Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Don't get rid of Chinese characters!

... but do get rid of learning to write all of them, especially by rote!

I came across this article by Victor Mair twice this week, once when checking the context for a Volokh Conspiracy post which my father sent to me, and then again when it was posted in a WeChat group for alumni of my college in Asia. In both cases, Mair's post was being used to postulate that Chinese characters may be outmoded, an argument spelled out by Geoffrey Pullum here.

I disagree with this conclusion. Speaking as a second language learner of Chinese, I never bothered to learn the writing of the characters. I agree that starting from Pinyin and learning to read first is optimal, and could almost certainly be employed to decrease the amount of drudgery for first-language learners of acquiring the written language. However, I personally would hate to see people not learning characters at all, since I find them beautiful and fascinating; they were and continue to be the largest source of my interest in learning Chinese in the first place.

The Chinese equivalent of "antidisestablishmentarianism"

Pullum says that Chinese has a "horror-show of a writing system". I could not disagree more strongly. Compare Chinese to Esperanto. The latter is easy to learn and would be a great world language (though as another post of Pullum's makes clear, linguae francae are chosen by political and not linguistic considerations).1 But as lovers of language, we must consider more than mere utility! While it would be wonderful if everyone in the world learned Esperanto, it would be tragic if we all stopped speaking other languages. Variety is the spice of life, and complexity can be beautiful. I'm sure Pullum has studied and appreciated Shakespearean or even Chaucerian English, despite its difficulty. I would suggest that he give Chinese a try. It amazes me that the elegant and beautiful Chinese written system is actually used as an everyday medium of communication. Every Chinese character has a history. For many of us, learning their histories becomes a wonderful addiction.

There are lots of methods to make learning to read Chinese easier. I posted my top 3 dictionaries here. Using them to learn the etymologies of characters instead of just memorizing, and then using spaced repetition software to optimize the remembering process, decreases the cognitive workload hugely. And if one does want to learn to write, Remembering Simplified Hanzi is easy and works. But in any case, both first and second language learners should always learn Pinyin and the spoken language first, and then begin to pick up character recognition and perhaps writing where necessary.

In sum, Chinese characters are hard, but hard things are sometimes worth mastering. Learning to write Chinese characters by rote is an inefficient method which makes literacy much harder than it needs to be. But learning to read them at all is not as difficult, and in my opinion is extremely worthwhile.

1 However, Pullum's assertion that "Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will." seems hasty. Is he ignoring China's increasing political strength? I was amazed in my first trip to Cambodia to find Chinese characters all over - due of course to Chinese investment and settlement there - and I don't think it's impossible that Chinese could replace English as a lingua franca in Southeast Asia a decade or two from now.


Pullum was kind enough to respond to my post by email. His response:

The first comment I would make is that I didn't say "Don't learn to read Chinese." People should look at my opening paragraph. I was addressing the question of whether the writing system is, on its own, sufficient to guarantee that (written) Chinese will never become a world lingua franca. It's too hard and too complex, in numerous ways.

I returned to that at the end: English spelling sucks, and it hardly deserves the good luck that made it a lingua franca anyway. But Chinese (I claim) could never pass the physical. My bet is that it will never become a medium of international communication outside the half-dozen Chinese-speaking regions of the world.

Again, I'm not saying don't learn it, and I'm not saying it doesn't have its special beauty and ingenuity, and I'm not trying to downplay the artistic character of calligraphy. I'm certainly not saying anyone will get rid of it: it will stick around and will see both of us retire and die. Don't overinterpret me.


And my reply:

Thanks for the response! I certainly agree that the writing system won't go away anytime soon. And you may be right that its difficulty will prevent written Chinese from becoming an international lingua franca. My point was to say that calling it "awful" or a "horror-show", based purely on utilitarian concerns, overlooks the elements in its favor.



  1. I totally agree on the fact that learning characters by rote is the best way to forget them quickly. I think the learners should start learning characters according to their learning goal and to their level. You might be interested by this post >>

  2. Hmmm... I thot the Communists
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    supposed to bowNscrape to everythn.
    Tell me if Im WONG.