Reading speed in Chinese

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Syzygys, Feb 27, 2008.

  1. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    So I am watching TV shows online. They have subtitles in Chinese. I just can't believe anyone actually can read it that fast. Sometimes a 20 characters line is shown only for 3 seconds.
    I wonder if anyone here knows how is the reading speed in Chinese compared to in English? Or for that matter other languages (fastest,slowest)
     
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  3. John99 Banned Banned

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    Chinese people take in lumps of data and hold it in RAM, then replay it during commercials at slower rate.
     
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  5. Facial Valued Senior Member

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    Native readers of Chinese take in the characters not as pictures, but as abstractions or words with a meaning. Further, the grammatical syntax in Chinese can be very predictive in the colloquial setting, so entire phrases can be blitzed through.

    For English, the psychology is that the first and last parts of a word are recognized, and grammatical phrases anticipated.
     
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    My Chinese girlfriend lived with me for a couple of years and I watched her read a number of times. I also hung out with many other Chinese people.

    They're taught to recognize the characters when they're young and they know 1,000 by the time they're ten years old. They take in the whole word holistically, just like we do. As far as I could tell, they read at approximately the same speed we do. We never used a stopwatch so I can't swear that they're not a little slower (or faster), but Chinese characters don't slow them down at all.

    You do know that we don't read one letter at a time. If you scramble all but the first and last letters of a word and just make sure all the ones in between belong there, within a few minutes most people will be reading at almost normal speed. So what we're reading is actually pretty complicated.

    Chinese characters, on the other hand, are not the maze they appear to be. There's a system to their construction. Each one has a fundamental "radical" that you use to look it up in the dictionary--there's something like 150 of them. (The remainder of the dictionary process is to count the number of strokes in the rest of the character, that usually narrows it down to a list of about ten in the dictionary.) The rest of the strokes have an order in which they're drawn. Often there are other common formations that stand out visually. So it isn't as hard as it looks.

    They can read the syllable chuang just about as fast as we can read the letters. And then they have an advantage, because now they know which of the six different chuang's it is. There's no ambiguity due to homonyms in reading.

    One thing you need to realize with movies is that we're only getting a summary of the dialog. It's not a word-for-word translation, which is very difficult to do with languages as dissimilar as English and Chinese anyway. We're getting a "Reader's Digest" version of the script. The Chinese people are getting the whole script, verbatim, even when two people are talking at the same time. (The reason for the subtitles is that "Chinese" is really several different languages that are not intercomprehensible but they're all written identically. A Cantonese can't understand a movie made in Mandarin but he can read it.)

    But I don't think it's a problem. My reading skill in Chinese is at about the six-year-old level. At my best I knew about 300 characters and now it's less. Still, I can scan a whole line of subtitles and easily pick out and read the ones I know, in real time. I don't have to stop and puzzle over them. I either recognize them and know them, or not.
     
  8. Michael 歌舞伎 Valued Senior Member

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    Chinese scan across words much faster than we (or they) scan across English words. One common problem Chinese have with learning English is to slow down the speed at which their eyes travel across the page. I'm not sure if the total amount of information is processed quicker but certainly their eye movement is much faster. I once took a class on teaching ESL and the book made a point of mentioning that this should be addressed when teaching Chinese. I think it even gave some ways of trying to get Chinese to slow down their eye movements? I can't remember now.
     
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I'm surprised, since the information density of Chinese writing is comparable to English. Each symbol contains more information than one of our phonetic symbols, but they're customarily printed larger so a column-inch of English and Chinese probably contain roughly the same amount of data. The Chinese would even have fewer syllables since it lacks the inflections and noise-words of our language. Chinese is spoken more slowly than English, a boon for students.
    I would guess it would be to practice reading aloud, or to read along with someone who is reading the same text aloud. There are also fancy machines that restrict the amount of text in view and move along at a selected speed.
     
  10. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    Thanks for the input guys. I might post an example here and if you have a Chinese friend you could ask him/her to read it in a given timeframe....
     
  11. grazzhoppa yawwn Valued Senior Member

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    Like others have said, there are sentence patterns and commonly used phrases, in any language, that proficiently literate people can "gloss over" but still understand the meaning of the writing.

