I’m at the LEARN Conference on autonomous language learning and have just had the pleasure of hearing the keynote today from Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania (I gave the opening keynote yesterday). Mair is a sinologist and regular contributor to the LanguageLog, a wonderful resource for informed comments on issues related to language. He is an entertaining speaker as well as an excellent blogger – his posts are both informative and entertaining. He had a lot to say both about how the Internet is changing the Chinese language and about his views on teaching Chinese.
He talked about the different ways that Chinese characters have been typed over the years, which given the number of characters in Chinese (over 50,000), is a challenge. Early solutions featured elaborate typewriters (see image above), huge keyboards, or keys on a rotating drum. The early keyboards required use of a stylus, as there were so many characters to fit in. Today, Chinese is typed by using Pinyin, the romanized writing of characters. This has led to a de-emphasis on the ability to write characters, which has been a concern in China in recent years, similar to the issues in the US on cursive writing no longer being taught in primary schools. Mair has coined the term “character amnesia” to describe this phenomenon. In his talk, he showed an example of a grocery list by a native speaker of Mandarin in which there was a mixture of characters and pinyin, with some of the words having been begun to be written in characters, then scratched out and written in pinyin, indicating that how to write the characters had been forgotten. Mair calls this “creeping romanization” or “emerging digraphia”. One consequence of the concern over this loss of character literacy is the emergence of Chinese versions of spelling bees, with the contestants having to write the characters that had been read aloud.
Mair says that with the availability of tools for working with Chinese characters, this is a great time to learn the language. He has little good to say about traditional teaching methods, which rely on memorization and writing. He advocates (at least for speakers of European languages) learning to speak first, then learning the characters. He describes the typical four skills approach to beginning Chinese as “inhumane”. He sees no point in teaching characters early.
One of the most interesting remarks from Mair’s talk was his take on his contribution to the Languagelog blog. He writes regularly and estimates that it takes about a third of his professional time. In addition to writing the blog posts, he responds to the many emails he receives asking Chinese language related questions. This “public teaching” activity points to the changing role of language teachers today. For many teachers, this kind of extracurricular work has become a major regular activity. In fact, Mair stated today that he sees this as the most important work he does – more so than classroom instruction or scholarly research and publication. This corresponds to the trends of more and more people learning language outside of formal classroom settings. Internet technology enables this in many different ways.