Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Chinese Characters – Simplified or Traditional

Chinese is already a difficult foreign language to learn, as Level IV compares with Level I Spanish and French. We make it even more complicated by talking about simplified or traditional characters.

Traditional characters are the original Chinese characters standardized since the 5th century in China, and they’re currently used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s in mainland China and are used in China, Singapore and by the United Nations. People who come from or have lived or visited in either region seem to have strong feelings for which characters to use. They have endless good reasons why students should learn one version or the other. Traditional characters advocates say traditional characters represent Chinese culture, Chinese calligraphy can only look good with traditional characters, and if you learn the traditional version first, it will be easier to learn the simplified version later. Advocates of simplified characters say you should learn the version that most Chinese use. If you go to China, you see only simplified characters, and they’re much easier to learn. So who is right and whom we shall listen to? In my opinion, they both are right, but you still have to decide which version to learn. It really doesn’t matter which comes first or whether you learn only one. That’s because if you have a good foundation of either, you can learn both – even if you don’t master both. Why?

Do you know there are only “350 singly simplified characters, whose simplifications cannot be generalized to other characters” and only “132 simplified characters and 14 simplified radicals, which can all be generalized to other characters?” To learn more about this, please click here This means fewer than 500 Chinese characters actually have different forms among 5,000 characters that we use on a daily basis. And if you read Chinese daily and see both versions here and there, you can automatically read either of them. I am from mainland China and have learned only simplified characters, but I can read traditional characters without any problem, even though I cannot write them. Likewise, my suppliers in Taiwan and Hong Kong learned only traditional characters, but they have no problem reading my hand-written simplified characters. You may have heard some Chinese say that they cannot read simplified or traditional characters. I have to say, it is not that they can’t, it is that they don’t want to. If they want, they can!

I have also heard some teachers saying that we don’t need to teach Chinese characters, that Pinyin is enough for students to understand and speak Chinese. They say if students really need to know the characters, they can type Pinyin on the computer and pick the right ones. I am not sure I agree. Writing can help you memorize the characters, and if you only type Pinyin a few times and choose characters from the screen, how will you remember them? If you cannot recognize Chinese characters, you can’t even read street signs in China or in Chinatown. So choose whichever version you think best for your Chinese learning/teaching endeavor. In the end, you’ll know both characters and can read endless street signs in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore!

To learn more about Chinese characters, visit Wikipedia’s Chinese character site, a great page with everything you want to know about the Chinese characters.



Willscrlt said...

Hello. Thank you for your very good article. It helps explain a lot that Wikipedia didn't quite explain well.

My question is as an English-only speaker/writer (something that embarrasses me), I must rely upon Google Translate or Babelfish to translate into Chinese. My target audience is general conversation to business language. I don't have a specific country, but want to reach the audience most connected and using the Internet. I am planning on using this information for personal sites, maybe a little section on my company's website. For anything really serious, I would hire a professional translator, but it would still be good to have some background information in mind going into that.

Do you have a recommendation as to which of the two letter forms I should use (Simplified or Traditional)? I noticed that both translations seem similar enough that I hate to waste space with a lot of duplication, and sometimes space is too tight to allow for both. Which one should I choose for Internet readers?

Also, have you noticed if either form results in better translations than the other using online services?

And, while we are discussing this, which online translation tool have you found does the best job of translating from English into Chinese--hopefully good enough that I can use it and reliably get my message across even if it sounds computer-translated.

I realize that this is your personal opinion (unless you know of links to actual research on this), but I value what you wrote in your original article, and I trust what you will tell me is reasonably reliable. At least enough for my purposes. Thank you!

Caesar said...

Willscrit, my opinion is go with Simplified characters for reaching the largest internet audience. Also, here is an article about the question of simplified or traditional.

Ryper沛睿 said...

This article was written very very well. You do not have a biased opinion and you give good reasons for learning both scripts. I am American and personally prefer the traditional characters. However, I cannot ignore the fact that a large majority of Chinese speakers use simplified. I usually read things in traditional or convert them into traditional for my own personal gain, and when I must I can read simplified with little problem.

I have actually begun writing a blog on the differences between both scripts. If you could take a look at it, I would greatly appreciate it.
Simplified Traditional

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Hey great post. Thought I'm not sure I agree with you 100%. Keep em coming. Are you interested in having anyone guest post opposing views?

Bethann Buddenbaum said...

While guest blogging spots aren't available, ChinaSprout does welcome your comments, so please feel free to post them here.