By Min Xu
From Brill’s Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics (online and in print)
Character amnesia (in Chinese: tíbǐwàngzì 提筆忘字 ‘lifting one’s pen but forgetting the characters’) is the name for the phenomenon that people forget how to write Chinese characters which they previously were able to write. In most cases, the characters are not forgotten completely. Some people may remember the shape of the characters, but cannot remember the exact strokes to write them. Some may write the characters incorrectly, such as placing the components within a character in the wrong positions or missing some strokes (Huáng 2012:12–13). The phenomenon of character amnesia is common in China and Japan. According to a survey conducted by the China Youth Daily, 83% of the 2,072 respondents reported having forgotten how to write some characters (Hú and Wáng 2010). Another survey targeting college students in China found nearly 90% of respondents having encountered the embarrassment of character amnesia (Móu 2012:16–19). In Japan, a national survey conducted in 2011 showed that about 66.5% of the 2,069 respondents reported that they were losing their ability to correctly handwrite Japanese characters (kanji), and the figure has increased 25% in the last 10 years (Japan Today, 2012).
The high prevalence of character amnesia has been largely attributed to constant use of computers and mobile phones, which allow users to enter Chinese characters using their phonetic transcription. The Hànyǔ pīnyīn 漢語拼音 input method, for example, is used by over 97% of users in Mainland China (Chen and Lee 2000). It allows users to input a Chinese character (e.g., mā 媽 ‘mother’) by typing its pīnyīn spelling, a phonetic transcription of the character’s pronunciation (in this example, ‘ma’, but without tone), and then selecting the desired character from a list of characters sharing the same toneless pīnyīn spelling (e.g., (1) ma 嗎 ‘morphine; (question tag)’, ‘(question tag)’; (2) mǎ 碼 ‘a weight; number; yard; stack’; (3) mā 媽 ‘mother’; (4) mǎ 馬 ‘horse; a surname’; (5) mà 罵 ‘scold; abuse’; (6) má 麻 ‘(to have) pins and needles; tingling; hemp; numb; to bother’. In this example, we can enter the character 媽 by pressing the key ‘3’. The pīnyīn input method does not require the users to construct the characters by combining strokes, as one would do in writing Chinese characters by hand (Zhū et al. 2009).
The properties of Chinese characters can explain why learners are susceptible to character amnesia. The Chinese writing system is a logographic system, in the sense that the graphic units (the characters) generally correspond to words or morphemes (Coulmas 2003:50–60). A character is a salient visual unit, formed with different types of strokes which are grouped into identifiable stroke patterns or components, which are arranged in appropriate positions relative to one another to form a square character. Moreover, Chinese characters map onto whole syllables. This means that there is no stroke or component in a character (e.g., mā 媽) that is pronounced as a specific phoneme (e.g., /m/) in the syllable. As a result, writing in Chinese requires thousands of characters, and it takes pupils six to seven years to master 3,000 characters (DeFrancis 1984:152–153). In Japan, children are taught about 1,000 kanji during six years of primary school (Gottlieb 2005:81–86). A prevalent strategy for learning Chinese characters in China and Japan is writing them by hand repeatedly. Through writing, the learners learn how to deconstruct characters into strokes and stroke patterns and then regroup these stroke patterns into a square unit, and form long-term motor memory of Chinese characters (Tan, Spinks et al. 2005). Indeed, neuroimaging studies have shown that relative to alphabetic languages, the processing of logographic characters more systematically engages brain regions that may support the motoric representation of characters, including the premotor cortex and the left middle frontal gyrus that is spatially close to the premotor cortex (Kuo et al. 2004; Nakamura et al. 2012; Tan, Laird et al. 2005).
Writing characters by drawing the strokes one by one is much more troublesome and complicated than typing pīnyīn on electronic devices. Chinese children in primary school are taught pīnyīn to help them read Chinese characters, and thus they can rapidly learn to use the pīnyīn input method for text-messaging, instant chat, email and so on. The prolonged and extensive use of computers and mobile phones has led people to spend far more time on typing pīnyīn than writing characters. According to the survey conducted by the China Youth Daily, only 25.7% of respondents reported that they frequently wrote characters by hand (Hú and Wáng 2010). As a result, people forget how to write some of the Chinese characters, particularly those that are complicated and rare. A recent study of 4,908 primary school children in China demonstrated that children’s reading performance significantly decreases with their utilization of the pīnyīn input method, but increases with their time spent on handwriting, suggesting that pīnyīn typing may hinder Chinese reading development, whereas handwriting enhances their reading ability (Tan et al. 2013).
To counteract the problem of character amnesia and improve writing ability among Chinese children, the Ministry of Education of China has initiated programs to encourage more handwriting (Ministry of Education of China 2013). Schools are instructed to increase calligraphy classes for younger students to once a week and offer optional lessons and after-school activities for older students. In addition, people are advised to switch input methods from pīnyīn to handwriting or shape-based input methods such as the five-stroke input method (Wǔbǐ zìxíng shūrùfǎ 五筆字型輸入法, sometimes translated as the ‘Wǔbǐ method’; Fāng and Zhāng 2013) or the double-stroke input method (Shuāngbǐ huàhànzì biānmǎ shūrùfǎ 雙筆劃漢字編碼輸入法; Chén et al. 2013). However, it remains unclear as what extent the shape-based input methods can help people to improve their ability of writing and reading Chinese characters.
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