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Language, Literacy, and Identity

A question we get often at Asia Society is whether a school should teach traditional or simplified characters in Mandarin classes. Similar questions might confront schools as they choose between European or Latin American Spanish. As my colleague Yun Qin from our Chinese Language Initiatives explains, the answer doesn't necessarily come down to politics or nationalism. She examines the question by turning the mirror onto how American and British English developed over the years. Read on. 

By Yun Qin

What would you say to a school in China who asks you whether to teach British English or American English?

Would you choose one over the other because you yourself are British or American?

Would you go futher and suggest that it depends on which country, region, or culture these students plan to focus on?

Perhaps you might be compelled to identify what the differences are in today's lexicon. And why do certain differences persist? Where and when did they begin?

Before you point your research to the 19th century, when Mr. Noah Webster composed his famous spelling books and dictionaries, I'd like to share a similar quandary which currently exists in another language: Chinese.

Very recently, a decision-maker in an American public school asked me whether the school should teach traditional or simplified Chinese characters. This question is weighted with history, politics, literary bias, and practicality.

Chinese characters have been evolving for thousands of years. Some changes were in response to new advances in writing tools, the media on which writing appeared (i.e. stone, silk, paper, and later, computer screen), as well as education and literacy. The two terms "traditional characters" and "simplified characters" didn't come into use until the 20th century. After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the "Chinese Character Simplification Scheme" was launched among many policies from the new government. The new script was dubbed simplified and old script was then called traditional.

In the 19th century, the United States was a new country grappling with its own language standards when Noah Webster forged American nationalism by creating an American language with his best-selling spelling book and monumental dictionary.

Launching a new system of standards, including script standards, and asking its people to follow these standards can be one way for a new government to manifest its authenticity. The maintenance of these standards can signify the maintenance of a regime. Politicians like Mr. Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan, where traditional characters are used, still calls traditional script the "authentic script."

But does either script itself have authenticity defined externally? Maybe not. Language is constantly evolving. Many so-called traditional Chinese characters today have a new look compared to older characters. Today's simplified characters may be simplified again in the future. Nothing is absolute or static. And no script's development relies solely on forces from a government.

In the middle of the 20th century, one important purpose of simplifying Chinese characters, which often have fewer strokes than traditional characters, was to help illiterate people learn to read and write. In the 1950 the illiteracy rate of adults in mainland China was as high as 80%. Fifty years after the simplified characters were introduced, the illiteracy rate came down to less than 15%.

How similar this is to Mr. Noah Webster's rationale for creating new spelling rules! Both "colour" and "color" existed in the early 18th century. At that time, English spelling was messy in America. Different spelling rules from different languages—especially Latin, French, and Greek—inevitably resulted in confusion. But Webster's 1828 dictionary had only -or, which is a simpler rule for people to follow.

Mr. Webster had wins and losses. He won with color, center, mask, and public, but lost with "ake" (ache), "soop" (soup), and "determin" (determine).

A similar thing happened in China. After the Chinese Character Simplification Scheme had achieved considerable traction, the second Chinese Character Simplification Scheme was introduced in 1977. This plan went too far in terms of reforming the Chinese characters and was abandoned in 1986.

When I was learning English in a Chinese secondary school, my textbooks were compiled by experts from Oxford or Cambridge. So even after living in the States for a couple of years, I still need to double check from time to time whether there should be one "L" or two "Ls" in "traveled." But my Chinese friends who live in Britain feel very comfortable with "colour" and "honour."

As for friends who live back home in China, some of them like watching "House of Cards," while others prefer "Sherlock Holmes." I wonder whether they would appreciate or curse the English class they had when they hear pants versus trousers, flat versus apartment, or lift versus elevator?

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