Learning Chinese in the 1920s and Now

Chinese characters are pretty complicated. To be able to read a newspaper, you have to master about 3000 characters (there are over 50,000 in existence, but never mind). I wonder how many Westerners sporting tattoos really know for sure what those dots and dashes on their precious regions really mean.  Imagine how that badass looking to be “Fast and Furious” feels now that he knows he’s actually “Fast and Foolish”.

My grandmother, who is close to 90 now, taught herself to read Chinese by poring over entertainment bulletins distributed on the streets of her hometown. People then were motivated to learn because not knowing what the bulletins said meant missing out on the coolest shows and operas of the week. The 1920s looked very different from today where en masse and private lessons are ubiquitous. Kids in China now still learn to write characters through endless repetition and practice, but are also well versed in Roman letters. Consequently, writing Chinese on a computer or tablet is super easy, if you can read it – just type out the pinyin (transliteration) and choose from the menu of characters that pop out. No wonder penmanship is on the decline.

Working at it ...

Working at it …

As a child, I learnt it the hard way (endless repetition) and my efforts often deflated like my no-recipe-needed cakes. These days, I use Skritter on my iPad to practice. (You had me at “spaced repetition algorithm”.) It’s addictive and environmentally friendly. For $14.99 a month, I can finally bin the reams of paper and flashcards.

You've got it!

You’ve got it!

Given that China is not likely to alphabetize à la Ataturk Turkish Language Reform, it’s useful to be able to while away jet lag on Skritter as an option to dissecting that duty-free catalogue again.

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