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Taibei

DeFrancis article on Chinese writing reform

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Taibei

John DeFrancis, the author of such important works as The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy and Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, has just published a new article: The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform.

Those with fast Internet connections may wish to view the PDF version (2.4 MB) instead.

This is the first Web-only release from Sino-Platonic Papers.

I encourage everyone to read this.

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self-taught-mba

Wonderful!!!

One of my favorite authors, along with David Moser (of course).

One of the things that I have brought attention to those Chinese that say I HAVE to learn characters, but whom also love Mao.

Mao said and the article quotes:

Mao told the American journalist Edgar Snow:

In order to hasten the liquidation of illiteracy here we have begun

experimenting with Hsin Wen Tzu—Latinized Chinese. It is now used in

our Party school, in the Red Academy, in the Red Army, and in a special

section of the Red China Daily News. We believe Latinization is a good

instrument with which to overcome illiteracy. Chinese characters are so

difficult to learn that even the best system of rudimentary characters, or

simplified teaching, does not equip the people with a really rich and

efficient vocabulary.
Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon

characters altogether
if we are to create a new social culture in which the

masses fully participate

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Craig

An interesting read i always enjoy DeFrancis's works. The part on use of mobile phones i found amusing though it seemed almost as if he was told about how most Chinese use SMSs but had not used the system himself for any extended period of time. I am curious to see if any of his predictions will come true in the near future. Although it would be a same to see the oldest used writing system be phased out in our lifetime.

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self-taught-mba
Although it would be a shame to see the oldest used writing system be phased out in our lifetime.

I agree. I am not for character abolishment--just easing up a bit when first teaching people (as the article talks about).

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wushijiao

Thanks for the link Taibei. Very interesting.

I especially like the idea that it may be better to teach kids how to read and write in pinyin and then fade in characters over time. This way, they can express their ideas and feelings in writing at the same level of competence as they can express their ideas and feelings in speaking.

Nonetheless, I draw the opposite conclusions from De Francis. Because of high-tech gadgets, it’s never been easier to “write” characters! As the price of technology decreases and as the average person gets richer, I could foresee the day in which little kids all have personal computers at school, and could type essays and report using pinyin. In that way, a 7-year-old might be able to write at a level that a 9-year-old could in the old days.

De Francis shows that typing in pinyin is becoming tremendously widespread. I agree. But I don’t think that it necessarily follows that there will be books written in pinyin, and then a general shift towards pinyinization. I think the opposite is true. A farmer who had only a few years of schooling couldn’t really write 20 years ago. Today, he/she can, using cell phones or computers. Personally, I don’t think the process of recognizing characters is all that hard, especially for people who have lived in China for a few years (i.e. Chinese people).

The biggest threat to all languages worldwide is vulgarization and a general “dumbing down”. 30 years ago, almost everything you could read on paper was first proofread by a person who would check for grammar and punctuation mistakes, and would generally improve the text. Now, due to the internet, anyone (like us:D ) can write and publish our thoughts for the masses to see. The result is that bad habits have become the norm, and formal written traditions are on the endangered species list.

The good news, however, is that everybody can express and share their opinions and thoughts. This is true for all languages, but especially so for Chinese. The difficulty of writing character by hand is no longer a barrier. I don’t think there is any contradiction in saying “pinyin wansui!” “汉字万岁!”

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Southernjohn

I have just skim-read the article so far. I was really impressed with the historical survey.

My one concern is that the author seems to have confused two different Wubi typing methods. The Wubi he very briefly describes seems to be Wubihua, but then later on he faults Wubi for taking "months to learn". It seems here he is referring to Wubizixing, which indeed requires more work to learn the keyboard layout.

Again, I have only skimmed, so perhaps I missed something.

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malinuo

I have to admit I still don't understand how Chinese children learn their characters.

There is a time, when young children have access to texts written in pinyin only or mixed pinyin and hanzi. But that time seems very limited. Let's say you are 11 years old and want to read Harry Potter or a Mickey Mouse magazine. As far as I know, there are no editions of these with pinyin? And surely the book or magazine is full of characters a 11 years old doesn't know? Does that mean that the 11 years child doesn't read it? Or do they just read the characters they happen to know, and miss most of the meaning?

A "Latin" child can always read every single word in their books, even though a few ones may have an unknown meaning. A Japanese child can always get books written with a large portion of hiragana instead of more difficult kanji. But how does the Chinese child do it?

