The Chinese are losing their ability to write Chinese.

Posted: December 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

This is not a post bashing the Chinese and saying they are losing their culture. Or maybe it is? Depends on how you take it.

My Dad has been complaining that he is forced to write in English whenever he uses a piece of technology: computers or text-messaging by phone.  He wants to write in his native Chinese so that he can express himself more eloquently and to make it easier for communicating with Mainland Chinese.  As a Hong Kong-born Chinese, he never learned Pin Yin, and only knows Traditional characters.  So he’s elected to learn the input-sequence known as “Jiu Fang” or “Gow Fong” or “Nine Squares”.  Its an older system of chinese word-processing that is stroke-based instead of phonetics-based Pin Yin.  They still use the keyboard we are familiar with, but each button represents a different action.  The majority of overseas Chinese who write Traditional characters are still on this system.

I was explaining to my dad that Mainland Chinese today use PinYin in all their Chinese word processing, from emails to text messaging.  I also related to him how a large majority of my friends are so used to writing Chinese on a keyboard using the Pin Yin system, that it has become challenging for them to pick up a pen and begin writing script chinese characters.  Most savvy Chinese today type as fast as they think, with their fingers stabbing a sequence of buttons on a keyboard without having to think about the phonetics involved in building the pin yin for that character.  Much like how we type in English.

The interesting thing is that while both English and Chinese are using the same QWERTY keyboard, and both are writing primarily from muscle memory, English writers can actually see each button they press become a letter on the screen.  Not so for the Chinese.  A sequence of muscle-memorized punches equals each character.  To me, it is mind-boggling how the mind can process and adapt like that.

To take the boggle-ness a step further, throw in predictive text.  The Pin Yin word processing system has integrated within it a predictive text function, so a person keyboarding Chinese doesn’t even have to finish the sequence of the character to get what he/she wants.  Then add on top of that predictive phrasing.  Just the first few key punches of each character sequence and you have an entire sentence without actually completing even one full character’s sequence.  It really is miraculous watching a person speed-typing Chinese.  We have something kind of like this in English with predictive texting on phones.  My thumb moves over that little number pad at such speed that often people on the other end think I’m messaging them with a Blackberry.

But imagine if us writing the English language were encouraged to type only with predictive-text number pads because it was more efficient, or because we never invented the QWERTY keyboard? What if we were only taught the number-board method from the beginning? Would we be able to actually pick up a pen and physically write English today?

Sure, we would be able to read English. But I think you’ll agree that in general the level of penmanship in our younger generations has deteriorated as a result of earlier and earlier adoption of the keyboard.

The same is happening with the Chinese, except for them, they are adopting to a predictive text, predictive phrase, phonetic, pin yin system to write simplified chinese characters.  As China continues to develop and gain in wealth, Chinese word processing on a keyboard is being introduced into the classroom earlier and earlier.  I would be very interested to see how the next generation of Chinese youth do if asked to produce a hand-written piece of Chinese writing.  How will their minds reverse-engineer the few buttons on the keyboard they would normally press, back into actual pen strokes to form a scripted character? The next generation of English writers who are also used to the keyboard may find it easier because 1) we can phonetically sound out the spelling of each word and 2) we only have 26 letters to remember and choose from.  The Chinese language has thousands of characters to remember.

The act of hand-writing Chinese (and English for that matter too) will be relegated to a mere hobby, or folk-art.

Some questions that arise at this junction are:

a) What other languages/peoples are experiencing the same phenomenon?

b) What are the implications of this change? Is it a good thing or bad?

c) Are there business opportunities found in this situation?