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Characters are objectively harder, even for Chinese


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#1 share dmoser

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Posted 04 May 2004 - 02:01 PM

In my experience, native Chinese speakers are simply not able to write their native language with the same ease as users of alphabetic scripts, a problem which is directly attributable to the lack of any regular sound-to-symbol organizing principle in the Chinese script. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote called "The Invisible Writing on the Wall", and another excerpt from "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard":

For it wasn’t just a problem of the “uneducated masses”. As the months went by, I began to discover that everyone, even the most highly educated and bookish, seemed to have trouble remembering the characters for common words. I began to keep a little notebook of examples of the ti bi wang zi(提笔忘字) phenomenon, and I was amazed at the kind of lapses I encountered—characters in very mundane words like “paint”, “tin can”, “spine”, “mouse” and so on—all temporarily forgotten by people who were clearly very intelligent, well-read, and even exceptionally talented at language use. Though I suddenly felt vindicated with regards to my own difficulty remembering how to write Chinese characters, I began to wonder if this problem was more pervasive and pernicious than the Chinese themselves were aware of.
The most astounding example I encountered back in my early days studying Chinese was during a lunch with four graduate students in the Peking University Chinese department. I had a bad cold that day, and wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel a meeting. I found that I couldn’t write the character ti 嚔 in the word for “sneeze”, da penti 打喷嚔, and so I asked my four friends for help. To my amazement, none of the four could successfully retrieve the character ti 嚔. Four Chinese graduate students at China’s most prestigious university could not write the word for “sneeze” in their own native script! One simply cannot imagine a similar situation in a phonetic script environmente.g., four Harvard graduate students unable to write a common word like “sneeze” in the orthography of their native language.


I have occasionally taught English to Beijing schoolchildren, and one day I was helping a class of third graders review English words for body parts. One little boy wrote “knee” on the blackboard, and then, as he attempted to write the Chinese translation xigai 膝盖, found he could not write the characters. I found this rather intriguing, and I begin to quiz the class on common words for body parts and everyday objects, and within a few minutes we came up with a list of words like yaoshi 钥匙 “key”, niaochao 鸟巢 “bird’s nest”, lajiao 辣椒 “hot pepper”, huazhuang 化妆 “makeup”, gebo 胳膊 “arm”, jugong 鞠躬 “bow”, and so on, all of which they could write (or correctly guess) in English, but could not successfully render in Chinese script! Abilities varied greatly, of course, and a couple of the brighter kids could seemingly write almost any character, but for most of them, their written English lexicon had already made a few semantic inroads that were still inaccessible via the Chinese characters. After the class I mentioned this interesting (and to me, distressing) state of affairs to some of the parents who stayed on to chat with me. This gave rise to a lively discussion, during which we found that many of the parents, to their bemused chagrin, also stumbled over characters in common words like saozhou 扫帚 “broom”, gebozhou 胳膊肘 “elbow”, zhouwen 皱纹 “wrinkle”, aizheng 癌症 “cancer”, menkan 门槛 “threshold”, qi 鳍 “fin”, chiru 耻辱 “shame”, xidicao 洗涤槽 “kitchen sink”, Lundun 伦敦 “London”, and so on. Many of these adults held advanced degrees, and one was an editor at a Beijing newspaper. One of the parents sheepishly confided in me “I wince when I my child asks me how to write a character, because I often can’t remember, either. This has happened so often that I’ve totally lost face in this regard, and nowadays the joke in our house is ‘Look it up, you’ll remember it longer.’”
Comparisons of Chinese characters with other writing systems are admittedly fraught with difficulty, and such questions are outside my area of expertise. If there is indeed a disparity here, as I contend, the problem would be an “invisible” one. It is common knowledge that the characters are difficult to learn, but few imagine just how difficult in comparison to alphabetic scripts. One could not expect Chinese parents and teachers to notice a failing that would only be evident through direct and scientific comparisons of Chinese kids’ performance with that of their American counterparts.
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#2 share Ian_Lee

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 03:44 AM

Dmoser:

When I drive to work in the morning, there is phone-in quiz in the radio which many Americans cannot spell right some very simple words like "accelerate", "Portuguese", "potential",.....etc.

So I am not surprised that those students and their parents in Beijing cannot write those common characters properly.

But my daughters who attended Sunday Chinese school here for 3 years can write properly words like 伦敦 in its traditional script which is five strokes more.

