwriting, but I always got top-marks for the right answers. Her reasoning was thus: it wasn't a handwriting test, the work wasn't for display, the writing was legible enough for them to tell I had the right answer and the right working-out (they had marked it correct, after all) and I was one of the best students in the class academically. Did it REALLY matter what my handwriting looked like? She was hardly going to claim that the school had failed in my education just because my handwriting was a bit messy.

    They never bothered me again until secondary school where we had exactly the same thing happen all over again.

    To write neatly TAKES TOO LONG - for me and a lot of other people. My brain is already on the next question by the time I'm halfway through writing out the answer. Seriously - I never used more than half of the time available in an exam from primary school to university, and at least 50% of the time I *did* use was due to using a damn pen rather than a keyboard. Handwriting was always slowing me down and making me lose my concentration and place. My writing, technically, was perfect - grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. were all present but the handwriting was a little messy and scrunched because I was trying desperately to NO..T..... WRI.... TE.... AT... A... SNA....IL'... S.... PAC...E and then lose what I actually wanted to say by the end of the sentence.

    How many *authors* who want to knock out a 500-page novel still use pen and paper for even the first drafts? Very few, and they don't do that because they use the classic typewriter or a computer which takes away the tedious business of transcribing their thoughts and lets them get on with the thoughts themselves. It's handy to scrawl some notes with a pen on a computer printout, it's handy to write tiny memos with them, but anything longer than a few sentences and you're better off doing it on a keyboard. I can't even *remember* the last time I had to write something down - possibly an insurance claim form some months back.

    We have a viable, widely-available, cheap, more efficient, more accurate and faster method of transcription now - I work in schools and even in the poorest UK primary schools it's mandated to have one computer per three children, or thereabouts. Every topic must have some IT work in it, too. No wonder the kid's handwriting is deteriorating - damn right, as well. But these kids can touch-type before they move into secondary school. Handwriting's only advantage is that it needs no additional hardware past the most basic and crude (a stick of some kind that makes a mark), and kids can *still* do that if necessary - writing things on the back of your hand will never go out of fashion. It just won't be neat, but in those cases the ONLY people to ever read the message will be themselves, so neatest doesn't matter.

    Handwriting is not a necessary skill any more. Hasn't been for at least 23 years, probably a lot more. It's *nice* to be able to do, sure. Convenient at times, but it's basically an artform. How many people today can write with a proper quill? Not many. Why? Because it's an outdated technology that has enormous downsides with the only real upside being the simplicity of the equipment and the artistry of the finished product. In 50 years time, handwriting will be "quaint" and you'll only use it for love-letters or artworks.

  • by addsalt (985163) on Friday August 27, 2010 @05:58AM (#33390534)

    It's pretty difficult to think about things you have no words for.

    Really? Because my children had cognitive functions long before they had any sort of verbal language. For another anecdotal reference, many times I will remember a conversation, but not remember what language it was in, and quote someone in a different language than what they originally said. What is remembered is the idea behind each word, not the specific word itself (which has no intrinsic meaning).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 27, 2010 @06:12AM (#33390600)

    The less shortcuts I take, the faster I go

    This is one of the fundamental truths in life. It's true of about anything that really matters.

  • by SgtChaireBourne (457691) on Friday August 27, 2010 @06:15AM (#33390610) Homepage

    an Anglo-Saxon tale like Beowulf

    A nitpick about literature heritage, the earliest copy of Beowulf [uky.edu] is a translation written in Anglo-Saxon, not Anglo-saxon itself. So it is Anglo-saxon or English literature only the same way that Ibsen is.

  • Re:So? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jaysyn (203771) <jaysyn+slashdot@ ... m minus math_god> on Friday August 27, 2010 @06:22AM (#33390628) Homepage Journal

    They visualise the word; but more interestinainaly - wHen they see a mispelt words they feel ill. It's the main reason they get so upset when they see crap.
     

    You have no idea how ill this sentence just made me. :D

  • by Vintermann (400722) on Friday August 27, 2010 @06:34AM (#33390664) Homepage

    It must be depressing to outright refuse to read thousands of man-years worth of original mathematical, scientific, medical and philosophical works because they used ink and joined letters together.

    Hm. Take a look at Leibniz' [musin.de] cursive, Martin Luther's [wikimedia.org], Leonardo da Vinci's [handwriting.org]? Even someone who obviously spent a lot of effort at a beautiful script, like George Washington, can be tricky to read for modern eyes [handwriting.org].

  • by c6gunner (950153) on Friday August 27, 2010 @06:37AM (#33390688)

    Yes, there are lots of people who still can read Arabic, but not the general population, I cannot read notes behind photos of my grandparents, I cannot read registration papers of our ancestral family home... It was a political decision back then, justified by the ease of learning Latin alphabet, but more harm done than benefits.

    Nonsense. If you really care about those things, you can hire a translator fairly cheaply to translate them for you. The fact that you haven't bothered means that those things have no real value to you. Losing information which you have some vague attachment to is a small price to pay for progress.

