Reading in Chinese: Choosing Materials and Tackling Unknown Vocabulary

Pages from the popular Japanese comic Card Captor Sakura translated into Chinese.
Last month, I finished teaching a summer Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) course. At the end of the course, I asked students if they had any general questions for me regarding English learning. Some asked pretty much the question many other English language learners I meet in my daily life ask:

"How should I study vocabulary? Should I memorize? I heard memorization is the best method."

Indeed, in China and other Asian countries, rote memorization is used not only to cram for tests, but to tackle any content thrown at students in the variety of classes they take. I believe there is a time and place for rote memorization (i.e., math formulas), but if you want language to be memorable, memorization is the wrong road to take. 

As an English teacher who loves to use the principals of cognitive linguistics or logic to tackle language, I believe vocabulary, grammar, or any other facet of language is only retained when it's contextualized, and/or when we know the etymology or background. Whether you're learning English, or Chinese and Japanese in my case, this rings true. I remember words and phrases from memorable conversations or interesting books. Naturally, when words and phrases are heard or read in context, they make more sense. 

I'll make a post about listening to Chinese in the future; this one concerns Chinese reading. (I don't know enough Japanese yet to read books, only short comics and signs!) Again, no matter the language you're learning, I think these tips will help you. 

Record five unknown vocabulary words per page

Recently, an employee at my local Walmart (yes, they're here in China!) struck up a conversation with me. He asked the typical memorization question, and I told him a better way to brush up on English is to read and write down about five words per page that you don't understand to check the definition later. 

"But what if there's more than five words I don't understand on a page?" he asked.

I replied, "Ignore them!"

That's right; ignore them. I do when I read in Chinese. You won't understand every word you read, and while having a burning curiosity as to what their meaning is is healthy, it hinders progress. I reckon you only need to understand 70% of the words on a page to get the core meaning. If you cannot understand over 50%, you probably choose a reading that is too difficult for you.

Furthermore, if you focus on five words per page, after just 50 pages you would have written down 100 words. That's a healthy amount of words to study and still make progress. Write those words on flashcards with a sentence using the word on the back. With a busy schedule, it's likely you will attend to 100 words rather than 500+.

In addition, you will have a contextual base for those words because they came straight from something you read. But what are the best materials to read if you want to practice Chinese?

Don't read novels (unless you're a super-advanced/near-native reader)

As Kaplan (1966) summarizes (see below), Chinese and other Oriental (old terminology, I know) group languages are circuitous in nature; the there is a round about path to get to the point, and the main idea is usually never found directly in the beginning or the end as it is in English. Although Kaplan's graphic relates to writing patterns, I find this to be an important aspect to remember as you read Chinese. The language can be extremely flowery and almost riddle-like. 

Different routes to get to the point.
Naturally, as in any other language, the most embellished writing is found in novels. If you have the skills to tackle a novel in your second language, go for it (and I am in awe of you!) Frankly, I am not yet at this point in Chinese. The grammar in Chinese novels is quite complicated, sentences seem endless, and I rarely understand over 50% of the content on a page. 

If those struggles sound familiar to you, it's probably better for you to hold off on reading novels for now. Luckily there are other types of readings to practice with!

By the way, if you can't find Chinese books in your area, try this website.

Read comics (and/or children's books)

If you're an open-minded adult, you likely already know that comics are not only for children. Adults can enjoy them as well, and there are several comic series out there that are written with grown-ups in mind (not just sexually explicit material, get your mind outta the gutter, jeez!)

For Chinese learners, there's a plethora of manga(漫画)—Japanese comics or manhua (漫畫)in Chinese—that are aimed at adults. Of course, if you're a beginner, you can choose comics for younger readers or even crack open a children's book. There's no shame in doing that; if anything, you will solidify your knowledge of fundamental grammar structures and vocabulary in the language. 

I think comics and children's books are awesome because they offer visual cues. Not everyone is a visual learner, but either way, people tend to benefit from having a visual to support what they're reading. It helps with inference skills and keeps the content enjoyable, even if it's a bit difficult to read. 

At the Shenzhen Comic Festival, I was lucky to find all 11 volumes of the manga "From Five to Nine", which targets women my age. In fact, the heroin is a 27-year-old English teacher!

My favorite aspect of reading comics is learning how people casually interact with each other in a language as well as slang. Like what? Well, let's take a look at part of a page from "From Five to Nine" volume one:

Read from right to left, Japanese style.
The pages aren't flipped even after translation.
In the far right, we can see the heroine's thoughts (not in a bubble): “而且重點是為什麼我現在心跳這麼快啊?” ("Also, now that I think about it, why was my heart fluttering so fast?")

"Heart"(xin(1), 心)as well as "dance"(tiao(4)wu(3); 跳舞)are simple, beginner Chinese words. However, while the phrase xin tiao(心跳)(dancing/fluttering heart) might not be explicitly taught to learners, this casual reading presents the phrase, an easy one to add to your arsenal when speaking!

In the last speech bubble, we also have the particle(luo(2); 囉). When I first read this, I wasn't quite sure about the meaning, but I knew how to read it and that had to be a speech particle to stress meaning thanks to the "mouth" radicle(kou(3); 口)and words that I already know, like "carrot"(hong(2)luo(2)bo(5); 紅蔔). But after those two characters are seen as one and in context, I can tell 囉 is a particle, a teasing softener.

From the comic: “那個和尚今天又來囉!” ("That monk's here again! [I'm sure you wanna see him/Haha, he's here for you/ect."])

Explore interesting non-fiction

A great, simply written self-help book.
For the reasons I mentioned above (see "Don't read novels"), I suggest you find some Chinese non-fiction books to read on topics you're interested in or want to explore. Non-fiction books tend to focus on fact-sharing. Furthermore, they often contain frequently used vocabulary and sentence structures. All in all, flowery language is not a priority in most types of non-fiction.

I personally enjoy reading self-help/life advice books like the one of the left. Not only do they convey a positive message, but they are easy to follow.

Notice word and phrase frequency

I realize some people prefer to stick to one book at a time, but I think it's more beneficial to be reading 2-3 books simultaneously. Of course, you don't have to read from all of them every day. For instance, you might read a self-help book on day, then read more of it along with a comic book the next day, then just the comic on the third day.

By reading multiple books at the same time, you can see some of the same words, phrases, and grammar patterns in action within varying contexts. This will give you an example of how the language can be used. Past the early beginner stage, you don't want to find yourself using words the same way or using the same words over and over again in your writing and speaking. Reading from many sources not only diversifies your linguistic knowledge, but gives you examples on proper usage.

I hope this posts helps. Happy studying!

Please follow me! Niceclectic on Facebook | "nicolette027" on Twitter | niceclectic on Instagram | niceclectic on Snapchat 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the way to learn any language is to get in and stay put. Let the brain accumulate knowledge the way it does in your native tongue.