The other two girls in my Chinese class are both American-born Chinese. They’ve clearly come to their language abilities in a much different way than I have; parents speaking to them, for instance, instead of teachers and randos on trains. Conversationally, they’re very capable, but my formal study of the language has given me a huge advantage – I can read and write.
One of the girls has clearly studied before, but I don’t believe the other ever has. She can’t read characters. This is so interesting to me! Illiteracy, at one of the top universities in the nation! Haha.
No, but for reals. Illiteracy is terrible. The reason you don’t know this is because you’ve probably never been conscious of your illiteracy. You couldn’t read, and then you could, and now you can forever. But when you learn a language like Chinese or Japanese, you take a huge step back in that regard. Turns out there’s a big difference between losing something and never having had it.
I lived in China for two months one summer with a reading level not even equivalent to a child who could only read three-letter words. When I went back to visit the farm in the northeast where I had lived my “Chinese childhood”, I delighted in reading street signs and billboards out loud – just because I could. It was such a wonderful feeling!
A friend of mine was talking to me recently and he told me that if he ever learned an Asian language, he wouldn’t try to learn to read and write. That’s what I thought once. I guess, even in a second language, illiteracy is okay until you realize that it’s really not.
The interesting thing about having this girl in class is watching her and the teacher work around her illiteracy. The teacher typed up all of the questions in the text in pinyin, the standard romanization of Chinese, and she prepared her report in the same way.
The trouble with pinyin is that romanization is a process that leads to information loss. Romanization, to get technical here, is not bijective. Quick lecture:
A function is one-to-one, or injective, between set X and set Y if every x in the set X is related to a different y in set Y. A function is onto if for every y in set Y, there is an x in set X that is related to it. A function is bijective (and therefore invertible) if it is both one-to-one and onto.
Left: one-to-one but not onto. Center: onto, but not one-to-one. Right. One-to-one and onto (bijective, or invertible).
Let’s say characters are in set C, and pronunciations (pinyin) are in a set P. If romanization is our function, it goes from C to P (taking characters and giving them a pronunciation). This function is onto, because every pronunciation that is valid in Chinese has at least one character that sounds like that. But it is NOT one-to-one, because several different characters can be related to the same pronunciation (even when tones are taken into account). For instance, 是、事、试、世、市、式、and 室 are all pronounced ‘shì’.
So, romanization is not invertible. While you find the pronunciation of a character (with the few exceptions in which there are multiple pronunciations, but let’s not trouble ourselves with that), you cannot find the character of a pronunciation.
I’d love to come up with an analogy here, but in English maybe the equivalent would be saying that you’re thinking of a word that rhymes with “sad”. Um, not helpful. Now picture trying to read a text written like that!
It’s very difficult to read pinyin as anything more than an accompaniment to a new word. An entire essay? I’d have a headache within a few lines. The teacher even has trouble with it; I think the only way to understand it is to read it out loud and then focus on the sound.
What I’m trying to say here is – stay in school, kids, and learn how to read!