ZGBriefs The Weeks Top Picks, August 28 Issue

To celebrate the start of a new school year, two of our top picks this week have to do with language learning. The third one is a look at China's internet censorship regime.

When Chinese children forget how to write (August 26, 2014, BBC)

The BBC takes a look at Chinese young people's declining writing skills and how a game show is trying to turn things around.

In China, it takes blood, sweat and months of studying dictionaries to become a Character Hero.

Millions tune in every week to watch teenagers compete for the title. Character Hero is a Chinese-style spelling bee, but in this challenge, young contestants must write Chinese characters by hand.

Every stroke, every dash must be in the correct spot. After two tense rounds, Wang Yiluo is bumped from the contest. She bows to the panel of celebrity judges and quickly exits the bright lights of the television studio. Backstage, she admits that she spent months studying dictionaries to prepare for the contest. The stakes were high; at 17, this was the last year she could appear on the show.

And what is endangering students' writing ability?

But the knowledge of how to compose those characters is in danger. All over the country, Chinese people are forgetting how to write their own language without computerised help. Software on smart phones and computers allows users to type in the basic sound of the word using the Latin alphabet. The correct character is chosen from a list. The result? It's possible to recognise characters without remembering how to write them.

Some of us native English speakers might say the same thing about our penmanship.

Professors Get Schooled on Pronouncing Chinese Students' Names (August 22, 2014, China Real Time)

Turning to the United States, the folks at the China Real Time took a look at what some universities are doing to help professors pronounce the names of their Chinese students.

This week, faculty and staff at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business are learning how to welcome incoming Chinese studentsby correctly pronouncing their names. 

As Chinese students make up a larger share of student bodies at U.S. collegesand comprise a large majority of the 20% international enrollment at Tippieadministrators are making cultural adjustments smoother on campus, with special orientations for Chinese students, multicultural food events and Chinese-language coaching for professors and staff.

Tippie started offering that training to faculty about a year and a half ago, in the form of a 90-minute crash course in a large group setting. Starting last fall, the school's Judith R. Frank Business Communications Center, which provides students with support for writing and speaking assignments, offered one-on-one training for faculty to help them figure out how to address all their students in class, during academic advising sessions or just when passing them in the halls.

In this week's sessions, teachers and administrators are reviewing class rosters with a native Chinese speaker who instructs them how to pronounce "X," "Q" and other commonly confused sounds. They can also get a copy of a cheat sheet listing common Chinese surnames and the meaning of popular first names.

The Surprising Way in Which China Censors the Internet (August 21, 2014, Popular Mechanics)

Anyone who has spent time in China trying to outsmart the Net Nanny will appreciate this article about what types of content the authorities are trying to keep off the internet and how.

The Chinese government has implemented what watchdog group Freedom House calls "the most elaborate system for Internet content control in the world," deploying hundreds of thousands of people to control the flow of information in China. In previous research, political scientist Jennifer Pan at Harvard University and her colleagues analyzed more than 11 million social media posts from nearly 1,400 websites across China. "And often times when we went back to posts, we found they were not there, which made us realize we had this collection of texts that had been censored by the state," she says.

To get a clearer picture of China's censorship, the researchers created accounts at 100 different social media sites geographically spread across China. These included 97 of the top blogging sites in the country, representing 87 percent of blog posts. Creating accounts on some of these sites required users to be in China at specific locales or to have local email addresses, so the scientists relied on a team of research assistants in China, many of whom remain anonymous.

And a good analysis of the findings:

Political scientist Peter Lorentzen at the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn't involved in the study, says that the results "reinforce an emerging view among researchers on China that the [Chinese Communist] Party is much more open to criticism than outsiders might expect, as long as this criticism does not lead to any form of organization that might challenge its right to rule." (The researchers did note there was no censorship of posts about collective action events outside mainland China, nor on collective action events that occurred solely online.)

In other words, you can read, even speak your mind, but whatever you do, don't organize!

Photo by NoRMan TsAi, via Flickr