Involuntary Reading

One of the first strange things that strikes you when you’re in a country where the language is written in a different script from yours is how involuntary reading is for your native language. When looking at text written in English reading and comprehension is involuntary for me. It just happens. When your eyes cross over the text it requires no effort to parse the letters, to words, to sentences. Getting to meaning might require some effort (depending on the complexity of the passage) but recognition and reading are pretty much involuntary, it Just Happens.

In China, where there is nearly no signage written in English (of course) being on the street or trying to fill out a form feels even more foreign when I look at the page all that I really see are pictographs (that’s not fully true, I can read about 20 characters). I talked to a few coworkers about this and of course to them, the opposite happens. When looking at a passage in Chinese their reading is just as involuntary as mine is for English. Interestingly enough, due to the non-phonetic nature of the Chinese syllabary (perhaps ideogram more specifically), being able to recognize the characters is tantamount to comprehension as well.

As one of our developers pointed out, being able to read 3000 or so English words is required for only very basic comprehension, but being able to read the same number of Chinese characters you could consider yourself relatively fluent in reading. One of the really interesting things about Chinese writing is that you don’t need to know oral Chinese to comprehend things. There are quite a few characters that I only know their meaning but not their pronounciation in Mandarin. 小 and 大 are great examples, the former meaning “small” and the latter “large”. For those interested 中 is “middle” or “center” whose pronounciation I do know.