  • It must be depressing to outright refuse to read thousands of man-years worth of original mathematical, scientific, medical and philosophical works because they used ink and joined letters together.

    Uh, I wasn't planning to read thousands of man-years worth of original material. The most I could possibly consume is a hundred man-years' worth or so. So no, I don't find it that depressing. Frankly, cursive is stupid, and people who use it today are just trying to make themselves look erudite. The simple truth is that the useful information is the data, not the presentation; if the presentation is relevant then the writer failed, because it's not supposed to be. Mathematicians too lazy to recopy their work? Someone else can interpret them. I'm hardly pushing the boundaries of mathematics.

  • by Asic Eng (193332) on Friday August 27, 2010 @07:01AM (#33390810)
    I think there is basically no chance of that working. For one you could argue that "Chinese" is a written language only - there is no standardized pronunciation. The same character will have very different pronunciations depending on the region - people who can currently communicate via the same written language will no longer be able to do so if you were to replace that with e.g. Pinyin.

    Then - just like in English - there are many words which sound the same but have different meanings (like "there"/"their"/"they're" to use a simple example). Those have different characters in written language. You might think people can easily infer that from context in spoken language, but that's not true - if someone speaks with a strong accent or not very clearly, then meaning will get lost. When I'm watching TV in Taiwan, there are always Chinese subtitles on the Chinese-language soap opera programs.

    You also have to consider the enormous significance of the Chinese script for Chinese culture. One way to get an insight into that, is to visit the Palace Museum in Taipei (well worth the visit) and see how much of the exhibits are either calligraphy or at least strongly tied to the Chinese script. Even the painting styles are closely linked to the style of writing. Abandoning the writing system would be akin to a second cultural revolution - just much worse.

    Yes it's difficult to learn Chinese script, however there are advantages to it, as well. I'm always amazed with the speed with which my wife is able to read books - I think a trained reader can absorb written text in Chinese characters at much higher speed than someone using an alphabetic script.

    Lastly - I think it's somewhat absurd to change something as significant as a written language, solely to accommodate technical solutions which in all likelihood won't last particularly long. Yes we use keyboard a lot, right now - but that's getting replaced by touch screens currently (not that I believe that's useful, but there you are). New input systems will come along, and they likely won't be as focused solely on the needs of the USA as they were in the past.

  • by booyabazooka (833351) <ch.martin@gmail.com> on Friday August 27, 2010 @07:39AM (#33391070)

    Literally meaning 'word processor-stupid', it refers to someone whose kanji-writing ability has suffered due to over-reliance on the kanji conversion systems used to input Japanese text in a word processor or computer.

    English speakers could find a similar use for this term, describing people who have forgotten (or never learned) how to spell due to relying on spell-checkers.

  • by BetterSense (1398915) on Friday August 27, 2010 @08:14AM (#33391470)
    "I think a trained reader can absorb written text in Chinese characters at much higher speed than someone using an alphabetic script."

    bullshit.
  • by jonbryce (703250) on Friday August 27, 2010 @08:15AM (#33391474) Homepage

    And if you read Beowulf, not the cluster, the c1000 year old English poem it was named after, then you see that English has evolved so much in that time that it may as well be another language.
    http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/19.html [utoronto.ca]

  • by netsavior (627338) on Friday August 27, 2010 @08:21AM (#33391546)

    Yes, there are lots of people who still can read Arabic, but not the general population, I cannot read notes behind photos of my grandparents, I cannot read registration papers of our ancestral family home... It was a political decision back then, justified by the ease of learning Latin alphabet, but more harm done than benefits.

    Nonsense. If you really care about those things, you can hire a translator fairly cheaply to translate them for you. The fact that you haven't bothered means that those things have no real value to you. Losing information which you have some vague attachment to is a small price to pay for progress.

    That is pretty ridiculous to say. Hire a translator every time you find an old photo, or an old graffiti or a love letter from great grand dad? I do agree that maybe "lose all written history" is a bit of an overstatement, but the truth is if our entire written language were replaced in a single generation, the fallout would be profound to the familial culture. I can look at a picture of my grandfather in uniform holding a newspaper that says "VE Day: IT'S ALL OVER" and it brings tears to my eyes. If when I found that picture it said IIIIJIJIJJIIIJJII I probably wouldn't think much of it, probably wouldn't even get it translated because I wouldn't have even known that it had an important meaning.

  • by mutherhacker (638199) on Friday August 27, 2010 @09:46AM (#33392596)

    Hmmmm, I've been doing tech stuff since the 1970s, no problem. I'll admit I may be unusual (as are most of the people I work with). I'll still say many youth are utterly screwed in their skills set -- cue the "Idiocracy" meme. We're too busy lowering standards so everyone can feel good about themselves instead of improving themselves.

