Character amnesia

Character amnesia

Character amnesia (simplified Chinese: 提笔忘字; traditional Chinese: 提筆忘字; pinyin: tíbĭwàngzì; literally "pick up pen, forget the character") is a phenomenon whereby experienced speakers of some East Asian languages forget how to write Chinese characters previously well known to them. The phenomenon is specifically tied to prolonged and extensive use of input methods, such as those that use romanizations of characters, and is documented to be a significant issue in China and Japan. Modern technology, such as mobile phones and computers, allows users to enter Chinese characters using their phonetic transcription without knowing how to write them by hand.[1][2] Whether or not the phenomenon is as wide-spread or troubling as some have claimed is the subject of debate.[3]



Chinese characters are a logographic form of writing, where the form of the character is not always directly related to its pronunciation. The characters are composed of a combination of 8–11 standard strokes, over a hundred common radicals, and hundreds of phonetic components. The characters can be very complex and learning them is a highly neuro-muscular task, meaning that it is difficult to remember how to write the characters without repetitive practice in writing them by hand.[4] Scientific studies have also shown that while reading utilizes diverse areas of the brain, reading Chinese makes unique usage of distinct parts of the frontal and temporal areas of the brain associated with motor memory, areas associated with handwriting.[5][6][7][8]

It is difficult to establish exactly how many different Chinese characters are in use today; the new HSK, a widely used proficiency test for Standard Chinese as a second language, tests over 2,600 different characters, whilst in 1988 the People's Republic of China published the List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese which contains 7,000 different characters. In Japan, where a smaller set of characters are in general usage, the Japanese Ministry of Education prescribes the teaching of 2,136 kanji in primary and secondary school in a list called the jōyō kanji, meaning "regular-use Chinese characters".

Chinese character literacy in both China and Japan is taught by rote memorization, where schoolchildren become proficient at writing characters by writing them by hand repeatedly. As a result of people becoming less reliant on handwriting and more willing to use computer input methods, they are no longer exposed to the necessary reinforcement to retain the ability to write the characters. Those affected by character amnesia are still capable of reading text and visually recognizing characters, but are unable to write some characters by hand, usually those less frequently used, without the aid of an input method device such as a mobile phone or computer.[4]

Changing ways of writing Chinese characters

SCIM pinyin input method used to type Chinese on a computer
Letter written by hand in an expressive style using brush and ink – Mi Fu, 11th century

Until the 20th century writing Chinese characters was done with brush and ink. In the early 20th century when the pen became the dominant method of writing in China and Japan, critics complained that the expressiveness of Chinese characters would be lost.[9] Calligraphy is, however, still a thriving art form throughout East Asia.

In the 1980s electronic typewriters and later personal computers provided people in China and Japan an alternative to writing by hand. With the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991 and the subsequent widespread use of email, internet chat, and discussion forums, people began using computers to communicate with each other in Chinese and Japanese. Today, increased computer usage and the use of SMS text-messaging, especially among young people, means that a large portion of those people's everyday use of Chinese characters is done using input methods, not by hand. In a 2010 survey by Dayang Net, 43 percent of respondents said they use the computer all the time for their jobs and 43 percent said that they only write out characters by hand when filling out forms or writing their signature.[10]

Some input methods are, in fact, related to the structure of the character, as opposed to those based on pronunciation. Cangjie is one popular example of such a structure based input method for Chinese. Input methods based on phonetic transcription which do not require the user to know how to write the character by hand are the most popular, because they are easier to use. In China, more than 97 percent of computer users enter Chinese characters using such a phonetic input method.[9]

A parallel phenomenon has appeared involving the increased use of input methods to write Chinese characters and the difficulty of remembering such a large set of characters. The use of word processors allows the user to write using characters that the user does not remember how to write by hand. This resulted in the reappearance in the 1980s in Japan of complex older characters which had been removed from the official lists. The number of characters available for use on a word processor far exceeds the number of characters a person can readily remember how to write by hand.[11] While many have blamed the use of input methods for difficulty remembering how to write the characters by hand, widespread use of input methods may be responsible for a reversal in the decline of kanji use in Japan.[12]

