Laziness. Listed among the seven deadly sins, laziness is generally viewed quite harshly. However, if we are able to keep an open mind, we may discover a surprisingly positive view. If we view laziness as the avoidance of unnecessary work, rather than simply the avoidance of all work, we discover that laziness may actually be a disguised impulse toward efficiency. In this latter sense, the human brain is inherently lazy. Or it hates extra work. In either case, it loves shortcuts and will seek them in order to streamline any and all processes. Wherever we look, we can find examples of our efficiency-favoring nature.
In the American military, acronyms are pervasive. Many of us are familiar with the high-end SUV known as the Hummer. Originally designed as a military vehicle, this vehicle got its current name from a corruption of the name Humvee, which in itself is an attempt to pronounce the acronym HMMWV, which is an acronymic abbreviation. Thus, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle became the Hummer. In a similar fashion, the GP (General Purpose vehicle) of WWII became the Jeep. From SCUBA to chatspeak/internet slang (LOL, btw), the civilian world also loves abbreviations. Consulting and other professions have a similar affinity for jargon and acronyms as shorthand for (slightly) more complex ideas (“razor and blades” model, MECE, boil the ocean).
So our brains are lazy. That’s the bad news. And the good news? It’s all about perspective. If we view laziness positively as a natural drive toward efficiency rather than sinful sloth, we position ourselves to harness the power of this impulse. Once we accept the fact that our brains are wired to seek out shortcuts, how do we use this knowledge to make our brains not short-circuit the learning process against our wishes? Simple. Design our learning process so that the shortest circuit encapsulates the learning that we would like to achieve. This technique has direct application to learning Chinese—in particular, to learning Chinese characters, the hanzi.
In the usual learning progression, a learner first learns pinyin. The learner then reads texts in pinyin, with English letters and diacritical marks indicating tones. Soon, the learner is reading texts that have both pinyin and Chinese characters. Finally, the training wheels are removed, the pinyin disappears, and the learner is left to read texts entirely in Chinese—usually with a poor grasp of MOST of the characters on the page. It’s a rocky transition, one that leads to a lot of choppy reading broken up by frequent trips to the dictionary—usually not for meaning, since this could be guessed from context, but for sound.
What’s the solution? Continue to provide both characters and pinyin, indefinitely? The lazy brain guarantees that this solution fails. The eye of the westerner will always be preferentially drawn to the familiarity and comfort of the western letters of pinyin, and exhausting effort will need to be applied continuously to force the eye to focus on the graceful but foreign Chinese pictographs. “Work harder,” we say to ourselves.
No—work smarter. Use texts that provide characters and, not pinyin, but zhuyin (also knows as the “bo po mo fo” system). Zhuyin represents foreign-looking characters using equally foreign-looking symbols. Unlike pinyin, zhuyin requires substantial effort for a western eye to decipher. Each zhuyin “word” has some combination of an initial component, a medial component, and a final component, plus a tone. For example, consider the Mandarin word for bottle: ping2 zi5 （瓶子）
pinyin vs. zhuyin
The pinyin should be familiar to all Chinese language learners reading this post, but even a reader who has not studied any Chinese could attempt to pronounce it. The zhuyin will likely be unfamiliar to most readers, so let’s break it down. For the zhuyin representation of the first character (ping2), the top symbol is the initial component and this initial is the “p” sound. The middle symbol is the medial component and this medial is the “i” sound. The bottom symbol is the final component and this final is the “ng” sound. Finally, the tone (second tone, in this case) is written to the right of the symbols, represented by a short, upward-slanting line. The second character (zi5) has only an initial (z) and neutral tone, represented by a dot.
Relative to reading pinyin, deciphering zhuyin is a cumbersome process for westerners. More importantly and more usefully, deciphering zhuyin is a cumbersome process relative to deciperhing Chinese characters—familiar characters, at least. If pinyin and Chinese characters are presented on a page side by side, the western eye is always drawn to pinyin first. With zhuyin, the western eye first looks at the Chinese character to see whether it’s a familiar character (我，你，是，etc.). Only if the character is unfamiliar is the eye drawn into the process of deciphering sound via zhuyin. When familiar characters are encountered, reading proceeds quickly. When an unfamiliar character is encountered, an impression of this character registers on the brain and there is a pause to decipher the zhuyin before continuing. When this character is encountered again soon thereafter, the brain recalls having seen this character before, even if it can’t recall the sound, and the impression is reinforced. After seeing this character a third or fourth time within a relatively short span, the character is learned—not through any forced effort of memorization, but simply because the brain realizes that this is an often-used (and therefore useful) character and that it would be easier to remember it than to have to decipher the zhuyin every time. In this way, the brain’s tendency toward shortcuts reinforces the learning goal rather than sidestepping it. The shortest path to the goal of pronouncing and understanding the word is the Chinese character itself, not the training wheels. Instead of fighting the brain’s laziness, we work with the efficiency-seeking impulse to learn in a more organic and enjoyable fashion.
Similar principles could be applied to all types of learning, and I encourage you to post examples if you happen to think of some. With regard to Mandarin, I highly encourage you to test the principle for yourself by using zhuyin—IF you’re serious about learning the hanzi (and there’s no shame about NOT being serious about learning the hanzi, as I’ll explain in a later blog post). Thanks for reading, and happy language learning!