Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese

Insup Taylor + M. Martin Taylor

John Benjamins 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 https://dannyreviews.com/
Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese has an exceptionally broad scope, covering three languages and considering not just writing systems and their cultural and social histories and contexts, but literacy and education more broadly. Also, it explores the influence of English on (and its occasional embedding in) the three East Asian languages and makes broader comparisons throughout with English and the English-speaking world, so it is informative of the role of English as a global language. It is aimed at non-specialists and provides a fair bit of background: on the linguistic side, for example, the introduction includes a brief explanation of what a phoneme is, while the material on Chinese includes a four-page introduction to Confucianism.

Parts one through three treat each language in turn. Each begins with an introduction to the language (the chapter "Spoken Chinese" touches on the diversity of Chinese "dialects" but then restricts itself to Mandarin, as does the rest of the book). Then there are multiple chapters on the writing system: for Chinese on the characters and their history, and on their representation of meaning and sound; for Korean, on Hancha (Chinese characters as used in Korean) and on Han'gul, the Korean alpha-syllabary; and for Japanese on Kanji, Kana, and Romaji. Each part looks at how schooling works and how children learn to read; and there are background chapters on the history of education and literacy. There are also chapters discussing reform attempts and the merits of logographic characters, which I discuss below.

Insup Taylor's speciality is psycholinguistics and that is the focus of the "common issues" treated in part four. The chapters here look at the use of eye-movements and brain-imaging to study reading, the performance of East Asian students on international tests and attempts to explain comparative educational success, and the psychological differences between logographic characters and phonetic scripts.

Taylor draws on a wide range of sources: scientific studies, more informal material (surveys, polls, and suchlike), and even some purely anecdotal evidence. ("By paying attention mostly to Kanji ... I seem to read a Japanese book faster than an English book, even though I am far more practised in reading English than Japanese.") There's no evaluation of the relative strength of different results.

Most obviously, the evaluation of the merits of Hanzi/Hancha/Kanji (Chinese characters) seems far from balanced. For Chinese there's a brief section "Keep or abandon characters?" which frames the problem and then rhapsodizes on the "suitability and advantages of Hanzi". And there are whole chapters "Why should Hancha be kept?" (following an earlier discussion "Misguided attempts to abolish Hancha") and "Why keep Kanji?", which again are almost entirely apologetic. But why are these chapters necessary at all? Taylor never clearly articulates the problems with characters or the criticisms that have been articulated against them — and she focuses almost entirely on reading, whereas the major problems both for learners and adults arise with writing. Taylor takes the opposite stance here to someone like William Hannas (Asia's Orthographic Dilemma), who interestingly isn't cited at all.

Taylor's recommendations are mostly not unreasonable, but keeping Hanzi and Kanji is surely a practical compromise, not "the best of all possible worlds, why change it?" that she seems to suggest. And with Hancha she gives a nice description of how rapidly their use declined in Korea (in newspapers, they now appear only rarely even in headlines) and of how effectively Han'gul works and how easy it is to learn, but then appeals for research to determine "what proportion of graphs in text - 20, 30, 40% - should be Hancha for effective and comfortable reading"!

Taylor also seems remarkably accepting of the status quo in other areas. With the Japanese educational system, for example, she passes over possible problems with large classes by referencing a single study showing that they can work better than smaller ones, and she presents it as entirely positive that all students study the same national syllabus and that teachers stick to it closely.

These concerns aside, I really enjoyed Writing and Literacy. It contains some fascinating material, including much that was new to me, and I read it right through, though it would also be fun to browse in.

August 2015

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Related reviews:
- books about China + Chinese history
- books about Japan + Japanese history
- books about Korea + Korean history
- books about linguistics
%T Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese
%A Taylor, Insup
%A Taylor, M. Martin
%I John Benjamins
%D 2014
%O paperback, glossary, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9789027218100
%P 487pp