Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: In this digital era, a lot of children simply don’t know how to sign their name. Schools around the world are increasingly not teaching children how to write.

In suburban Toronto, when John Molenaar took his 14-year-old son to fill out a passport application, it was an eye opener.

“He started printing his name and I said, ‘No, Lukas — sign your name, you know, write your signature.’”

The 14-year-old confessed he has never been taught to write in “cursive.” Printing was all he knew.

Like countless tens of thousands of others, he’s a casualty of the trend away from cursive writing.

“When I picked myself up off the floor, I told him to print the letters close together so at least they look like writing,” the father told The Toronto Star.

“But I was absolutely shocked they don’t teach cursive writing any more. He’s going into high school and he can’t write his name.”

“My friend had the same problem with his passport,” countered Lukas — both boys need passports to volunteer abroad with their local church.

Argued Molenaar: “Your signature is your mark. Are we having a whole generation who can’t write their name? How are you supposed to sign cheques — put your fingerprint on a legal document?”

In Tokyo, it’s a similar problem. As a schoolboy, Akihiro Matsumura spent hundreds of hours learning the intricate Chinese characters that make up a part of written Japanese. Now, the graduate student can rely on his smartphone, tablet and laptop to remember them for him.

“Sometimes I don’t even bother to take notes in seminars. I just take out my tablet to shoot pictures of what instructors write on blackboards,” he told AFP.

Like millions of people across East Asia, 23-year-old Matsumura is forgetting the pictographs and ideographs that have been used in Japan and greater China for centuries.

While some bemoan what they see as the loss of history and culture, others say the shift frees up brainpower for more useful things, like foreign languages, and even improves writing as a whole.

Naoko Matsumoto, a professor of law who heads international legal studies at the prestigious Sophia University near Tokyo, said the students in her classes now write more fluently than their predecessors.

“I’m in my 40s and compared with my generation, they have more and more opportunities to write using Twitter” and other social networking services, she said.

“I think they are actually better at writing” because they write in a simple and easy-to-understand way, she said.

Priorities are changing with more emphasis placed on building logical thinking strategies — a case of content becoming more important than form.

“The skill of handwriting kanji (Chinese characters) perfectly is becoming less necessary compared with earlier times,” the professor said.

Kanji developed in China as a mixture of pictographs — characters that represent a thing, like “mountain” — and ideographs — those that depict an abstract concept, like “think”.

Greater China uses only these characters — a simplified version on the mainland and the traditional form in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Japan imported kanji some time during the first millennium to use as a writing system, despite there being no linguistic link between Japanese and Chinese.

Graduate student Matsumura said his reliance on devices leaves him adrift when faced with filling in forms for repairs at the electronics shop where he works part-time.

“I sometimes can’t recall kanji on the spot while a customer is watching me,” he said. “I remember their rough shapes but can’t remember exact strokes... It’s foggy.”

Traditionalists fear that forgetting kanji means the irrevocable loss of a fundamental part of culture.

In Hong Kong, Rebecca Ko said her 11-year-old daughter uses the computer more and more, but she insists the child learn traditional characters, and sends her to a Chinese calligraphy class.

“We cannot rely too much on computers, we should be able to write... (and) we should be able to write neatly, it’s a basic thing about being Chinese,” she said.

But, says Matsumura, times change and the spread of technology gives people opportunities to develop their language capability in other ways, for example allowing some to read more.

“I’m one of them. I used to listen to music blankly on trains, but I now read news and other things,” he said.

Yusuke Kinouchi, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, thought children should keep learning the characters in the way they have done for hundreds of years.

—Compiled form agencies