Kids who grow up in a country with a phonetic alphabet can sit in a restaurant, or a mall, or a kindergarten, or in front of the TV, and will be expossed to the written language constantly. At some point they would become aware that these little lines represent words. How that happens can surely vary: perhaps someone simply tells them. From that point on, I'm sure, kids would often try their hand at it. Seeing a sign, like a STOP sign, they'd ask their parents what it meant. Dad would say "stop", and the kid would remember the little snakey thing. Next day they might be in a restaurant and the kid might see a picture of a sandwich, and the word "sandwich" and knowing the word they might be able to correctly guess that the snakey thing makes a ssss-sound.
Seems all very straightforward. The kid would feel pleased with herself and try it out in different settings, sometimes getting it wrong, but, more often than not, getting it right. After all, we only have around 26 of these little squiggles to memorize and then we're all set. Some phonetic alphabets have more, some less, but on the whole they tend to be less than fifty: manageable even for "pygmy chimpanzees" (more accurately bonobos) who can be trained to recognize far more hand symbols than fifty.
My guess is that this little kid gets some kind of positive feedback every time she solves one of these puzzles. Her world becomes more understandable and she gains confidence in her own powers of reasoning. She becomes empowered. We all went through this, presumably, unless you're listening to this with a screenreader, in which case you've had it slightly harder than the rest of us, so more power to you.
I could certainly read and write before I went to school, and I can not remember ever having been taught to do it. (I do remember having to write out cursive letters because my handwriting was, and is to this day, a bit like a donkey doing surgery with an axe.) I don't think we should underestimate this little feat of mental deduction we went through during the most formative of our intellectual years. As far as I can remember, psychologists and pediatricians feel very strongly about the first four years of life, although the latter might have to do so by definition.
So now lets spare a thought for the child who grows up in a world without a phonetic alphabet. Imagine walking the streets, or paging through comics, or watching TV, and imagine all of these media completely devoid of any signage that a healthy young brain could puzzle over and connect into one big sequence of sounds that make up a word. Welcome to China.
You go to a restaurant and see a new character and there is one way, and one way only, to figure out what it means: ask someone. You see a picture of a sandwich, and three squiggles meaning "three", "famous" and "government". (三明治) Good luck with that. You have to ask. You read a comic book, and find a new word: you have to ask. You meet a new friend and she introduces herself, but the sounds mean nothing: you have to ask what pictures they are. You. Have. To. Ask.
Of course, you'd have to be brain-dead to NOT pick up a few characters along the wayside: but those are easy, frequent ones. They would number less than fifty. I know I can recognise around 800 characters, because that's what my Chinese book promises: two volumes with 400 characters each. Do you think I can read even one sentence in a newspaper? Well, I'd be really lucky. It would have to something like: What's your name? Or, which way to the nearest bank, my good man? Newspapers are hardly that polite, not to mention sympathetic of Chinese learners. To comfortably read a newspaper you'd need, apparently, around 3000 characters. That's all very well, and doesn't sound like so many, but of course they combine to form new words, and the Chinese don't use spaces between words! This means that I can often read a whole sentence, i.e. make the sounds but can't figure out, for the life of me, what the heck it means.
I never did take learning Chinese seriously, so it's my own fault. I've been here about seven years, and very early on I decided my life simply isn't long enough to learn Chinese. Don't get me wrong: many other foreigners pick it up quite nicely, but they try very hard. It's doable, but at too high a cost for me, personally.
But my concern here is this: Chinese kids have to learn it. They have to learn how to read it and write it. And they have to memorize about 8000 characters to be considered normal. What is the cost for them?
What happens in their brains when they figure out, smart kids that they are, that there is no way in hell they can just try to figure out the meaning or pronunciation of a character? What do they think when they ALWAYS have to ask? Don't their brains reach a point where the feedback loop goes something like: why think about it? Why try? Why use your brain? You know it's useless. Just ask someone. That's the only way. (Might even explain Confucianism, if you take it to extremes.)
Unfortunately I see the symptoms of this in my classes, and many English teachers would confirm: the kids hate taking intellectual chances. It's not that "losing face" bollox that everyone always goes on about. If they cared about losing face they wouldn't spit so loudly, or have so many arguments in the streets or walk around singing aloud to themselves. No. They just don't seem to want to think. And if you listen to the stories about Chinese state schools then you could understand why: spoonfeeding. They literally have to memorize whole books. Just memorize. There's no call for their own opinion.
And I don't, now, think it's all about culture. I feel there's something in their language acquisition that pre-empts all this. They never learn that they can engage with the world around them in a meaningful way -- make it their own, think about it, puzzle about it, ask questions about it, wonder about it. And the little urge that's left after reaching about age 6 gets stifled the hell out of them at school. That's why so many of them can do the pen-twirling trick: that's what 12 hours of school a day would do to you.
The language is to blame. Historians of the future will prove me right. Unless we all have to adopt the Chinese script, in which case historians of the future will also prove me right.
I even have a solution. Very simple. I don't think the Roman alphabet is well suited for Chinese, so, no, Pinyin is not the way to go. They have all these characters, so they can use them: but only use the ones they need. That is: count the number of discreet syllables you can make in Chinese and choose the easiest characters, from the existing ones, for them. The number happens to be around 1580. That includes all the tones, and the neutral tone, for every single Chinese initial and final combination. It's still a lot, but it's a darn sight less than 8000.
Then, to make the usage consistent, they only need to leave spaces between words, and underline names.
It means they will have to start reading phonetically, and they will also need to write phonetically and ditch the millions of crazy homonyms that have proliferated exactly because of the use of characters as a writing system.
Chinese people will say it's impossible. They will say there are simply too many words that sound the same and that can only be distinguished because they have different characters. To them I say bullshit. If that was the case, how do Chinese people speak to each other on the telephone? How could they be comprehensible without constant subtitles? No, that simply doesn't wash. Of course writers will have to be more careful, but isn't it a good thing to force out a little of the ambiguity in the language? And if there's really such confusion over different characters, it would simply mean they have to create new words, just like everyone else. That'll get the creative juices flowing.
You might gasp in amazement and awe at my incredible arrogance in holding an opinion on a language I couldn't even master. Well, gasp away. There it is: that's my theory, and until you shoot down my theory it might console you to know I have absolutely no influence anywhere in the world, so ... there.
Reading acquisition links: