Whether you’re interested in Chinese or the effects of technology, this is a fun topic:
Students from South-Central University for Nationalities in Wuhan, Hubei Province, recently conducted a survey of college students’ abilities to write Chinese characters by hand. Of the 143 college students who participated, only 12 could write all 10 characters in the test correctly.
I should point out that the test involved characters that are commonly written incorrectly, so the results may make the problem appear somewhat larger than it really is.
Of course, there is a problem, and not a new one; moreover, it may be getting worse. One of my Chinese teachers (this was in 2004 when I went back to grad school) used to complain about this, telling our class stories of her trips back home to China and the deplorable situation of handwriting. It made her sad.
I won’t bother giving my opinion on the whole debate over whether, and to what extent, learning Chinese is more difficult without being able to hand write characters. I’m no language scholar. From my experience, though, people who can hand write say it’s absolutely necessary to learn that skill well; people that don’t know how and still have acceptable language skills have a different opinion. No big surprise. (I have no doubt that I will receive some very opinionated comments on this issue.)
I’m much more interested in the technology angle. Consider this finding in the survey:
The survey also reflected that 72 percent of college students routinely spend an entire day without writing one character by hand. Furthermore, 23 percent of respondents believe that handwriting is no longer very important with the development of computers.
I almost never write anything by hand. In fact, in the past few weeks, the only thing (aside from my signature) I’ve written are some words on a white board during class. To be honest, and my students can attest to this, my penmanship is a total embarrassment, and I’m talking about English. Of course, my handwriting has never been all that good. Moreover, since I have zero talent when it comes to drawing and other visual arts, I always knew that writing Chinese characters was a dim prospect for me.
Interesting that only 23% of the students in the survey thought that handwriting was no longer important. I would have expected a higher number. This suggests that although the majority of students’ skills have degraded significantly with the advent of computers, the kids might look at this with some regret. Obviously this is causing a great deal of angst in some circles:
Experts have expressed worry over the phenomenon of disappearing penmanship skills. Handwriting is a very important part of Chinese culture, and many arts, such as calligraphy, are derived from the system of writing characters.
“We can no longer afford to ignore the decline in handwriting abilities, and we must take action to prevent it,” said Yu Chu, a social critic. “It will be too late to react when Chinese handwriting is totally lost.”
That’s the funky thing about ideograms. Writing them is an artistic act, or can be, and this is an integral part of the culture here. Losing that is a huge deal, language learning issues aside.
However, life goes on. Computers aren’t going anywhere, and if anything, new and improved artificial intelligence (AI) will no doubt mean further erosion of some of the skills we currently hold so dear, not to mention obviating the need to acquire mastery over foreign languages. For example, real time foreign language translation software has gotten much better over the past few years. Imagine what it’s going to be like in the next five decades? At this point, it’s all just a question of processor power and related issues (e.g., batteries for mobile devices).
I bet a lot of folks who travel for business won’t even bother trying to learn another language in the future. Perhaps only scholars and those who have some personal or family connection to a culture/country will do so. In the legal biz, machine language translations are already gaining ground in some countries, at least as a first step in the translation process. (Not so much for Asian languages, but give it time.)
Computer interfaces will also keep evolving. Voice is getting much better, for example, and again, with better AI, a lot of those commands that we type these days will be entered by voice in the future. And if you’re in a crowded subway car and you get a text, wouldn’t it be easier to have your AI report to you via voice than digging your phone out of your pocket and squinting at the display? Then again, maybe the whole “glasses” thing will catch on or perhaps we’ll someday get neural interfaces (my personal favorite).
My point is, our use of written language has already been significantly effected by interface technology, and everything points to an acceleration of that trend. I’m not saying that the written word is going away anytime soon, just that in the near future, it may be extraordinarily difficult for average folks to learn and maintain hand writing skills. I suppose we’re already living in that world.
But the big debate will be: so what? I don’t think that the people who advocate strong handwriting skills for the sake of history or culture will ultimately prevail over technology. Language is, after all, just a tool. We use it for communication. If there is art involved, wonderful, but that’s not the primary goal. And if we develop machines that render that tool obsolete, or at least change the way we use it, then so what?
I suppose one could argue that we are becoming dangerously dependent on our machines. If we allow them to get in the way of our ability to communicate with one another directly, what happens if we suddenly find ourselves without those machines? You know, the old dystopian future story. That was a better argument a hundred years ago; we’ve come too far now as a species dependent on machines to be worried about that. There’s no place for Luddites in 2012.
I would guess that the language/literature teachers have the much better chance of success. If they can successfully prove, by way of scientific studies, that learning how to write by hand is a crucial part of learning the language, then maybe there’s a chance that all this will survive.
But I have my doubts. Kids of 2 and 3 years of age are already using tablets. Classrooms are already equipped with a variety of computerized technology. And we already know that real life affords fewer and fewer opportunities to hand write. Within a few years, particularly after good smart card technology becomes more standardized, signatures may disappear for most transactions.
What’s left? Writing out a shopping list for the supermarket? I know plenty of people who do so on their phones, and of course there are already apps for that.
I still have a penchant for printing out contracts and student papers and writing notes by hand, although I’ve already switched over to writing embedded comments in Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat when I need to review documents and share them with clients/opposing counsel.
Hand-written notes are still useful during client meetings and negotiations. But I used to feel the same way about class notes. When I was in law school in the 90s, I took notes by hand. By 2004 when I went back to school, I had already switched over to a laptop for taking notes. It won’t be long before I do the same thing for business meetings, although staring at a laptop instead of the person sitting opposite me may come across as rude.
The future will be way cool, but there’s a good chance that handwriting won’t play a big role in it.