    As an example:
    Just like in english, there are many compound words that make the writing physically occupy more area but can be picked up by readers by reading the first few parts of the word and the ending.

    Barstool: you don't have to scrutinize what "rsto" might sound like because you instantly recognize the compound words "bar" and "stool". "Bar" acts as a separate entity that jumps out at you from that mass of letters, just as "stool" does.

    十一路公共汽车: "公共"means public "汽车"means automobile "十一"is a number and "路" signifies a route or road. Bus #11. But literate people can recognize the syntax pattern here and quickly decipher its meaning.

    Stuff like this is common to all languages, but it is undetectable to people who are not intimate with the language.

    昨天晚上我们跟他们都一起听音乐坐十一路公共汽车.
    [昨天晚上] [我们] 跟 [他们] 都 [一起] [听音乐] [坐十一路公共汽车].
    Time subject subject adverb secondary-action main-action


    It's relatively easy for literate people to spot these patterns and read 20+ characters almost instantly.
     
  12. John99 Banned Banned

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    From what i can tell he is referring to sub-titles in a film which is really dependent on the scene\dialog pace.
     
  13. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

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    I can usually pick up what the actors are talking about by just observing the actions and movements of the body language. No need to read, just observe.

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  14. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    Except it is much easier to recognize any letter in the English alphabet than in the Chinese.

    Except with medical/lawyer dramas, where there is plenty of technical talk...
     
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    But that's not a valid comparison since it's not a Chinese alphabet. Each hanzi is a transcription of an entire syllable. The concept of "word" does not correlate very well between English and Chinese, but the first syllable in a compound "word" carries the bulk of the meaning. Examining the subsequent hanzi in a compound is only a matter of recognizing which of a small number of possible compounds this one is--seldom more than ten and often only four or five--and parsing the end of one compound from the beginning of the next. This is a different cognitive process than scanning the letters in an English word quasi-phonetically, but I don't think it's significantly more work. In fact the assertion in the OP that Chinese people read faster than we do is strong evidence that it's actually less work, or at least faster work.

    The graphemes that comprise a hanzi are arranged in a standard-format square array, which no doubt makes for more efficient scanning than our linear arrangements of arbitrary length. And don't forget the easily repeated experiments showing that we don't read the letters in a word in sequence; we take them all in at once holistically. The first and last letter have to be in the right place but we barely notice the order of the ones in between. (The reason transpositions are so dadgum hard to spot in proofreading!) This cognitive process strikes me as a bit cumbersome and does not inspire me with the confidence to agree with your assertion that English must be easier to read.

    As a foreign student with the written vocabulary of a Chinese first-grader, and moreover one I acquired as an adult when my neural pathways were not easy to reroute, I'm always surprised at how I instantly recognize the words I know in printed text.
     
  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Perhaps the reason China's all-powerful authoritarian government has not pressed harder for adoption of a phonetic alphabet is that the O.P. is right: Chinese really is faster to read! An alphabet might slow them down, impairing their educational system although it would have the advantage of everyone getting by with less news.

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    Notice that the Koreans arrange their phonetic symbols in a standard square format like hanzi. Perhaps they realized long ago that this makes for faster reading.
     
  17. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    I have a test idea. Since I am watching House, which is a medical drama full of technical talk, next time I will put the closed caption on and see if i can read it in English or if they show it for a longer time...
     
  18. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    Here is an example. This 28 character of subtitles was shown for less than 5 sec, more like 4. Can any Chinese friends of your read it in 5 secs? (not to mention the screen isn't big nor the characters sharp)

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  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I'm too far from home these days and don't have anybody around here who I could ask.

    That's seven characters per second, which is exactly equal to my estimate of the average talking speed of a native Mandarin speaker. Most reasonably well educated people can read their native language considerably faster than they can speak it, so I'll bet that the average Chinese person I'm likely to run into in this region can pass that test.

    I only know about seven of those characters (a couple of which I don't really remember the pronunciation or meaning for anymore), but it only took me about six seconds to scan the whole text and find those seven characters.

