In a couple hours at 1:40pm Pacific Time, I'll be live on BBC Radio (sorry, no idea which one… people tell me it's probably #4, though) talking about "Character Amnesia" (or for us Tofugu-folk, "Kanji Amnesia"), so I thought a good way to get my ducks in a line would be to write a post about it… That way, hopefully, I won't forget what I want to talk about it.
What Is "Character Amnesia" (Kanji Amnesia)?
Basically, people in Japan (and China) are using computers, phones, and other electronic devices so much that they're forgetting how to write their kanji. Thanks to these things, there's almost no reason to write something using your hands. Think about it, when's the last time you hand wrote anything? For a lot of you, I'm guessing it was either to sign a receipt (or you just can't remember). The world is revolving around our phones and computers, which means we're typing… a lot.
It's the exact same thing with Japanese, but with Japanese, you're taking something really a lot more complicated to write (kanji) and making it a lot simpler. All you have to do nowadays is write the sounds that make up a word in Japanese, and *poof!* automagically your electronic device shows you the most likely kanji match to the thing you wrote out. If it's not the first match, there's usually quite a few others which you can choose from. This means the emphasis of being able to write kanji is nearly nonexistent in real life. All you have to do is be able to recognize a kanji and be able to read it. Literally half the work of written communication has vanished, and I think it's awesome.
For those of you who don't have much experience with kanji (if you want to learn, check out the kanji section of TextFugu for a way to learn kanji that actually makes sense), here's a good parallel. With English (I know this from experience), spell check has made it so I don't have to know how to spell things. Misspelled something? Red underline tells me to change it (thanks!). Once I start writing by hand, I definitely notice all the things I don't know how to spell (anymore) that I probably learned in middle school. Take this example and multiply it by a billion, and you have the Kanji/Japanese issue. They can recognize the kanji. They can read the kanji. They can type the kanji… but, when it comes to writing a lot of kanji by hand, expect there to be a lot of mistakes and omissions.
To Be Honest, This Is Awesome
A lot of old school Japanese teachers will probably tell you otherwise. I was one of them not too long ago, until I started writing TextFugu, and started seeing what I could remove to make the lessons simpler. When I asked "what is pretty unnecessary 90% of the time?" I realized that the ability to write kanji by hand was one of them. So, I cut that requirement so that people can focus on much more important things (like being able to read… and type the kanji).
Even Japan is admitting to this. They're going to add nearly 200 kanji to the required kanji learning list for kids because so many kanji have become a lot more common through use of typing the characters (i.e. a lot of characters that were tough to write by hand, but became common because they're really easy to type out). On top of that, Japan is totally a cell-phone culture. Everyone seems to have a cell phone, and everyone seems to be typing away at it. It's just so much easier to communicate in this way, and handwriting is becoming a thing of the past.
So, in summary, I don't think this is a bad thing, especially for language learners out there. It just (once again) supports that the ability to hand write kanji is becoming increasingly unimportant. That means you can start focusing your limited efforts (everyone has limits, so you need to make the most of them!) on doing much more important things, whatever that may be. I think that's amazing news. You have permission to spend your time learning things that you'll be able to use a lot more commonly :)
So what do you think? Any of you experienced this? I've definitely become terrible at hand writing kanji (embarrassingly terrible, actually), but on the other hand, it's so easy to type kanji out that I have almost no reason to hand write anything. The cool thing? When I do have to hand write something, I just type it up first so I can use that as a reference… I hope any impending apocalypses don't take away my cell phone, or I'll be screwed.