Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Reading aloud in Chinese is really hard

Image credit: Public Record Office Victoria

Image credit: Public Record Office Victoria

Reading unfamiliar text aloud in any language is a complicated process and is generally much harder than people who haven’t tried it realise. This is especially true for reading aloud in Chinese. Because of this, if someone can do it well, you can be quite sure that person is (really) good at the language. However, the opposite isn’t true, meaning that you can be bad at reading aloud while still being very proficient in almost all other areas, including reading (silently) and speaking.

Reading aloud is a very complex process that requires a whole set of skills, rather than just one called “reading aloud” or whatever. Thus, it’s a good evaluation of all these skills combined, but if  says almost nothing about the component parts..

What skills are involved in reading aloud in Chinese?

The cognitive processes involved in reading have been thoroughly researched, but this is a simplified summary. You need to be able to:

  • Map characters to meaning (character recognition)
  • Group characters into meaningful words (vocabulary)
  • Group words into meaningful sentences (grammar)
  • Understand the meaning of sentences in context (pragmatics)
  • Map characters to pronunciation (pronunciation recall)
  • Understand how the pronunciation of one syllable influences other syllables
  • Understand how meaning influences pronunciation (intonation and stress)
  • Understand the writer’s intent (reading between the lines)

Naturally, you don’t need to do all these steps all the time. For instance, experienced readers seldom read individual characters, but rather read words in their entirety (this is why it’s possible to read Chinese which is printed with a font size so small that individual strokes can’t be discerned). This is true for strokes of individual characters as well, just as in English, where you don’t read the individual letters of every word. Similarly, we tend to remember the pronunciation of words (if they are common) rather than the individual characters they consist of.

Why reading in Chinese is significantly harder than reading in, say, French

Reading aloud is tricky in any language, but now I’m going to explain why it’s significantly harder in Chinese than most other languages (and when I say most, I refer to languages likely studied by readers of Hacking Chinese). The key difference is that Chinese is different kind of language altogether from, say, French.

The most obvious reason is of course that there is no systematic mapping between characters and pronunciation. Sure, if you’re well-versed in semantic-phonetic characters (see relevant article here, part 1 and part 2), you might find some clues in the characters, but the fact remains that reading aloud in Chinese is much, much harder than in any language with a phonetic writing system. This should be fairly obvious to anyone who studies Chinese, in fact it was so obvious that I forgot to write this paragraph in the first version of this article, so thanks to David Moser who highlighted this shortcoming in the comments.

The less obvious reason why Chinese is hard to read aloud

French is a synthetic language, meaning that it has a high morpheme-per-word ratio, which in normal English means that a single word carries much information. For instance, verbs in French contain much more information than in English. Not only can you see when the action took place (tense), you can also see who did it, because the verb changes according to the subject of the sentence (person). This is true for some English verbs as well, such as “to be”. This means that there is a lot of redundancy in the system, because you don’t actually have to understand both the subject and the verb of a sentence. In English, if you know the verb is “am”, the subject has to be “I”, for instance.

Chinese is at the other end of the spectrum. Languages that have a low morpheme-per-word ratio are called isolating languages and Chinese is a very good example of this. In French, we could see who did it and when, in English only when (and sometimes who), but in Chinese we can’t even see if it’s a verb or not! Most of the time, the inflections of words that allow us to see that a word is a verb, noun or adjective simply aren’t there. Boundaries between word classes are not distinct. But how is meaning conveyed in such a language? Through context, mostly, and this is the first key to understanding why reading aloud in Chinese is so hard.

The information is there even if you can’t see it directly

The fact that we can’t know if 冰 is a noun, verb or adjective simply by looking at the character (compare ice, to ice and icy in English) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter which one it is. In a specific sentence, it’s usually only one of these, not all three. In order to make sense of a sentence, you still need to figure out what function it has in that context. You don’t need to know what linguists call it, but you need to be able to do it in practice. This is roughly how my linguistics teacher put it:

In synthetic languages (such as French), the burden rests mostly with the writer (or speaker). He needs to write clearly and use the right tense, number and gender and so on. In Chinese (an isolating language), the burden lies mainly on the reader (or listener), who needs to figure out all these things based on context. The information is there, it’s just not encoded on the word level.

To add insult to injury, we also need to figure out which characters belong to which words. This is very easy if you only encounter words you’ve seen hundreds of times, but it’s not easy when you approach the limits of your reading ability. This adds significantly to the difficulty of reading texts aloud, because not being able to find word boundaries is more or less guaranteed to make the reading very awkward and will most likely result in restarting the sentence once you’ve figured out where the words actually are.

