A reader of Chinese would be half way through this article by now
Well, the Chinese reader would be halfway through this article if it were written in Chinese anyway…
That’s the intriguing assertion from hsknotes that came out of hanzi-orthography discussion the other day:
Native speakers read chinese at the speed of light, no joke. It’s not even funny. They devour books written in Chinese in a few hours, or a day, while the equivalent thing in English would take them, or a native-english speaker, a substantially longer amount of time. Any small amount of testing will bear this out to anyone
Hsknotes “assumed it was common knowledge”, but I’d never heard this claim before. The sentiment was echoed by others in comments.
Fascinating hypothesis. Let’s give it a name, maybe, the ZEI hypothesis:
Zhongwen (i.e. 中文, written Chinese)
OK, the acronym’s hokey, but it incorporates one of my favorite Beijing dialect words and taxicab conversations (go here and scroll down to 贼快 / zéi kuài if you want background).
To rephrase it, the ZEI hypothesis is saying, simply, that among equivalently proficient readers of Chinese and English, the former will be faster at reading the same content in their native language. And to state the obvious: we’d have to show that comprehension is about the same, or else speed by itself is pretty meaningless.
The best way to test the ZEI hypothesis is probably to borrow someone else’s research, of course. It’s hard to imagine that no one has ever tried to test this. More importantly, what I’m about to propose might be too full of holes to constitute a reasonable test. So if you know of any work in this area, please comment.
In lieu of that for the time being, I’m wondering if the following test might be plausible and executable.
- Create Chinese and English versions of a text
- Show the text on-screen for a limited time
- Ask comprehension questions with the text no longer available for reference
- Score the comprehension question answers and compare native English to native Chinese speakers
That’s the short version. Here are some of the details I think would be important:
Create Chinese and English versions of a text. The text should be
- Technical, but accessible to the lay person without background in the subject
- About an obscure topic, something that most people wouldn’t have had occasion to come across
- Long enough so that it would take, maybe, 4-5 minutes to read and understand thoroughly
Show the text on-screen for a limited time
- Not enough time for most people to finish reading thoroughly
- Maybe 2-3 minutes
Ask comprehension questions with the text no longer available for reference
- Questions cover the entire length of the text
- Idea is that readers would not know answers to later questions if they didn’t have time to read that far
Score the comprehension question answers and compare native English to native Chinese speakers
- Idea is that Chinese speakers should have read further, according to the ZEI hypothesis
- So if the ZEI hypothesis is true, Chinese will have higher comprehension scores
Would it work? The whole idea of putting this up here is to get feedback on design. If we can get this refined to a reasonable degree of satisfaction, maybe we can figure out a way to run it.
Why this matters
The ZEI hypothesis, if true, is incredibly important, at least to me. Why? Because of my general stance towards writing Mandarin with Chinese characters. Although my rhetoric is occasionally misunderstood as “anti” Chinese character, I will continue to say that this is not my position. I am no more “anti” character than one could be “anti” gravity. Characters are the writing system of China. Call it fatalism, but that’s how things are. I’m not interested in changing that.
In looking at Chinese characters (as well as English spelling) as a writing system, I simply want to separate out the facts from the myths. Here’s my simple version of it:
Facts unfavorable to Chinese characters (hanzi)
- It takes longer to learn to read hanzi than a phonemic script like Pinyin
- It takes much longer to learn to write hanzi than a phonemic script
Facts favorable to Chinese characters, that knowing modern hanzi
- Enables folks to read back through hundreds of years of written history
- Makes it easier to read back through many hundreds, even thousands, of years of written history. (Read: you still need significant education, far beyond just knowing modern characters, to be able to read classical works)
- Makes it possible to communicate with older generations that know no Pinyin.
In my haste I’ve probably missed many. Feel free to comment and we can add the ones we agree on to the list. The point is to separate out facts such as “X takes longer” from opinions such as “it’s absolutely vital for everyone in the next generation to be able to read 红楼梦 in the original Chinese characters”.
Looking at this list, generally, the “anti-hanzi” facts seem to be on the side of efficiency while the “pro-hanzi” facts seem to be on the side of social and historical continuity. But here’s where we get to the importance of the ZEI hypothesis.
If the ZEI hypothesis is true, it would be, I think, the first substantial pro-hanzi fact on the side of efficiency.
Now I realize there have been other claims made for the “efficiency” of characters. For example, people say it makes it easier to learn, say, Japanese, if you already know Chinese characters. Or I guess you could argue that there’s an efficiency argument in being able to read ancient Chinese texts more easily if you already know modern Chinese characters. The problem I have with such claims is that they depend on wanting to do something else, something other than obtain modern literacy in your native language. In my mind, then, the ZEI hypothesis is substantially different.
So is it true?