Sunday, 10 June 2007

Reading Chinese characters...

My parents made my sister and I go to Chinese Saturday/Sunday school for many years. It was useful but kinda useless at the same time. I went for 10 years between the ages of 6-16. I learnt many many characters but do not remember them because I never use Chinese on a daily basis.

It is said that you need to know approximately 3000 characters to read a Chinese newspaper. This is a fact I've known for a long time. Knowing this - I doubt I'll ever be able to read a newspaper! (unless I study like crazy and my brain explodes because I can't learn so much and remember so much at my ripe ol' age of 30 ;) ).

If I make an educated guess I think I can read about 500 characters. To put this into perspective, I cannot even read a child's book. I cannot read every word in a book made for a 5-6 year old. How sad is that?

Listening -
I can understand between 50-90% of a Chinese Mandarin conversation or a movie. If it's just two people on the street talking I can understand about 90%. If it's a news report, only about 50% because it depends largely on the topic they are talking about and the words they use.

Speaking -
I can speak Mandarin OK, that is, I can get by without any major problems. But since my English vocabulary is quite good (I think?) and I probably do know a few thousand words, it can become extremely frustrating when the word I want to say in Chinese doesn't come out. I just don't know what it is and I have to use many other words to describe that thing, feeling, whatever.

Reading -
My reading has improved greatly since coming to Shanghai. I've always noticed this when I would visit my relatives in Taiwan. If you are exposed to the characters on a daily basis you are more likely to remember them! I think I've learnt a handful of new characters I didn't know before just from seeing them time and time again (street names are a good one). However, I still long for the day I can read a newspaper, book or magazine. I am trying to learn to read signs and magazines, and amazingly can make out sentences even if I can only read about 30-80% of the characters in each sentence.

This is the hardest one of all since it requires a really good memory. Not only do you need to know how to write the character you have to do it in the correct stroke order. Yes, Chinese calligraphy is an art. It is also very useful to know the stroke order, otherwise you can't use a Chinese dictionary!

I am a very fast reader (in English). I skim read everything and can get the meaning by reading every 2nd line or every 4th word. I don't need to read every single word to get the meaning. Sometimes this gets me into trouble because I skip important words but on the whole I think I read faster than most people. I cannot look at a sign or whatever in English and not read it. I see it, I read it. However, in Chinese I can see characters and even if I know them, I don't necessarily read them. I have to actually stop and try to read it. It's weird. I asked my father who is Chinese and moved to Australia in his 30s if this was true of him but the other way around and he said it was.

He sees Chinese text and reads it and although his English is pretty good for a migrant he actually has to make an effort to read English. Although he could read something like the newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald it would take him a really long time to read one page whereas it would take me only a few minutes. He has been living in Australia for about 25 years. Just goes to show you no matter how hard to try to learn a 2nd language it's always easier going back to your first! (although technically Chinese was my first, haha).

Another aspect of this reading Chinese characters thing is that my parents are from Taiwan and I went to a Chinese school learning from Taiwanese-style textbooks. The characters we learnt were the traditional characters, ones that were 'invented' thousands of years ago.

Over the past few decades, complicated words were gradually simplified to make them easier to learn, write and remember. This is good but is also bad in that the original meaning of the word is lost (since Chinese is a pictorial language).

Taiwan and Hong Kong still use traditional characters whereas China and Singapore use the simplified characters. Luckily I learnt traditional first so it's easier to learn simplified. I learnt Simplified one time in Chinese school when I was 12 (when they taught a different method) and also when I was in university too.

I just found this interesting article

UN to drop traditional Chinese characters: report
The other day at the meeting Zhou Youguang spoke at, a PRC official announced that beginning in 2008 the United Nations will cease issuing any material in traditional Chinese characters. Only versions in “simplified” characters will be released, he said.


On another note, not being able to read gives me an idea of of what it would be like to be illiterate. I think it would suck. :( In Chinese if you can't read the character you can't read the word. In Europe I felt illiterate too, but at least I could read the signs (even if I didn't know what they meant!)

Our ayi (housekeeper, cleaner, cook, 'domestic slave' ;) ) is illiterate. It hasn't stopped her getting a job I guess! It doesn't seem to affect her much either. I guess if it's something you never had (the ability to read/write in this case) then you don't really miss it.

Although I can read those measly 500 characters I still feel quite illiterate a lot of the time, and it sux. It sux because I look like a local, people think I'm a local but I'm not a local. So when I desperately need to read something (like a menu) I have to explain to them that I'm a foreigner and grew up in Australia and that's why I can't read Chinese..yadda yadda yadda... I wish I didn't have to give the whole long spiel, but I do! Hmm...

1 comment:

Jenfy said...

I never bothered to explain my 'foreignness' on principle. They should just help you because you asked for it. And they're pretty dumb if you they can't tell from your accent.

I got into an argument with a girl at a net cafe in Nanjing because she just kept yelling at me "Read the sign!" in answer to all my questions. We went round and round in circles with me saying repeatedly, "But I can't!"