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gato
And surely the book or magazine is full of characters a 11 years old doesn't know? Does that mean that the 11 years child doesn't read it? Or do they just read the characters they happen to know, and miss most of the meaning?

I looked into a related question before and found that a mainland student is expected to recognize 1600-1800 characters by the end of second grade and 2500 characters by the end of fourth grade nowadays. With 1600 characters and a larger oral vocabularly (which Chinese kids have but foreign learners don't), that second grader can start to read newspapers. With 2500 characters, the fourth grader would be able to read the average mass newspaper and some simpler books.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=68810#post68810

I went to elementary school in Shanghai and remember reading a newspaper and a magazine designed for young people by the time I was in second or third grade. I could read 新民晚报, the local daily, quite comfortably by the time I was in fourth. I think my peers were at about the same level since my cousin who was a grade behind me could do the same.

So how do Chinese kids learn their characters? Not that differently from foreign learners: A lot of dictionary work, copying characters to learn how to write, being surrounded by Chinese texts 24/7, etc. They also can recognize more characters than they can write.

Chinese students start learning classical Chinese in junior high school. I think the mix between classical and modern Chinese is about 50/50 by high school (in Taiwan, it's even more heavily classical Chinese). The students would see another jump in the numbers of characters they know when they start classical Chinese because it uses many characters that are no longer today used in everyday writing. By the end of high school, Chinese students are expected to know about 6000 characters.

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Quest
Let's say you are 11 years old and want to read Harry Potter or a Mickey Mouse magazine. As far as I know, there are no editions of these with pinyin? And surely the book or magazine is full of characters a 11 years old doesn't know? Does that mean that the 11 years child doesn't read it? Or do they just read the characters they happen to know, and miss most of the meaning?

An 11 year old is already in the 5th grade... I think a 5th grader can read and understand all non-technical non-classical texts. The intense character learning period is really between 1st and 3rd grades.

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malinuo
I looked into a related question before and found that a mainland student is expected to recognize 1600-1800 characters by the end of second grade and 2500 characters by the end of fourth grade nowadays.

Those numbers would explain it. So the Chinese learn more characters the first two years than Japanese children learn during their first six years. It is logical that a Chinese school teaches characters quicker, as characters are more important in Chinese than in Japanese. The only thing that surprises me, is that the difference in numbers is that big so early on.

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gato
The only thing that surprises me, is that the difference in numbers is that big so early on.

Yes, Chinese teachers and parents are slavedrivers. We had to memorize the multiplication table in first grade, too. :roll:

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yingguoguy
So the Chinese learn more characters the first two years than Japanese children learn during their first six years.

As a corollary it's worth noting how much more hanzi intensive the standard Chinese exam (HSK) is compared with the Japanese (JLPT) one.

JLPT

Level 4: 100

Level 3: 300

Level 2: 1000

Level 1: 2000

HSK

Beginner: 1600

Elementary/Intermediate: 2200

Advanced: 2900

(This is right isn't it? Lists A+B for Beginner, +C from Elem/Int and +D for advanced)

Of course it's apples and oranges, but in terms of listening and grammar the HSK Beginner is nowhere near being between Levels 2 and 1 of the JLPT.

(Actually looked at a JLPT paper yesterday, and was seriously hindered by them writing common kanji words using Hirigana. Make's my brain hurt trying to read it after studing Chinese all year.)

If I've understood it correctly the Z.T. system Moser describes would be pretty much the Kanji/Kana mix that Japan has; once children have mastered hiragana they can write anything they can think, and can add kanji as they learn them to add extra sophistication.

While most Japanese would be against abolishing kanji, as much as Chinese, it also gives them the choice of writing particularly rare or difficult characters in kana.

It's a pity that hanzi and pinyin don't fit together on the page very nicely, as I've often thought it would be easier, at least on the foreign learner, to mix new words in an alphabet, with the more common hanzi, allowing them to focus more on pronounication during the early stages of learning.

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malinuo

In defence of the Japanese student, one should perhaps point out that a Japanese kanji contains more "noise" than a Chinese hanzi. A Chinese reader doesn't have to learn several onyomi and kunyomi for every character. The phonetic elements obviously don't work in Japanese kunyomi. In addition the phonetic elements are less obvious for the student even with the onyomi. This is because there usually are several onyomi, and there may be difficulties associating for example a go-on pronunciation with a kan-on pronunciation for a different kanji with the same phonetic element.

