Texting, and Amnesia?

Memorize 200 characters in Chinese, and you can read the newspaper.

Imagine knowing such characters, and then forgetting them. Which is easier, the learning or forgetting?

It sounds incredulous that a plethora of people can no longer write certain characters by hand, even though they have previously been taught how to. Due to the complexity of the characters, it is normal to forget from time to time, but there is an astounding number of those who are not just forgetting a few characters, but everyday words, habitually.  How can it be possible to forget a language so easily?

“Character amnesia,” as the problem is coined, has been a growing phenomenon in China and Japan, where youths have become so reliant on technology that they cannot write certain characters without the aid of cellphones or computers. It has almost reached the point where people cannot hand write anything without pulling out their phones and checking for the proper strokes. In China, where the input system on these electronics is based on pinyin, people only have to recognize the characters, and choose them from a list that appears after the pinyin is typed. For example, the character for ‘I’ or ‘me’ is 我, which is pronounced, “wo.” The character 我 is the first displayed on the list, since it is the most widely used. Chinese people are able to type using pinyin very quickly, without noticing the actual strokes involved in constructing their sentences.

I know how it feels to forget a language, especially the mother tongue. At that time though, it was inevitable. I had just moved to the United States from Hong Kong, and I did not have much fluency of the English language. Under the pressure of my parents and friends, I decided to stop speaking Cantonese. I only spoke my mother tongue when I couldn’t express certain thoughts in English. “Speak English only, that is how you learn,” they would say. My Cantonese was fluent; I could pronounce every word without an accent, and I never thought that I would ever lose it.

But I did.

As I spoke more and more English, my knowledge of Cantonese waned. My parents would speak to me in Canto, only to elicit a reply in English from me. Nowadays, English was my main form of communication–if not the only. I still remember how to say everyday phrases in Canto, but my literate knowledge of the language was long gone. I could barely read, let alone write. I was illiterate in my native language.

At least those experiencing “character amnesia” have not completely lost their language. They can still text. —Eva Choi

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