i applaud dr lee wei ling for her article today in ST “Chinese: Easy to read, hard to write”. the title actually does not reflect fully the rich content within the article. for example, she introduced several key features of Chinese characters:
“a very common misconception about Chinese characters should be dispelled: They are not pictograms. They evolved to become logograms many centuries ago. A logogram is like the McDonald’s sign: it does not look like a burger, but it represents that concept”
“Most characters are made up of radicals, usually two radicals. One, termed the xingpang, indicates the category to which the character belongs … The second radical is the yinpang, the phonological radical. It hints at how the character is to be pronounced … There is a set of rules to determine the location of each radical in the character. The … xingpang are always on the left; the vegetation radical is always at the top of the character. The location of the yinpang is less strictly determined.”
“Chinese has many homophones. In addition, Mandarin has four tones … The tones are not usually represented in hanyu pinyin. Hence for each input of hanyu pinyin we make on a word processor, we can be presented with many possible characters. For example ‘jing’ has 41 characters corresponding to it with widely varying meanings.”
on comprehending chinese (text):
“A knowledge of a fairly limited number of characters can help us accurately guess the meaning of the words formed by a number of characters … So if a student of Chinese learns 1,500 to 2,000 characters, he can easily read a Chinese newspaper … The current Chinese curriculum in Singapore requires a Primary 6 student to know 1,500 to 2,000 characters.”
“Sometimes, a reader may be able to understand what he reads even if he cannot pronounce some of the component characters. … When I encounter a simplified character I do not know, I can guess its meaning from the context of the entire sentence.”
and sharing some of her research findings:
“I have tested more than 1,000 Chinese/English bilingual students from our primary and secondary schools. The ability to read Chinese, I found, was heavily dependent on the command of spoken Chinese.”
“In my research, I found that memory for aurally presented stories is an important independent predictor of Chinese reading ability.”
“I hypothesise that reading Chinese is a bit like fuzzy logic. There are many factors contributing to the ability to read Chinese; and in different contexts, each factor would carry a different weight.”
and here’s the part that pointed out the disparity between learning and assessment:
“The irony is that students cannot use word processors in examinations and are required to write the characters. Hanyu pinyin and word processors are allowed in lessons and projects, but to be denied their use in exams makes the exams even more difficult. The Ministry of Education says it will take five or more years to revamp the Chinese curriculum. How many days does it take to change an illogical exam requirement?“
“It is obvious that the burden of learning how to write in Chinese is overwhelming for many.”
i can hear many voices out there rejecting dr lee’s idea outright, for e.g. learning to write helps to recognise the characters, knowing the characters can only truly mean one really knows the chinese language; if our students don’t learn to write, they’re going to lose the culture. and the list can go on and on …
but if we take a look at the REAL world out there, how many pple still communicate without using word processors, newspapers, email, sms, etc. personally i have not seen a major newspaper that is printed with all the articles handwritten, have you? or a magazine, a journal article, or a business contract for that matter?
word processing (aka typing) is the current thing to represent the language. i recalled seeing research that had shown that typing helped in the mastery of chinese characters, and consequently helped to up the level of chinese mastery.
writing of chinese character will become an art form, just like the existing chinese calligraphy. if we were to deny and not encourage our young to express the language through typing, it’s as good as denying ourselves, the (slightly) older generaton, the pen, and we should go back to using the brush (or feather?).
let’s see how long it takes for the change that dr lee highlighted to take place. this would mean propelling 1-1 computing forward. and if that’s the case, learning of all subjects, not just CL, can potentially benefit from it (: