Chinese Language

First published: 10th September 2011

I must thank Pierce Lam for drawing my attention to Bopomofo, a phonetic system phased out on the Mainland in the 1950s, and the method of using 5 principle strokes on a mobile phone keypad. I assume the latter is the G6 Chinese input method used on some Android phones. This method uses the first three and last three strokes of the character, so there is a maximum of 15625 possible characters. I was already familiar with translation websites, and the main difficulty there appears to be the lack of word demarcation, so that a modern concept or technical term written as several Chinese characters will be translated as a string of words. I imagine the quality of these translators will improve with time.

However, on balance, I think there are still great difficulties with Chinese becoming a global tongue. Mr. Lam has not contested my point that the tonal nature makes it difficult to distinguish words for non-native speakers. While even illiterate people can be eloquent, a modern global tongue must allow a non-native to convert between speech, print and computer text. The sound of a Chinese word does not relate to the strokes used to write it, and bopomofo or pinyin lookup requires accurate recognition of the tones. Looking up an unfamiliar printed character in an online dictionary is also difficult, as an experiment, I tried looking up 麟 (lin2) online using the radical-plus-stroke method, but failed because I chose the wrong radical. While knowing 2000 words might make you "literate", being able to act on, say, a business document requires an effective method for looking up unknown words.

As a final, anecdotal point, I have observed that children with mixed Chinese/English parents, who are therefore native speakers of both Chinese and English, progress slower in reading ability in Chinese, and are markedly more reluctant to complete their Chinese homework because they see it as difficult. That is direct experience, not prejudice.