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charlescpp

An 11 year old is already in the 5th grade... I think a 5th grader can read and understand all non-technical non-classical texts. The intense character learning period is really between 1st and 3rd grades.

an 11 years old student usually knows 1000+ characters, so he can read most novells.

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Josh-J

His conclusions are why I really wish pinyin would die. Sure I am not chinese, so no matter how much I try and learn chinese I do not have some inate connection with the language - and sure, pinyin makes learning chinese easier for pretty much everyone.

However my opinion is biased very heavily in favour of retaining characters; not for any especially logical reasons I suppose, but the idea of pinyin supplanting characters altogether is something I really don't like thinking about (but of course that means that I do think about it :wink: )

I will say that I've only so far read his conclusions, and not the rest of the article; but those conclusions do seem to make sense, and personally I do think its likely that characters will be displaced by pinyin or similar actually fairly soon (as in, a generation or something). Not that I'm an expert of course.

One thing that especially annoys me is that there are other systems (stroke based) that do not use pinyin and are obviously far more character-oriented. Not only that, but they are pretty efficient from what I've heard. And yet the vast majority of people use pinyin (since hong kong and taiwan are not exactly comparable in population to the mainland).

It would be interesting actually to see how much more efficient pinyin input would be if one did not have to choose from a list of options to get the right characters; obviously if characters were abandoned altogether this would be unnecessary. But I suppose if I don't want characters abolished I shouldn't be pointing out benefits :wink:

But it seems to me that if the IME most used in the mainland was stroke-based, the potential for replacing characters would be much smaller. Its such a shame :cry:

As a non-chinese outsider I do feel like it should be none of my business, but still I am annoyed by pinyin's growing use as an actual alternative to characters.

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djwebb2004

I know lots of Chinese people who are greatly offended by this sort of thing - foreign professors who specialize in arguing that the Chinese should abandon their writing system! As Victor someone or other argues on the pinyin.info site, the Chinese could abandon characters, but would have to change their writing style. Chengyu that depend for intelligibility on seeing which characters are used, would be out of the door. But any script reform which depends, not just on changing the script, but on enforcing a change in writing styles as well is going too far, is it not? It is straying into an area that does not really belong to the subject of script reform per se.

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djwebb2004

Another point, can anyone here read the Chinese written in the Soviet Dungan script at http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/dungan.html? This is the template for the Victor Mair/De Francis thesis, but I would argue that it is not a good advert for their cause. In the case of the word for tobacco mentioned half way down, the Dungan word "khanyan", which is 旱烟 in Chinese characters. But the Dungan dictionary has to explain the word to the Dungan readers, but saying "this khan means dry". In other words, in the end, understanding a pinyinized script in Chinese, you are still linked to characters and their meanings. The dictionary has to tell you, "this khan is 旱 and not some other han".

By the way, an article written all in pinyin in honour of John De Francis is at http://www.sino-platonic.org/pinyin_text/hanzi.pdf. This article violates the Mair/De Francis idea that Chinese could be written in pinyin **without tonemarks** just as Soviet Dungan is. If that's true, why does this PDF have tonemarks?

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self-taught-mba
This article violates the Mair/De Francis idea that Chinese could be written in pinyin **without tonemarks** just as Soviet Dungan is. If that's true, why does this PDF have tonemarks?

look at your words again:

This article violates the Mair/De Francis idea that Chinese could be written in pinyin **without tonemarks** just as Soviet Dungan is. If that's true, why does this PDF have tonemarks?"

Just b/c it could be doesn't mean that it should be. There is no "violation". And even if the article is written with tone marks does not violate a position that pinyin could be written without. Want proof?

1. When's the last time a Chinese person sends you directions or the name of a place written in pinyin in a text message. They never indicate the tones, it drives me ape ! I always have to message back and ask them what are the tones.

2. Similarly if you ask a Chinese person to write down the name for something or a random sentence, invariably the majority of them will leave out the tones. To them it is so natural. (and I fear for far too many of them, they get the tones wrong if they try. I see it all the time. Then they turn to their colleague and ask "2nd or 3rd tone?" Then a shrug and they say well I just know how to say it. And of course, b/c they had natural aquisition, where it doesn't matter what tone it is they know if it "sounds right".)

