The Cyborg Anthropologist (Tools We Use)

For those who don’t know, I live, work, teach, and do research in a predominantly Chinese speaking environment. Although you are probably aware that learning Chinese is hard, you might not realize that even scholars who have studied the language for most of their adult lives still struggle with it. That’s because scholars who work in Chinese rarely talk about the subject openly. As David Moser explains:

inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers . . .

You might have read somewhere that it takes a vocabulary of several thousand Chinese characters to read a newspaper, but the truth is that it is actually much harder than that:

what such accounts don’t tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters . . . Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning . . .In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text.

Truth be told, I’m quite proud of the fact that after years of struggle I can claim a certain degree of fluency and literacy in Chinese. Doing research is one thing, but it has taken over a decade of constant hard work for me to really feel comfortable teaching in Chinese. Despite my pride in having gotten this far, however, I am still quite embarrassed about my Chinese ability. I probably would never have been able to complete my Ph.D. or hold my current job without the aid of computers, and it is this reliance on technology that I wanted to write about today. Saying so is a bit embarrassing, but David Berliner’s wonderful short piece, “How to get rid of your academic fake-self?,” convinced me I should do it anyway.

Let’s start with the basics: I can read some genres of Chinese pretty well, but I can’t write well at all—and can do little more than sign my name if I am forced to write by hand. In some ways technology has made my students the same way. I’ve seen my colleagues take a red pen to handwritten texts by masters students, finding dozens of mistakes. Computers make it easy to write in Chinese if you recognize the characters without having to remember all the strokes. My poor handwriting is a problem even when copying text (which solves the problem of having to memorize all the strokes). That’s because unless you spend time every day practicing your handwriting, it is very hard to write elegantly. I still can’t fill out my address on official forms because I can never write “Shoufeng” (壽豐) clearly in those little boxes. I either have to scan the thing to a computer or ask someone to help me.1

For teaching and advising I have all my students hand in their work in electronic form. The biggest advantage of having an electronic version is that I can open the text up in an app that lets me get instant definitions for characters or words just by clicking on them.). When I first started studying Chinese using a printed Chinese dictionary would sometimes take so long that I forgot what I was reading by the time I found the character! I simply never would have finished my Ph.D. or gotten my job without the help of the fantastic Pleco Dictionary. I first ran Pleco on a Palm Trēo and didn’t dare upgrade to an iPhone until I was sure I’d be able to use Pleco on it.2

My Taiwanese students rely heavily on similar tools to read English. Unfortunately, many are over dependent on such tools. There is a big difference between looking up a solitary word in a sentence and trying to read something by translating it word-for-word. It is abundantly clear that my students who read this way this simply don’t understand what they are reading.

When I first started studying Chinese machine translation tools were completely useless, but after an important update last year Google translate has gotten significantly better. It still isn’t useful for reading social science texts in Chinese, but Google translate can nonetheless be quite helpful with particular tasks, such as skimming over texts (the issue mentioned by David Moser’s friend in the quote above). A great example of how difficult it can be to skim texts in another language comes from Gail Weinstein-Shr’s 1993 article on literacy practices among the Hmong in Philadelphia. She describes how one couple with limited literacy skills read their mail:

When Chou comes home, he and Sai open mail. They both read out loud as they slowly process the correspondence. A letter can mean the difference between continuing or losing their welfare benefits. One afternoon I watched first Sai, then Chou read aloud through a long computerised luggage advertisement before deciding. in the end, that it did not interest them. They did not have the mechanisms yet for quickly screening important documents from ‘junk’ mail.

This is how I felt for the first few years on my job, when I was getting hundreds of emails a day from the university and was spending hours each day trying to figure out what was important. Now, even though I’ve gotten significantly better at skimming, I occasionally use Google translate to quickly figure out if I need to spend time reading something carefully in Chinese or if I can trash it.

I’ve also developed tricks for dealing with text that can’t be found in any dictionary. For instance, since proper names and movie titles are often not listed in dictionaries, I search them in English Wikipedia and then click on the Chinese version of that page. Another trick is to search for a word in English, but limit the results to Taiwanese academic websites. Since many academics include English technical terms alongside the translation, this is a good way to see how people are currently translating academic terms in Chinese. (Limiting it to Taiwan is especially useful, as the translations of some phrases can differ between China and Taiwan.)

Even with the aid of computers I still waste a lot of time on stuff that would be trivial for a native speaker, but without them it would be even worse. The truth is that we are all cyborgs. Writing is a technology. Reading glasses are a technology. Book indexes and the Dewey Decimal System are technologies. But talking about needing glasses won’t cause people to question your competence in the same way that admitting to using a Chinese dictionary when you grade student papers might. But even though I was somewhat reluctant to hit “publish” on this post, having deleted several versions of it over the years, it isn’t as bad as what some other scholars go through. The author of a piece published in the Guardian last year saying “I’ve finally admitted that I’m a dyslexic academic – and I’m terrified” chose to remain anonymous. Hopefully if we all talk more openly about our limitations and how we depend on technology or the support of others to address them, it will also create more room for scholars with special needs to talk about it openly.3


  1. As Victor Mair points out, learning to write is an essential part of learning to read Chinese, and I did my time copying out thousands of characters over and over again, but as I began to actually need to use Chinese as part of my daily life, it just became faster and easier to use a computer to type things phonetically. Now one can even dictate in Chinese using Siri on the iPhone! 
  2. Before the Trēo I used an Apple Newton MessagePad which I hacked to add Chinese support… 
  3. I was tested for dyslexia as a child, but the test came back negative. Still, I have my Kindle and my Pocket app both set to use the OpenDyslexic font because I find it much easier to read that way… 

4 thoughts on “The Cyborg Anthropologist (Tools We Use)

  1. I can very much relate to this article, and this is as someone who had the advantage starting to study Mandarin in life earlier than most. I especially applaud your willingness to teach abroad, as few really realize the cognitive load of working as a professional in any foreign language context. It is brave on many fronts.

    Obviously, there is a great deal of concern with authenticity in anthropology, and language fluency has always been an easy, if flawed proxy. Especially as we know now that tonal languages involve a distinct form of childhood brain development, consistent immersion is necessary to have your brain learn to simulate the same activity. As tonal languages are automatically considered to be hardest, there is a sort of pride that Chinese anthropologists seem to carry that they can say they successfully mastered the language. I have admitted to few that the day NJStar 1.0 came out was one of the happiest days of my life, and the end growth for my finger callouses.

    As I advance in my career, I spend less and less time in Chinese language environments. Perhaps I am lucky that reading still is less problematic, but I make no pretense about being able to write like I could in college. I can understand academic panels, but I can’t pro-actively participate as I could in graduate school. I also do not have the luxury of doing intensive ethnography at this stage in my life/family. I feel this asymmetry most acutely when I realize my language skills are more often than not eclipsed by my current students.

    The real question, in my mind, is how this impacts us as scholars. Perhaps it is self-serving, but I use research partners in China much more than when I was younger. I am fine with this. I know tons of professionally fluent foreigners who are as racist as they come. And I have read scholarship by people with no area studies training which is more insightful than those who have done multiple village studies. I still think language acquisition and experience is a non-negotiable aspect of becoming an anthropologist, but it has its limitations.

    As technology advances, we will have to face much harder questions about language as a proxy for authenticity. Its valuable in many ways, but it is also still a proxy. It is just another hurdle I hope anthropology as a discipline can survive.

  2. Kerim, bravo! You are, of course, absolutely rightl This is a problem, necessary but not sufficient literacy (also “kitchen” versus profound understanding of local speech) that, I suspect, plagues most of us engaged in social science, and not just in China. I recall a conversation with a friend, an eminent American sociologist who studies Chinese society in which a historian properly complained that people who barely spoke the language were regarded as experts on China, while historians who spend all their time reading texts and have a far deeper grasp of Chinese are regarded as having only esoteric knowledge.

    You are right, too, about how all of us whose labor involves second languages become cyborgs. Today I will be translating text about a famous Japanese potter. Do I know the professional jargon of Japanese potters? No. But with online dictionaries, Google and Wikipedia, it is possible to quickly find decent glosses for all but a handful of terms. Similarly, how else would I be able to find the romanizations of the Khmer rendering of the title of the Indian epic, the Ramayana and the names of its protagonists? Even a decade ago, finding this sort of information would have been hugely time-consuming. Still is when someone tosses in, for example, a Japanese transliteration of a Bai (Chinese minority) term for an object for which no picture has been provided.

    Finally, the sort of experience that you and I share raises, I believe, important problems for anthropological theory and method. It is all very well to critique old-fashioned observation of visible artifacts, customs and habits and demand paying greater attention to the native point of view — together with subtle differences between different native perspectives. How many of us, however, actually have the linguistic skills to pull this off?

    Anyway, thanks again for airing a very important issue.

  3. @john Yes, totally. In an earlier version of this post I went on at length about Max Owusu’s paper “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless.” But the post was already too long and I felt it was a bit off topic. Still, worth thinking about in this regard.

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