Reading aloud in Chinese is really hard

This actually explains why reading in Chinese is hard in general, so it follows that reading aloud is even harder, because not only do you need to remember how all the characters are read, but you also need to sort all the above things while you read. You need to do it quickly enough so that you can read and understand a sentence during the time it takes you to read the previous sentence, otherwise there’s simply no way that you can understand how the next sentence is supposed to be read. You might not need to finish the entire sentence before you start it, but you need a good enough grasp of Chinese to be able to make educated guesses on the fly.

In addition, just reading at a reasonable pace (125-250 characters per minute) is not easy, even if you don’t do it aloud! If this is your main problem, please check this article: Reading speed: Learning how to read ten lines at a glance. To put this into context, you can pass some quite advanced tests in Chinese without reading quicker than, say, 150 characters per minute, and most people who fail reading tests still fail because of a lack of speed.

Of course,  you can do what most foreigners do and simply ignore anything above the character level and just pronounce the characters one by one. This is fairly easy, but you will have zero intonation and you will also fail characters that have multiple readings (为/為 being a prime example of this; you have to understand what you’re reading to get it right).

The next step would be to read word by word, which requires a much higher level of proficiency, but which is still doable for most people after studying Chinese for some time, but it still sounds very unnatural and lacks intonation. Being able to read an unfamiliar text aloud and include information on the sentence level (intonation and stress) is really, really hard. I’ve studied Chinese full-time for five years and still can’t do it well. I doubt that I will be able to do it well five years from now either.

Why all this matters

So what’s the big deal? Why publish an article like this?

First, I think many learners of Chinese have noticed that reading in Chinese is hard without understanding why or perhaps thinking that they are a bit dense because they can’t read even simple stories aloud. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault, it’s normal. You just need more patience and more practice. Reading fluency is definitely possible, but the effort needed to get there shouldn’t be underestimated. Additionally, being able to read aloud is probably not part of your main motivation for learning Chinese, even if it’s sometimes used to evaluate your ability.

Second, I want to highlight the fact that reading aloud is a very complex task and that people shouldn’t use it as the sole method to evaluate one of the component skills. For instance, if you want to evaluate someone’s pronunciation, don’t ask them to read an unfamiliar text aloud. You have no way of knowing if their errors are due to lack of character knowledge, too slow parsing speed or actual pronunciation problems. If you want to test pronunciation, many of the above hurdles can be overcome simply by previewing the text, looking up words you don’t know and practising a few times. Then you can read the text aloud.

Many native speakers find it strange that students (such as myself) can write adequate reports and papers in Chinese, listen to lectures targeted at native speakers, read novels and newspapers without using a dictionary and engage in social conversations and academic discussions without much effort, but still think it’s challenging to read texts aloud. In fact, this is not strange at all, because reading aloud in Chinese really is very hard.

Follow-up article: Since writing this article, I have experimented with improving my ability to read aloud in Chinese. You can read about both the process and the results here: Learning to read aloud in Chinese.

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  1. Sara K. says:

    After reading this post, I picked up a book in Chinese which I had never read before, turned to a random page, and read a few paragraphs aloud. I did make some mistakes, and I certainly would have done it much better if it had been in English, but it still didn’t seem that hard (for example, getting a nice rhythm didn’t seem to take much effort at all).

    Even some of my mistakes were interesting. One of the mistakes I made was that I assumed that a certain character would be followed by a certain other character which it is commonly paired with, so I pronounced that second character … and then I realized the next character was actually a less commonly used character, not the one which I had expected. Of course, this shows that I am automatically making guesses before I actually read the characters, which probably increases my overall speed.

    Another thing which helped me get a good rhythm is that I’ve been trained, when reading unfamiliar text in English, to move past mistakes rather than let them trip me up. This generally creates a better rhythm, and most people won’t notice most mistakes unless you call attention to them by letting the mistakes stop you.

    1. Bragging Police says:

      Thanks for boasting, really added a lot to the discussion.

    2. R Zhao says:

      I personally thinking reading aloud is hard, even in my native language, though some people are certainly better at it than others. I used to volunteer reading and recording textbooks for deaf students. It was challenging to read with good intonation, at a decent pace, without making mistakes (for which I had to go back and rerecord).

      When it comes to Chinese, I feel like reading outloud is humbling and best done with the ears of a native speaker who can evaluate your mistakes. Sometimes we are not our own best critics.

      1. R Zhao says:

        Ha, I meant to say recording for blind students!

