Reading speed in Chinese

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

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Not true. You're forgetting that those are not letters. Each hanzi represents a complete syllable with an average of about three phonemes. So you have to compare the speed of writing one character with the speed of writing three letters.

    But furthermore, Chinese is more economical with its syllables since it stripped itself of inflections and nearly meaningless words like articles and prepositions. It takes about ten English syllables to express what Chinese can do with seven. So you have to compare the speed of writing seven characters with the speed of writing thirty letters. It's starting to sound like a much closer contest.
    More importantly they carry a lot of culture with them. Each character is composed of one or more radicals (each of which can stand alone as a character), with several other brushstrokes, many of which form additional radicals. As a result the character displays some of the history of the word and of the culture in which it evolved. That will be lost in a phonetic alphabet.
    I can't disagree but then I tried to learn them when I was 26. Everything is easier to learn when you're young and your neural pathways have not yet been cast in concrete. Chinese are expected to know 1,000 of them at the end of the fourth grade, and almost every adult knows at least 3,000. Even Japanese people have to learn 2,000 to be able to read their strange mixture of characters, phonetic syllables, and Roman letters.
    As noted, this is usually referred to as the Roman alphabet, although "Latin" will do.
    The Greek alphabet has only 24 letters and is barely adequate for writing Modern Greek. The Roman alphabet isn't even barely adequate for the phonetic complexity of English. We have many more than 26 phonemes, which is why it's a joke to call English writing "phonetic." Most languages that use the Roman alphabet augment it with new letters (German ß, Danish æ), mangled letters (Turkish ı, Norwegian ø), diacritical marks (Spanish ñ, Romanian ş), or all of the above (my browser menu lists ử, but I have no idea what language it's from).

    Nonetheless, Chinese scholars long ago developed the Pin-Yin romanization system, which expresses all of the language's phonemes using the 26 letters of our alphabet. There are only three digraphs for consonants (SH, CH, ZH) and one diacritical mark (Ü), but all of the vowels do double or even triple duty because only one of them could be used in a given location. Still, it's a pretty clean system, fairly intuitive (to the limited extent that English and Chinese phonemes correspond at all) and easy to learn.

    Of course the problem is that there's no way to transcribe tone with the Roman alphabet. When Chinese words and names are transliterated for the Western press (Mao Zedong, Tian An Men) they leave the tones out because they know we're not going to pronounce them anyway. But for their own readers who have to know which word it is, they have to put them in. So here we come with four diacritical marks to put over the vowels (ā, á, ă, à). This writing is not "pretty."

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  3. Yorda Registered Senior Member

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    ---Sorry, the text of this post was deleted in a horrible accident. The Moderator should not start work before having a dose of caffeine to wake up.---

    I owe you one.

    --F.R.

    (As noted below, much of the text of your post is embedded in the quotes in my response, fortunately.)
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 8, 2008
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    --- Sorry Yorda, I accidentally edited your post! I hit the Edit button instead of Reply! My most abject apologies! Much of your post is preserved in the quotes in my own.---

    * * * * [Moderator grovels in shame.] * * * *

    I suppose, but who writes by hand any more? I do it so rarely that I've lost my muscle skills and I write worse than a doctor. I have to block-print the addresses on envelopes and the amounts on checks and that is really slow. Most Westerners find the idea difficult to believe, but Chinese has word processors too. There's a logic to the characters and it doesn't take any more keystrokes to code a Chinese printed word than its equivalent in English.
    Hehe. After all we use Greek letters in math. I like the Cyrillic alphabet.

    Foreign writing always looks a little exotic or romantic. The Irish alphabet looks like there are leprechauns behind the letters, but it's really nothing more than the Roman alphabet in an unusual font.
    I'm not sure that's unique. I think Turkish (which is in the same family) also has that distinction. Czech comes very close; OU and CH are digraphs.

    A question no one has ever answered: Is accent (syllabic stress) phonemic in Finnish? If so, is it invariant (like always falling on the first syllable in Czech or the penultimate in Polish) so it doesn't need to be written? If not, then there's a missing phonetic component to the alphabet. Spanish takes care of that with a written accent mark if it's not in the standard place.

    Or is accent non-existent like in Chinese?
     
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  7. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

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    My Chinese friend read it in 3-4 seconds (way before I count to 5 and close the screen) and completely understood what is in there. Since I warned her to make it in 5 seconds, she was trying to read as fast as she could but in subtitles the situation is the same.
     
  8. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    Thanks. House was on TV but I couldn't figure out how to get the CC working so I couldn't test the English subtitles...
     
