This is a guest post about reading in Chinese, written by Sara K. Reading is one of the best ways of picking up new vocabulary once we reached an intermediate or advanced level, but it’s also necessary to read a lot to be able to write Chinese properly. Reading also enables us to understand word usage and brings us closer to the culture behind the language. I’ll now let Sara talk about her approach and experiences of reading in Chinese. Enjoy!
I’ve been studying Chinese for 2-3 years. During that time, I’ve made my share of mistakes and stumbles, and I’ve done a lot of trial and error to discover the most effective studying methods. Here, I present how I read continuous texts in Chinese. such as books, comics, the lease to my apartment, newspaper articles, etc. I will go over the steps that I use, how I modify my steps for different situations, how I benchmark, and other issues. I am not suggesting that my approach is the best or ideal for every learner – rather, my intent is to give fellow learners ideas about how to develop their own approach to reading Chinese.
- Read the text, or a portion of the text, once cold. No notes, no looking up things up in reference books, just trying to enjoy it.
- Read the text or that portion of the text again. This time I make notes of any vocabulary or anything else that I want to look up in a reference, but I do not actually look at references until I are done reading the text. I like to make the notes right in the text itself so that when I actually open my references later, I can see exactly what the context for that word or phrase is. If one does not want to mark the text itself (perhaps it’s a borrowed copy) one can make the notes on a separate piece of paper.
- After the second reading, I look up whatever I marked. Nowadays I turn my notes into cards for Anki without fleshing them out on paper, but in the past I would write out the full explanations on paper.
- Now read the text for a third time. When using paper notes, I did this as soon as I have finished looking everything up in references and completing the notes. Using Anki, I wait until I have reviewed the cards for a few cycles before re-reading the text.
This full approach was very helpful to me when I was at an intermediate level. At that time, I felt I needed to re-read the texts to help the new language stick in my brain – and I advise all beginner and intermediate learners to re-read texts. Re-reading texts is also helpful for advanced learners. However my time is not unlimited, so usually I think reading fresh text is a better use of my time so I can see words being used in many different contexts. I still use this approach – I just take out steps. For example, I often do the following –
- Read the text cold and mark anything I don’t understand or am uncertain about.
- Later go through my markings, take note of the context, look things up in references, and turn them into Anki cards.
Notice that in this shortened version I am only reading the full text once (I of course re-read the bits I marked).
One of my basic principles is to never interrupt reading to look things up. I want to get involved in the text, and having to pull out a dictionary every time I see a word I don’t know breaks the flow. Once in a while, if there is a word that is showing up over and over again, is clearly very important, and I have no idea what it means, I might pull out the dictionary in the middle of reading, but that rarely happens.
Of course, I decide which of the above steps to include based on why I am reading a text. Here are the most common situations:
- On a Break: Sometimes I want to focus on skills other than reading, or I just want to take a break from difficult texts. So I pick texts which I find enjoyable and relatively easy. I just read the texts once cold, without markings – putting in any more effort would defeat the purpose of taking a break.
- Casual: These would also be texts which I am mainly reading for enjoyment, not expanding my Chinese – but if I do not consider myself ‘on break’ I will still mark whatever I don’t know, look up things in references, and make Anki cards out of them. The bulk of my reading practice these days is like this – it has to be enjoyable and not excessively difficult for me to be able to put in the many hours it takes to become truly comfortable reading Chinese.
- Pushing my level: This is when I am picking a difficult text so I can increase my Chinese proficiency (though I always pick a text which I am also interested in for its own sake – there are too many interesting things to read in Chinese for me to waste my time on a text I don’t care about). I am far more likely to add steps when the main purpose is to expand my Chinese – and if I feel overwhelmed, I will do the full approach described above.
- Specific purpose, example 1: I plan to write an essay about a text in Chinese. I will probably make the markings and Anki cards and re-read the text at least once (after a few rounds of reviews on Anki), even if it’s not challenging.
- Specific purpose, example 2: I have a prescription for some medicine, and the English instructions are so badly written that they are unreliable (this really happened to me). Even if I am 95% sure of what the Chinese instructions say, I would probably put in extra effort to be absolutely certain that I understand what my prescription says (such as talking with a fluent Chinese speaker to check my comprehension)
There are many other situations where something other than language acquisition goals might affect the way someone approaches a text.
Benchmarking reading comprehension
I like to benchmark two different things when reading Chinese; reading speed, and vocabulary comprehension (see this article for more about benchmarking language skills).
To benchmark reading speed, I need a set of texts which have equivalent length and difficulty, preferably of a type which I have also read in my native language (English). Thus, when I compare the speed I take to reach each text, I am comparing apples to apples, and I can also compare to my English reading speed. The set of texts I use is a manhwa called Goong (我的野蠻王妃 ). Each volume is of a similar length and has similar language, and a new Chinese-language volume gets published once in a while. I had actually been reading Goong in English before I started studying Chinese, so I know how long it takes to read a volume in English – but this is a personal choice.
Unfortunately, no two texts are completely equivalent, and many factors can interfere with the accuracy of the measurement. Each learner should find their own texts which personally works for them. Aside from comics, other good sources of long series of texts with consistent length and difficulty include: novels (each chapter can be counted as a separate text), series of novels, newspapers, magazines,, and blogs (if it is a very consistent blog). Olle Linge says that he uses the novel The War of the Worlds and reads it 10 pages at a time. If you have any other ideas about good series of texts to use for benchmarking, please comment.