    3. Karalli says:

      How long have you been studying chinese? You were able to read chinese quite fluently!! I am a beginner and I am really looking forward to do something similar.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks for writing this! I’ve found I struggle a lot to read even unfamiliar pinyin text out loud. Good to know I’m not alone here 🙂

  3. Maggie says:

    Olle – You compare reading aloud in Chinese to reading aloud in french.

    For anyone who is into music, here’s another analogy…

    I think reading aloud in Chinese / French is a bit like the difference between sight reading on a flute and sight reading on the piano.

    With a flute we are following one line, of course we still have to think about notes, rhythmn & dynamics etc but it’s no big deal. With a piano however there is just SO MUCH MORE going on. I know people who play the piano very very well – but still find sight reading quite challenging.

    But then with practice the brain can process the patterns more swiftly I guess.

    I try to read one chapter of a book out loud with my daughter each night. Usually I read it through. Even just underlining the names of any characters is hugely helpful.

    I’ve never seen an article on this subject before, so thanks – as always

  4. David Moser says:

    Fantastic article, as usual, I always find this a very useful and enlightening site. One aspect of reading Chinese that I think you failed to emphasize — probably just because it’s too obvious — is that Chinese characters do not convey much phonetic information. When reading French out loud, I am able to read many words “mechanically”, by simply sounding them out phonetically, and thus I can plow ahead in a passage without necessarily understanding what I’m reading. To put it simply, in Chinese the reader has to keep retrieving phonetic information from memory, whereas in French the reader can simply follow the graph-to-sound rules to pronounce the word; no strenuous mental retrieval is required. I think for we foreigners this is really the hardest hurdle in trying to read Chinese out loud. Everything else you mention is also absolutely spot on, too.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Oh, you are perfectly right, of course, I overlooked the most obvious reason because I was so intent on sharing some less-obvious insights. Thanks for pointing this out, I have now updated the article to reflect this.

  5. Tyson says:

    Actually I like to use reading out loud as a progress indicator.

    It really hit home to me the first time I read out loud to my teach without any pinyin (maybe 8 months ago), that I actually was terrible at reading in Chinese. As Olle pointed out, so many skills had to be activated at once, and mine were all pretty awful.

    I improved but noticed for some time two huge issues. 1. Unable to read words just character by character. 2. Unable to understand meaning at the same time as reading. It was amusing I would finish a text and be completely unable to explain what happened in the whole dialog/paragraph until I went back and silently read it again.

    The key seems to be to really improve the underlying skills so that the brain had some extra capacity to tackle these things. The underlying skills would be recall, character pronunciation, vocab, grammar. If a passage is quite familiar to me in these terms it’s much easier to “float above” the text itself and think about how it should sound if read well.

    After quite a lot of practice over the last 8 months with appropriately leveled text I can do much better.

    Native level stuff (which includes many different styles of writing, topics, etc) is still a lot of character at a time struggling. Little wonder Chinese people think it’s impossible for foreigners to learn Chinese, watching us go through this phase must be torture.

  6. Anghela says:

    I really like your articles (all of them, really). They are a real support to my motivation to chinese. But, this one, even if it’s mild in its end made me a little unconfortable.

    Indeed, chinese IS impossible… well, that’s The challenge of my life ! I’m 42 years old, I go along with you all, young readers of this blog. Wo is really learn chinese after this canonical age ? (I’m waiting for your response). How old are you, Olle ?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I don’t think readers need to feel very depressed, because reading aloud is typically not part of what most people want to be able to do with the Chinese they learn. If your goal is to be able to pick random book and read it aloud with reasonably fluency, you have a long road ahead of you, but it’s certainly doable. For the rest of us, being able to read aloud is not very important. I wrote this article because as students, we are regularly faced with reading aloud, often without understanding the process and what skills are involved. Hopefully, it’s encouraging to know that reading aloud is hard rather than that you’re stupid. 🙂 For the record, I’m 29 and started learning Chinese when I was 23, so well beyond any “critical period”.

      1. Tyson says:

        Actually a lot of people learn at an older age. I am 38. While I had some exposure to Chinese at high school, I really have put in the vast majority of productive hours learning Chinese in my 30s, and most of it in the last 15 months. I’ve seen a few learners in our age bracket starting in 40+ on chinese-forums.com

        The hardest thing when you are older is that your life is filled with other responsibilities, networks and hobbies.

        Its fair to say that if you can read native level, unknown Chinese text out loud well, you’re at the upper end of all students who learn Chinese. However, the good thing is that your Chinese is very very useful long before you reach this pinnacle.

