How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading

Improving writing beyond your speaking ability requires two things: exposure to written Chinese and focused practice, preferably in that order . Just to make things clear, in this article, writing does not mean handwriting, but rather the activity of putting words together to form a written text. Using this definition, basic writing ability is of course close to spoken Chinese, with the only difference that you write things down instead of saying them out loud.

Once you leave the shallow end of the pool and approach the depths of written Chinese, however, you do need focused practice to advance, because written Chinese really is quite different from spoken Chinese. You also need massive amounts of reading. This should be quite obvious. Less obvious is that there are many ways of making that reading more efficient if good writing is what you’re after.

What’s the weakest link in the chain?

As usual, if you want to improve in any area (writing in this case), you need to first figure out what your current problem is or what’s the weakest link in the chain. Put another way, what is stopping you from writing the kind of Chinese you want to write?

I think many people who think that their writing isn’t up to par, but don’t really know exactly what’s wrong. If you lack vocabulary, perhaps practising writing isn’t what you should do. Provided that writing is actually your problem, you then need to decide how to deal with it.

You could have problems on three levels:

  • Words: Even though it should be obvious that you need vocabulary to write well, I’m not going to talk a lot about that in this article. I think writing is more about the skill of combining words rather than knowing the words in the first place. This division is made solely for the purpose of explaining how to practice writing, of course.
  • Sentences: You use sentences to describe things, express opinions, ask questions, gainsaying others and so on. What kind of sentence do you have problems with? For instance, I think I’m quite good arguing a point in Chinese, as well as explaining things, but I’m not very good at describing people, places and events.
  • Paragraphs: The next level deals with how you structure your text and how you make it easy for the reader to understand what you’re trying to convey. This includes linking paragraphs together, introducing a new idea, highlighting causal relationships and so on. If you have problems in this area alone, you might produce texts that are grammatically okay but make no sense or are very hard to read.

In any case, you need to identify what your problem is. You might have problems on all levels, but since you can’t focus on everything at once, you still need to select a limited number of targets. Again, ask yourself, what’s the weakest link? Now, let’s move on to how focused reading can help you overcome the problems you have identified.

Image source: pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/
Image source: pixabay.com/en/users/PublicDomainPictures/

Focused reading to improve your Chinese writing

It’s easy to say that you need huge amounts of reading to become good at writing in a language, but it’s not very helpful. What should you read and how? I do think quantity matters a lot, but quality certainly has a role to play as well and what we’re going to look at now is one way of increasing the quality of your reading.

When I say “reading” here, I assume that you are already reading quite a lot. It doesn’t really matter if you’re reading textbooks, graded readers, news articles, novels or academic papers, just as long as they contain the kind of writing you’re after.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Select an area of focus (see above)
  2. Start recording good examples from the material you read
  3. Extract sentence patterns and useful phrases
  4. Sort and organise the examples you record
  5. Keep your record handy next time you write and use the new words or phrases
  6. Check what  you have learnt with native speakers
  7. Change focus and start over again

This isn’t rocket science and I think this should be clear enough, but I’ll still mention a few examples to further illustrate my point. A while ago, I found it hard to refer to academic sources in Chinese. This is so common in academic writing that it’s a big handicap not being able to do it smoothly. What I did to resolve this was simply to write down different ways of referring to authors and/or books that I encountered in my reading.

After doing this for a few weeks, I had a few dozen ways of citing sources. Then, when writing papers or reports, I simply glanced at that list and tried them out one by one, asking native speakers to give me feedback on the usage. Some ways of referring didn’t really work the way I imagined they would, but I still increased my active vocabulary in this area a lot. I don’t have a problem with citing sources in Chinese any more.

Here are some other things you can focus on:

  • Ways of saying “but” in a sentence
  • Ways of saying “however” between paragraphs
  • Ways of agreeing and adding emphasis
  • How to present a counter argument
  • How to raise a sensitive topic
  • How to be humble in writing
  • How to describe graphs and statistics

Of course, if you read enough, you might be able to do this without focusing on it (I doubt most native speakers do it this way, for instance, and I have never done any such focused learning in English either), but it takes much, much longer. I had probably seen the words I recorded multiple times before and understood them perfectly well, it was just that they refused to move from my passive to my active vocabulary. This is an excellent way of encouraging that transfer and therefore also improve your writing ability in Chinese!

A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese

This is a guest post about reading comics in Chinese, written by Sara K. It was written as a natural follow-up to her previous article, but instead of talking about reading in general, this time she introduces comics for Chinese learners. I also enjoy reading  comics, but rather than trying to write something mediocre myself, I hand over the pen to an expert. Enjoy!

Olle Linge has already said why reading comics are good for language learning (Reading manga for more than just pleasure), so this article is about how to use comics for language learning.

I have read comic books ever since I learned how to read, I came into Chinese-language comics with a broad knowledge of the medium to support me, and even so, I had to learn how to best use the comics in my studies. There are two main issues:

  1. Picking a comic (this is very important, and also difficult to do without broad knowledge of what is out there)
  2. Being comfortable with the comic book medium

This article mostly focuses on (1), but I will first address (2).

Attitude

Many people look down on comics because they are for kids, porn, silly, or are simply degenerate. To people who have such an attitude, I say this: if you are more concerned with building highbrow-culture credentials than language learning, that is your choice, but if you refuse to read comics because they are too lowbrow for you, you are denying yourself a very useful tool for language learning. Many people are concerned, not about their own attitudes, but the attitudes of others. I think such fears are often exaggerated, but in some situations they are valid, so here are my suggestions:

  1. Read in private
  2. Use book covers (you can make your own out of scratch paper). This is a good idea anyway – it keeps the comics in good shape.
  3. Stick to comics which are obviously for grown-ups yet are obviously not porn. For example, The Drops of God (神之雫), an international bestseller about wine, is a good choice in this category.

Kids comics, of course, are not only okay, they are wonderful. Kids comics generally will have simpler language, even pinyin or bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan). And many kids comics are enjoyable for readers of all ages. There are too many kids comics out there for me to offer a comprehensive overview, but here are two places to start:

  1. Doraemon (哆啦A夢), perennially popular with the children of Taiwan (and Japan too, of course)
  2. Shonen Jump, the most popular comic book magazine in the world (though only the second most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan – I’ll discuss the most popular comic book magazine in Taiwan later in this article). It is the origin of phenomenal hits such as Dragonball (七龍珠), One Piece (航海王), and Death Note (死亡筆記本), among others. There is plenty of information about Shonen Jump on the web.

And finally, porn is also okay. There is no shortage of it, at least in traditional characters. There is comic book porn catering to many different tastes, including female tastes. And porn tends to be short – good for people intimidated by long works. Unfortunately, it might be hard to find porn suited to one’s tastes outside of Taiwan/Hong Kong – in Taiwan/Hong Kong, of course, one simply needs to enter the over-18-years-old section of a comic book shop and browse.

Comic grammar

Like film, there are a set of well-known conventions used in comic books to convey the story – usually referred to as ‘comic grammar’. Most people learn comic grammar by reading lots of comic books – the same way people learn film grammar or television grammar. I have met people in both the United States and Taiwan who cannot ‘read’ comics in their native language because they have not picked up comic grammar (they don’t actually use the term ‘comic grammar’, but that’s what they mean).

Even though comic grammar is not uniform throughout East Asia, or even just in the Chinese-speaking world (for example, Hong Kong comic grammar is not identical to Taiwanese comic grammar), the similarities are strong enough that anyone who has read lots of East Asian comics shouldn’t have a problem with this when they start reading comics in Chinese. On the other hand, this could be a bit challenging for somebody who had not read many East Asian comics. If this is an issue, or if one simply does not want to pick up comic grammar at the same time one is trying to pick up Chinese, I suggest reading either a) kids comics (simpler comic grammar) or b) manhwa (Korean comics), as manhwa tends to have more straightforward comic grammar than manga (Japanese comics) and manhua (comics from the Chinese-speaking world).

What do you want from comics?

Answering this question is the first step to picking appropriate comics. For example, if you simply want to feel more comfortable reading Chinese, I would advocate reading a long comic book series full of cliffhangers – sticking to one cast of characters is generally easier than reading a bunch of short unrelated works, and cliffhangers keep one motivated (Shonen Jump, mentioned earlier, is a good source for this type of thing).

