New ideas about literacy learning

Which is easier? Traditional or simplified characters?

An interesting question, but one that is potentially politically sensitive, is the following: Which is easier (or harder) to learn? Simplified or traditional characters? Simplified characters are taught in Mainland China and Singapore, whereas traditional characters are taught in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Traditional characters were simplified over a period of time in the mid-1950s. Of the most common 2000 or so characters in use, about 50% are the same and 50% are different in look between simplified and traditional. Simplified characters have on average about 20% fewer strokes than traditional ones.

O.k., but so which is easier? The data so far suggests to us that it is easier for beginners to learn to read traditional characters but to write simplified ones. Traditional characters have more visual features that help to distinguish them for beginning learners. More features help them to stand out. It's almost similar to looking at different drawings of 2-dimensional objects such as faces. A face with a mustache, glasses, and an earring will be easier to distinguish from one that is plain just because there are more features that you might notice as you look at it quickly. Simplified characters have fewer such features, and this may make them more difficult to distinguish for those who are just learning Chinese. An interesting ERP study carried out by William Wang and James Minnett that compared college students from the Mainland as compared to Hong Kong found that when characters were presented very quickly in time, even before conscious processing had occurred, Mainland Chinese tended to show changes in the brain that indicated that they detected a change when the characters had been altered by either adding or deleting a stroke from each real character. In contrast, when exposed to the same stimuli, Hong Kong Chinese students did not show the same pattern; their brains did not seem to "notice" small alterations in characters. These findings were true when these students were exposed to the exact same characters (i.e., ones that are the same for traditional and simplified script). These results and some that were similar in a behavioral study carried out by our lab on children suggest that those learning to read simplified characters may learn to process them by focusing more on each individual stroke whereas those learning to read traditional characters may focus more on distinguishing characters holistically.


On the other hand, beginners also appreciate the ease with which simplified characters are written, as compared to the more cumbersome numbers of strokes required to write traditional characters.


So the answer to this basic question of which script is easier is fairly balanced: Compared to traditional script, simplified script is easier to write but more difficult to read for beginners. Both scripts have advantages and disadvantages.