  7. Corey says:

    One thing I have noticed the relatively few times I have attempted to read aloud is that if I try to read an unknown block of pinyin (w/tone marks or numbers), I feel like I’m simply making sounds without knowing the meaning.

    If I try to read aloud the 汉字, I discover that I don’t remember the tones well enough to get them right and that slows me down enormously, and breaks up any intonation I might have otherwise gained by reading the 汉字。

    So, for us beginners, there’s one hybrid approach that might help a bit, and that you’ve suggested in other essays, and that is to annotate the 汉字 with tone marks before we attempt to read it.

    1. R Zhao says:

      I’m an upper intermediate level and that’s what I do. I mark the tones (and sometimes pinyin) for unfamiliar words and characters.

      I also feel like I don’t catch a lot of the meaning when reading out loud unless it’s a relatively simple piece. I think it’s best to read once out loud and then once or twice to myself.

  8. nommoc says:

    Yes, reading aloud in Chinese is really hard and not to be overlooked.

    I’m interested in knowing, how many of us who have spent years learning Chinese as adults, especially those like you Olle who have spent a lot of time in the classroom, how much time is really spent working on reading aloud?

    I’m noticing two trends as it relates to Chinese learning, one, we adult learners spend too little time learning how to write Chinese and likewise, too little time reading aloud.

    Based on my personal experience, which includes years learning Chinese both formally in a classroom and informally on my own, writing and reading (aloud) has been overlooked greatly.

    So much time is spent listening to hours of lectures, and hours of reading lessons, even talking with friends/students/teachers… but what about writing and reading aloud?

    Particularly, in a supervised or guided environment? As in you read aloud, your teacher word by word corrects any mistakes in tones, character grouping, etc.

    On the same line of thought, supervised writing… you write, and your teacher corrects stroke by stroke, character by character your writing?

    As for me and the years I’ve spent learning, both of the two above have been sorely lacking.

    I think this post brings good light to the all too over-looked reading aloud of Chinese.

    Yes it is hard. I find it hard for many of the reasons above and in summary as listed below:

    1) Pausing and intonation in Chinese is far different than in English. You have to be so careful otherwise you will change the tone!
    2) If I read using pinyin, I can read faster, but I lose track of the meaning of what I’m reading.
    3) If I read using characters, I spend too much time trying to remember the tones and proper character grouping.

    More time must be spend on reading Chinese aloud!

  9. Eric says:

    Nice article. I initially had a reaction against your first paragraph suggestion that reading aloud suggests greater abilities in the language, but on reflection I think you’re right. My reaction was about the topic, not the logic. A few years back I conducted a placement test for some students (American) students who had spent time studying in Shanghai and wanted to join our program. They could read characters aloud quite well, but were almost completely unable to understand what the (very simple) text meant or carry on very basic conversations. This was because their teacher had focused almost exclusively on reading characters aloud. Additionally, I’ve both been a student in and observed many classes where students’ only contribution in class is reading aloud–this was due to the teacher’s pedagogical choices, and I found it appalling. As a student, it meant I spent the majority of class time listening to other students read Chinese aloud, usually quite poorly, and it was a terrible incentive for reading the materials on my own before class, since that would mean there was nothing to occupy my brain during class. All of this is just to say that I am sensitive to any suggestion that reading aloud should be emphasized in classrooms. That being said, I think your points are valid: reading authentic texts aloud well is a sign of proficiency and in Chinese this skill is harder to achieve than in languages with more phonetically transparent scripts (which is almost all languages). Learners should not be discouraged by slow progress. Characters are challenging. If we read pinyin aloud, there’s no doubt it would be a much easier task, but even there broader indications of proficiency would come from intonation and other cues that the reader is actually comprehending what is being read. For myself, I find that reading aloud is sometimes so mentally taxing that it prevents me from closely tracking the meaning of the text, which of course impacts intonation and phrasing.

  10. Kong Meilin says:

    In terms of tone recall, I wonder if someone who is able to read relatively fluently, which includes recalling most tones (90-95%), is going to have the same level of tone accuracy when he or she is speaking since speaking and reading appear to be produced at more or less the same speed.

    I agree with your article. Reading Chinese is really hard since there are so many variables involved, ie the brain has to go through quite a few loops which then makes fluent delivery hard. My personal guess is that there are going to be some people who are better at this skill or for whom this comes more naturally.