Evidence of character amnesia

Anecdotal evidence of character amnesia is plentiful, but there has been insufficient scientific study of the phenomenon.[9][13][14][15] There are however a few surveys which reinforce the claim that reliance on input methods has caused those who communicate in written Chinese and Japanese to forget how to write many characters in general use which they previously were able to write from memory. An April 2010 survey conducted by China Youth Daily found that of the 2,072 respondents 83 percent reported having trouble writing characters. A similar Dayang Net survey found that 80 percent of respondents acknowledged having forgotten how to write some characters.[10] In 2008 the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China conducted a survey of 3,000 teachers, where sixty percent complained of declining writing ability.[16]

While some claim that phone text messaging is the primary cause of character amnesia,[10] the phenomenon, at least in Japan, appears to originate with widespread use of word processors. An article in the Asahi Shimbun from 23 September 1985, reports that students were finding it increasingly difficult to remember how to write even quite simple kanji by hand since the full-scale introduction of word processors at a university campus in Isehara.[17] A 1993 survey of members of the Information Processing Society of Japan found that habitual word processor users reported declining ability to write characters by hand.[11]


In China the Education Ministry has attempted to counteract the problem of character amnesia through the promotion of traditional Chinese calligraphy classes. The ministry's instructions include increasing the frequency of calligraphy classes for younger students to once every week and optional classes and after-school activities for older students.[18]

See also


  1. ^ "Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan". The Independent. Agence France Presse. 29 August 2010. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  2. ^ Demick, Barbara (12 Jul. 2010). "China worries about losing its character(s)". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Custer, C. (23 Jul 2010). "Is "Character Amnesia" a Problem?". China Geeks. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Mair, Victor. "Character Amnesia". Language Log. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  5. ^ Wolf, Maryanne (2007). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. HarperCollins. pp. 36–37. "...logographic systems appear to activate very distintive parts of the frontal and temporal areas, particularly regions involved in motoric memory skills... because that is how Chinese symbols are learned by young readers- by writing, over and over." 
  6. ^ Tan, Li Hai; Laird, Angela R.; Li, Karl; Fox, Peter T. (2005). "Neuroanatomical correlates of phonological processing of Chinese characters and alphabetic words: A meta-analysis". Human Brain Mapping (Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company) 25 (1): 83–91. doi:10.1002/hbm.20134. 
  7. ^ Wen-Jui Kuo, Tzu-Chen Yeh, Chia-Ying Lee, Y. u-T. e Wu, Chi-Cher Chou, Low-Tone Ho, Daisy L. Hung, Ovid J. L. Tzeng, Jen-Chuen Hsieh (2003). "Frequency effects of Chinese character processing in the brain: an event-related fMRI study". NeuroImage 18 (3): 720–730. doi:10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00015-6. 
  8. ^ Wen-Jui Kuo, Tzu-Chen Yeh, Jun-Ren Lee, Li-Fen Chen, Po-Lei Lee, Shyan-Shiou Chen, Low-Tone Ho, Daisy L. Hung, Ovid J. -L. Tzeng, Jen-Chuen Hsieh (2004). "Orthographic and phonological processing of Chinese characters: an fMRI study". NeuroImage 21 (4): 1721–1731. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2003.12.007. 
  9. ^ a b c Lee, Jennifer (1 Feb. 2001). "Where the PC Is Mightier Than the Pen". New York Times. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  10. ^ a b c Moxley, Mitch (4 Aug. 2010). "'Take pen, forget character'". Asia Times Online. Inter Press Service. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  11. ^ a b Ping Chen and Nanette Gottlieb (2001). Language planning and language policy: East Asian perspectives. Psychology Press. pp. 38. 
  12. ^ Insup Taylor, M. Martin Taylor, Maurice Martin Taylor (1995). Writing and literacy in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 336–338. 
  13. ^ Chris Matyszczyk (August 26, 2010). "'Character amnesia' hitting gear-obsessed kids". CNET News. Retrieved August 30, 2011. 
  14. ^ Michael Brooks (August 27, 2010). "Character Amnesia: Forgetting Culture In China And Japan". PSFK. Retrieved August 30, 2011. 
  15. ^ Judith Evans (Aug 25, 2010). "Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan". AFP. Retrieved August 30, 2011. 
  16. ^ Xu, Xinlei (5 Aug. 2010). "Amnesia with Chinese characters". China Daily. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  17. ^ Gottlieb, Nanette (2005). Language and Society in Japan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 131. 
  18. ^ "New calligraphy classes for China's internet generation". BBC NEWS ASIA-PACIFIC. 27 August 2011. Retrieved August 29, 2011. 

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