On the other hand, if one wants to expand one’s flexibility (being able to read a wider range of texts), I would advocate reading a bunch of stylistically different works to get exposed to as many kinds of Chinese as possible. Creative Comics Collection, Taiwan’s most popular manhua magazine (it outsells the Taiwan edition of Shonen Jump), is great for this. It’s full of short works which address topics as different as rooftop gardens, the history of Taipei, the different types of dragons used to ‘guard’ temples, a house built for use by the Japanese imperial family, and bathing habits in Ancient Greece (by the way, all of these topics appeared in the same issue).

From here, I am going to split this into three sections:

  1. Colloquial Chinese
  2. Literary Chinese
  3. Non-fiction Chinese

Of course, the most important thing is motivation. 7Seeds (幻海奇情), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure manga by Yumi Tamura, does not fit any of the categories I describe (well, it might fit under ‘colloquial’). However, even though it does not fit well into any of the categories discussed below, if you want to read 7Seeds really badly – then go ahead and read it. Don’t stop yourself from reading something you’re really interested in, even if it doesn’t align with my suggestions.

Colloquial Chinese

Many comics use very colloquial language, but not all. For people who are primarily interested in colloquial Chinese, I have two general suggestions: comedies and manhua.

In every language I have ever used, comedies tend to have the colloquial language of any form of fiction. I think it is because humor often requires very natural language in order to work. I know I have picked up much more Chinese slang from reading comedic comics than all other comics combined – and comedies only make up a minority of my comic-book reading. For example, I learned that 復古 (fùgǔ) means ‘retro’ by reading the manhwa 瑪麗的外宿中 (Mary Stayed Out All Night).

I also think that, for the most extremely colloquial language, one should look at manhua (comics from China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore). Sure, some manhua are written awkwardly (no language is immune to bad writers), and some translations are so good that they do not feel like translations at all. But, on average, I would say that manhua better reflects natural speech than comics in translation (I would say the same of comics originally written in English vs. comics translated into English). For example, Taiwanese manhua not aimed at children occasionally throws in some bopomofo (the phonetic script used in Taiwan), whereas I have never seen this in a comic in translation.

Speaking of bopomofo, that raises another issue – region. Ideally, one would read manhua from whatever region one is interested in. For example, as someone who is studying Taiwan-Mandarin, Taiwanese manhua is the obvious choice for me. People with a strong interest in Guangdong should pick up humor manhua from Hong Kong. Ask people from whatever region you are interested in if there are any good local cartoonists.

And of course, another reason to favor manhua, particularly manhua from one’s region of interest, is culture. One cannot master a language without knowing a lot about the culture, and manhua best reflects the culture of Chinese-speakers. Comics in translation can also contribute to cultural knowledge – Japan has such an overwhelming influence on Taiwanese culture that one has to know quite a bit about Japanese culture to understand Taiwanese culture – and translation choices also reveal culture. Nonetheless, I think serious language learners who want to try comics should at least try manhua to get the maximum benefit.

Finally, another way to use comics for colloquial Chinese is to combine them with idol dramas. This is a way to integrate reading and listening skills – start with the format one is more comfortable with, and then experience the story in the format one is less comfortable with. Here is a list of idol dramas which I know have a manga or manhua equivalent (though some of the manga/manhua exist only in traditional or only in simplified characters).

