Written Chinese (full)

Yesterday during my Chinese Language class an interesting topic came up: why do the Chinese people keep using their traditional writing system. Currently, as I’m sure almost all of you know, the Chinese use a system based on writing picture symbols (although the picture element has become extremely abstract) where each Chinese Character (called HanZi in Chinese) represents both an idea and a sound. Unlike English, Greek, Arabic or any of the other phonetic writing systems used by most of the world where each symbol represents a sound, HanZi have no inherent sound beside the one that people memorize to go with it. If you study English alphabet and pronunciation for a week, you can read almost anything ever written in English, your pronunciation might be off and you won’t understand what you’re reading, but you will be able to read it because it’s just codified pieces of sound. If you know the code, you can read it, it’s that simple, and on top of that it ties the written language and the spoken language deeply together.

In Chinese, this connection is made more difficult because with HanZi, you either know them or you don’t, and if you don’t you have almost no hope of pronouncing them. (There are a few tricks that can allow a native speaker to guess, but it’s nothing certain.) This makes learning to write Chinese infinitely more difficult than learning to write English, and creates a situation where people who study Chinese for years still cannot read a book if they haven’t been also memorizing the HanZi as they go.

And, there are over 50,000 HanZi! Of them roughly 10,000 being in common use, and roughly 3000 being essential to handling a general language text like a newspaper. This means that while growing up Chinese children are spending huge amounts of academic time just memorizing HanZi through rote memorization. And that’s just the individual HanZi, they’re usually used in combinations of 2 to 4 characters which can change the meaning completely so they also have to be memorized. Quite the feat, actually, maybe they really are smarter than us!

So, we come to my classmate’s question: “Isn’t that a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t the children and society be better served by using a phonetic writing system like English and spending that memorization time on arts, history, music, physical education, science or any number of other subjects or activities?”

The Japanese, Koreans and even the Taiwanese realized this to a degree, all of them developing phonetic writing systems to use alongside the HanZi in varying degrees. The Taiwanese just use their phonetic system as a stepping stone for children to learn first before they learn HanZi, the Japanese use a hybrid of HanZi mixed with phonetics and the Koreans do the same as the Japanese but use the least number of HanZi of all three in their writing system. Both the Japanese and Koreans are actively trying to remove the HanZi from their writing systems, but finding it difficult for the same reason the Chinese are reluctant to remove them: homonyms.

For those who slept through grammar (I know I did, and now I teach it! O_o! Ironic!) a homonym is a word that is pronounced the same as another word so they share the same sound but have different meanings. Well, these asian languages are filled with Homonyms, especially Chinese which has an almost horrific number of them. In speaking, they tell them apart by pronunciation tone and context, but in writing the only way they could come up with to tell them apart was to create separate characters to represent them.

Now, I do have to admit, HanZi are pretty useful once you get used to them, and in fact during Chinese class there are often times when I wish I was looking at the HanZi so I knew which Chinese word written in PinYin the teacher had just written on the board. While PinYin does use Tone Markers to distinguish between words with the same basic sound, I find it’s often not enough to be sure which word you are looking at since often several homonyms can also be pronounced with the same tone.

Also, HanZi, as some have pointed out, are the spirit and culture of the Chinese people. Those symbols represent a way of thinking different from western thought (so different they use the other side of the human brain when decoding them) and contain deep meanings that often go beyond simple sound. When a Chinese person reads a poem they are not just reading the sound, but looking at a piece of artwork as the HanZi are also carefully chosen to elicit certain ideas or feelings on a level beyond simple phonetic communication. Of course, through word choice an English poet can do the same thing to a degree, how big a degree I don’t know because I’m not bilingual enough to compare the two. Nor am I likely to be for a long time, thanks to the degree of difficulty in learning the HanZi system.

Newsweek and Time have both recently had cover stories questioning Does the Future Belong to China? and as someone who is sitting on China’s doorstep I have often asked myself the same question. Having a neighborly view into China’s windows I have been watching the giant carefully as it moves and deals with an exploding economy and world class status in it’s higher levels of society. I often ponder China’s future in the world, and consider where it will go from here and if it can overcome the numerous obstacles it faces.

One of those obstacles I can clearly see hindering them is their language, specifically the writing system I am talking about in this journal. As someone who has studied both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese (both touted at times to be the “language of the future”) I can’t help but notice how few people (foreigners) actually manage to stick with and learn these languages to any real degree of proficiency. Most get as far as “survival” level, and then tend to quickly give up anything more simply because it’s just too hard, and one of the major obstacles I’ve noticed kills most of their enthusiasm is learning to read and write.

If I were to study Spanish, as soon as I began to master the spoken language I could begin putting the written language to work, and the same is true for almost any other phonetic language. This would let me practice and work in that language; improving my skills even if I didn’t have a person who spoke the language to practice with. Yes, each phonetic language has it’s quirks, and sometimes languages vary in their spoken and written forms, but for the most part phonetic languages are intimately tied with their written forms. And, it’s the very discontinuity between spoken and written Mandarin (and Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean) that makes them not only hard to learn but will prevent them from becoming global languages.

When you couple this with the simple point that it’s hell to program a computer in Chinese, which means that programmers learn how to program in English, and the languages of business and science are still English, you see why Chinese learn English and not the other way around. I’m not complaining, it means more work for me, but since my classmate brought up the above point I have been thinking about this a lot. Wouldn’t the people of China be better served by creating and using a new written language based on phonetics instead of symbols? I’m not saying they should use the English system like PinYin, but even that would be better than being stuck with a language that is both impractical and in the long term limits their ability to compete on a global cultural scale.

And any language which can’t compete will eventually die off, no matter how many poor people speak it. Like a corporation, if a language is not expanding, it’s dying because another language will be expanding around it.

I know it won’t happen, but if Chinese is to be around for another 6000 years, there’s going to need to be a few changes made, because they’re not isolated anymore and they can’t afford to be sentimental if they want their culture and language to survive.

Rob