Blog

Are Chinese people forgetting how to write?

By on May 19, 2010

When foreigners learn Chinese, they often struggle getting to grips with writing the characters. There are around 50,000 characters in modern written Chinese, but in order to be considered literate, an adult needs to know only 3,000-4,000 (a 1,000-2,000 character vocabulary would allow you to comfortably read a Chinese newspaper).

However, more and more Chinese citizens feel they are losing the ability to write by hand, and many are signing up for exams to try and combat this.

The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – literally Mandarin level exam) test was originally aimed at foreigners learning Chinese, but was introduced for Chinese nationals in several cities and provinces in 2007. Because so many people use computers in their work and hardly ever pick up a pen, their written literacy skills are in decline – this is true all over the world, not just in China.

When typing Chinese characters rather than writing them by hand, a person types the sound of the character (a bit like spelling a word out) then the computer suggests possible characters for that sound from which they choose the appropriate one:

It’s a bit like multiple choice, whereas if you were writing the same word by hand, you would have to think of the character yourself.

The Shanghai Language Commission conducted a survey among university students, which found that while many know what the characters should look like, they are unable to handwrite them.

A very similar thing is happening with English usage online – setting aside the international variations in spelling, we are seeing more and more instances of incorrect spelling in all types of published text. People just aren’t sure how words should be written anymore, and the auto-correct spelling functions built in to computers can often send us down the wrong path.
Perhaps the future will see more relaxed rules around spelling – take this example which has been doing the rounds on email and social networking sites over the last couple of years:
Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Are grammar and spelling still as important as they once were? What is your first thought when you see a typo or spelling mistake? Is handwriting becoming a dying art?
Let us know what you think.

COMMENTS

Around September 2003, an email magsese ran like wlid-frie round the world, within days running into the hundreds and thousands. Bloggers sprouted like moorshums. Surfers googled into ‘Elingsh uinervtisy’ and newspaper columns ran hot. Around September 2003, an email magsese ran like wlid-frie round the world, within days running into the hundreds and thousands. Bloggers sprouted like moorshums. Surfers googled into ‘Elingsh uinervtisy’ and newspaper columns ran hot. In Germany a Brazilian complained that ‘In 9 days time i got this 3 times in the english version, 5 times in the portuguese version, 10 times in the german version and wunse eeven in icelandic… ‘
Erveyone was ectexid because it looked as if it did not matter how you spelled. All you needed to do was get right the first and last letters in a word.
The praparagh was interpreted to show that words were read as whole word-shapes, and you could fill i the middle however you liked. We dont need to learn spelling after all! You might even be able to work out most of the message leaving out all the scrambled letters, if you are given the one clue of ‘LETTERS’.
“A——–g to a r———r at an E—–h u——–y, it d—n’t m—–r in w–t o—r the letters s in a w–d are, the o–y i——–t t—g is t–t f—t and l–t l—-r is at the r—-t p—e. “
Even the Third Leader of The Times exulted, 23.9.2003:
Taht ptus piad to the shcool oof thuoght that we raed lteter
by letetr. It sgugests insetad taht our barins pratcise a mroe
sophistciated from of ptatern recogintion with wrods,
maknig it poitnless to work too hrad at odrering eevry letetr
crroectly. . . is wlill . . strike trreor into the haerts of eidtors aruond
the ltierary wolrd, whsoe wroking lfie has been sepnt leraning
the pianful task of idnetifying the rgoue typo or the senaky speling erorr
and shwoing the dveiants noo mrecy.What does the ftuure hlod for these domoed suols, if splleing has smiply sotpped mattenirg?

But stop. Pause. Anything about spelling is not as simple as that.
Good readers are only slowed down a little – and they are slowed down – in reading the sacrembld spillneg because they are good readers, and in playing Scrabble they can reassemble letters in their minds to make words, just like computers – who do not go by word-shape – reassemble the letters of your typos to tell you what word you really meant. Good readers can use context to help guess words, aided by the give-away little words like to a, at an, it, in, the, in a, we do not, and the contribution of word-shape is basically though length, and nice ups and down, ascenders and descenders.
IT IS HARDER TO READ A BLOCK OF TEXT IN ALL CAPS? IT’S BECAUSE WORDS LOOK LIKE BLOCKS . An emailer added that Try this in block letters, posted by Brian Dear:

or this, from Daphne in Singapore:

or this, leaving out the spaces between words, as many early alphabetic scripts used to do:

If reading relied heavily on shape information, we would have problems reading in different fonts, cursives and scripts. My computer’s Spell Checker doesnt read by word shape, but it could read all the sixty-nine words in the famous scrambld text, except for eight – RSCHEEARCH ELINGSH UINERVTISY IPRMOETNT PCLAE WOUTHIT BCUSEAE ERVEY. My Spell Checker is not a Whole-Word reader either, and it doesnt guess the words by context.
Scrabble and anagram players and computers use an automatic two-stage process to compute what dictionary words a set of letters most resemble. First, ll the letters are taken on board, and then, secondly, the letters are sorted out into order. All sorts of mental strategies at different levels combine to do the ordering, and guessing is only one of them. Writers also work on a several-stage process. When they go so fast and their fingers are faster than their brains, typos can result – not just finger-lsips on the keys, but the spelling may be trasnposed, or the sounds of the spoken words may get in to give the orders before the harder-learned dictates of the dictionary have got their act together. It is a little the same with thinking, when the ideas come, and then have to be sorted out with the ‘correct’ grammar to communicate them. James Joyce realised this in Ulysses. The stream of consciousness is not that good at thinking straight and what it bears has to be got into some sort of order to be much use to anyone else except as vers libre.
Very fast skilled readers can work out jumbled spelling because they are masters of strategies and steps. They also notice misprints, which can jump out at them from the page while they are intent on ‘reading for meaning’. Poorer readers cannot do this.. Very poor readers cannot even read normal spelling. Leading researchers such as Usha Goswami in The Psychologist, September 2003, .are now recognising that the main problem for our dyslexics and illiterates is their trouble with the spelling task.
Poor readers take less on board, and so they have to guess more because they have fewer clues. They are the real real evidence for the popular Reading Theory that readers make their own constructions of text rather than getting the meanings that the author intends. The best readers manage to get the author’s meaning because they have to guess less.
But some sorts of scrambling are harder to read than others, for example, when when word-like syllables lay false trails about possible words:

Again, if the scrambled words in the message are all listed separately like anagrams, longer words particularly become harder with no clues of other easy words or sentence structure. Contrast WAHT OLNY RSCHEEARR IPRMOETNT and LGNISIUCTIS. John J Reilly has wondered whether anagrams are as easy to work out in other languages as they are in English. He rather doubts it –
Other mangling word games include the school fad of ‘cloze’, cutting out words in text. If one word in every five is cut from a story, then children who can guess the missing words must be reading with comprehension. ‘He went to his h – e.’ (Now you know why many children read ‘house’ and ‘home’ interchangeably.) However, once the text gets harder than ‘Mary Mary quite contrary’, the strategy of guessing can be risky or even impossible. Try ‘cloze’ with Shakespeare or a scientific journal or anything you dont know much about.
Subeditors put the wrong headings on articles and letters when they guess hastily what writers should have written, in their opinion, rather than read accurately what they did.’Guess-reading’ also helps to explain why six people can read the same article on a contentious subject, and all get different ideas about what has been said.

Erveyone was ectexid because it looked as if it did not matter how you spelled. All you needed to do was get right the first and last letters in a word.
This fiery cross of the emails generally looked like this: –
RDIAENG
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearr at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe. Sdnous lkie smoe lgnisiuctis gard sdnetut has jsut been hdnaed a gaert tihses tpioc. ceehiro.”

The praparagh was interpreted to show that words were read as whole word-shapes, and you could fill i the middle however you liked. We dont need to learn spelling after all! You might even be able to work out most of the message leaving out all the scrambled letters, if you are given the one clue of ‘LETTERS’.
“A——–g to a r———r at an E—–h u——–y, it d—n’t m—–r in w–t o—r the letters s in a w–d are, the o–y i——–t t—g is t–t f—t and l–t l—-r is at the r—-t p—e. “
Even the Third Leader of The Times exulted, 23.9.2003:
Taht ptus piad to the shcool oof thuoght that we raed lteter
by letetr. It sgugests insetad taht our barins pratcise a mroe
sophistciated from of ptatern recogintion with wrods,
maknig it poitnless to work too hrad at odrering eevry letetr
crroectly. . . is wlill . . strike trreor into the haerts of eidtors aruond
the ltierary wolrd, whsoe wroking lfie has been sepnt leraning
the pianful task of idnetifying the rgoue typo or the senaky speling erorr
and shwoing the dveiants noo mrecy.What does the ftuure hlod for these domoed suols, if splleing has smiply sotpped mattenirg?

