Anti-Character Snobs and the Internet

Anyone that’s studied Chinese for period of time has come across the learner that one might dub “the anti-character snob.” While striving for oral perfection, the anti-character snob eschews the (admittedly infuriating) world of hanzi and deals solely in pinyin. There are even tales (unconfirmed, as this writer doubts these exist on the mainland) that some institutions offer programs that don’t teach characters, or add them in as a sort of after-thought, like it might someday be useful to be able to know what you’re going to eat at a restaurant before it comes to the table.

Today we’re going to shatter the myth that you don’t need to learn the characters; that it’s good enough to speak. This myth is perpetuated even by the Chinese themselves (“你会说就可以了”, have you heard this sentence from the mouth of a Chinese person before?)

According to the Internet World Stats project, 28.7% of all internet users are English speakers and that this number has increased by over 200% since the start of the 21st century. Those high numbers are to be expected: the internet originated in an English-speaking country and many English-speaking countries have better access to technology than others.

What’s more interesting is that 20.4% of internet users are speakers of Chinese and that in the last 8 years, this number has gone up by nearly 900%! At this rate, Chinese-speaking users of the internet will outnumber English-speaking ones in the near future.

There’s news for the anti-character snob crowd: the Internet is here to stay as the medium of world communication. As more and more Chinese-speakers use the internet, more and more information will be stored in Chinese characters on it, and some portion of it will be useful. The speed limit on the information superhighway might seem a bit too fast for you if you can’t manage to pump out a few characters into the Chinese-language dominated search engines of the future.

Alright, so there is some exaggeration. English probably isn’t on the way out despite a decrease in the number of native speakers. Also, we should also look at the language of the internet’s content, rather than simply what language the users speak. But at least one would hope a few stubborn anti-character snobs can be converted and made to see the future (as written in Chinese characters).

[Author’s note: I possess no ill-will towards anti-character snobs. If you’re offended, just break out your 幽默感 and laugh a bit.]

0 thoughts on “Anti-Character Snobs and the Internet”

  1. @ Rachel: There are some people who, believe it or not, take a stand on (misguided) principle. Lazy people probably outnumber them, but snobs do exist.

    I think more common, though, are the “tones don’t matter” and “tones don’t matter if you speak fast enough” advocates. Chris, got any statistics lying around to ruin their day? Hahha…


  2. @ Rachel: To be fair, I ‘spose most of them are just lazy (as I myself am about learning characters from time to time). I just like to pick up the ones that are self-righteous about it.

    @ C.: The “tones don’t matter” thing drives me crazy. I see a lot of foreigners complaining that Chinese don’t understand them even though they said it “perfectly” and there is something real behind that phenomenon. I’m sure some large percentage of those situations, though, is a foreigner unknowingly screwing up the tones and the Chinese just trying to figure out what is trying to be communicated (or not trying at all and giving up, as the case may be.)


  3. I still agree with my first Chinese teacher that “pinyin is not Chinese.” However (and I’m sure you agree), how a person should study Chinese and what they should study all depends on their time and language goals. Some people are never going to take the HSK, but they want to be able to hang out with Chinese friends and have fun, and they’ll go back to the States after two years. I wouldn’t suggest a hanzi-heavy course for people like that. That said, completely ditching hanzi altogether… I’ve never actually heard of a school doing that, but that’s crazy. You’ve gotta have at least some (like 男/女!) no matter what your language goals are.


  4. My source about schools that don’t require you to learn characters is admittedly not so reliable. I had a long conversation about it with a guy that had lived in Taiwan for some time, and he himself didn’t really speak much Chinese and as far as I know hadn’t taken any of the courses. Anyone that knows more about it should feel free to confirm / deny.

    You make a good point. From a personal perspective though, I would feel like my Chinese was incomplete if I couldn’t read (just like I’d feel like my English was incomplete if I was illiterate). Different strokes for different folks I ‘spose but I’m glad my early Chinese teachers forced me to drill characters until my brains fell out.


  5. I do know one school, actually maybe two, that deliberately tailor their programs not for HSK but for everyday conversation and put less emphasis on characters. There’s still writing practice, of course, but it’s much lighter; characters aren’t emphasized nearly as much, less are required. The Chinese Made Easier series is an example of a curriculum that deliberately de-emphasizes writing and hanzi while still including some.

    I get the impression that some foreigners from previous generations who had to learn Chinese “the old way” felt they wasted too much time learning characters that they never ended up really needing to use, especially not hand write.

    Personally, I’m still aiming for literacy. This post got into language learning goal differences.






  7. characters are relics of a poor, backward ugly past. ugly dead.

    google: Emperor PUYI

    google: foot-binding of women

    google: japan invasion of china in world war II.

    googe: famines in the 1950s 1960s.

    All True.. All facts known in the Internet-Age. Information-Age.
    Time to End Ugly Hanzi.
    Internet-age will be the End of Hanzi.
    MAO Zedong happy in Heaven.. HANZI will die in 2020 2030.
    Dig a big big big Hole and Bury Hanzi.


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