Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Are authentic texts good for learning Chinese or is graded content better?

In the context of language learning and reading ability, “authentic” usually means “not produced specifically for language learners”, or in other words, texts written for native speakers. These can include simple instructions written on food packaging, song lyrics, chat messages, TV subtitles or science-fiction novels.

Anything written specifically for language learners is then by definition not authentic, including your textbook, graded readers, Chinese your teacher writes for you, language exchange chat messages or anything you find online by searching for “Chinese reading practice”.

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In this article, we’re going to continue last week’s discussion about What to read to improve your Chinese and why, which I concluded by contrasting “authentic” and “comprehensible”. Naturally, there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between the two, as authentic content can also be comprehensible, it’s just not very likely that you’ll find anything like that by chance unless you’re already an advanced reader.

The main focus of this article is to first compare authentic and learner-oriented texts written with comprehensibility in mind, then expand the discussion to show that this distinction is not always relevant. I will talk more about authenticity below, but if you need an introduction to comprehension-based approaches to learning and teaching Chinese, there’s a great introduction here: An introduction to comprehension-based Chinese teaching and learning.

As was the case with last week’s article, the discussion in this article is mostly relevant for intermediate students and above. Beginner students are almost always better off focusing on content written specifically for them. Read more here: The 7 best Chinese reading resources for beginners


Pros and cons of using authentic texts for Chinese reading practice

I think one of the problems with this debate is how it is phrased, because “authentic” sounds like it would be a good thing even without considering any implications for learning. I mean, who wants to read inauthentic texts? I’m not going to try to come up with my own terms here, but bear that in mind. Also bear in mind that there in theory needn’t be a contradiction here at all: a text can be both authentic and comprehensible. The problem is that these texts are exceedingly hard to identify as a student and that you will never find enough to practise any form of extensive reading below an advanced level.

Here are some reasons why you should use authentic texts:

  • That’s what real Chinese is like – Your goal with learning to read Chinese is, presumably, to be able to read Chinese, so it makes sense to focus on authentic Chinese. No amount of studying learner-oriented content will prepare you for this. This is relevant when it comes to both the language itself (words, expressions, grammar) and the strategies you need to deal with it (reading a textbook requires a different set of skills from reading a newspaper article).
  • High-quality content – Texts written with the primary purpose of being interesting, funny or engaging are usually more interesting, funny or engaging than a text written to teach Chinese. While some authors of graded readers do a good job, they can’t compare with acclaimed authors, and considering that people who write content for learners are very limited in what they can write, quality suffers.
  • Abundance – The amount of authentic Chinese text published every day is enormous compared with all the text written specifically for learners in the past century combined. You are much more likely to find authentic texts about things you care about and are interested in.
  • Read up-to-date texts about current topics – As a consequence of the above, current affairs and hot topics are unlikely to be covered by learner-oriented content. Most people who write graded readers do the opposite and focus on writing content that will last, which makes sense considering how long it takes to produce. There are exceptions, such as The Chairman’s Bao, though.
  • Variation – Unless it’s pure fiction, authentic texts are often connected to real-world events in some way. This means that there usually are many different texts talking about the same topic, giving you the option to practice narrow reading or find video/audio to scaffold your reading. You might also be able to find texts about the same topic with completely different styles, enabling you to choose what suits you best.

Naturally, authentic texts come with a lot of disadvantages too. In my article The 10 best free Chinese reading resources for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners, no resources for beginners or intermediate learners are authentic, but all resources for advanced learners are. The main disadvantage is of course…

  • It’s too hard – Authentic reading material can be extremely difficult, and most of it simply isn’t useful for a vast majority of language learners. In fact, if I had a time machine and could go back ant tell my past self to change one thing about reading practice, it would be to stop wasting time reading texts that are too hard. This argument alone kills most of the advantages above because it doesn’t matter how awesome or necessary authentic content is if the learner can’t understand it or needs to spend an hour with a dictionary to get through a single page. I’ve talked more about things that are disproportionally hard in Chinese here: 6 things in Chinese that are harder to learn than they seem.
  • Extensive vs. intensive reading – A side effect of the difficulty level is that you’ll end up reading less text because you might be able to read an entire graded reader in the same time it takes you to read a single newspaper article. The former is almost certainly better for your Chinese in general and you want as much extensive reading as you can get.
  • Authentic does not mean useful – Just because a native speaker has written something doesn’t mean that that’s the best way to say it. There are usually dozens of ways to express more or less the same thing, and from a learner’s perspective, it makes sens to focus on the most high-frequency alternatives first. Common words and grammar patterns are more likely to help you understand the next text you read or even improve your own writing. I’ve discussed to importance of what you study (rather than how or for how long) here: Which words you should learn and where to find them

Which words you should learn and where to find them

Some teachers insist that learning materials have to be authentic, but I disagree. I believe that “comprehensible” is more important than “authentic” in most cases. Texts that are not authentic can be adjusted to the right level, be engaging for the reader and provide everything you need in terms of reading practice. Naturally, these texts can also be terrible and do nothing of the above, but that’s not directly related to them being authentic or not. Similarly, just because a text is written for native speakers doesn’t mean it’s a good representation of the language or suitable to study!

I’m not saying you never read authentic content, but I am saying that this kind of intensive reading shouldn’t be the mainstay of your study routine. You can still make sense of content written for native speakers with the aid of digital tools and resources for scaffolding, as discussed here: The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading (by David Moser) and 8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese learning.

The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading

It’s now time to move beyond the authentic vs. learner-oriented divide.

