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August 27, 2010

The death of handwriting?

I've blogged about handwriting in the computer age before, but this story on just reinforced it: handwriting is going the way of the dodo.

I never really thought about it before. Yes, we westerners, with our relatively easy alphabet, have been getting away from actual handwriting over the last few years. But the alphabet's so easy that there's no way we would actually forget the characters.

What about more complex written languages, like Chinese?

As you know, Chinese writing (and many other Asian languages) uses a lot of different figures and shapes to represent words, and writing each of those shapes can be a laborious process. I'm not a language scholar or expert, and I don't know any other languages like this, so I can only go by what I've seen, but it looks labor-intensive (any of my Chinese readers care to comment?).

So I guess in this age of computers, texting, typing, and the like, it's no surprise that people are not only writing less, but actually forgetting how to do some of the characters!

"Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

"I can remember the shape, but I can't remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem.""

Now, my penmanship has always been horrible, but at least I know *how* to do it! I can't imagine what it would be like trying to write a language that is that intricate, and one that I don't use that often because I'm on a computer all the time.

They call it "character amnesia," and it's basically the forgetting of how to form language characters in your writing. Now that so many Chinese and Japanese young people are using devices and programs to translate their characters into a Roman alphabet, they are learning to recognize characters but not necessarily how to draw them for themselves.

"Character amnesia matters because memorisation is so crucial to character-based written languages, says Siok Wai Ting, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University. Forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability.

"There is no way we can learn the writing systematically because the writing itself is not systematic -- we have to memorise, we have to rote learn," she says.

"Through writing, we memorise the characters. Reading and writing are more closely connected in Chinese.""

We think it's bad in the West? We think that grammar and spelling has become atrocious because too many people these days speak in text-speak? (Have you ever said "LOL" rather than actually laughed?). We have nothing on these character-based languages, languages that might disappear as more and more young people use electronic devices that end up using a Roman alphabet to communicate.

But do many people see it as a problem?

"A survey by the southern Chinese news portal Dayang Net, found that 80 percent of respondents had forgotten how to write some characters -- but 43 percent said they used handwritten characters only for signatures and forms.

"The idea that China is a country full of people who write beautiful, fluid literature in characters without a second thought is a romantic fantasy," wrote the blogger and translator C. Custer on his Chinageeks blog.

"Given the social and financial pressures that exist for most people in China... (and) given that nearly everyone has a cellphone, it really isn't a problem at all.""

So what do you think? Again, if I have any Chinese readers (and I know of at least one), I'd love your input on this. But everybody else too. Is handwriting dying? And are Asian character-based languages the canary in the coal mine for it?


  1. I don't think handwriting is dying completely - at least here in the west. However, I do know that the _art_ of handwriting has completely given way to utility. Kids are no longer graded on neatness the way they were a mere generation ago. Neither of my kids had to do third-grade cursive (who remembers all those worksheets?) in a way that really stressed the stroke and form that leads to attractive, legible writing. As a result, both my kids (now 16 & 18) have the most atrocious chicken scratch. However, I think they both beat me easily when it comes to keyboarding speed.

  2. I read something just recently that said grammar school children are not being taught cursive writing anymore - I was appalled! I hope that was a hoax, or an isolated school situation. The article gave credit to every infernal handheld electronic device that is infesting the planet. Kids no longer need to sit and write anything in longhand. This disturbs me greatly and falls into the category of "one more manifestation of the erosion of civilization as we know it". I am in the category that shall never embrace an electronic reader, nor shall I embrace the decline of handwritten letters. Despite email being the most common form of communication, I still send handwritten letters to various friends around the world. I may be a dying breed, but I'll stand firm on this one - such elements of education and communication should not be allowed to fizzle away as though they are insignificant annoyances.

    Wonderful article!

    ~ Dawn

  3. @Anonymous - if you've never commented here before, then welcome! And if you have, then welcome back!

    My handwriting has always been chicken-scratch (and my cursive was never good, but now it's really ugly), so I'm probably not the best example of "the way it used to be." But I definitely see your point!

    @Dawn I had heard that too about cursive not being taught. Not sure if it's true or not, but it wouldn't surprise me.

    I've never been a "writer," and I've been moving away from actual writing for years. I used to just be terrible at it, but now my hand starts hurting after a very short period of actual writing. And I doubt it's very readable.

    That being said, I realize that culturally, this is a *really* bad thing.

    Good for you for sticking to the old ways! Receiving a handwritten letter is always awesome just because nobody really does it anymore. When somebody goes to the time and effort of sending one, it just means that much more.

    Thank you, my friend!

  4. I also still send Thank You notes after going on a job interview - yet another practice that seems to be dying off. I send them after going to a party at someone's home also. People always seem astonished to receive them, but I've landed many a job and also kept many a solid friendship over the years from making that wee extra bit of effort. :)

  5. You know, none of this surprises me. :)

    It's attitudes like that which makes you both a valuable employee *and* friend.

    Never change. :)

  6. I just wrote a thank you note today in my very slowest, neatest handwriting. When I write quickly, it is absolutely illegible (even to me a lot of the time). When I took Japanese, my kanji, hiragana and katakana (yes, there are three systems to learn in Japanese, kanji being the most complicated - the other two are syllable-based) also took me forever to draw and never looked very pretty.

    So... ??? I'm not sure if I think this is a good or a bad development. Sometimes things just are what they are. Still, I will continue to hand write my thank you notes... slooooooowly.

  7. Hi Sara!

    Did you read the article? Because one of the things I left out was that they were talking about that third Japanese system that is also starting to fade away.

    Maybe I should slow down on my handwriting too. Then it might actually be legible. :)

  8. Great blog, Dave (I almost wrote Hist). That's gotta be something to actually forget how to write your own language due to the internet. At least for us westerners our letters are still with us chillin' on the keyboard. As far as cursive goes, I /can/ write it, but not fluently.
    My fluidity in cursive is non existant because of the way I hold a pencil/pen. My way of holding causes me to have to move my hand periodically. What I have to do is set my hand down, write until my fingers are jammed against my fist, pick up my hand, move it along the page, place my pen where I left off, and repeat. You can see where cursive suffers here. But anyhoo, excellent blog. Sorry if my comment was rambling. Perhaps my grammar skills have suffered from the excitement of finally getting the chance to visit your other blog?

  9. Hey, Skol!!!

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving the comment. My hand does start to hurt when I write too, though that might be due to lack of use.

    And you're welcome to visit any time. :)


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