  9. Nasor Valued Senior Member

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    The problem is that since the Chinese don't use a phonetic alphabet, their pronunciation of words is completely divorced from the way the write words. There are a ridiculous number of spoken dialects that don't sound anything like each other, even though they all write words with exactly the same symbols and can easily read each other's writing. No matter what spoken dialect you go with, there will be about 300 million people who can't understand it - they will practically be learning a whole new language.
     
  10. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    probably true or nearly so - I do not know, but as the internet etc evolve I find I spend nealy an order of magnitude more time striking key than verbalizing. It is also my understanding from what I have read that almost all Chinese characters can be witten (perhaps not with beauty) by only a few standardized storkes (7 I seem to recal). Thus with 8 fingers and two thumbs, used in parallel, Chinese key board could be easier and faster to use. Does anyone know recent information on this?
     
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    They're not dialects. Dialects by definition are mutually intercomprehensible. To be precise, there are dialects of Mandarin such as Sichuan speech, and a person from Beijing and a (rather old) person from Chengdu can communicate with about as much effort as a Texan and a Brummy. But what Westerners refer to as "dialects," like Cantonese, Shanghai or Fujian speech, are distinct languages. The reason they all use the same words in the same order, despite the phonetic drift, is that the shared written language has held them together as a community for several thousand years. This is yet another reason that the written language has tremendous cultural and emotional value and they will not give it up easily.

    Nonetheless, since the communist takeover, Mandarin has become the official language of the entire country. It has been taught to all children in virtually all schools for about thirty years, and virtually all classes have been conducted in Mandarin for about twenty years. Older people who were not taught Mandarin have tremendous opportunity to learn it from radio and TV, their children and grandchildren, public officials, etc., and tremendous motivation to learn it in order to understand those broadcasts and conduct business.

    It must be borne in mind that learning Mandarin is not nearly as much of a challenge to a person from Fujian or Guangdong as it is to an English speaker. There are no puzzling differences in grammar, syntax and idioms to struggle with. It's just the same words, pronounced differently. For many older Americans, learning Russian or even German is too difficult to be worth the trouble. For an older person from Shanghai, learning Mandarin is more like learning a secret code than a foreign language.

    It's difficult to find statistics, but ten years ago more than half the people in China were already able to speak Mandarin. This percentage will continue to increase as some old people pick it up it and others die off to be replaced by young people who were required to learn it in childhood.

    By the time China begins taking seriously the idea of converting to a phonetic writing system, everyone will know Mandarin.
     
  12. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    I bet there is a Mandarin speech synthesizer. Do you know? Texas Instrument made an English synthesizer at least 30 years ago. Some English man about 100 years ago had transcribed an entire English book into phonetic characters. A very clever guy, Terry Sinouski (not spelled correct) used both to make NETALK, a "neural net" that could read books out loud. (Trained it up on this old phonetic text.) Terry was briefly a professor at Johns Hopkins.

    I heard his standard lecture on NETALK. It was fascinating to hear the machine (recordings) at various stages of the training. First thing NETALK learned was the difference between vowels and constants. - Every word it "read” of a never before seen text at this stage of the training period was pronounced sort of like MAAA, MAAA, MAA, ETC. As I recall, it even went thru a stage of over regularizing past tense of irregular verbs like a child does. With your interest in, and knowledge of, languages you may want to learn about the details of NetTalk (two "t" I think is correct). Perhaps even wiki has something on it.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 9, 2008
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    This would be trivial with Mandarin because you don't need a heuristic spelling decoder or a voice synthesizer. That would be the wrong way to approach this language.

    They've already got the character set coded for word processors--at least the "Fenn 5,000" that are all you need if you're not going to read ancient poetry. There are only 1,600 different syllables possible with the language's phonetic structure. All they need to do is map each of the 5,000 characters to its pronunciation, and that's already been done with the Pinyin phonetic romanization system. And then let some lady with a lovely voice and perfect diction record them. Double-check it for errors and you're finished in a couple of weeks. Maybe a year if you let the government do it.

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    It's NETalk with three capital letters and only one T, and it's Sejnowski, a Polish surname.
     
  14. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

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    It is nice if they have many voices and you can choose from them. Like hollywood trailer style man voice, sexy woman's voice, mature woman's voice etc

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  15. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    Thanks - I thought you might know. On the speed of government projects you are probably correct also, but not when it comes to physical construction. The three gorges dam was finished ahead of schedule and under budget (as I recall). - When was the last time the US government achived that with a project even 10% as large?

    The just completed world's largest airport (3km long so is also world's largest building) was done in 4 years. It is bigger than all of heathrow airport even when the new expansion (still under construction, I think) is included. Typically the terminals at Heathrow took 20years to make. The public hearings alone averaged about 12 years (three times longer than China required from the decision to hire an English design firm until the first plane landed. - first passenger off happend to be English I think. Any way she got a "royal escort" of honor guards, flowers etc.

