Why Chinese Kids Are Terrible At Spelling Bees

Taking a cue from the U.S., China’s state-run CCTV has started hosting spelling bees. Sounds fun, right? Except they’ve started to find that Chinese kids and adults are actually pretty bad at recalling how to write in Chinese.

Seventy percent of teenage spelling bee contestants and 90 percent of adults in the audience couldn’t remember how to write “toad,” a common character, Want China Times reports.

Chinese people have long noticed the effects of technology on their writing, as University of Pennsylvania language researcher Victor Mair blogged in 2010. It’s always been difficult even for highly educated adults to recall how to write certain Chinese characters, but typing and texting undermine the daily practice that helped them keep up. (Whether remembering fewer characters is a cultural tragedy or just natural progress is up for debate.)

Nearly all Chinese typing and texting programs ask users to type the pinyin—China’s standard Romanization system—for the character they want. The program then offers a list of possible characters for that Romanization and you select the correct one. It’s much easier to recognize a character from a short list than to recall every small stroke that goes into writing it. Some programs do exist that ask users to begin sketching characters, which could help people better recall the correct pen strokes, but those are rare.

Last year, a team of linguists studied Chinese schoolchildren and found that 28 percent were severely behind in reading, an increase from single-digit percentages in the 1990s. Those kids who typed the most often were more likely to be behind in reading in school.

Maybe if spelling bees catch on, kids will get excited about remembering more characters. Meanwhile, last winter, when I talked with the research team that studied schoolkids, lead scientist Li-Hai Tan suggested kids don’t learn pinyin-based typing until they’re past elementary school.

Language Log