But stop. Pause. Anything about spelling is not as simple as that.
Good readers are only slowed down a little – and they are slowed down – in reading the sacrembld spillneg because they are good readers, and in playing Scrabble they can reassemble letters in their minds to make words, just like computers – who do not go by word-shape – reassemble the letters of your typos to tell you what word you really meant. Good readers can use context to help guess words, aided by the give-away little words like to a, at an, it, in, the, in a, we do not, and the contribution of word-shape is basically though length, and nice ups and down, ascenders and descenders.
IT IS HARDER TO READ A BLOCK OF TEXT IN ALL CAPS? IT’S BECAUSE WORDS LOOK LIKE BLOCKS . An emailer added that Try this in block letters, posted by Brian Dear:

or this, from Daphne in Singapore:

or this, leaving out the spaces between words, as many early alphabetic scripts used to do:

If reading relied heavily on shape information, we would have problems reading in different fonts, cursives and scripts. My computer’s Spell Checker doesnt read by word shape, but it could read all the sixty-nine words in the famous scrambld text, except for eight – RSCHEEARCH ELINGSH UINERVTISY IPRMOETNT PCLAE WOUTHIT BCUSEAE ERVEY. My Spell Checker is not a Whole-Word reader either, and it doesnt guess the words by context.
Scrabble and anagram players and computers use an automatic two-stage process to compute what dictionary words a set of letters most resemble. First, ll the letters are taken on board, and then, secondly, the letters are sorted out into order. All sorts of mental strategies at different levels combine to do the ordering, and guessing is only one of them. Writers also work on a several-stage process. When they go so fast and their fingers are faster than their brains, typos can result – not just finger-lsips on the keys, but the spelling may be trasnposed, or the sounds of the spoken words may get in to give the orders before the harder-learned dictates of the dictionary have got their act together. It is a little the same with thinking, when the ideas come, and then have to be sorted out with the ‘correct’ grammar to communicate them. James Joyce realised this in Ulysses. The stream of consciousness is not that good at thinking straight and what it bears has to be got into some sort of order to be much use to anyone else except as vers libre.
Very fast skilled readers can work out jumbled spelling because they are masters of strategies and steps. They also notice misprints, which can jump out at them from the page while they are intent on ‘reading for meaning’. Poorer readers cannot do this.. Very poor readers cannot even read normal spelling. Leading researchers such as Usha Goswami in The Psychologist, September 2003, .are now recognising that the main problem for our dyslexics and illiterates is their trouble with the spelling task.
Poor readers take less on board, and so they have to guess more because they have fewer clues. They are the real real evidence for the popular Reading Theory that readers make their own constructions of text rather than getting the meanings that the author intends. The best readers manage to get the author’s meaning because they have to guess less.
But some sorts of scrambling are harder to read than others, for example, when when word-like syllables lay false trails about possible words:

Again, if the scrambled words in the message are all listed separately like anagrams, longer words particularly become harder with no clues of other easy words or sentence structure. Contrast WAHT OLNY RSCHEEARR IPRMOETNT and LGNISIUCTIS. John J Reilly has wondered whether anagrams are as easy to work out in other languages as they are in English. He rather doubts it –
Other mangling word games include the school fad of ‘cloze’, cutting out words in text. If one word in every five is cut from a story, then children who can guess the missing words must be reading with comprehension. ‘He went to his h – e.’ (Now you know why many children read ‘house’ and ‘home’ interchangeably.) However, once the text gets harder than ‘Mary Mary quite contrary’, the strategy of guessing can be risky or even impossible. Try ‘cloze’ with Shakespeare or a scientific journal or anything you dont know much about.
Subeditors put the wrong headings on articles and letters when they guess hastily what writers should have written, in their opinion, rather than read accurately what they did.’Guess-reading’ also helps to explain why six people can read the same article on a contentious subject, and all get different ideas about what has been said.


valerie yule on May 22, 2010 at 7:25 am

Hello, superb article.


Pretty Sarah on Jul 16, 2010 at 3:42 am

Get in touch

How can we help?


By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies. For more information, read our Privacy Policy

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close