Command of written Chinese declines in digital era

Many Chinese resort to pinyin, or romanised Putonghua, when using a keyboard but their grasp of the written language is weakening as a result

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 3:39am

A popular spelling competition run on state broadcaster CCTV has reinforced fears Chinese are losing their grasp of their own written language - thanks, it appears, to computer and mobile device keyboards.

Seventy per cent of adults in the audience of Chinese Characters Dictation Competition have been unable to write, by hand, the characters for the word "toad" correctly .

The series, the first of its kind on national television, retriggered alarm among many Chinese about their growing difficulty in reading and writing their language in the keyboard era.

The programme, supposedly launched with a mission to resolve the Chinese character "crisis", was an instant hit when it was launched on CCTV this month. Altogether, 32 teams of middle-school pupils from across the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are taking part in the competition, with the winner to be decided in October.

During the past two episodes, less than half of the adults randomly selected from the audience could write correctly such commonly used characters for the word "thick".

Evidence of declining competence in written Chinese has emerged in several studies. In May, a survey by the Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group found that 94 per cent of respondents in 12 mainland cities could not write correctly a character they assumed they knew.

A quarter of the respondents encountered the same problem several times in the interview.

Chinese has one of the most complicated systems of writing in the world, and requires knowledge of several thousand characters for an adequate level of literacy.

The pictorial forms are notoriously difficult to learn, requiring years of repeated handwriting. In the 1950s, the mainland began simplifying many commonly used characters to help improve literacy, although the traditional forms remain in use Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. At about the same time, the phonetic pinyin system of romanised Putonghua was introduced.

Today's computers and mobile devices offer many ways to input Chinese characters, or hanzi. Some allow characters to be physically written using a stylus or finger. The most popular, however, involved typing pinyin and choosing the appropriate character from a list of others with the same pronunciation.

It is believed that the convenience of this system, which requires only knowledge of a word's sound, is eroding people's memory of certain characters, especially the more complicated or less commonly used. Like everywhere else, Chinese are falling out of the habit of writing with pen (or brush) and paper.

Another study finds that mainland schoolchildren are slipping behind in their reading ability, which it attributes to writing pinyin on devices.

In a paper published in January in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, nearly a third of 5,000 mainland primary school pupils of normal intelligence were found to be two grades behind the expected reading level of examination standards. The test, conducted on grade three to five pupils in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Jining in Shandong province found that typing pinyin on electronic devices hindered children's reading development.

"The Chinese language has survived the technological challenges of the digital era, but the benefits of communicating digitally may come with a cost in proficient learning of written Chinese", it concludes.

Ma Long , a Chinese language teacher at the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School, said he and many other Chinese teachers at his school shared the problem.

"You know what a character means and how to read it, and it seems that you also know what it looks like, but you just can't write it with your own hand," Ma said .

He said that at many schools today, not just in his, students tended to attach more importance to the learning of foreign languages than Chinese.

Hao Mingjian , editor-in-chief of the Yao Wen Jiao Zi magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to Chinese characters, said the deterioration of written Chinese had become more serious.

On the one hand, he said, schools were putting less effort into teaching characters while, on the other, there were fewer opportunities for handwriting in the digital age.

"It's also a reflection that we read too little - not those fragmented texts from the Web - but serious works in books," he said.