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March 23, 2024

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Why do we find words failing us?

At a family gathering in Nanjing during the Spring Festival holiday, a young man named Li Sichao was asked to make a few remarks in keeping with the occasion.

The graduate student was initially tongue-tied. His mind could assemble meaningful thoughts, but he couldn’t utter them coherently. The resulting comments didn’t do much credit to his years of education as a graduate student.

Nor was this an isolated incident for the hapless Li. Whenever he has to report to his graduate supervisor, he gets tied up in knots when asked even the simplest of questions.

“It can be right at the tip of my tongue,” Li told China Youth Daily. “But for the world of me, I could not say it with any confidence and coherence.”

The Beijing-based newspaper recently devoted a whole page to similar circumstances bedeviling other young people called upon to make a speech or even write a discourse. They suddenly become stuck for proper words and appropriate phrases.

The symptoms are a form of non-pathological aphasia, a disorder in the ability to communicate effectively. Yet, oddly enough, these sufferers seem to have no problem communicating online, where they demonstrate unfettered facility for online slang, jargons, memes and emojis.

To further probe this behavior, the newspaper recently surveyed 1,333 young people. Some 53 percent of the respondents admitted their verbal abilities have been declining in recent years. Half blamed their problem on a lack of book reading and an over-reliance on online communication.

Results of the survey can be found on

The social media realm is full of capricious buzzwords and abbreviations that aren’t generally found in books and don’t translate well to more formal discourse.

Take the recent Spring Festival for example. Netizens frequently extended seasonal greetings by duplicating ready-made emojis, graphs, videos or copy-and-paste platitudes. That method may be fast, but it’s hardly the stuff of adult talk in the real world.

In a recent interview with the paper, Zheng Huanzhao, an associate professor from Jinan University in Guangdong Province, said: “The decline among the ability of youth to express themselves properly is evidence of ‘verbal aphasia’ induced by excessive use of the Internet.”

Zheng praised the Internet for making life easier in a myriad of ways, but he also noted that it can have a significant impact on the way people think and express themselves. Symptoms of aphasia in young people merit closer attention, he added.

It’s well known now that some expressions born online can affect our way of thinking. A case in point is tangping, or “lying flat,” which propagates a nihilistic attitude that rejects the concept of hard work espoused in traditional Chinese culture. Many netizens were eager to embrace it.

It is also true that the online realm is chipping away at the value our forefathers placed on the elegance of Chinese calligraphy. The origin of Chinese characters was considered so momentous that coinciding with their invention was the “sky raining millet, and the ghosts groaning.”

The skies are apparently clear, and the ghosts gone nowadays. Although students in primary and middle schools are required to spend an inordinate amount of time writing Chinese characters, they are no longer embracing the esthetics of the writing. A fine hand at calligraphy is no longer considered a litmus test of one’s cultural and intellectual stature.

I gave my sister a piece of advice when her grandchildren reached the age where extracurricular enrichment classes are considered important. I told her that her money would not be spent if the kids learned how to write Chinese characters well. I reasoned that developing an affinity with Chinese characters and the belles-lettres they create would help immunize them against the dross churned out online.

This really is not a problem confined to youth. In a sense, we are all exposed to this “dumbing down” of cherished culture if we let ourselves become obsessed with the cyber world.

Days ago, I watched a short video in which renowned avant-garde novelist Yu Hua reminisces about the euphoria he experienced when he received a phone call from a literary journal in Beijing in the 1980s, summoning him to the capital so he could rewrite his novel with a view to making it more uplifting.

Yu’s dramatic narrative took me back to the sublime 1980s, when each borrowed literary journal could keep me enthralled for days.

But I also felt a tinge of regret that even an accomplished writer like Yu felt the need to express himself in a short video instead of on the written page.


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