3. Finally, look at the maps and the road signs-- again no tone markers.

I personally think it should be written with the tones, but for the Chinese they really don't need it. But for poor me: I really do need it and it drives me crazy. Tones benefit us more than them and I think people look past that. And DeFrancis, Mair, and Moser for all the blame that falls them for "meddling in the Chinese peoples' language" deserve some credit for that. I think they realize the Chinese don't really need the tones, so why add that burden for them just because it benefits the foreigners.? So I think that refutes what many believe that they just want it tailored for us outsiders (who really need pinyin tone marks)

On to your second point:

Can you actually read the article? Maybe not it is Soviet Dungan not Chinese after all. It is merely presented as an example to draw "implications" from But anyone who knows Chinese can obviously read the article with the pinyin tone marks that you linked to.

but saying "this khan means dry". In other words, in the end, understanding a pinyinized script in Chinese, you are still linked to characters and their meanings.

Yes what's the problem with this? Is this no different than if you are to learn the word in Chinese orally? If you didn't know which gan1 it is you would have to ask and they would simply link it to another word that you know like da4 bian4 gan1 zao4 (constipated).

In fact listening to Chinese oral conversation you constantly have them linking to something else whenever a new word is introduced or to remove ambiguity.

And actually the same is true for some people that learn English by learning the roots of words. (Or for native speakers expanding their vocabulary) "Is the sub in submarine the same as that in subversion or substandard etc..." (very basic example but you get the point)

In fact, when I expand vocabulary for people I have taught I often use the root of words and link them in English. Really no different. The root of an English word is a piece, just like a character is a piece of a multi-character word. Having to explain the pieces by linking it to other words in which they are used is not necessarily a bad thing (either way understanding is reached) and one that I would proffer helps to reinforce previously learned words and expand vocabulary at the same time.

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atitarev

Apart from difference between Chinese and Japanese usage of kanji/hanzi, I think learning Chinese in China is more disciplined and focused on actually learning to read them as quickly as possible, there's little distraction. There is some inconsistency too, as a lot of words are often spelled both in kanji and hiragana, the latter is easier to read and write, of course but then you don't remember when it's written in kanji.

In Japan it's easy to fall back to hiragana and there is a lot of material available with a phonetical guide in hiragana - eg. comics. In China pinyin is not as popular as pure hiragana texts (or kanji and hiragana next to them) in Japan, so it's more difficult for kids and foreign learners to find such readers but as I said before, you have no choice but learn characters and you'll feel the benefit immediately.

I already took part in the language reform possibilities, I don't think it takes you anywhere. I just think it's possible but for many reasons it's very unlikely to happen. Besides, this topic seems to irritate native Chinese speakers, so I'd give it a break. :)

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self-taught-mba
I already took part in the language reform possibilities, I don't think it takes you anywhere.

Oh but I think it can. Once you realize that Chinese can be done without the characters it has vast implications for the 30 million people trying to learn the language worldwide. It dispels the myth that you must know characters (I knew about 2000 words before I first learned a single character). Not only does this make the language more accessible to current learners, it opens the door of possibility and strengthens the appeal to the rest of the people that are interested but are unwilling because they're intimidated by the characters. Thus it can possibly help to perpetuate and spread the appeal and popularity of learning Chinese by removing barriers to learning.

I just think it's possible but for many reasons it's very unlikely to happen.

I agree with this. There's too much Chinese pride attached to it. I think the important part is demonstrating what can be done and how we can take from that as learners of the language.

this topic seems to irritate native Chinese speakers, so I'd give it a break.

Yes it does irritate them. As I mentioned before just remind them that Mao wanted to eliminate the characters altogether:mrgreen:

Furthermore, why stymie academic discussion and engage in self-censorship just because they don't like it? Especially here?

I read of a professor from another country (I don't remember which but I want to say India) advocating for English reform particularly in regards to spelling. After seeing the perfection of pinyin I tend to agree. The fact of this professor was from another country does not invalidate his theory that the rules of spelling in English need to be simplified less "random" and with fewer exceptions.

If someone has made it their life's work to study a particular topic and has the qualifications, where they come from should not matter.

Have you ever met foreign professor of American history or Western culture or English for example? I guarantee they know more about it than the average American or us will ever know. Should we tell that person that they have no right to comment on Western culture or English language issues? Imagine this: "I'm sorry Professor Lee you're not American and not white, you have no place to comment or research about English language issues. I don't care if you have a Phd in English or whatever"???

To ignore one's theory and research (despite having specialized knowledge from unique qualifications) simply because of their race is the essence of racism.

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