Growing up in Mainland China I learnt Simplified Chinese, and then I picked up Traditional Chinese in Hong Kong, I was often asked by parents on which writing system their children should start with. There are a few factors, let me share with you on the latest research and observation.
Traditional Chinese has been around for thousands of years, where Chinese scripts dated back to Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC). Chinese characters are basically logograms whose shapes are formed by various manners. The 4 major manners to create Chinese characters are:
Pictographs (象形字; xiàngxíngzi)
Ideographs (指事字； zhǐshì)
Compound Ideographs (會意字; huìyìzi)
Phono-semantic words (形聲字; xíngshēngzi)
See below for how shapes evolved into Chinese characters, which are eventually made out of strokes.
Between the 1950s-1970s, mainland China created the simplified character writing system to encourage higher literacy level while maintaining the characters’ main “structure”. For instance below, the Chinese character for dragon has reduced from 龍 16 strokes to 龙 5 strokes.
Observations across various countries (as of Jan 2020):
Different countries adapt different writing systems based on their histories:
Hong Kong - Mainly read and write in Traditional Chinese
In 2019 some international schools have moved to Simplified Chinese; The bilingual schools with more Chinese teaching time have remained with Traditional Chinese
Mainland China - Mainly read and write in Simplified Chinese
Malaysia - Mainly read in Traditional and Simplified Chinese; Write in Simplified Chinese
Singapore - Mainly read and write in Simplified Chinese
Taiwan - Mainly read and write in Traditional Chinese
US - Historically mainly read and write in Traditional Chinese.
Between 2017-2020, there are trends with preschool using Traditional Chinese, while primary schools moving to Simplified Chinese as there are more publications and influences from mainland China.
Learning Chinese At Different Age
From many years of teaching young children, especially between 0-5 yrs old, they tend to grasp traditional Chinese better as traditional Chinese is more visual. For an example, though with many strokes, young children grasp the Traditional character of dragon 龍 much easier than the Simplified character 龙; same applies to the Traditional character of leave 葉 and the Simplified character 叶.
With older children starting at primary school 6-8 yrs old, children can read and grasp both writing systems. One thing to note is that it is easy to move from Traditional to Simplified Chinese, but harder to move from Simplified to Traditional Chinese.
Given different circumstances, parents may choose between Traditional and Simplified Chinese, considering a combination of at least these 4 factors:
What’s your family heritage and culture influence: For instance, to Taiwanese parents, Traditional Chinese is very important to their heritage.
Where do you live and the city’s culture influence: Environment is an important third teacher. If you are from mainland China however lives in Taiwan, your child may want to learn both Traditional and Simplified Chinese, as they see Traditional Chinese in their daily life and that will enforce their learning.
Your child’s age and stage of learning: If your child is young, you have more options. If your child is older, to speed up learning and boost confidence, Simplified Chinese maybe a good option especially when it comes to writing.
Future trends: There are trends to move toward Simplified Chinese. “Creative Literacy” also became a new University major in Mainland China in 2018, so there are more literacy being published to support children’s learning.
Hope you found this useful! Happy learning to all!