Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Vindication for the Chinese character system?

The Chinese writing system, with its tens of thousands of characters, is not easy to learn, to say the least. Unlike with nearly every other written language on earth, every character (and most words only contain one or two characters) must be learned individually, and having an excellent knowledge of the language does not mean you will know how to pronounce an obscure word. Literacy rates fluctuate more with age than in other countries, since you have to continuously read in order to be able to read, and continuously write (not just read!) to know how to write. In the era of keyboard-based input, this has created an even bigger handicap for the Chinese writing system: since characters are usually inputted using pinyin, people who type a lot begin to lose the ability to write. Jennifer 8. Lee (8?) of the NYT and Victor H. Mair at UPenn have documented this trend. Prof. Mair sums the dilemma that the Chinese language has with keyboard-based input systems as such:

Such competitors (computers, BlackBerries, and so on) pose far less of a threat to alphabetic scripts than to the characters for the following reasons:
  1. Alphabetic scripts require a far smaller initial investment and a fraction of the effort for maintenance.
  2. Many of the electronic devices mentioned above actually reinforce or improve writing in alphabetical scripts (spell checkers, grammar checkers, and so on [e-mail style, of course, is another matter altogether] — there are no comparable tools for Chinese).
  3. When one forgets how to write a character, one is usually stymied for that particular morpheme, whereas misspelling a word generally presents no obstacle to expression or understanding.

That was written in early 2007, before the era of the iPhone, so the author used BackBerry instead of iPhone. Though the English-language iPhone still utilizes a keyboard, the keyboard is virtual, and the input system is a touch-screen. This is a lot more amenable to inputting Chinese characters in, and Apple itself has slipped Chinese character support into a beta version of its iPhone OS. But unlike most computers which use pinyin or some other input system which doesn't rely on the shape of the characters, the iPhone version allows users to draw the characters onto the screen. Apple also has a few patents (like this one) on touchscreen devices, and some analysts predict that Apple will create a "sprawling mega-platform" around the technology.

If this indeed does catch on, and writing in characters isn't already a lost cause, could touchscreen technology be the savior of the Chinese character system?

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