  • 流星花園 ‘Meteor Garden’ (Hana Yori Dango / Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio)
  • 蜜桃女孩 ‘Peach Girl’ (Peach Girl by Miwa Ueda)
  • 薔薇之戀 ‘The Rose’ (Bara no Tameni by Akemi Yoshimura)
  • 戰神 ‘Mars’ (Mars by Fuyumi Soryo)
  • 橘子醬男孩 ‘Marmalade Boy’ (Marmalade Boy by Wataru Yoshizumi)
  • 惡魔在身邊 ‘Devil Beside You’ (The Devil Does Exist by Mitsuba Takanashi)
  • 花樣少年少女 ‘Hana Kimi’ (Hanazakari no Kimitachi e / For You in Full Blossom by Hisaya Nakajo)
  • 惡作劇之吻 ‘It Started with a Kiss’ & 惡作劇2吻 ‘They Kiss Again’ (Itazura na Kiss by Kaoru Tada)
  • 櫻野3加1 ‘My Best Pals’ (櫻野3加1 by 俞家燕)
  • 籃球火 ‘Hot Shot’ (籃球火 by俞家燕)
  • 微笑 Pasta ‘Smiling Pasta’ (微笑 Pasta by 俞家燕)
  • 旋風管家 ‘Hayate the Combat Butler’ (Hayate the Combat Butler by Kenjiro Hata)
  • 命中注定我愛你 ‘Fated to Love You’ (命中注定我愛你 by 海澄 & 櫻炎)
  • 我的億萬麵包 ‘Love or Bread’ (我的億萬麵包 by 俞家燕)
  • 泡沫之夏 ‘Summer’s Desire’ (泡沫之夏 by 明晓溪)
  • 華麗的挑戰 ‘Skip Beat’ (Skip Beat by Yoshiki Nakamura)
  • 絕對達令 ‘Absolute Boyfriend’ (Zettai Kareshi / Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase)

There are sometimes trade-offs between entertainment and language learning. For example, my favorite drama and comic on this list is Mars, but because of the frequent silent pauses in the drama, it is not the best choice for language acquisition (likewise, I would say the comic book does not have particularly colloquial language). I find Fated To Love You very entertaining … but about 10% of it is in Taiwanese, which makes the drama less than ideal for improving Mandarin-listening skills. On the other end, I think Hana-Kimi is great for language acquisition because it is repetitive and the language is very natural … on the other hand, it is repetitive and some sections of the manga are really boring (I prefer the drama). I have not read/watched everything on this list, but of the ones I do know, I would say that It Started With A Kiss / They Kiss Again offers the best combination of entertainment and language acquisition value.

Literary Chinese

Stepping into literary Mandarin, especially when sprinkled with Classical Chinese, can be daunting. Comics can ease one into literary Chinese by…

  1. offering a lot of context (specifically, the artwork)
  2. having a high story-to-word ratio (if you read Chinese at the speed of a snail, it is much more satisfying to read comics than pure prose because the story moves much more quickly)

Jumping into literary prose will be much easier if one has already been exposed to the language through comics, doubly so if you read a manhua adapted from a novel and then read the original novel.

While I suggested that people interested in colloquial Chinese should consider manhua, I strongly urge that people who want to use comics to pick up literary Chinese use manhua. Do not consider comics in translation without a compelling reason. Imagine a comic about Japanese shoguns rendered in Elizabethan English, and I think you can understand the problem (I am one of the three people in the world who likes the Viz adaptation of Ooku, but even I would not recommend it to somebody trying to improve their literary English).

The limitation with using comics to pick up literary Chinese is that the vast majority of literary manhua out there is either based on classics (such as Journey to the West) or on wuxia novels. That’s great if classics and/or wuxia is what you want to read, but if you are more interested in Lu Xun or Chiung Yao, it’s not so helpful (yes, I know there is at least one manhua adaptation of Lu Xun out there, but I do not know how to get a hold of it, so it’s useless to me). On the other hand, all of the four major classics have been adapted to manhua multiple times, so one can probably find an adaptation one likes. As far as wuxia, Jin Yong, Gu Long, Wen Ruian, and Huang Yi have all had at least one of their novels adapted into manhua, by artists with different styles, so there is a fair amount of variety there too.

If one is considering using manhua to improve one’s literary Chinese, but do not know where to start, I not-so-humbly suggest looking at my series of blog posts at Manga Bookshelf: The Condor Trilogy in Manhua. For the record, I think Lee Chi-Ching’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes is the best manhua for studying Chinese out of all the manhua I discussed at Manga Bookshelf. It has the highest art-to-words ratio (lots of context), is the most faithful to the original work, and has the simplest comic grammar (for people who are not experienced comic-book readers). It’s also the easiest to acquire.

Non-fiction Chinese

East Asian culture values cramming as many facts as possible into one’s head. To facilitate this, Japan has produced a lot of non-fiction manga, such as ‘The Manga Guide to Biology’, and many of these manga have been translated into Chinese (at least traditional characters … but considering that Chinese views on cramming facts into people’s heads are not much different from Japanese or Taiwanese views, I would be surprised if there was nothing available in simplified characters). As with Literary Chinese, comics can ease one into using more advanced language before wading into pure prose.

