I have been frantically preparing for my Chinese test on June 28th. The test lasts two hours, and consists of a speaking-listening portion, and a reading exercise. The speaking part should not be difficult for me. I do a lot of speaking in Chinese regularly. The reading worries me a little.
Not only is Chinese a difficult language to read (even for Chinese people), but there are two different ways to write characters. The government on the Mainland simplified the characters to make them easier to write, but in Taiwan, they kept using the traditional characters. I have never hid my preference for traditional characters. Not only are they better looking, but they preserve more of the logographic origins of the characters, and in my opinion, they are less abstract than simplified characters.
Take the character for “book,” for example. The simplified form is 书, and the traditional form is 書. If you know something about the etymology of Chinese characters, you might see the components of the traditional form. On the top, there is a brush (the traditional Chinese writing instrument), which is written like this: 筆 and the bottom portion is the character for spoken words (the things that the brush is writing): 曰. A brush writing words = a book. Not 100% concrete, but not 100% abstract, either. But in the simplified form, the clues about the meaning of the character are stripped away. In 书 you can’t see a brush or the spoken word. There can be no argument that the simplified form is easier to write. Even someone who doesn’t know any Chinese can see that there are fewer lines to write in the simplified form. But is it easier to read? I could make the case that it is more abstract, and thus harder to read, than the traditional form.
So I have a preference for traditional characters. But the US government’s interests in China outweigh those in Taiwan. In all likelihood, if my Foreign Service career requires Chinese language skills, I will be required to be able to read and write simplified characters. Despite my preference for traditional characters, simplified characters seem to be in my future.
In preparing for the test, I’ve been familiarizing myself with simplified characters, assuming that they will be the written form on the test. But then I heard a rumor on the message boards that you get to choose which form you want to be tested on. So I wrote to the Foreign Service Institute and asked about the format of the written test. To my delight, I was told that I could choose between traditional and simplified characters!
It might seem strange to prefer the “harder” form of characters. But since I have focused on traditional characters for the entirety of my Chinese learning experience (over 25 years and counting), it’s a relief to know that I can rely on something more familiar to me for the test.
Now “all” that I have to do is do well on the test.
Wish me luck!