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If you Google the term “predictive text,” the first 10 links you see will probably all be about how to turn it off. People who become reliant on predictive text lose their ability to use language expressively

"Next summer we're going to Viagra Falls."

"Honey, did you pick up the corpses?" "I mean cherries."

"I'm taking the kids down to the Christmas mart to see Satan."

"Come over for a sex." "I mean sec!"

Just about everyone who does text messaging has had some awkward or embarrassing experience caused by autocorrect. Androids, Kindles, and iPhones attempt to compensate for the inefficiency that comes from having no physical keyboard with predictive text. Just enter the first few letters of a word and the operating system suggests a whole word for you. On many cell phones, if you just keep typing, the suggestion replaces what you typed. Sometimes, however, predictive text does not predict very well. Autocorrected messages to your parents, to your boss, or to your close friends, or business text messaging, can be a disaster if you don't proofread.

The real downside of using predictive text in online text messages and word processing, however, is that you can largely forget how to write. A good example of how this can happen comes from China.

Character Amnesia Predates Cheap Cell Phones

In China, there was predictive text long before there were cell phones. In the 1950's, the newly empowered Communist government issued edicts about everything from choosing your mate to greater steel production. Local typists had to make copies of government orders for everyone to read. Typing in Chinese, however, is not a simple process. At that time, typewriters had 2450 keys. These keys were organized by shape; the characters for "apple" might be next to those for "aardvark." The top speed for a typist was about 25 characters (maybe 10 words) a minute.

Typists began to rearrange their key trays so characters they used together were closer together on the keyboard. "American," for example, was moved next to "imperialist." "Increase" was moved next to "production." In 1956, a typist created a keyboard that was three times more efficient, and in the 1970's, before Americans even dreamed of autocorrect, the Chinese had a system of TV displays that would show a character and eight or so characters that were likely to follow it. By 2000, the Chinese began to use a QWERTY keyboard to type out a sound with a computer screen showing the character, but there was an unexpected side effect.

 

By 2010, a survey found that 83 percent of Chinese people had experienced character amnesia, needing to write a character on paper but not remembering it.

 

Going Back to Writing by Hand to Prevent the Problems Caused by Predictive Text

The Chinese government has taken steps to correct the problems caused by their version of predictive text. Experts at Beijing Normal University have proposed requiring elementary school children to do all their homework in longhand. College students will be required to do half of their writing assignments by hand. The university also will sponsor calligraphy competitions.

China is tackling its problems with character amnesia by going back to much older technologies. But do English speakers need to go back to writing in longhand, too?

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