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Questioning the Presumed Superiority of Phonetic Languages Over Symbolic Ones Like Chinese

phonetic versus symbolic languagesI have heard many academic historians repeat the claim that written phonetic languages are more advanced than character based written communication. After studying the Chinese language and discussing this perspective with my tutor, I find reasons to question this. The Chinese language in not only not compatible with a strictly phonetic language system, but there are meanings and nuances to the characters that could not be expressed with a just phonetic symbols. I think this is important because attitude about the written form of language can affect your ability to learn it. If you think that a written form is archaically complicated or expressively deficient, it might hinder your motivation to take advantage of it’s unique utility in learning the language at hand.

The ease of sight reading unknown words in a phonetic language may have some initial advantage to reading aloud, but it does not necessarily give advantage in comprehension. It all depends on the reader’s broader vocabulary and understanding of the phonetic word parts. The same basic method of comprehension is available in the Chinese language, if the basic building blocks, or radicals, of Chinese characters are understood. I am just beginning to be able to use this feature of the language, but I see my tutor, who is a native speaker of the language, use this and she has explained aspects of it to me.

It is a common mistake in any aspect of life to think the way you are used to doing something is superior to a way that is different. The different way, new to you, can seem to go against the logic of the familiar system. In the case of phonetic languages, the ability to sound out words is so foundational to reading the language, that the idea that a non-phonetic language could be of equal utility is hard to grasp. Using the learning tool of pinyin, whereby Chinese sounds are transcribed into a phonetic system for Western speakers to learn to say them, makes it obvious how frustrating a purely phonetic written system would be in Chinese. Far too many Chinese words would be written the same phonetically, but the characters can be nicely specific. This is why context in spoken Chinese is very important.

The adult brain seems to become hard-wired to the language it depends on to communicate. The mystery of language is its ability to expressively communicate about the world around us, to others and to ourselves. In doing so, it sometimes frames life in certain ways that can be taken for granted. Like in English, time is thought of as forward and backward, while in Chinese it is referred to as up and down.

One common assumption is that it was the limits of the written Chinese language that predisposed the culture, even in the recent past, to illiteracy. I have heard this claim about Chinese, particularly when mentioning the thousands of characters in the language. However, the current literacy of the Chinese population, especially in economically prosperous areas, defies this conclusion. This would suggest that illiteracy of the past was more a function of authoritarian regimes that deprived the people of opportunities.

One of the things that I enjoy about Chinese characters is the way history is often embedded in them. If you have ever tried to trace the etymology of English words, you may understand how nice this is. For English words, you have to hunt down historical usages and evaluate reliability of sources. With Chinese, the radicals within the character tell stories and give insight into cultural connotations. Like the word 好, meaning “good,” which is a combination of the radical for woman, 女, and child, 子. If a man has both of those, everything is “good.” That is not to say there is not also a lot to learn from researching the history of characters, but there are already messages in them.

You also don’t have to be able to read a Chinese character out loud to understand it. Chinese characters are actually used by Chinese dialects that are spoken so differently as to be different languages in their own right (like Cantonese), but the characters usually mean the same things. The Korean and Japanese languages also use some of them, giving a link of communication where spoken language might fail. Because the characters’ meanings are very reliable in spite of drifts in pronunciation over time, historical documents are buffered from such change, especially since around 200 BC, although preferred vocabulary usage always changes with time.

As for the sheer number of characters in the language, it is not really different from the myriad of words available for use in the English language. In fact, some people claim that English has the largest number of words of any language (2 billion by some counts). For whatever reasons, there is a core lexicon of English words that most people use, which accounts for 95% of English language use. The average educated person may know 20,000 – 35,000 words, but it seems most people only use around 2000 words 95% of the time.

Like any language, Chinese has vocabulary for specific subjects. How much of that vocabulary is necessary depends on who you want to talk to and to what purpose. Just like I would flounder in a room full of engineers speaking, in English, about the processes of designing and producing electrical circuits, some of my friends give my blanks stares when I accidentally revert to specific medical vocabulary due to my education in nursing. Not all specialized vocabulary is needed for complete communication in every day life. Sometimes it’s not even needed to explain the subjects it is used for.

Thus, if you happen to be asking a Chinese speaker what the character or word for something is, don’t assume that if they don’t know it, it is because the Chinese language is too overwhelming. It is likely to simply be a case of previously unneeded specificity. Similarly, if you haven’t learned certain vocabulary in Chinese, don’t attribute it to difficulty of the language, but lack of exposure and practice for using it. Then, if you are interested in learning it, just do it.