In addition to comics which are actually non-fiction, one can always try to find comics on the topic of interest. Want to read the type of Chinese used in corporate workplaces? Try Kosaku Shima (島耕作), a manga about the adventures of a Japanese salaryman. It’s not ideal, since it’s about a Japanese corporation, but I don’t know of any manhua about the trials and tribulations of, say, a Taishang in Guangdong (though I think if somebody published such a manhua, and it was of at least decent quality, it would sell quite well).

The culture’s the thing

One thing that is emphasized at Hacking Chinese is holistic learning. Part of holistic learning is putting the language and the culture together. I managed to improve my Chinese so much through comics partially because I already had a handle on manga and manhwa – I knew the territory, I was just using a different language. I did not have a handle on manhua. While its close relationship to manga certainly helped me, diving into manhua was like exploring some trails in rural Taiwan without a guidebook or map – just having hearsay, one’s sense of direction, and the occasional signpost to point the way.

Of course, manga and manhwa is what kindled my interest in manhua in the first place … and manga led me to Taiwanese idol dramas … and in Taiwanese idol dramas I would often see the places I visit in my travels around the island … and the combination of manhua and Taiwanese television led me to wuxia and … there are so many directions I can go with this that I have to choose carefully. Notice that I am forming the kind of web which is at the heart of holistic learning. It does wonders for my motivation. It also helps me pick up the language at a more technical level too – for example, I find it is so bizarre that Owain, an 18th-century European in a Korean manhwa, would use such a distinctly Chinese chengyu as 杞人憂天 (the man of Qi who feared the sky might fall) that it helps me remember that chengyu. It shows how the chengyu are so integrated into the language that translators will ascribe it to characters who would never, in reality, know about those allusions.

So, to get the most language learning out of comics, one should make an effort to learn about both comics culture and the culture of Chinese-speakers. To that end, here are some links:

  • Manga Bookshelf – a good place to browse to learn about manga and manhwa, and now I have a weekly column there, “It Came from the Sinosphere,” in which I sometimes discuss manhua
  • This thread at Chinese Forums has good information about how to order Chinese-language comics online, as well as a discussion of manhua.
  • There is Baka-Updates Manga, which is the database I check when I want to look up what comics are available in Chinese, what is the Chinese title, which character set, etc (if the title is listed with traditional characters, it’s available in traditional characters; if the title is listed with simplified characters, it’s available in simplified characters). It also includes user reviews and has computer-generated recommendations.

And here are some articles about manhua in English:

Notice that I am not linking to any of the zillion websites of comic book scans (at least in Chinese – Baka-Updates Manga is a database of English-language scans, but it also happens to be a really good database for getting information about Chinese-language comics too). Most of those scans are taken straight from published editions, which is disrespectful of the artists, editors, translators, etc. If you would not be okay with your work being distributed online without your permission, then don’t use the scans websites.

As far as finding Chinese-language comics on the ground, there are lots of ways to get them in Taiwan. I have an article at Manga Bookshelf about Guanghua Digital Plaza, but that’s hardly the only place to get comics in Taiwan (if have specific questions about acquiring comics in Taiwan, feel free to ask).

Outside of Chinese-speaking territory, acquiring Chinese-language comics is more difficult and, often, more expensive, but there are still options. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has a significant collection of comics in Chinese, and many libraries in California and Nevada can get those comics within days through (see a list of Link+ member libraries here). But possibly the best option is other people. Ask the Chinese speakers in your area if they or somebody they know has a collection of comic books in Chinese. There is a significant chance that the answer is ‘yes’. Comic book collectors often love turning somebody else into a comic book fan. Not only is borrowing comics very inexpensive, the collector can give recommendations, answer questions, and talk to you about the comics in Chinese. That’s a great approach for the holistic learner.

I wrote this article to be a sketch-map of Chinese-language comics. Now it’s your turn to go out there and explore. Bon voyage.

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.

Approaches to reading in Chinese

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Approach

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 –

  1. Read the text cold and mark anything I don’t understand or am uncertain about.
  2. 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.

Which steps?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.