Univ. to focus on traditional Chinese script

Some Chinese language instructors and students are unconvinced about a significant change in how the University will teach Chinese courses next semester.

Just before the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 15, Language Coordinator Wei Su, who oversees Chinese language instruction at Yale, sent several language instructors an e-mail in Chinese indicating that the department needed to “strengthen” its teaching of traditional Chinese characters in addition to simplified characters, particularly in third-year and more advanced courses.

Currently, all introductory Chinese courses teach only simplified characters — the type used in mainland China — while the more complex traditional characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong and seen in ancient Chinese literature, are reserved for upper-level courses.

Elementary modern Chinese lector Li Li translated Su’s e-mail from Chinese into English for the News.

The e-mail said several Chinese history and literature professors and Japanese literature professors complained during a Nov. 14 meeting of some members of the East Asian Languages and Literature department about their students’ lack of knowledge of traditional Chinese characters.

During the meeting, Department Chair John Treat announced his decision to require an increased focus on traditional characters, the e-mail said.

The e-mail said professors were concerned Yale students’ lack of expertise in traditional Chinese characters would cause them to fall behind their counterparts at Princeton, Harvard and Columbia Universities.

Currently, Harvard teaches traditional Chinese characters in the first year of instruction. Princeton teaches only simplified characters but requires students to be able to recognize traditional characters.

Treat did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Several introductory and intermediate-level professors and students said they think the change will be difficult for beginning students accustomed to simplified characters. But some upper-level professors said the change is a positive step in Chinese language instruction overall.

Li said because traditional characters are mostly useful to the minority of Chinese language students who major in Chinese history, it is best not to require all students to learn traditional and simplified characters.

“This should not be compulsory to all students, regardless of their needs and motives,” Li said in an e-mail.

Four Chinese instructors interviewed said the department plans to have a meeting about the curriculum change when Su returns to the United States at the end of November.

Su is currently traveling in China with the Yale Debate Team and did not return requests for comment.

Intermediate modern Chinese lector Min Chen said she does not think it is best to teach traditional and simplified characters at the same time.

“It’s very hard for non-background students to learn Chinese characters,” Chen said in an e-mail. “It would be even harder if [we] asked students to learn both simultaneously.”

Chen said because the textbook she teaches from already lists both traditional and simplified characters, she plans to fulfill the new policy by requiring increased use of traditional characters on homework and tests.

The Chinese language instructor said a committee headed by former Yale Chinese professor Charles Laughlin — who was the resident director of the PKU-Yale Joint Undergraduate Program — submitted a proposal to department members in 1999 to discontinue teaching traditional characters in first-year courses.

The department approved the proposal following this multilateral conclusion.

But Senior Chinese lector Zhengguo Kang said since the 1999 decision, few of his advanced language students have been able to read the required traditional texts for his class.

Kang said he heard from other professors that several students had recently complained that they were not learning traditional forms, which may have contributed to support for the policy change.

“If students in the beginning are forced to read the traditional forms, and then read the simplified form, it’s easy,” Kang said. “Some people think traditional forms are very different from simplified forms, but I think that is a misunderstanding.”

Students in elementary modern Chinese, who have only been exposed to simplified characters so far in their single semester of studying the language, said they expect the change to be challenging.

Micah Fredman ‘10 said the sheer number of Chinese characters that have been simplified from their traditional forms makes the task of learning those forms next semester more difficult.

“To remember a lot of [the characters] in a more complicated way is going to be harder,” Fredman said. “The class is a lot of work and somewhat difficult as is. [The change] is probably not so exciting for most people.”

Stanley Seiden ‘10 said he does not understand the point of changing the department’s current methods, because most students will be using their language skills to travel and work in mainland China.

“These sort of traditional characters are sort of less-used in regions or areas Yale students would be visiting,” Seiden said. “Traditional characters won’t do us more good as Yale students learning beginning Chinese.”

According to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, in the 2006-2007 school year 693 students enrolled in Chinese language and history classes.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    as an actual yale chinese study, i'm pretty upset about this decision, too.

  • Anonymous

    While I admit that it is hard for us students to learn such a large amount of characters, I think that the opportunity to learn traditional characters as well would add greatly to Yale's Chinese courses. I also feel as if a great deal of the traditional and history behind the characters have been lost through the simplified system … and I have heard that there is going to be a standardization of character fonts using mainly traditional ones ( http://en.epochtimes.com/news/7-11-12/61854.html ). I think we should be able to recognize traditional characters, at the very least, although being able to write them would be even better. Learning traditional forms simultaneously with simplified should make it easier to remember them, instead of learning them in 3rd or 4th year, though ..

  • Anonymous

    because Chinese wasn't hard enough already

  • Anonymous

    I am a sophomore currently taking Chinese 115. I must say, the amount of work we have in the class is undeniably great. We learn about 6 characters a day. If this decision were implemented, I think they should still focus on simplified characters, but it would be smart to add only one traditional character in addition to the regular six that we learn. It will be less stressful for students than adding a slew of these complicated characters each day.

  • Anonymous

    As a first year student who is trying to learn just the basics of Chinese and have no interest in entering into the advance level Chinese courses I feel it is asking of me a lot to learn that many more characters which in reality will not help me be able to increase my communicational skills. I would like for the beginning level courses to focus the time and efforts in teaching us the basics. I feel that only learning simplified characters is sufficient for any person person who is interested in having a working capability with the language to only learn simplified characters. By forcing us to learn traditional characters as well will not improve our verbal, listening skills and it would just offer a different component to our writing skills which I feel is uneccesary seeing as how we will be able to communicate sufficiently using simplified characters. All that this would do is put more burden on a class that is already challenging and very time consuming as it is. If anything it would lead to less interest by people in taking the class, or the instructors to cut back on the amount of characters that we learn seeing how if they don't it would double or character course load.

  • Anonymous

    As have been said above, there is no reason to make introductory Chinese students learn so many more traditional characters (we already learn close to 200 traditional per year). If a student wants to pursue Chinese as a major or beyond, it is the responsibility of upper level Chinese course teachers to make sure their students know the traditional characters as well. Considering the limited real-life application of traditional characters in modern China (hooray for Hongkong and reading ancient texts!), it would be absurd and inconsiderate to force introductory level students to devote even more time and energy to an already highly demanding class.

    Add traditional characters and change it to 2 credits per semester. Otherwise, keep it as it is.

  • Anonymous

    I am a freshman taking Chinese 115, and I'm very disappointed and upset by this decision. The fact that the Chinese professors are also not in favor of this change is an indication that it is not in the best interests of the students.

    Learning Chinese characters is very important for the preservation the language, however, adding traditional characters would double the time students spend on characters (which is already a significant portion of the course). This increased focus on traditional characters is impractical (modern Chinese culture uses the simplified versions), and detracts greatly and unnecessarily from the time that students could be spending on the oral and conversational aspects of a tonal language.

    I hope that the administration will rethink this unwelcome change (mid-year) to the Chinese curriculum, and take into account the feelings of the Chinese professors and students.

  • Anonymous

    As a Chinese 115 student, it seems that asking us to memorize extra characters would detract from the amount of time we could spend learning dialogues and speaking skills, which I think are more important than writing. Furthermore, it would be confusing to have two characters for the same word.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps the administration should look into having a separate or supplemental curriculum for those who are looking into studying historical Chinese texts.

  • Anonymous

    As a Chinese 115 student, I agree that this course already consumes a great deal of time between studying dialogues, presentations, and memorizing characters. It is not necessary to introduce traditional characters at this early stage, especially when most students do not intend to continue their Chinese study past what is needed to fill the language distributional requirement. It makes more sense to begin teaching traditional characters in third or fourth year Chinese, once students have made an overt, strong commitment to studying the language. Only then will the knowledge of these characters truly be useful to students, because in introductory courses, most are just looking to communicate successfully in Chinese.

  • Anonymous

    I already spend a huge part of my time outside of classes doing Chinese homework and I cannot imagine having to spend even more. Spending even more time learning characters would cut back the time I spend on not only other Chinese homework, but my other courses as well. Taking Chinese is already like doing an extracurricular activity and if we had to spend even more time doing work for it I would not have time to do anything besides studying.
    I do not think it makes sense for us to learn traditional characters now in Chinese 115 because we will not need to recognize them until we are at much more advanced level. I think it makes more sense for us to concentrate on our other skills, including simplified characters, for the time being because that will make us more well-rounded as Chinese speakers and listeners, not just readers. I would feel much more confident in my Chinese abilities if I knew how to speak and listen really well and understand the majority of commonly used characters, than if I knew how to read a few anachronistic words in old literature.
    I also think that if this policy is carried out it makes no sense to make the switch in the middle of the year when we have already learned so many of the simplified characters and we would have extra work in the next semester to learn those we had skipped. It would make more sense to start the policy with next year's group of Chinese 115 students.

