Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Missing the Mark

Learning Chinese characters the old school way -- stroke by stroke
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has a new game show called Chinese Characters Dictation Competition, where 32 teams of secondary school students from across the country, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have to write Chinese characters out.

However what's even more interesting is that the audience is tested too. And it was found that 70 percent of the adults in the audience could not write the characters for "toad" correctly.

In the past two episodes, more than half the adults randomly selected in the audience could not write even common words such as "thick".

The poor results have reignited fears the Chinese are losing knowledge of the written language thanks to the use of computers and mobile devices.

In May, Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group conducted a survey and found that 94 percent of respondents in 12 mainland cities could not correctly write a character they thought they knew.

Twenty-five percent of them repeatedly had problems remembering how to write other characters during the interview.

In previous generations, children had to learn characters through the rote system, writing them over and over again. But now on the mainland, they use pinyin to "spell out" a word and then several Chinese character options pop up and they just pick the one they want. Admittedly I'm one of those people who rely on pinyin too, though at an intermediate level.

As a result, the sound of the word has become more important than how to write the character, which also gives the etymology of the word. As a result mainland school children are falling behind not only in their reading ability but writing too.

"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," concluded a paper published in January in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It found nearly one-third of 5,000 mainland primary school students of normal intelligence were found to be two grades behind the expected reading level of examination standards.

Teacher Ma Long at the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School, said he and other Chinese teachers also saw this weakness in students.

"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 hand," he said. Ma added students seemed more keen to learn foreign languages than Chinese.

Hao Mingjian, editor-in-chief of the Yao Wen Jiao Zi magazine about Chinese characters believed schools were putting less effort into teaching characters, and at the same time there were fewer opportunities to write out characters, than typing them out.

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

Perhaps the shameful results by the adult audience in Chinese Characters Dictation Competition will inspire them to brush up their character knowledge. Surely national pride is at stake, no?


  1. This is a really interesting byproduct of modern technology - I've heard people in the West say that their handwriting is getting worse but I never thought of it in relation to Chinese before. And they have to spend so long learning to write in the first place, it really does seem like a shame but it's possibly an inevitability.

  2. HI littlekoo... when I lived in Beijing, I told my colleagues I was interested in learning calligraphy and asked them to recommend a teacher, but they all said they hated that class and admitted they did horribly in it too!