  11. Martin W says:

    Yes, reading Chinese aloud is hard.
    Some reasons are:
    – pronunciation is not contained in the writing system, so there is a recall delay ;
    – some words have different pronunciations depending on context (行,更, 一,不) (行李,銀行,更好,更生,更正)
    – Something hard for beginners is to pronounce several 3 tones in a row: we are taught that (3, 3) -> (2, 3), but no-one teaches the general rule. Like 我永遠很想你. It takes so much time for me to guess if the first word has to be pronounced wo3 or wo2. Normally, the last of the row (你) has to be pronounced using the 3rd tone, and then 2, 3, 2, 3, 2 and so one.
    The general rule I created is: if there is an even number of third tones, start the row with a 2nd tone. If the number is odd, start with a 3rd one.
    “我永遠很想你” -> 6 -> even number -> stat with a 2. wo2yong3yuan2hen3xiang2ni3.
    This process takes so much time…
    But I’m not sure if this is the right way. Would it be better to pronounce like this?
    wo3 yong2yuan3 hen3 xiang2 ni3
    That would make the meaning-full group 永遠 sound better, whereas two 3rd tone are next to each other, which is not convenient.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That rule for many consecutive third tones isn’t right and will lead to incorrect pronunciation. In fact, there is no rule that will take care of all cases (at least it hasn’t been discovered yet if there is one), but basing the parsing on semantic units is the best approximation that can be demonstrated and explained to students. Basically, you first group characters that form words or pseudo-words together, then apply third tone sandhi (T3S) within these units. Then you look outside and see if you still have instances of T3 + T3 in which case T3S will apply again.

      So, if X/Y/Z are all third tones and [] denote semantic units, then:

      X [Y + Z] turns into 3 + [2 + 3], which is the final product because there are no more consecutive third tones. Example: 馬總統.


      [X + Y] + Z first turns into [2 + 3] + 3, but since we still have two consecutive third tones, it will then turn into [2 + 2] + 3. Example: 我也有.

      Still, though, this also depends on rate of speech and other factors that make the entire process very hard to pinpoint. In general, the higher the rate of speech, the more tone sandhi (which is sort of obvious if you think about it).

  12. nommoc says:

    1) Recently I’ve made it goal to read Chinese aloud for 15 minutes a day.

    It has been a few days and I am getting into the routine. I think I already notice a big difference in getting used to reading for a straight 15 minutes.

    2) For now, I’m using pinyin and not Chinese characters.
    3) I’m using BejBej Apps – Voice Record Pro Free ( http://tiny.cc/t7ao4w)(I have no business connection to them) to record my readings. Wow. So obvious where and what I need to work on. Why are is CHU so hard?!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m actually doing the same (almost). My goal is to record an entire novel before the end of the year and if I read 30 pages a week, I will finish it. Naturally, I read characters. I notice a significant difference between now and when I started, but I will wait with any kind of analysis until I’m actually approaching the end of this experiment.

  13. Deanne Wise says:

    Well I am 60 years old. I have been on this journey for about 6months. I live in a small country town with no Chinese speakers anywhere. Its part of my Altzheimers prevention strategy. Will I ever be fluent. Who cares. Its as much about the fun of the journey as the destination.

  14. Fearchar says:

    Reading these comments makes me very aware of the significant advantage of using 注音符號 rather than pinyin: it’s possible to use a computer font that gives pronunciation beside the character. (This is quite apart from the “pinyin effect” well known to practised learners, and highlighted in the other link from the email that mentioned this article: If you look at that article, though, beware of the inconsistent spelling.).

    Perhaps I should add that I haven’t used 注音符號, and also that, at the age of 54, I’m plugging away at learning Mandarin Chinese (so far as other commitments allow) and recently gained a distinction in the Open University’s course for beginners. (This wasn’t, however, the beginning of my Mandarin or even language learning in general.)

  15. Richard says:

    “In synthetic languages (such as French), the burden rests mostly with the writer (or speaker). He needs to write clearly and use the right tense, number and gender and so on. In Chinese (an isolating language), the burden lies mainly on the reader (or listener), who needs to figure out all these things based on context. The information is still there, it’s just not encoded on the word level.”
    This is why Chinese is a much more powerful language than most other languages. If something is too simple and too obvious then it must be in a low level. Same here. Any classical Chinese literature is not obvious. Readers must have enough language skills to understand and interpret the meaning of the writer. And there is a fact that I found: In Chinese there are many many 千古名句 that last for thousands of years. Such as:落霞与孤鹜齐飞,秋水共长天一色。(Just feel the 意境 of this sentence. I think this must be the best sentence in all languages.) However in other languages like English, you rarely see 千古名句. People remember books and plays more.

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