  • Anonymous

    An example of an ill-informed and irresponsible decision by an authority that is out of touch with students studying Chinese. Most students studying the language do not plan to pursue it to the point of reading ancient Chinese texts - the objective is to gain a working knowledge of the language to be able to communicate with Chinese people. This simply adds a level of unnecessary work that will only take further time away from learning how to understand and speak the language.

  • Anonymous

    I do not think this is a good decision. On one hand, I think instituting this would make writing an even bigger part of the class, to the detriment of understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and spoken fluency. While writing is indeed important, as much of writing is on computer, requiring pinyin input, I do not think it deserves to dominate the class. Save traditional for higher levels--maintain intro and intermediate classes as they are. It is a good program right now-probably the best langauge program I've taken, and I don't think it should be altered so substantially.

  • Anonymous

    I'm taking Chinese 115 and it is a lot of work already, much more than I've had in any of my other language classes (and I'm up to four other languages now). I don't think adding traditional characters is reasonable.

    But I see the problem. Why not offer a separate course for those who want or need to learn traditional characters? This class could either be a completely different Chinese class to be taken in place of Chinese 115, or it could be in addition to the current Chinese class (though that might still make for a crazy schedule). That way, people who are learning Chinese in order to read old texts can focus on the traditional characters, while everybody else can continue to focus on modern Chinese.

  • Anonymous

    I totally support the decision to focus more on Traditional Characters. I understand a lot of the negative reactions to the new policy, but I think they stem from a misunderstanding of Traditional Characters. Firt, Traditional Characters are NOT limited to ancient texts. Traditional is THE STANDARD SCRIPT for a large portion of the Chinese population (Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Chinese Comunities in the US). If we only study simplified, we are separating ourselves from this part of the Chinese community. Second, there also seems to be a certain phobia to the Traditional Characters, when the fact is that many of the characters are the same for both Simplified and Traditional. Many of the characters that are different vary in predictable ways. Therefore, studying traditional characters concurrently with simplified will not double your course load. (For those in CHNS 115, only about a third of the characters you learn are different in Traditional, and most of these different characters change in very predictable ways.)
    Finally, those who only study simplified ignore that the Traditional Script is in some ways EASIER than simplified. Yes, I said EASIER, because characters in Traditional have more cohesion than the simplified, despite having more strokes. To really communicate in Chinese, until the entire Chinese community reaches a consensus on what set of characters to use, we need to at least be able to read BOTH sets.

  • Anonymous

    You're still asking me to do 1/3 more work than I'm currently doing. Also, "large portion" does not mean the largest. "THE STANDARD SCRIPT" for the largest segment of the population is simplified, therefore we should learn simplified.

  • Anonymous

    Have 118 and 133 learn Traditional because they are on a separate track from 115 and 130. 115 and 130 will probably not learn literature. 118 students will probably want to take literature and chances are, due to the high Taiwanese population in the 118 track, they will already be familiar with Traditional.

  • Anonymous

    In response to the above comment:
    Ok, let's say you limit yourself to mainland China (which is fine if that is what you want). You still have to recognize Traditional. Although simplified is the standard in the mainland, you can still see many traditional characters. Go to a karaoke in Beijing, and the songs will probably be in Traditional. Many restaurants or stores write certain things in Traditional to make the writing more formal. Therefore, you still won't be able to avoid the Traditional characters.

  • Anonymous

    someone please write a letter to the editor in response to this article, head chinese115 professor zhou laoshi said that an uproar among the students might have enough of an impact to reverse the decision!

  • Anonymous

    I think people might be scared of the unknown. I understand CHNS 115 is a tough course, and studying characters for the first time is a daunting task. However, I feel many of you see Traditional Characters as if they were the most difficult thing to learn on the earth. When I was studying CHNS 115 I decided to study both Traditional and Simplified, which only improved my Chinese instead of harming it. Of course, it would not be correct to assume this will be the experience for everyone, but all I want to suggest is that people have an open mind. Don't judge Traditional without having tried to learn it first.