I find it very encouraging when I know that I am encountering fewer and fewer unfamiliar vocabulary, so I benchmark it. Like benchmarking for speed, I need a set of texts with equivalent length and language difficulty. When I took paper notes, it was obvious when the notes were becoming fewer and fewer for each chunk of text. Now that I use Anki instead of paper notes, I use a different tag for every chunk. For example, I read an 8-volume edition of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion (神鵰俠侶 ). I used different tag for each volume. I could have also chosen to make tags for each chapter, or for every 20 pages. By tagging each equivalent chunk of text, I can track whether I have to look up more or fewer things per chunk. For example, according to Anki, theses are the cards I made for each volume of The Giant Eagle and Its Companion:
- Volume 1: 105 cards
- Volume 2: 74 cards
- Volume 3: 80 cards
- Volume 4: 92 cards
- Volume 5: 74 cards
- Volume 6: 60 cards
- Volume 7: 60 cards
- Volume 8: 73 cards
Now, notice that sometimes I had to look up more words than for the previous volume. Yet I had to look up 88 words per volume on average for the first half of the novel, but only 72 words per volume on average for the second half of the novel. If you’re wondering why I looked up so few words, it’s because this is the sequel to The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), which I read first. For the just first chapter of The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, I had to look up 82 words.
Sometimes there is a major vocabulary spike for a certain chunk. For example, if a story which mostly takes place on land has a scene which takes place at sea, I might have to look up a lot of vocabulary related to seafaring, and which would cause a vocabulary spike. But the overall long-term trend is downward. Measuring and seeing the downward trend is very satisfying.
Dealing with the glossing problem
When I read in my native language (English), particularly when I’m a little tired, I have a lot on my mind, or I am reading for a long period of time, I have a tendency to let things the words enter and exit my mind before I register them. For a long time, this was not an issue in Chinese because a) I did not have the stamina to read Chinese for long periods of time without break b) I read Chinese extremely slowly and c) reading Chinese required a lot of my mental faculties. However, I can now read Chinese for hours non-stop, my reading speed in Chinese has increased greatly (at least for works of fiction), I stumble on far fewer unknown characters/words/idioms, and it requires less of my mental faculties. So, if I’m not careful, I can read 10 pages of Chinese text and have none of it sink in.
In a way, it is a wonderful problem to have – it means that my Chinese reading skills are approaching my English reading skills. However, it is still a problem. What I do is that after each page or so, I try to summarize in my mind what happened. If I can’t make a summary, then I know that I need to be more focused, and I might even make myself re-read the page. This almost always slows me down, which is frustrating, but it’s better to read slower and absorb it than to fly through it. If I get involved in the story, I’ll stop doing the mental summaries because it is no longer necessary.
If you have any other suggestions on how to deal with the glossing problem, please comment.
The most important thing
The most important thing is to find a text that you are really motivated to read.
There is a comic – Evyione: Ocean Fantasy – which I loved when I first read it, but was never continued in English. Then I discovered that it had been translated into Chinese as 人魚戀人 – and that the Chinese-language edition went beyond where the English-language edition stopped. Even though the Chinese was significantly above my level, I was a lot more interested in reading it that whatever I was reading at the time in Chinese. So I dropped my short-term study goals had a kamikaze experience. It was the most challenging experience I ever had reading Chinese. I developed the approach described in this article so that I could handle Evyione (some refinements came later, of course).
And it was so worth it. I went from frequently feeling discouraged when I saw written Chinese to seeing any text in Chinese – no matter how difficult – as something I could handle if I had enough time and put in the effort.
If you cannot find any text for which you have a strong motivation, do some research on Chinese-language literature and pop culture. Particularly pop culture – I am amazed at how ignorant I used to be of Chinese-language pop culture. and I think most Chinese language courses do not do enough to introduce students to the pop culture. There was a time when there seemed to be nothing I really wanted to read in Chinese; now it seems like I’ll never have enough time to read all of the things I want to read in Chinese (many of which are not available in English). Do whatever you need to do to get a Chinese-language text that you are really motivated to read in your hands.
If you want to learn more about Chinese-language pop culture, you could follow my new column, It Came From the Sinosphere, at Manga Bookshelf, where I write about Chinese-langauge pop culture every week. There is also my article on reading comics in Chiense, which will be published here on Hacking Chinese in roughly a week..
Your own approach
I have shaped my approach based on my goals, my learning style, and the texts I am dealing with. These factors are obviously going to be different for every Chinese learner. My purpose in writing this article was to explain my approach to reading Chinese so that other Chinese learners could get ideas of things they could try to integrate into their own approach to reading. For example, I wish somebody gave me the idea of extracting vocabulary to make Anki cards earlier so I would have quit making paper notes sooner.
On the other hand, I think there might be situations where paper notes are more appropriate than Anki (for example, if somebody needs to have a good comprehension of a text within two days and has limited computer access during that period of time), so maybe somebody out there finds the idea useful. So rather than a prescription, I think of this as a series of ideas laid out on a table for anybody to take – some of them are not going to be useful for a particular learner, but there might be a helpful new thought or two.
My own reading approach continues to evolve as my goals, my Chinese proficiency, and the texts I’m working with change – so please comment about how you approach reading Chinese. I would appreciate some helpful new thoughts myself.
About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She currently lives in Taoyuan County, Taiwan, but grew up in San Francisco, California. She writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit.