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Writing wrongs of 'character amnesia' (2)

By Wu Zhi and Liao Jun   (Shanghai Daily)

10:02, December 11, 2012

"When you read their writing or listen to what they say, you realize what a limited vocabulary they have," says Zhang Jiguang, headmaster of the Wuchang Experimental Elementary School.

A survey by Wuchang District's education bureau indicates the ongoing campaign has been successful, with more than 75 percent of 50,000 students aged 6 to 12 able to write assigned Chinese characters correctly.

The survey also showed that a number of children have started studying calligraphy and poetry.

"I practice calligraphy every day and everybody says my handwriting looks much better now," says Li Zemei, a fifth grader at Wuchang Experimental Elementary School.

Student Ji Yuchen says that by reading classics aloud every morning, he has been able to improve his accent when speaking pu tong hua, or standard Mandarin. "The last couple of years have seen a great change," says Zhu Zhengzhou, headmaster of the Wuhan Jiyuqiao School.

A report by the Ministry of Education says the campaign will increase young students' knowledge of traditional culture, make them feel more patriotic, and help them recognize the dignity of their native language.

"We want more schools and cities to join so we can promote our own language and culture and solve major problems in Chinese education," says Xu Dingbin, chief of the Wuhan Education Bureau.

Education neglected

In addition to expanding use of technology, educators blame other factors - such as factors other than expanding use of technology for the "character amnesia" problem.

"Chinese students are overloaded with English and math exercises because of the exam-oriented education system," says Chen Longhai, a professor of Chinese literature at Central China Normal University.

Students spend a great deal of time completing repetitive exercises to get high scores on entrance exams. Most study math and English for long hours on school days, and they attend classes on weekends and holidays. But few devote time to improving their native language skills.

"We have hundreds of Confucius Institutes overseas promoting Chinese language and culture, but our own children feel it unnecessary to study them and are losing interest," Chen says.

"The mother tongue is in a state of crisis," he says.

"Globalization and modern technology have had a massive impact on traditional Chinese culture and the exam-oriented education system just makes things worse," says Tan Banghe, an expert on high school education at the Ministry of Education. "It's time that we woke up to what's happening and do something about it."

Experts say it's imperative for colleges to join the campaign, since after high school, students are typically not required to write their homework out by hand every day. In addition, many college students focus almost entirely on English in hopes of studying abroad.

"We left high school just two years ago, but my friends and I are often guilty of 'character amnesia' because the only characters we have to write by hand now are our names," says Li Beibei, a 20-year-old student at Wuhan University. "Each time I can't remember how to write a character, I take out my cellphone and use the pinyin to find out."

Hua Qian, a political science teacher at Hubei University of Technology, says, "We need calligraphy classes at college. Nowadays, we hardly ever see beautiful handwriting on students' exam papers. Instead, there are incorrectly written characters and hasty, barely decipherable scrawls."

"Every educator and school should make their students read classic books and practice calligraphy," says Zhang, "because our language and culture are treasures we can't afford to lose."

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