Tuesday, May 23, 2006

China Dumbs Down?

China is attempting to make their language easier for their citizens to understand. According to a Reuters story, China's media is using fewer characters in their publications. The story states that out of the thousands of extant characters, one only needs around 900 to understand 90 percent of a typical news story. This is interesting in that one needs roughly 2000 characters to function in everyday life in Japan. It had been my understanding that the number of characters required for everyday life in China far exceeded the number necessary in Japan. However, it appears I was mistaken.

The Chinese government began simplifying the Chinese syllabary after their victory in the Chinese Civil War of 1949. However, the Communist version of Chinese, known as Simplified Chinese, has heretofore not gained wide usage amongst overseas Chinese and non-mainlanders. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and most overseas communities still use Traditional Chinese characters, not the newer Simplified. In their attempt to simplify the syllabary, the Chinese are following the lead of Japan, which performed a similar operation in 1945, when they simplified the common characters into the current 1945 Joyo Kanji 常用漢字 (you will need to set your browser to ISO 2022-JP in order to view these), plus the special characters used in Japanese names.

This effort also brings to mind similar effforts by the US education establishment to dumb down the curriculum of American education following the Second World War. In that case, much of the classical education required of young men and women has been lost, leading to an educational system that far too frequently fails to teach our young people anything of value. Touchy-feely education has never replaced a good hard regimen of learning. Throughout our history until very recently, most Americans were expected to have a more than passing familiarity with the classics of Western Civilization, and to have exposure to the great writers such as Shakespeare. Actual knowledge and expertise in the mathematics was also a requirement. That has all gone by the board, as modern teachers seem more interested in pushing a hard-left ideology than actually teaching their charges the necessities that will give them a leg up on life.

In the case of China, this is not an issue, as they are trying to pucsh themselves up, not tear themselves down as we seem to be. However, I am not sure how this will eventually play out, as despite the attempt to simplify the language, one still needs to know a large number (the Reuters article states that a university graduate typically knows around 6000 characters) to function in more than the bare minimum of daily life situations. Even in Japanese, one often encounters rarely-used or classical characters in business or academia. However, the spirit of the Chinese attempt to simplify their language seems to be in good sense, as all languages that use a complicated script like Chinese make it difficult both for practitioners of the language to interact with non-native speakers, and it serves as a barrier to foreign investment as well.

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