Anyhow, the top contenders in the Spelling Bee in this state are always Asian kids.
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#3 share Quest

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 07:15 AM

Yea, if you can just scribble down the general shape of the character, or substitute in another character with the same sound, you can still be understood. Then you can look it up in the dictionary using pinyin.

I agree it takes more time to search a chinese dictionary if you do not know the sound of the character. However, since you only need to know a few thousand characters instead of the tens of thousands of words for English, a Chinese would likely use the dictionary less frequently than an English speaker.
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#4 share xuechengfeng

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 07:26 AM

Your "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard," article described my plight to a tee, and was hilarious!

I was dumbfounded today, I asked my Chinese instructor if she could draw the traditional character for 里 because I think I messed it up on my writing test, and she couldn't do it! She said she only knew how to write simplified characters. :-?
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#5 share xuechengfeng

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 07:30 AM

Ian:

The problem is if one were to be asked to spell the words you mentioned, and couldn't do it correctly, someone would at least be able to recognize their intentions because they can sound it out to where it's recognizable. Some of the same spelling characters are close (ex. ji) but what if you don't know either of them?
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#6 share skylee

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 07:38 AM

I asked my Chinese instructor if she could draw the traditional character for 里 because I think I messed it up on my writing test, and she couldn't do it! She said she only knew how to write simplified characters.

This is sad. But thanks to word processors you now can easily find the traditional form ->
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#7 share Quest

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 07:44 AM

I am sure your teacher could recognize it if she saw it written out. You should not expect people from the mainland to be able to write traditional characters anyways. Nothing so sad about it :wink:
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#8 share beirne

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 08:28 AM

I'm not sure about Quest's point that a Chinese only needs to know a few thousand characters whereas an English speaker needs to know 10's of thousands of words, therefore a Chinese would need to use the dictionary less. How does one know if they want to use 做 or 作? Or which of the 164 characters pronounced yi4? Knowing how to write Chinese involves not only writing the characters but knowing which ones to combine.
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#9 share smithsgj

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 09:50 AM

Are Chinese students, in China or wherever, actually trained in using dictionaries as a matter of course, whether by radical or pinyin search? I find it slightly suspect that -- in my experience -- students use English to Chinese dictionaries frequently, but never seem to look anything up in a Chinese to English dictionary (or for that matter even own one, since the two components, unlike European bilingual dictionaries, are almost always sold separately; which is itself very strange, as if there were groups of users who would need one and not the other). In my own Chinese studies I found myself using both, frequently.

I think OP's is a very interesting post. It presents compelling evidence that the Chinese writing system is problematic.

Ian, your phone in words are difficult words: like "parallel", the kind of words most people have to think twice about. OP was talking about words like "sneeze" and "knee"!
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#10 share Quest

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 09:51 AM

so how does not knowing 做 or 作 or the 164? yi's relate to what I said?
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#11 share Ian_Lee

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 09:51 AM

Xuechengfang:

Unless they are semi-illiterate, there is a slight chance that one cannot recognize either of the same spelling characters.

Even though HK's Chinese standard has deteriorated somewhat, I guess hardly any college students would not know simple characters like 辣椒, 鸟巢 and 化妆 like those Beijing parents do.
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#12 share Quest

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 09:56 AM

yea he picked words that are hard in chinese vs easy in english.
parallel is hard okay but one cannot forget 平行 in chinese though.
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#13 share beirne

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 11:55 AM

A dictionary can be used to verify how to write a word, and my point to Quest was that Chinese has lots of ambiguities that might send a person to the dictionary to check which characters are used.

Another reason to go to the dictionary is to look up a word one encounters while reading. The fact that one needs to learn fewer Chinese characters than an English speaker needs to learn words is irrelevant. While lots of words are easy to guess from their characters, others don't lend themselves to easy understanding. Why does 玫瑰花 mean rose? Why does 蚱蜢 mean grasshopper? Why does "throw money" mean "to invest"? Why does "silver line" mean bank? I know these are words most people already know, but they are examples of words whose meaning is not obvious from the characters they contain. At this level Chinese is just like English. Sometimes the meaning of a word is obvious from its components, and sometimes it isn't. When it isn't you go to the dictionary.
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#14 share ala

