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Software and language, mostly

Has technology made learning Chinese too easy? (No.)

December 19, 2015 Chinese Software

Sean from The Chairman’s Bao was wondering a while back: Has it become too easy for people to learn Mandarin Chinese? Read that post, it’s great writing! In fact, read just about everything on their site. Then come back to learn why I say the answer is a resounding No.

Just like Sean, I also started learning Chinese in a galaxy far, far away: one without iPhones, touch screens and Pleco. But I must confess to being a sloppy and slow student. By the time I reached a level where I’d look at Chinese texts that didn’t come with a handy glossary attached, the revolution had happened, and I never truly experienced the drudge of finding radicals, counting strokes, and paging around in a dog-eared paper dictionary to decipher unknown characters. I know the theory, yes, but I also know I’ll never have to do it the old way – and I’m grateful for that to the powers that be.

Contrast that with Sean’s point. As daunting as the process used to be, it supposedly came with a benefit: through the long evenings’ work it took to decipher a text, you just became so intimate with the new words and characters that there was no need left to memorize them. That’s what we’re meant to have lost through the ease of pasting text into Wenlin or Pleco and getting it all annotated for us.

The script or the language?

But wait a minute. That’s not about Mandarin Chinese; it’s about dealing with the writing system! You can have full command of a language without reading and writing it; it’s very easy, and quite common, to conflate the script with the language when you’re talking about Chinese. All the more reason to address them separately.

The script

Is it really cheating to bypass the script and go straight to translation-on-hover? Do we lose a crucial part of the experience? There is a real danger here; but let’s see what we gain through technology, and what we can do to compensate for the loss – once again, through technology.

We have gained handwriting recognition. Despite being a digital junkie, my favorite method is to print a text, and then work with a piece of paper and Pleco. When I need to look up a new character, I make an effort to draw it on the touch screen without looking at the original. This already forces me to break it down into its components and reproduce it from short-term memory. Handwriting recognition has turned the passive process of lookup into an active process of production, which is the most efficient way to learn.

We have also gained a wealth of information about characters. If you look at a character’s entry in either Wenlin or Pleco, you get an overview of its components (and can directly check out their meaning), and also a list of all the characters that contain it as component. You’ve just saved five minutes by eliminating radical-and-stroke-count lookup, and you can immediately use this time to get a better grasp of the character in the writing system’s broader context.

We have gained stroke order animations. Maybe it’s just me (though I seriously doubt it), but even past 2000 Hanzi I still keep finding ones where stroke order is not evident. What’s even scarier, since I started spot-checking my imagined stroke order for very familiar characters, I discovered several ones I had internalized the wrong way without even realizing it. Correcting such ingrained routines costs a lot of work. What better way to prevent this than having stroke order animations at hand from the start?

The language

If the benefits of technology for learning the script haven’t convinced you yet, what about the language itself?

Thanks to technology, dictionaries themselves have become vastly more powerful tools, even if they contain the exact same content, down to the letter, as their paper-based ancestors. In a digital dictionary you can search for any headword or definition containing a character or a word. The lecturer Sean quotes in the article said a major benefit of spending so many hours with old-fashioned dictionaries was an implicit sense of each character’s field of meanings. That’s precisely what a digital dictionary allows you to get, right on the spot and explicitly, when you’re researching a new character or expression.

But it’s more than that, really. It’s technology that has allowed us to compile corpora, or large collections of searchable text. The creators of today’s dictionaries can sift through real-life uses of each word, identify different meanings and registers better, extract frequent collocations, and easily calculate word frequencies. All of this goes into better dictionaries that can differentiate between common and less common words for the same thing, examples of use, collocations and much more.

And there’s the obvious thing: ridiculously easy access to multimedia in Mandarin, both “original” content such as news and movies and songs, and to podcasts created specifically for language learners. Does this mean it’s suddenly too easy learn pronunciation and understand native speakers? If you ask me, this eliminates a barrier and makes acquiring Mandarin possible at all for many, many people who cannot invest a year or more to live in China. (Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese has an excellent collection of precisely this type of resources.)

Say… Do you use GPS?

Having said all that, I still have a nagging feeling. There’s something intuitively, deeply true about Sean’s article. I can best explain it through a friend’s example, who started using a GPS navigation system (the thing the British admirably call a satnav). In less than a year, my friend just about completely lost his sense of orientation. In the middle of a blizzard, his GPS died on him when he was two corners away from where we were supposed to meet. He wandered off into the sprawling Berlin wilderness, and it took me 45 minutes and multiple phone calls to recover him.

Technology that does a better job at something than our own human faculties can be crippling. Frankly, I don’t believe that’s a tragedy. How many of you can light a fire without a match or a lighter? That used to be a crucial survival skill at some point in the past; we no longer have a need for it because there’s always a lighter around. If there’s always a GPS device at hand (or in your pocket, right there as a cellphone app), we might just no longer need orientation as a skill.

So what about learning Chinese? I need one last analogy here. “Technology” has given us cars so we can avoid physical exertion to go places. But “technology” has also given us the cardio so we can get a really good workout. Nobody must learn Chinese. It’s perfectly legit to skim a text if that’s all you need; it’s even perfectly legit to just feed it through to Google Translate. Just don’t confound that with acquiring the language and learning the script. That takes effort, just as being fit takes workout. And what would the cardio of Chinese studies be? For me, it’s SRS (spaced repetition) apps. No amount of radical lookup will give you the kind of Chinese workout you can get out of your flashcard app combined with a pencil and a sheet of paper.