    Do these Chinese subtitles accompany Chinese dialog? That can be misleading. They're there so that speakers of languages other than Mandarin can follow the dialog, since all Chinese languages use the same words with different phonetics, and are written identically. But these days most Chinese, regardless of which language they speak, have had a lot of exposure to Mandarin. They're probably picking up a significant part of the meaning from the sound track and are only using the subtitles to augment it. So they could be reading faster than average.

    If this is from Hong Kong (or Singapore) then the spoken language is probably Cantonese. Very few people outside of Guangdong are familiar with it.
     
  20. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    I know considerably more than the average about vision and very little about languages, but this speed for square array may be due to the fact that the foveae (in humans, but not most birds of prey) is round and the fact that approximately 80 or more percent of your reading time is not spent seeing any symbols. (Amount depends on the nature of the material being read and how familiar you are with the symbols.)

    Most of the time you are moving your direction of gaze (Making saccades) and then perception is suppressed to avoid making everything be a motion blur. It is interesting to look alternatively at your eyes close up in your mirror image - you see one, then the other, but never any eye in angular motion.

    The typical line of text you are reading now utilizes only a small part of the fovea due to geometric miss match between the line and the high resolution circular fovea.

    It is amazing how much faster (in some cases, faster than the framing rates available in the fastest refresh computer monitors available)* one can read with full comprehension and few errors IF you do not need to move your eyes. I.e. small sections of the text are rapidly displayed at the same location on the display screen (No time wasted in saccades).

    It would be interesting to test this suggested reason, if possible, by converting the symbols of the Korean symbols from their standard square format hanzi into a horizontal (or vertical) linear format. I predict that if this is done, the speed advantage will disappear. (Probably be slower, until the reader becomes very familiar with the new format.

    BTW all orientations for these lines and directions of reading are essentually equally good. In some poor countries when books were very scarce, four students were taught to read from the same book. If you learn to read "upside down" (and right to left), or "sideways" you will do so for the rest of your life, but not be significantly slower reading that way.

    What the Koreans seem to have discovered is how to match the information rich square symbol to the fovea better, if I understood what you are stating about their symbol's geometric arrangement for text.
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    *Each text frame was followed by a blank frame. - I forget why. Some subjects still had no increase in error rate etc. at fast rate of display possible. (The monitors were too slow in refresh rate to determine how fast they could read.) Patentable idea: Make this display in electronic book machine and you could read "gone with the wind" in about 5 or 10 minutes, I think.

    It is also true that you can hear with full comprehension much faster than anyone can speak. This too is only demonstrable with computer pre-processing of the speech. I.e. much of normal speech has the vowels sounds of much longer duration than required. (In many words they can essentually be absent -only a tiny fraction of normal duration, if present at all.) Even in normal speech there is no separation between the words. You insert that perceived "temporal separation" if it is your "native tongue." You will easily recognize this fact when listening to a foreign language you have not heard before. - If you have heard it and it is related to yours, you will still be able to parse it into words (assuming it has words) that you do not understand at all. Thus, with computers you can also start the sounds of the "next word" before the "current word" is even half verbalized and that is not perceived as two overlapped words - Your perception is still of distinct separated words.

    Sorry - this is all from memory. No references, but much of the Rapid Sequential Display, (RSD or RSR it was called, I think, if you want to search) reading work was first done at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Wilmer Research Center, as I recall) while I was working with doctors there on other technical problems they had.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 7, 2008
  21. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

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    If you wear glasses that makes things upside down, a few days after you will adapt and would not notice that you are seeing things upside down.
     
  22. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    That is true. After about a week of continuously wearing the inverting prism glasses, one guy could safely ride his bike in heavy traffic! When you take them off your vision goes back to normal much more rapidly - about a day or less.

    I am not sure, but think it was Newton, who first carefully examined the image formed in a freshly killed bull's eye (back part cut away with still intact retina as "transmission screen") - and saw that yes it was "up side down" as he thought his own must be also.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 7, 2008
  23. Yorda Registered Senior Member

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    chinese is not a good language because it takes a long time to write and while the letters are pretty, they are too hard to learn. these kind of letters (latin?) are the most boring. we should use greek letters.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2008

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