The purpose for which a text is written influences how suitable it is for reading practice

One thing to take into consideration when choosing reading material is the purpose for which the text was written, regardless if the material is authentic or learner-oriented. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • English learning materials for Chinese people – There’s a huge amount of material available for Chinese people learning English, most of it with Chinese content that looks helpful for people learning Chinese, too. Examples include parallel texts, phrase books and much more. However, the purpose of these texts is to illustrate what something written in English means. This means that the naturalness of the Chinese language takes a back seat, making these types of resources unsuitable for most students of Chinese.
  • Translated texts – Similarly, there’s an enormous amount of texts translated to Chinese from other languages. They are written for Chinese people so that they can read and enjoy texts originally written in another language, so this is more promising than the English learning materials above, where enjoyment wasn’t part of the equation, but it’s still not terrific. Why? For two reasons: First, translators still need to take the original English into account, and second, translators usually don’t have enough time or don’t get paid enough to produce great translations. The result is often translations that are correct in Chinese, but still sound like they are translated from English. The Chinese version of the New York Times is a good example of this.
  • Textbook chapters – Depending on the fundamental pedagogical principles the textbook is based on, chapters in a textbook can serve several purposes. The most important one in standard textbooks is to introduce new words and grammar. Apart from that, the texts are also limited to language that has been introduced in earlier chapters, except for the new content, obviously. Natural and engaging content is pushed quite far down the priority list. In some cases, it can be even worse, especially when texts are written specifically to show a certain feature of the language, such as the experiential marker 过/過 (guò). That can lead to sentences that no normal native speaker would use, because the author thinks that using the target word is more important than showing you natural Chinese.

So ask yourself this: Was the text written with the primary purpose of smooth and enjoyable reading for a Chinese person? If the answer is yes, then no problem, but if the answer is no, you might want to check the text with a native speaker. I’m not saying that all texts that are written for other purposes are useless, just that they have a higher risk of being badly written. After all, it’s perfectly possible to write a text that is both natural and comprehensible, it’s just not very easy.

Will your Chinese suffer if you read badly written texts?

Even if you can improve your reading ability or learn more words and grammar almost regardless of what you read, the kind of text you read is important when it comes to building a mental representation of the language through massive amounts of input. What if you read bad Chinese and therefore end up with a bad representation?

To start with, there is no elusive, single representation of how Chinese works floating out there in the sea of characters. Each native speaker has a slightly different model, so depending on how you choose to look at the situation, native speakers can certainly be wrong about their own language and can definitely write bad texts. Furthermore, China is huge and influences from regional varieties can and do influence the way people use Mandarin all the time.

Can native speakers be wrong about Chinese grammar and pronunciation?

This means that even if you read only authentic texts, written by Chinese people for Chinese people, the language you encounter will not be fully internally consistent. You will encounter one native speaker who writes something another native speaker thinks is wrong. You will write a sentence after receiving feedback from a native speaker, only to have another native speaker suggest you change it back to what you originally wrote.

This means that “authentic” is not really what you need, but “representative”; you want the language you read to be as mainstream as possible, at least before you reach an advanced level. You want to learn how the language is typically used before you learn how to deliberately stray from conventions to achieve a certain effect.

The best way to read text that is representative is to not invest all your time in one type of text and vary your reading.

Good reading practice is diversified reading practice

While we don’t know exactly how we use input to build mental models for how a language works, it’s not magic, it’s just your brain doing statistics on the input you engage with, tweaking the model based on the evidence seen in that input.

Thus, a few instances of a word used in a weird manner are unlikely to result in a wrecked model, but it does make sense to try to vary your input and make sure you don’t stay in a niche for too long. This approach protects you from idiosyncratic writers and creative language you probably aren’t ready for.

Here are a few examples that could be problematic if your goal is natural-sounding Chinese:

  • Only reading texts written for language learners, as these texts are often very limited in terms of vocabulary and grammar. They are also level-adjusted, which means that some words and patterns might appear not because they are natural, but because they belong to a certain set of words, such as those defined by proficiency exams. A text might also be written with specific purposes in mind, such as introducing a certain grammar pattern, which can lead to weird-sounding Chinese.
  • Only reading texts translated from other languages, as these are all written under certain constraints, such as adhering to the source text. As I said above, This might mean that the naturalness of the Chinese is occasionally sacrificed, especially if the translator doesn’t have enough time or isn’t incentivised to produce high-quality translations. This is rarely a problem on the word or sentence level, but if you want to learn how Chinese writers structure their writing, stay away from translated works! I mentioned the Chinese version of The New York Times above.
  • Only reading texts in a particular genre, such as a certain type of fiction, newspaper articles or academic journals. This will skew your mental models somewhat and make your Chinese unnatural, even if this is mostly relevant for advanced learners. I have this problem in English sometimes, because I’ve consumed a hundred times more written formal or literary  English than I’ve been exposed to more relaxed, colloquial English.

The remedy here is quite simple: Vary your diet! Read mostly things you like, things that interest you or things you need, but make a conscious effort to diversify, too. Don’t stick to the same genre, the same author, the same topics. The more you read, the better, but don’t get stuck in a small corner of the language!

All reading is good for you

So, the conclusion is that all reading is good reading, at least in some way, and that your reading should consist of both authentic and learner-oriented content in a mix that emphasises comprehensible input. For lower-level learners, this means mostly learner-oriented content such as graded readers, and for higher-level learners, authentic texts will gradually take over as they become easier to access.

Finally, if in doubt regarding a specific text, always ask a native speaker to read a few pages and evaluate how natural they think the Chinese are. Once you leave the beginner level behind, there’s so much reading material out there that there’s no reason to use badly written texts. Even if all reading is good for you, some reading is better than others.

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