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 01:15 PM

Chinese characters are a pain in the arse. What a waste of my youth, time that could be spent doing something else--like learning and nurturing creativity. Add that to the fact there's no spacing; and foreign words are rendered from an incredibly large and rather arbitrary set of characters and mixed right into the regular text (and trying to memorize the arbitrary conventions). It is almost impossible trying to skim through text that have a lot of foreign proper names rendered in Chinese. The muddy distinction between ci and zi in Mandarin, also explains why the majority of Chinese have very poor expressivity in writing without resorting to chengyu and idioms. Chinese is one big set of idioms that people memorize and recycle over and over again. I rarely see original expressive sentences in Chinese that test the boundaries of acceptable usages and enrich Chinese grammar. Lack of formal grammar education might have something to do with it. Most Chinese can probably only tell me about 的、地、得 if I asked about Chinese grammar on the spot (and the majority of Chinese disregard 地 anyway). Still, I'm a traditionalist and feel that Chinese characters should be maintained, but there ought to be better and more enlightening methods of teaching them. Clearer distinction of zi and ci is also a reform that desperately needs to be made, as well as grammar formalization.
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#15 share 林彪

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 01:28 PM

My first Chinese language professor had a PhD in Chinese, spent 25 years studying it, had lived in China and Taiwan extensively, but could not write the traditional characters for 书 and 为 when someone asked him to do so. No joke. :shock:

Although I have to give him a little credit since he started studying Chinese in college, studied primarily simplified characters, and knows thousands of simplified characters.
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#16 share nnt

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 01:40 PM

My first Chinese language professor had a PhD in Chinese, spent 25 years studying it, had lived in China and Taiwan extensively, but could not write the traditional characters for 书 and 为 when someone asked him to do so.


I think this phenomenon occurs in any language. Even a renowned writer writing in his native language has a few words he would always involuntarily spell or write wrong (in case of a Chinese character: with a stroke less, or more, for example), that's a kind of "signature". But this occurs at individual level. The topic's issue is at a more general level.
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#17 share Taibei

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 03:02 PM

A lot of people tend to get confused about the nature of the question, thinking that the troublesome spellings of English somehow equate to what it's like to write Mandarin in romanization. (These people should be made to write "Romanization of Mandarin is not English" one hundred times on the blackboard.)

English has many, many times more syllable sounds than Mandarin, which has only around 400 if tones are not included or around 1,100 if they are. Moreover, the English spelling system is considerably out of date -- but even its phonetic practices are much easier to follow than those of Chinese characters.

Hanyu Pinyin, on the other hand, is entirely different. Words are spelled much more directly according to their sounds. Spelling Mandarin words as written in Hanyu Pinyin is much more akin to spelling in Spanish than spelling in English.

The difference between writing Mandarin in Chinese characters and writing it in Hanyu Pinyin isn't just a difference of degree but of many orders of magnitude.
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#18 share dmoser

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 09:04 PM

It is important to remember that for school children, there is an enormous difference between not knowing how to spell a word and not knowing how to write a character. As difficult as it is to master inconsistent English spelling conventions, once a rudimentary knowledge of the system has been internalized, the child has a powerful and error-tolerant tool that can be applied broadly across the entire lexicon. Misspellings are seldom fatal, since “bad” spelling is merely the invoking of some alternate conversion rule, revealing the child’s lack of sufficient contact with the written language. Spelling errors almost never result in the kinds of total breakdowns in speech-text conversion that occur constantly in Chinese. Of course, both Chinese and American kids constantly produce incorrect orthographic renditions of words they have already learned. The difference is that for Chinese kids there are always words they simply cannot write at all until they have acquired the characters for them, whereas their western counterparts, armed with a relatively small preliminary number of spelling heuristics, can write virtually anything they can say.
My six-year-old daughter is currently in first grade at a US elementary school. Her first-grade teacher often encourages the students to write little essays on whatever topics they please, and in such cases she does not correct their spelling, the point being to encourage them to enter into the process of converting their thoughts into written representation without the inhibiting fear of making mistakes. And so my daughter brings home written sentences such as these, familiar to any parent:

I put a sin on the door that says do not disterb.
She will wake up tomoro morning with muny from the tooth fary.
I am happy becus today is valintins day.
Nobude is home.

