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Flunking a test of character Print

Original Text from Evening Standard

Flunking a Test of Character

Learning to read and write Chinese is a mighty task, not just for the foreigner but also Chinese children. It's not for the absent minded. There's no alphabet, so each Chinese character has a meaning. It takes a prodigious feat of memory to learn the 2000 needed for even simple documents.

Rote learning of characters has always been a foundation of the educational system. It requires time and application. But modern youth has lost interest in hard grind; the one-child policy and rising standards of living have seen to that. They get spoon fed at home so they expect it at school.

Shanghai has introduced a new system to address this. Instead of a lengthy process of learning characters and calligraphy, they now go straight for reading with special texts. After one year they can master 1500 characters and be reading stories. The previous system would have taken three.

Problem solved? Not quite. Dumbing down has its price. Pupils can read characters in context but writing by hand requires greater familiarity.

Typing has other problems. Most typing systems use the same method. Type in the pronunciation using the romanised notation, called pin-yin, and up pops a list of candidates. Fine in principle but the list may be quite long. Select the wrong character and the sound is right but not the meaning.

This isn't so bad for texting. If your friends understand, who cares if it's "you" or "ewe"? Do it in homework and it won't look good. Short-cut teaching means pupils often forget or confuse characters.

University students are wedded to their laptops so the art of writing by hand is already under threat. The next generation may even have difficulty writing with a computer.

* Recent statistics for 2008 show a natural decrease in Shanghai's population, with deaths exceeding births for the 16th year. However, new residents swelled numbers to give a net rise to 18.88 million. This will delight many. It's a very lucky number in Chinese, sounding something like "There's profit, profit, profit."

* Some evidence of revived stock-market popularity continues with an exclusive share-dealing "club" opened on Huaihai Road. Share shops normally resemble London bookies with screens and dealing counters. This one is more like an upmarket casino. It's reported to have traded £70 million in three days this month.

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