  • Anonymous

    Just want to add one more point. There is only one pronunciation system for both
    traditional and simplified characters. Now in Beijing people simply use the modern pinyin system to TYPE the traditional characters rather than write them stroke by stroke. Obviously, we are not expected to learn the traditional characters in the ancient way, which in fact involved the brush and the inkstone.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to stress the point that Traditional Characters are not obsolete. Most of the comments here speak of Traditional as the ancient way of writing, limited to ancient literature, characters learned with brush and ink. Traditional Characters are in wide use and are a valid way to write Modern Chinese as Simplified Characters are. Many Chinese use Traditional in the same way those in mainland China use Simplified, so it's not fair to down play Traditional characters as if they were something that should be reserved only for scholars. That is why people are limiting themselves if they only study Simplified. Despite my preference for Traditional Characters, I would never advocate for them to replace Simplified in the curriculum. On the contrary, I believe it is essential to learn both, despite any biases one many have.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I should state it clearer. If we only have one pronunciation system and most of us use pinyin to type the characters, learning traditional characters is not so difficult any more. (It was difficult in ancient times. Before the Chinese invented paper, they had engraved the characters on the bammboo.)

  • Anonymous

    I'm sorry, my comment on Traditional as not being obsolete was not meant to criticize your comment, but rather what other people were saying about Traditional. I agree, the use of IME's for typing basically removes the problem of number of strokes, and is another reason why students should not be so fearful of Traditional. Going from Traditional to Simplified and vice versa is not as difficult as people seem to believe. There is a VERY STRONG relationship between both sets, and learning both concurrently will definitely help learn characters more efficiently. At least that has been my experience so far learning both.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who did their undergraduate elsewhere, I first learned Traditional and only learned Simplified in upper-level courses. I prefer this way because after first knowing Traditional, Simplified were a piece of cake. Moreover, as above posters have noted, only about 1/3 of the characters are different in each version, and the majority of that 1/3 differs according to some set standards. For example, the 'speech' radical is *always* simplified a certain way, so once you know radical in both Traditional and Simplified, then you'll be able to recognize a ton of characters in both systems. People who are complaining about this don't realize that Traditional characters are not that different. Moreover, Yale needs to implement this change if it's to remain competitive with other schools. I find it an embarrasment that many Yale undergrads only know Simplified. Even educated Chinese in China generally recognize Traditional.

  • Anonymous

    As a Chinese 115 student, I think that learning traditional Chinese would be more useful than simplified Chinese because traditional would be more universal, but Yale's Chinese department should not consider trying to implement BOTH because it would be way too many characters to try and learn. They should either change the method to teach all characters in traditional, or stick to the method we have now of learning only some words that have been simplified. I wish Yale taught traditional, but only if everything was taught in traditional, not in addition to simplified. Learning 6 characters a day isn't that bad, but the trick is to retain all the previous characters also, and by adding in extra traditional characters, it would just be way too overwhelming. Yale shouldn't try to simultaneously teach both methods - just pick one and stick with it.

  • Anonymous

    I am a Chinese 115 student, and I'm in favour of strengthening the traditional Chinese curriculum. I appreciate the traditional forms being included in the 'characters and exercises' section. I think the Princeton model would work well here (only required to recognise traditional forms)---and it's not true that this will be 1/3 more workload--if you just learn a few major radicals that have been simplified, you can work out many of them.

    Plus, traditional forms are more universal. Just go to a Chinese restaurant here (Ivy Noodle, East Melangue), or to Chinatown in manhattan--you'll see traditional forms in the menu and the billboard/neon signs.

  • Anonymous

    I understand that people worry about studying BOTH sets, but as I have said in previous comments, replacing one set over the other is not a good approach. We need to be able to communicate with the Chinese people, and to do this we need BOTH sets. In my experience, studying both sets concurrently only helps me learn characters more efficiently, since both sets reinforce each other.

  • Anonymous

    I'm a Chinese 150 student. I took 115 at Yale last year and another course over the summer. While some good points have been made above, in China the ability to recognize traditional characters is more important than the ability to write them, and it is true that most Mainlanders can do this, just as most people in places that use traditional characters can understand simplified. We are currently learning to be able to read traditional and I do not feel that we are at a disadvantage in perhaps starting later than other schools. In addition, to a degree I resent the suggestion that traditional be taught only in 118 and 133 (heritage speaker classes) because they are the most likely to want to learn literature. It is blatantly unfair, especially at Yale where so many people of all backgrounds are taking Chinese to assume that because a student did not grow up hearing or speaking some Chinese they are somehow unlikely to continue the study Chinese to a high proficiency.

  • bracekyle

    Thanks, Yale Daily News, for coverage of this. I’m happy to follow it closely. the more details, the better.