The writing system she is using is very forgiving of her spelling mistakes, because the mistakes still serve to convey the sounds of her intended sentence. The Chinese system, however, does not allow the child the luxury of substituting homophonic guesses for the target character; huge swaths of lexicon are off-limits until the needed character is memorized.
What this means is that, in a sense, my daughter can already successfully write the word disturb, albeit in a nonstandard form, *disterb. Written communicative functionality arrives well before orthographic mastery. By third grade, she and her classmates will be able to write (with numerous errors) almost anything they can say. By contrast, Chinese children are still learning to write new characters as late as the sixth grade, and until they are able to write at least three or four thousand characters, the semantic map for them is filled with roadblocks. If my daughter’s Chinese counterpart cannot yet write the character rao 扰, she will simply be unable to produce the compound darao 打扰, “disturb”, because there is no orthographic principle or heuristic that would allow her to make a guess. Needing to write a character she hasn’t yet studied, the Chinese child can only throw up her hands and cry “uncle” (or rather “shushu”, I suppose).
As English speaking children mature, their spelling improves (though never comes close to perfect—most people are atrocious spellers), and they learn to apply the appropriate rules to each word. But note that the initial “rules-of-thumb” guessing stage for English is not one that children grow out of completely. Adults continue to apply spelling heuristics (consciously and unconsciously) in writing to allow the communicative process to proceed without any fatal breakdown. In my mother’s email letters I find sentences like these:

She s been diagnosed with muscular distrophy (sp?) and is seeing a doctor.

I’m following the Irak thing, because Mandy’s husband has been sent to Bagdad, and who knows if what these journelists are saying is true.

Misspellings like “distrophy”, “Irak”, “Bagdad” and “journelists” do not impede her flow of thought or my comprehension in any way, and the occasional annotation “(sp?)” lets me know that she herself is aware of a possible error. If she wanted to, my mother could use a spell checker (as I am doing now to catch my numerous inadvertent misspellings). But even with the imperfect spelling, her text is perfectly comprehensible. And note that even exceedingly rare words like “scabbard” or “ragamuffin” are thus available to her due to her implicit knowledge of English spelling conventions.
Misspellings in English could be equated with the ubiquitous cuobiezi 错别字 in Chinese, which include mis-written characters as well as the substitution of an inappropriate character. As with a misspelled word in English, a cuobiezi is usually more a cause of mirth than misunderstanding. I stress again that the problem in Chinese is not the miswriting a character, but rather the inability to retrieve enough of the components to write it down at all. If one does not engage in the writing of characters every day, they soon begin to decay and evaporate in long-term memory.
Several years ago a Taiwanese friend mine, a Ph.D. in the Harvard School of Education, lamented to me, “You know, after ten years in the US, I feel sad that I’ve almost lost the ability to write in Chinese. Nowadays it’s so agonizing for me to pick up a pen and compose a letter in Chinese, that I’ve almost stopped writing to my friends. If they have email, we often just write to each other in English. I kept a diary when I first came here, but that’s fallen by the wayside. There are all kinds of subtleties I would love to express in my native language, but it feels like swimming through molasses to write the characters.”
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#19 share pazu

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Posted 05 May 2004 - 11:37 PM

This is indeed the first time that I saw "tì" written in this form (嚔), maybe a heterograph. I usually write it as "嚏", maybe they're heterograph (yìti3zì: 異體字).

But back to the question, I'm surprised that your friends couldn't write this character especially when they were studying at the "Harvard" of China. Though I must admit that it's not uncommon for me to forget which character to write (執筆忘字) too.

One day my Vietnamese friend asked me the Chinese name of Phàn Thiếu Hoàng (樊少皇, pinyin: Fán Shàohuáng), I tried to remember but suddenly I forgot how to write 樊, I could write 木爻木 only but forgot the lower part of this character, then I tried to write some combinations and when I wrote 樊, I knew it immediately that I got it right, probably Chinese is easier to be recognized rather than written. I've read a book by 柏楊 (Bo Yang) and he quoted a source saying that the AVERAGE reading speed of Chinese is fastest amongst many other languages, so this can be a compensation. Another survey (also quoted by him, I forgot the source) saying that Chinese students suffer almost no dyslexia, while those Western kids with dyslexia seemed to have no problem to learn to write Chinese characters. This is another compensation.

The concepts or mechanism behind the memorizing methods of Chinese characters and Latin alphabets are probably very different, the comparison of 嚏 with SNEEZE isn't fair enough, maybe you should compare it with "pronOunciation".
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#20 share ala

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Posted 06 May 2004 - 12:29 AM

The concepts or mechanism behind the memorizing methods of Chinese characters and Latin alphabets are probably very different, the comparison of 嚏 with SNEEZE isn't fair enough, maybe you should compare it with "pronOunciation".


pazu, I think you completely ignored dmoser's comments. I really agree with dmoser, and disagree with your suggestion that not being able to write 嚏 is equivalent to mispelling pronunciation as "pronounciation."
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