Fri, Jun 23, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Letter: Benefits of written Chinese

By Mark Kelsey

Brian Schack's discussion (Letters, June 16, page 8) points out the difficulties of using Chinese ideograms but fails to identify the overwhelming reason for retaining this superior system. It is true that phonetic-based writing systems are easier to learn and inherently more naturally representative of the spoken word. Such systems are also dynamic in their instant ability to form new words for society to use. Writers can coin new words and everyone can at least know how they sound.

Pharmaceutical companies do this all the time. New products are given catchy names which easily roll off the tongues of consumers. Conversely for the reader, when an unfamiliar written word is encountered, a dictionary is not always needed. One can "sound-out" the unfamiliar letters and audible recognition often follows.

But these advantages are no match for the superior ability of written Chinese (traditional or simplified) to convey information efficiently. Chinese ideograms are far more efficient than phonetic words. This can be seen empirically by simply placing the Chinese and English versions of the same text side by side. The Chinese publication is often half the physical volume of its English counterpart. So, Chinese books and periodicals can be printed on less paper. That's not reason enough to call it a better system. But this efficiency lays the foundation for a better system.

Since the information is more densely packed, the Chinese reader can absorb the presented text far faster than an English counterpart. In fact, what Chinese people take for granted as "reading," we in the Western world would call "speed reading." Speed reading is big business in the US. Learning how to read text rapidly is a very desirable skill in today's information-laden world. Examine any English-language speed reading system and you will find it is based on the idea of recognizing words as "whole entities," rather than phonetically trying to sound-out words, syllable by syllable. Taking a group of letters together as a single unit and not as a sequential list of phonetic symbols is exactly what written Chinese is all about. Each symbol is a word.

Yes, it's a difficult system to learn and consumes much of a young student's time. But the rewards later are easily measured in saved hours that, over a lifetime, pay back the Chinese student many times over.

Mark Kelsey

Atlantic City, New Jersey

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