Texting Hurts Chinese Kids' Literacy
Kids in China who spend more time talking and texting are more likely to fall far behind in reading.
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Chinese researcher Li-Hai Tan noticed a few years ago that adults in China — himself included — complained of forgetting how to write some complex Chinese characters after doing a lot of typing and texting using the Roman alphabet of Western countries. Tan, who studies language and the brain at the University of Hong Kong, wondered how emailing and chatting might affect children still learning to read and write.
Now, after studying more than 5,000 elementary-age kids, he's going so far as to recommend that children never use the pinyin input method — which uses Roman characters and is the most popular method of typing in Chinese.
Traditionally, Chinese children spent a lot of time writing out characters by hand, which forced them to learn every little line involved in forming each character. With the pinyin method, however, users type in a Romanized pronunciation of the character they want, and their chat software or email program will offer a list of possible characters to match.
To write "pear," for example, users just need to type in "li." The software they're using will suggest 里, 利, 力, 利, 梨, 立, 例, 荔, 理, 离 and礼. Kids don't need to know every stroke in the correct character to recognize and choose 梨.
"Primary schoolers should be prohibited from using the pinyin input method," Tan wrote in an email to TechNewsDaily. "Our findings indicate that using electronic communication devices with the pinyin input method deals a blow to children's reading development in China." [SEE ALSO: 2013 Best Electronic Translator Comparisons and Reviews]
A blow to literacy
His and his colleagues' work shows that activities many take for granted in the digital age can have an enormous effect on kids' learning — and on the continuation of a language that's lasted more than 3,000 years. Studies from before the mid-1990s found that between 2 and 8 percent of kids in Taiwan and mainland China were severely behind in reading skills. In Tan and his colleagues' recent survey, that number had jumped to 28 percent.
The more time Chinese kids spend typing and texting, the more likely they are to read at two grades or more below grade level, Tan and his colleagues found.
Tan said his findings probably don't apply to English-speaking children. Instead, his work is an interesting glimpse into how differently young brains learn English and Chinese.
One of the most important reading skills an English-speaking kid has to master is learning what sounds letters make, Tan explained. Think of all those alphabet books with "A is for apple" and "B is for bear."
Chinese kids, on the other hand, have to learn to associate full characters with meanings. Typing in pinyin input undermines that process, Tan thinks.
The solution, he says, is simple but unpopular: Write things out.
Commercially available software and hardware allow people to type using a stylus to write characters on a board, a method that's popular with elderly Chinese people who weren't taught pinyin in school. Kids could learn basic computer skills, including Microsoft Word and email programs, using the handwriting board, Tan said.
The handwriting board is slower to use than pinyin, but the method is worth it for kids' literacy, Tan said. "In the future, all computers to be sold in China should have a space on the regular keyboard for people to use the handwriting input method," he said.
Tan and his colleagues published a paper about their work today (Dec. 31) in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.