Thursday, 11 September 2008

Is Learning Chinese a Mind-Hack?

Mind Hack image from psd.

It has been said that learning a language is a type of mind hack, it is good for the brain and gives you a different perspective on many things. Written Chinese however has a peculiar feature compared to English and that is simply that it takes rather less characters to write something. Many Chinese words are just one or two characters and there is no space between words. Some of the space gain is lost because each Chinese character takes the same space and English fonts can take advantage of proportional spacing but on the whole a block of Chinese text takes up less space. On Twitter and other micro-blogging sites you are typically given 140 characters, a fairly short message in English but a Chinese writer can potentially pack in a lot more information. As a couple of examples (美女) and (帅哥) map to (beautiful women) and (handsome guy). I also believe from my own early experience and observation that the Chinese reader can read noticeably faster than English readers (could be useful if you have a lot of information to scan).

Sometimes it is unfortunate that so much emphasis is given to ease of use and quick learning/understanding, often the thing that is initially easiest to learn, understand and use falls short in the long run when compared to something that initially takes more effort. Douglas Engelbert is credited with developing the computer mouse which was widely adopted, he also developed a special one hand keypad that in conjunction with the mouse was proven to significantly improve typing speed. This keypad was not adopted though simply because the learning curve was considered too high (taking into account all the typing I do though it makes me wonder).

I feel that an often overlooked mind expanding element of language learning occurs when you are prepared to open your mind to a new culture however. It is possible and sometimes illuminating to see something from two points of view simultaneously. A recent Newscientist article How to keep your head in scary situations (unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to view full text) stated "find a knowledgeable person who shares your general cultural but who disagrees with you. You are likely to give this person's arguments a sympathetic hearing, which will help offset the natural disposition we all have to dismiss as unreliable and biased the arguments of persons whose basic outlooks are different from our own." The cultural element is important because you are not likely to believe or entertain an argument coming from a culture that differs from your own. I found that being prepared to start adsorbing another culture suddenly hugely expands the number of people that you can learn from. As Steve Kaufmann puts it History is a good example. Students should be obliged to read history books from different countries, in order to see how different these perspectives can be.

A final thought, many people who have learned English as an additional language (and or adsorbed Western culture) have undergone a mind-hack of some sort, doesn't this leave many mono-lingual English speakers at a disadvantage?

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

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