    I don't want you to see this as an attack since I'm only presenting this argument for the sake of discussion. Has it ever occurred to you that some people might not feel the urge to improve themselves? I think technology has made it possible nowadays for even a person of mediocre intellect (though I hate to put any sort of labels on people) to be productive and just live a peaceful life vegging out in front of tv. Let those who want to be mediocre be so and let those who want to improve themselves do so. i.e. Live and let live. Every person wants to live their lives in a certain way. Not everybody should want to become a Ph.D. I like to see a variety of people on this planet. I want there to be people who want to be professors, dancers, cops, robbers and yes.. I even want there to be people who want to destroy the world. I want variety, stimulus. Otherwise our brain will become a pulp.

  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Friday August 27, 2010 @10:01AM (#33392790) Journal

    We're both promoting the same thing. It's pointless to read original manuscripts in cursive.

    This may be true for the average reader providing someone else has created a sufficiently good typeset version. But, because that only applies in a small number of documents vs the number of scribbled documents that have ever been produced and are being produced right now, it is important to know how to read.

    If I were a high-schooler who wanted to learn calculus from say Leibniz's manuscripts, I'd be also tripping on mistakes in his manuscript.

    Why wouldn't a high schooler want to see mistakes? Of course it is valuable to be read with an accompanying commentary which highlights them, but I would still want them there. I want to know where people went wrong, both in trivial and conceptual terms, so I can see how thought has developed and what excellent human minds are able (and not able) to do.

    People like to elevate the greats of science and mathematics to some position of heroic infallibility. They turn education into the recitation of certain precise formulations of their work (more precise than the person who actually put in the creative effort could manage), without the requirement to really understand it. People are put off really learning anything. You can help avoid this by taking people as close to the source as possible, warts and all.

  • Re:no surprise (Score:3, Insightful)

    by alvinrod (889928) on Friday August 27, 2010 @10:06AM (#33392860)
    Around here we normally just say "whoosh" and move on to other more important things, like not reading the articles.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 27, 2010 @11:56AM (#33394364)

    I don't necessarily think that we can transform the system to a Latin-based alphabet, but I still disagree with most of your argument (everything but the cultural aspect, basically).

    You say there are many words that sound the same but have different meanings. You claim that "those have different characters", but that's simply not true. Some of those words which sound the same have different characters, and many don't. You also conveniently ignore the fact that the reverse is also true. Particularly in simplified Chinese, many characters can be pronounced in several different ways (and mean several different things) depending on their context. That problem evaporates with the use of a system like Pinyin. So while Pinyin might introduce some problems (different characters with the same pronunciation map to the same Pinyin word) it also solves some problems (the same character mapped to many pronunciations will map to many Pinyin words). It's also worth noting that the first problem already occurs in spoken language, and also that we have both homophones and homonyms in English and we seem to manage just fine.

    You also claim that we're simply accommodating a technical solution. With this I strongly disagree, and I believe that any language historian would also disagree. Writing systems began pictographically, but they have evolved over time. We don't use hieroglyphs anymore, and there are many reasons. Part of the idea of evolving a system that was part picture part text was that it helped convey meaning even to the illiterate. That is no longer a problem that we need to solve. Chinese has also evolved; even Traditional Chinese is far removed from more ancient forms. Go visit the Palace Museum, as you suggested. The characters are no longer distinct pictures as they once were.

    Chinese has evolved and is clearly no longer trying to convey meaning based only on the shape of the character (I will have strong words with anyone who suggests that you can understand the meaning of any Chinese character just by looking at it - knowing a character's origins helps you remember it, but it does not help you grasp its meaning initially). Now we need to focus on what is easiest for humans to understand. There is a substantial problem with information coding here. If we consider distinct characters to be members of an alphabet, then Chinese has an enormous alphabet. There are many more characters in the Chinese dictionary than are in use (just like in English), but to give a basic idea, an article I read recently suggested that to even begin reading an easy newspaper article in Chinese you need to have mastered 2,000 different characters. That means your brain needs to be able to easily decode and recognize 2,000 distinct symbols. To read the same content in English, you need only recognize 26 distinct symbols. That's it. In both languages you need to know the meanings of all the formed words, but the number of symbols your brain needs to be able to process is substantially different.

    There is an obvious spectrum between the binary (base 2) system that computers use, the English alphabet (base 26), and the Chinese alphabet (Wikipedia says base 47,035). I agree that a highly trained reader can read information faster in Chinese than in English; a larger alphabet is a form of compression. But that does not mean that Chinese is positioned at the correct end of the alphabet-size spectrum.

  • by Xyrus (755017) on Friday August 27, 2010 @12:22PM (#33394708) Journal

    Why 'general' but 'gear'? Or 'chair' but 'chlorine'? 'Put' but 'putty'? How the hell "Eugene Delacroix" is pronounced? Etc.

    Yes, but if you were to spell "general" as "jeneral", or "chlorine" as "klorine" then an English reader would still be able to figure out what you were talking about. In other words, you can write words phonetically and a good portion of English readers would still be able to figure out what you're talking about. That doesn't work with written Chinese.

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