    If your house or farm happens to be where Chinese leaders want and Olypic village or a dam etc. you will soon move. No need for "public hearings" - the CCP knows what is best for "the people."

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  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    And that's the problem. It's sad to take private property for public projects, and even in the USA it has gotten out of control as municipalities seize people's homes for the vague purpose of "the public good," meaning that a profit-making baseball stadium or shopping mall will bring in more tax revenue to enlarge the inept, unaccountable, self-serving bureaucracy.

    But in China they don't even have to do environmental reviews, which even the smallest subway station project has to undergo here. The Three Gorges Dam destroyed megatons of historical artifacts and is driving treasured freshwater dolphin species to extinction. Since safety isn't a big issue in an economy driven by bribery, it's not clear how long it will be before this dam collapses and causes massive loss of life and environmental damage. And the sad thing is that it provides something like 3% of China's electrical consumption, which grows every year.

    Fortunately the project to convert to a phonetic alphabet will probably not displace homeowners or kill off an endangered species.

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  17. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    Not only sad - also that growth rate is why a new power plant comes on line every 8 days!

    I hope your are wrong about the quality of the Chinese dams. They are building them all over the world, especailly in Africa. Approximately half the dams currently under construct globally are Chinese projects. - Many are part of the payment for the 30 year contracts that China is signing to assure (as best as that can be done) the supply of raw materials and energy they will need in their long range (50 years) plans.
     
  18. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    No need for them- the CCP knows what is best.

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    Typical capitalist dog propaganda. Fails to understand that the peasants recycle everything. Only way to preserve the past is either to bury it (the clay army, etc.) or flood it. Flooding is better as that keeps the oxygen away and in 50 years or so will be a source of tourist income for the windowed submarine tour operators.

    Even the "great wall" is gone - made into stone huts and pavement for roads. That same small strip you always see in photos is mainly modern reconstruction for tourists. Rumor has it that the world's most visited touristic* site, the Forbidden City, actually is too as the original was burned down by the invading Japanese in WWII.
    How can such a smart guy like you have such little understanding (of the good preservation work the CCP is doing)? :shrug:

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    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 10, 2008
  19. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    Now I am watching House with Spanish subtitles. Way more fun than Chinese and I might even learn something. It is readable.....
     
  20. Tyler Registered Senior Member

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

    Couldn't disagree more. As someone learning Chinese as a foreign language and only about 2,000 characters under my belt I can usually get the jist of a TV show from the subtitles. It won't be a full understand, but I'll know what's going on.

    When you learn Chinese you become deeply familiar with the characters. The ones that you know well are so far in the back of your head that it is very quick to call them to mind. As was said by others, context and repetition make it even more simple. Chinese is, in a great many ways, more simple than English. The grammar is mostly straight-forward and the sentence structure is almost always predictable. This means Chinese is 'scanned' more than English is.

    Note: Again, I've only been learning Chinese about 6 months. I could read that little subtitle in about 7 seconds with only one unknown word.

    And the letters of Chinese are not too hard to learn. People are just too lazy.

    Writing in Chinese is much more fun than writing in English or French ever were for me.
     
  21. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

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    It would be interesting to see an average reading/writing speed comparison between the major languages...
     
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    They're not letters. Each character is a morpheme, and on the average I'd say it carries the information content of four or five phonetic letters. There are only 5,000 characters in a university-level Chinese vocabulary, versus 17,000 combinations of only three English letters, many of which are invalid, so I wonder which character set is in fact faster to interpret visually.
    Nonetheless I have to disagree with this. Many of them have ten or more strokes, compared to three or four in a phonetic alphabet. It's much harder to develop the pattern recognition.

    But as easy or hard as they might be, you have to learn at least 1,000 to be able to read at the most basic level, and three or four thousand to qualify as "literate." That's quite a task compared to even the 32 letters in the Russian alphabet.

    English and French are particularly difficult because of the poor correlation between spelling and pronunciation, but still any foreigner who can understand spoken English or French can learn to read a newspaper in a fraction of the time it takes to accomplish the same feat in Chinese.
     
  23. Tyler Registered Senior Member

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    4,888
    Yes, Fraggle, but as you pointed out most of them are constructed of common and repeating elements. Even those characters with elements that are not, strictly speaking, radicals usually have their extra strokes as fairly easy to remember patterns or strange morphs of the radicals.

    I agree it's more difficult than learning the Roman alphabet - duh - but I don't think I'd call it all that difficult. Learning to write beautifully, on the other hand...

    Either way it's quite fun!

    Q. for Fraggle...

    Is learning Chinese doing anything to help my cognitive ability? I know very little about brain development. I'm 21 years old and have been studying 3-4 hours a day for about 5 months (less during the busy period for my job).
     

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