I wrote about my failed attempts of learning to read Chinese characters beyond a smattering, and how it is still a goal of mine to get to a level where I wouldn’t have to ask others to read me menus and food labels at the supermarket. Last year, I had also mentioned how I had found at last an app called Du Chinese that seemed like it could help me attain my goal of being able to read Chinese. Even though traveling had interrupted my regular routines, thanks to this app, I had managed to keep up learning Chinese characters. I found myself seeking out Du Chinese while waiting to board a plane or when jet-lag had robbed me of sleep. According to the app’s dashboard based on my reading of 229 lessons, I now know 1065 characters. If you take into account I started using this app over a year ago, that’s roughly an average of 2-3 characters I’ve learnt per day. Talk about slow learning! But I consider it an achievement even if it might not sound like much because I have managed to stick to it.
As I’ve gotten older, I have become a big fan and practitioner of slow learning. I’m more realistic (and accepting) of my motivation and self-discipline level. When it comes to doing things I don’t enjoy but that are beneficial such as learning Chinese characters or things I like but I find hard like Jiu Jitsu, I now know that the best approach is to proceed slowly. Oh, and to set realistic goals too. In this case, my goal is to be able to recognize at least 1500 characters by the time I travel to China next year. The internet tells me that at this amount I will be able to read a newspaper and recognize about 94.5% of modern Chinese. I feel confident that now that I have the right tools in Du Chinese and Chineasy that I will make it. While Du Chinese is a more serious way of learning based on Extensive Reading (ER) method that emphasizes reading longer texts to build speed and fluency, Chineasy on the other hand is more light and fun. Every time I log into it I feel like I’m playing a game. I love how it uses colorful stories and graphics to help you remember the characters. It is the prettiest app on my phone and that is saying a lot because I have tonnes. The lessons are short and sweet too, less than 5 mins. The best of all with both apps is that no writing is required, I just need to recognize the characters! Happy days! 我会加油 (Wo hui jia you)!
Recently, I read two articles from MIT Technology Review that made me realize the painstaking work it took to enable me to get away with simply having to reach for my phone for a few minutes per day to learn Chinese characters. The computer was designed with Roman letters in mind so the quest to equip it to handle Chinese characters started in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Since there were no personal computers being built then in China, Bruce Rosenblum and his team set off to reprogram an Apple II to operate in Chinese. There were two parts to solving this. The first was the design, how to turn tens of thousands of the characters to bitmaps (a way of storing images digitally using a grid of pixels). This was an enormous challenge as for each Chinese character, designers had to make 256 separate decisions, one for each potential pixel in the bitmap. Multiplied across thousands of characters, this amounted to literally hundreds of thousands of decisions in a development process that took more than two years to complete. Then there was how to store these characters on the computer. For English, engineers and designers determined that a low-resolution digital font could be built upon a 5-by-7 bitmap grid—requiring only five bytes of memory per symbol. Storing all 128 low-resolution characters in the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which includes every letter in the English alphabet, the numerals 0 through 9, and common punctuation symbols, required just 640 bytes of memory—a tiny fraction of, for example, the Apple II’s 64 kilobytes of onboard memory. But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid was too small to make them legible. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or larger—i.e., at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Imagine a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require approximately 256 kilobytes just to store the bitmaps. That was four times the total memory capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s. Designers spent years trying to create Chinese character bitmaps that fulfilled low memory requirements.
The next bit of the puzzle to solve is how to actually type Chinese characters using a QWERTY keyboard. In 1983 a Chinese engineer called Wang Yongmin developed the first popular method–Wubi–to input characters on the computer. The Wubi is a breakdown of a Chinese character into different strokes and assigning several strokes to each letter on the QWERTY keyboard. It enabled the matching of every Chinese character with a keystroke combination using at maximum four QWERTY keys. The drawback of this method was that one had to memorize which keys correspond to which strokes. The widespread knowledge of Pinyin, the phonetic spelling of Chinese words using Latin letters, helped solve this problem. Pinyin was invented in the 1950s and China started teaching kids Pinyin before teaching them characters in the 1980s and 1990s. This was also how I was first taught Chinese at Beijing Language and Cultural University. In the 1990s many IMEs (input method editors) were invented using Pinyin, Chinese characters could now be displayed by typing the phonetic spelling using the standard QWERTY keyboard. For example, if I wanted to type my name, 金 笛 in Chinese, I would type “jin” and “di” and a list of corresponding characters would be displayed. The most prominent was Zhineng ABC, developed in 1993 by Zhu Shoutao, a computer science professor at Peking University. It became the most widely used one in the country after Microsoft integrated it as one of the default IMEs in Windows PCs. The problem with Zhineng ABC and other similar methods was that tens and even hundreds of characters can share the same phonetic spelling. Even though Zhineng ABC would display the characters always in the same order, you would still have to know where the character you wanted was located. By the time I moved to China and started learning Chinese in 2007, this drawback had been fixed. Only, just. In 2006 Sogou was released, essentially combining the foundation of Pinyin typing and the technology of a search engine, and went on to become the most popular keyboard app in China. This means that whenever I type in “Jin” the first character 金 displayed is usually my name since it is the most common “jin”, no need to scroll through dozens of characters associated with the Pinyin “jin”.
I now have a whole new appreciation for being able to type and view Chinese characters on my phone and computer. It has actually made me more determined to reach my goal. I think I might even raise my target to 2000 characters which would mean I can recognize 97.1% of modern Chinese. No matter what my target is I’m still going take it slowly, one character at a time. 我会加油 (Wo hui jia you)!