'Easier way to learn Chinese - skip the writing'

The "write" way to teach children Chinese may be the wrong way.

It would be better for kids and those new to the language to eschew the difficult task of memorising Chinese characters and instead rely on translation apps, an American linguist who heads CET Chinese Studies at a university in Beijing told more than 500 parents and educators yesterday.

At a public seminar organised in conjunction with the Speak Mandarin Campaign's 35th anniversary, Dr David Moser shared his own difficulties in learning the language, referring to a widely circulated essay he wrote in 1991: "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard".

"Someone once told me learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility," he said.

"But after five years, I still did not master Chinese, but I learnt what humility was," he added, to laughter from the audience.

It was not Mandarin that was hard to pick up, but the characters, he said at the seminar, titled New Digital Revolution In Learning Mandarin.

He also shared the many apps and digital tools available, such as translation services in Web browsers and apps that convert speech to text.

"Not being able to write Chinese characters does not mean the language dies," said the 58-year-old, who holds a doctorate in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, and is an academic director at Beijing Capital Normal University.

Such digital tools can help expose more people to the language, said Mr Tan Dan Feng, a translator and publisher who moderated a panel discussion at the seminar.

"Through technology, you can lower the threshold so that people can learn the language first without pressure," he said.

But whether traditionalists would embrace Dr Moser's ideas remains to be seen.

"To many, of course, there is still value to writing," said the chairman of the Promote Mandarin Council, Mr Seow Choke Meng.

"We hope the session provided our audience with different perspectives."


This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.