software designer on Chinese

Professor Myles Harding, inventor of the Talking Chinese Dictionary and Instant Translator, sounds like a nice guy, and heaven knows the world needs more and better programs for learning Mandarin, but I can’t let some of his statements in a recent newspaper article pass without comment.

It’s no wonder that students of Mandarin and other Sinitic languages often make so little progress, given how mistaken their teachers and the designers of their learning materials are about the nature of the Sinitic languages and Chinese characters. Let’s take a look.

The very first paragraph, short though it is, contains many serious errors.

‘Take the English word ‘jealous’,” Professor Myles Harding says. “In Chinese, it consists of four characters or pictographs that translate as ‘fighting the wind and drinking vinegar’.”

First, conflating Chinese characters and pictographs is seriously misleading. Contrary to popular belief, pictographs represent only about 1 percent of Chinese characters. Let me repeat that: a mere 1 percent. And the greater the number of characters created, the smaller that percentage gets.

Also, many of those characters that did begin as pictographs no longer particularly resemble the object they are supposed to picture. So, counting them as pictographs is not particularly relevant, especially because that is not how experienced readers see/read them. As John DeFrancis succinctly put it:
QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
ANSWER: When it represents a sound.

Even many of the original forms — i.e. those closest to true pictographs — would still leave most people guessing. Most people have to have the identity pointed out before they can recognize what the so-called pictograph represents.

And not in any language are words made of Chinese characters. Chinese characters are a script, not a language, just as the Roman alphabet is a script, not a language. By saying that a word “consists of four Chinese characters” Harding is voicing (most likely inadvertantly) the notion that somehow Chinese characters are the “real” language (some sort of Platonic ideal), and that what people speak to each other is a bastardization of this. The outstanding linguist Peter Du Ponceau exploded this myth nearly two hundred years ago; yet it survives. (The Chinese and Japanese seem to have picked up this myth from Westerners, such as Ernest Fenollosa.)

Some people might think I’m being a bit picky about the wording here. But I’m being that way only because people tend to hear what they expect to hear; and as long as the myths continue to thrive, that’s what people will have reinforced unless they’re given the truth. These distinctions do matter.

Although I’ve already gone on at some length about the problems here, we’re still not finished with the first paragraph.

In speaking of the “word” for “jealous,” Harding appears to be referring to zhēngfēngchīcù (爭風吃醋), a Mandarin term that in English means “fight for the affection of a man or woman” and “be jealous of a rival in a love affair.”

But that’s hardly the same thing as the Mandarin word for “jealous,” of which there are several, perhaps the most common of which is simply dùjì.

The Swinburne University mathematician chortles with delight: “Isn’t that a wonderful way of expressing jealousy? You could study Chinese for six years at school and four years at university and never learn that expression – but with my system you can.”

This points to the fact that zhēngfēngchīcù isn’t really the word for “jealous.” Can you imagine studying a language for ten years and not learning such a relatively common word as “jealous”? Similarly, people studying English wouldn’t necessarily learn “pushing up daisies” — but it’s extremely unlikely they wouldn’t have encountered and learned the English word “dead.”

Professor Harding has designed CD-ROM-based software that provides instant translation of complex character combinations in Chinese, one of the world’s most difficult languages.

The language is not necessarily “difficult” in itself. (And no language is difficult to its native speakers.) Rather it is Chinese characters that are difficult — damn hard, even. Making matters worse, most people misunderstand the nature of Chinese characters, which has warped people’s understanding of the language itself, making it much more difficult for students to learn.

“In Chinese, the words aren’t spaced, so I had to figure out a way of using the computer to split the stream of characters into words. My system does that, splits them up, colours the words and separates them so the student can put the mouse on them, click and get the meaning of the fragments in a sentence and piece it together.”

Devising a computer program to do this took Professor Harding 18 months, mostly working at night. Eventually, he developed a system he thought could be adapted to make an English-Chinese, Chinese-English dictionary.

But to look up a Chinese word can take a long time because more than 10,000 are commonly used.

Unlike English, the words don’t start with A or B or any of the other letters of the alphabet.

Unless the text is written in romanization, of course. And unless the dictionary is arranged completely alphabetically, like the entries in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, the fact of the matter is that Chinese dictionaries are relatively difficult to use, as even editors of such dictionaries have admitted.

Chinese people who have seen Professor Harding’s system are amazed: “They say things like, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for that character for years and never been able to find it!’ ”

This statement provides an excellent anecdote on the difficulty of reading and writing characters — and, as above, of the difficulties of Chinese dictionaries.

“This system enables the student to start reading Chinese from day one. It takes the difficulty out of knowing the characters; it highlights them so you get used to the word order and learn how Chinese people think.”


Then there are the millions of people in China who want to learn English. As Professor Harding says, for every student learning Chinese there are 1000 or more Chinese who want to learn English.

This, however, is quite true.

3 thoughts on “software designer on Chinese

  1. The sentence “Unlike English, the words don’t start with A or B or any of the other letters of the alphabet” strikes me as bizarrely phrased but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

  2. Pingback: Pinyin news » Blog Archive » Tonal languages and the tone deaf

  3. Pingback: Tonal languages and the tone deaf | Pinyin News

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