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Teaching of Mandarin outside of China: Simplified or Traditional?


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This is yet another topic on simplified vs. traditional but with a focus on education of children outside of China. I'll start with this article from the Los Angeles Times back in 2009:

"Schools a battleground over dueling Chinese scripts: Decisions over teaching the simplified characters used in mainland China versus the traditional ones used in Taiwan stir passions among parents over politics and cultural pride."


My own experience has been a couple of community college Mandarin classes I took years ago. The community college taught traditional Chinese characters. I told my teachers that I was planning to use my Mandarin in China so they gave me the option to write in simplified characters but I had to know how to read traditional characters for tests (I think only a few students chose this option). This worked out fine for me because the textbooks I used all had both forms.

What are your thoughts about how Mandarin Chinese should be taught with respect to simplified vs. traditional characters? Should schools focus on one or teach both? What are some methods that work / don't work? If you have kids and are planning to put your kids through Chinese classes, how would the schools' decision to use either of these character sets affect your decision?

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IMO, traditional characters are so beautiful - they mean more to me than simplified ones. And literally, i mean traditional characters contain more meanings for the words than those contained in simplified characters.

I'm not quite sure the exact initial intention of changing the traditional to simplified by the authority (if u know what i mean). But my own learning background is like you - learning reading and writing in simplified forms but I need to read in traditional forms.

If I have kids, I might ask them to do the same - be able to read both, and much more better to write in traditional as well (if they're not too stubborn - guess i have to be a 'tiger' parent to make it possible :wink: ).

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What most people call Traditional Chinese contains fewer newly created characters or newly performed substitutions (i.e. wrong characters), which makes it less irritating to read for me, and if I'm forced to write it, I won't have too much of a problem with it. But if one aims for practicality, it's better to teach the character set that the students are more likely to use.

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What most people call Traditional Chinese contains fewer newly created characters or newly performed substitutions (i.e. wrong characters), which makes it less irritating to read for me

So what is even less irritating? 甲骨文?

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I can see how many parents would get very emotional about this -- especially being outside China, this is effectively defining the cultural heritage their kids learn.

Personally, I guess I've mellowed out, but right now I couldn't care less about simplified vs traditional. In the past I've had fairly strong anti-simplified feelings, but now I've come to some level of acceptance about them both, and now it's just along the lines of "sigh, a bit more to learn....".

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When I studied Mandarin in college, they started us on traditional characters the first semester then switched us to simplfied for the second. This was probably deliberate since I had the same teacher both semesters. In retrospect, this didn't seem to make much difference. The class was fricking hard either way!

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reminds me of American spelling vs British spelling, which one would you start with?

if time permits, learn both in terms of reading...for writing pick one. I think of simplified characters as an evolution of the original language, there is value in both.

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Some more of my thoughts:

1. In my view, anyone learning Chinese should be exposed to both character sets. To say that one has learned Chinese but to completely ignore the other character set is almost ridiculous in this day and age.

I think new learners of Chinese and those who have not traveled to Greater China are probably the most misled by this debate. For you advanced or nearly fluent learners, would you be embarrassed if you landed in Taiwan / Hong Kong or China and had to explain to someone that you're going to have a tough time reading some signs / documents because the character set there was not the one you learned? Or you walk into a Chinese restaurant in the USA and don't understand the menu? Or you're at a KTV and can't read the text to a song that you've heard on the radio? (I know I am exaggerating here because these days, anyone who's at the advanced level will at least be able to guess many of the characters of the other set even if they have not been exposed to them formally).

From my view, neither simplified nor traditional are going away anytime soon. And with the Internet now enabling people to view the websites of various regions and connecting people from different parts of the world, it's become even more important for learners to be able to read both. In the article link I sent, both the school's decision to "disqualify simplified answers on homework and exams" and Lim's assertion that "traditional is going to be obsolete" are wrong. Clearly, neither of them are understanding the character usage on a global level.

2. Choose learning materials that have both character sets.

In terms of textbooks that I have used / are using, all of them have both character sets except for the old PCR books which I sort of like. So I think textbook wise, there are a lot of choices out there for learners to pick up both while they are learning. When one is learning native material, it's important to be diligent and read material from both sets. The internet has certainly made that easier. I would say to the parents who are putting their kids in Chinese school to really open up and expose your kids to both. For example:

Have them read this:


As well as these:



Don't let politics get in the way and explain to them that they are learning to be better prepared to understand and communicate Chinese in a more connected world.

3. My thoughts on the simplified and traditional character sets

First of all, if you are totally against simplification, then there's no point to discuss because you'll always find a reason to support your side. Second, I think most of us can agree that simplified is easier to write by hand. So I don't want to get into that discussion. That said, here are my thoughts:

a. I am ok with simplification of radicals - For example "飯" -> "饭" or "語" -> "语", etc. I know there are other examples that stray from this rule but in general if there is an agreement that everytime you see a particular radical to use the simplified version, then I'm fine with it. I don't see why you need to squish several characters together just to make up a new character. Text space is limited and making things easier to read is not a bad thing.

b. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - To be honest, I think the "beautiful" arguement is really subjective. Those who claim that traditional is more beautiful always gives the "龍" example which I agree with. However, there are plenty of other characters that can go either way. Sometimes it also depends on how big (physical size) the character is. If I am looking at a really small font, I tend to like the simplified but if I want to fill a scroll on a wall with a few characters, I might choose the traditional.

c. Many to one simplification can be a problem - One of the things I like about most traditional characters is that you know what the word is by looking at the character. For example. I know that 麵 means noodles immediately as opposed to seeing only 面 without any context. In traditional, I know that "后" means queen and "後" means back/after/later. I think this works well for 文言文 which people don't really use anymore. But I've always been struck by how few Chinese characters are needed to express something that in English that might require a much longer sentence.

d. Removing components outright is too hard to agree on - If everyone can agree on removing a component of a character without loosing the meaning, then I'm ok with it. However, it's hard for everyone to agree in many cases. The best example is "爱" and "愛". I would not have removed heart from love and replaced it with friend.

Finally, those are just my opinions, based on my limited knowledge of Chinese. I'm learning both anyways.

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When I took a Chinese class in college we had to learn to read both types and we had to be able to write one type of our choosing. I chose simplified. I've now been living in mainland China for two years and have not had any use for traditional characters. In fact I've forgotten pretty much every traditional character from the class. Unless you have distinct plans to go to Taiwan rather than the mainland, IMO it's better to learn simplified characters.

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In fact I've forgotten pretty much every traditional character from the class.

You should try to read some traditional text just to refresh your memory. I mean if you ever travel to Hong Kong or go to a Chinese restaurant in the USA, you'd have to read traditional Chinese also (sure, you can get by perfectly fine with English also). Sometimes, you just never know when you'll need to use one or the other.

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Unless you have distinct plans to go to Taiwan rather than the mainland, IMO it's better to learn simplified characters.

I was not aware that Taiwan was the only place one might encounter traditional characters. Maybe I should have rounded up all the books that use traditional characters in the university library back home and brought them with me when I moved here so they'd be back in their rightful place. I'm sure the grad students would miss their copies of 四庫全書, but it's for the best.

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