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The only guide you'll ever need to Reading Chinese

· Learning Tips,Reading Chinese,Chinese Language

I have mentioned elsewhere that when it comes to learning Chinese, the amount of quality input you receive is king.

As an adult, reading Chinese is easily the most efficient way to acquire new language structures, grammar, vocabulary and getting a “feeling” for how the language sounds.

The problem: Reading is almost always approached in a completely wrong way.

Generally, the idea is to work through a number of consecutive Mandarin textbooks and learn Chinese vocabulary while doing so. BUT, this kind of reading will do more or less nothing to improve your fluency!

In this blog article, I will show you how to use strategic reading tactics and in particular extensive reading to speed up your Chinese learning experience. We will talk about why you should read, what you should read, and how you should read.

1. The benefits of learning to read Chinese

Reading Chinese is the best tool to increases your vocabulary: Without reading, it’s next to impossible to actively gain new vocabulary on your own. The process of acquiring vocabulary requires you to memorize a new expression and the corresponding meaning. While reading, you will encounter a new word, you will look it up in a dictionary and you can make a flashcard to revise it later. Sure, you can watch movies or listen to Chinese conversations instead (and you should), but reading gives you much more control over your progress.

Native speakers don’t think about grammar rules when speaking, they just have a feeling for what sounds right.

Reading Chinese also tremendously improves your grammar: Using the textbook based approach most teaching systems follow, grammar is basically a set of individual rules that are memorized in the abstract. But, you will realize that you won’t actually be able to put grammar to use when speaking Chinese! Native speakers don’t think about grammar rules when speaking, they just have a feeling for what sounds right. And extensive reading can get you there as you are exposed to contextualized language. After a while, you will start to cultivate this feeling for correct grammar.

Reading Chinese improves your writing skills: To a great extent, Chinese writing is done on computers and smartphones. For this, you don’t actually have to know how to handwrite Chinese. Rather, it is enough if you know the shape of each character and its corresponding pinyin (which is exactly what we teach through our app Zizzle). Put more simply, writing Chinese is largely dependent on your skills to read Chinese! Besides, it is no secret that avid readers are better writers!

Image showing a young girl reading a Mandarin Chinese book in a classroom.

2. Extensive vs intensive Chinese Reading

Reading does not equal reading. Intensive reading generally entails reading relatively short but difficult texts. It involves a lot of searches with dictionaries or using a vocabulary list and generally requires a lot of effort to understand the text. You don’t want to approach reading like this!

Instead, you should be practising extensive reading, i.e. reading widely and at great length at a level where you don’t need much assistance to comprehend the text. It goes without saying that reading a Chinese text will likely be a lot more enjoyable if you can easily grasp its meaning. The result is that you are much more likely to actually follow through on your reading! More importantly however, reading extensively consolidates a lot of the knowledge you already have about Chinese. Because you know most of the characters, you are much more likely to grasp different meanings and nuances of words in different contexts and recognize the underlying grammatical pattern. But how do you know which level is the right one for you to engage in extensive reading? As a rule of thumb, if you can understand a text well enough without having to consult a dictionary, if the reading feels smooth and you don’t have to stop much at all, this is the text you want to be going with.

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The more scientific answer to this question is that knowing 98% of the words of a given text seems to be the right level. This may sound like a lot and as a beginner and you might want to start with text where you only know 90% or even 80% of the words. The differences however, are dramatic. Marco Benevides has created an impressive demonstration of different comprehension levels by inserting in an English text nonsense words at a frequency of 2%, 5%, 10% and 20%.

This is how 98% word comprehension feels like:

You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…

And this is 80%...

“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…

Sure, you are still getting the basic situation, but… it just feels stranger. And remember, this is still 80% word comprehension and you really don’t want to go below this (for a similar demonstration in Chinese, check out John Pasden’s post on sinosplice).

3. How to find the right Chinese reading resources

So as a beginner, how do you to find texts where you can get to even 80% word comprehension? The answer is that you probably will have to stick to graded readers at first, i.e. texts that have been exclusively written for Mandarin Chinese learners with curated vocabulary and complexity.

  • If you know around 200 Chinese characters, Terry Waltz’s books may be accessible to you. The earliest readers from this collection are “Giuseppe想吃披萨” (Giuseppe xiǎng chī pī sà; Giuseppe feels like eating pizza) and “Egbert为什么哭?”(Egbert weì shén me kū; Why is Egbert crying?)
  • If you are beyond this beginner level, you may want to try out the Mandarin Companion. They consist of famous English stories, e.g. Sherlock Holmes, transferred to a Chinese setting. Another tool to try out at this level is The Chairman’s Bao.
Image showing Mandarin Companion graded readers.
  • Once you are comfortable with graded readers, it’s time to move on to real books! Here the advice is to focus on books that you already know, which have been translated into Chinese. Because you already know the characters and the story, you can put more focus into studying Chinese while reading. Also, if you have difficulties grasping a certain passage, you can always just go back to the English book. 
  • You might also want to consider Chinese children’s books, comics and magazines as they generally contain less complex language. However, beware that these may include some low frequency words that you don’t want to study!

4. Tips for making the most out of your Chinese reading

Read an eBook or online: Yes, you probably wanted to get off your computer screen for once. However, reading an eBook or online comes with a number of handy advantages. There are a number of tools like Peraperakun and Zhongwen, which make it easier for you to check unknown words. This tool here easily annotates your Chinese reading material with pinyin if your character knowledge is not yet that solid. And this awesome page called Talkify automatically reads web pages aloud in quite natural Chinese.

Make educated guesses: With some understanding of Chinese grammar, it is reasonably easy to tell which words in a given sentence are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. For the nouns, at least, it is often possible to work out what kind of object an unknown word is, based off its radicals and knowledge of the content. For instance, words with the water radical 氵are likely to be related to water, e.g. river, sea, liquids or other things watery. It is also possible to hint at the pronunciation of a given character using the phonetic component. This list here provides more information on phonetic sets.

Read multiple times: To make the most out of your reading resources, read them more than once! This might sound quite obvious. However, it is important that the second time you read, you do it differently than the first time! The first time, you want to get a general sense of the meaning of the text. If you stumble over vocabulary you don’t know, don’t stop, but finish the paragraph. When you read for the second time, you want to do some in-depth analysis. Which words are unfamiliar, which words are used in an unfamiliar context, which grammar patterns have been used and so on.

It’s time to celebrate! The best strategy is not going to help you if you cannot follow it through with consistency! And the best way to ensure that you stay motivated in your reading endeavor is to celebrate your achievements from time to time. Share a story you have read with your friends, throw a party for your first book read and keep motivating yourself!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love Zizzle App, the best way to learn Chinese with mnemonics and visual stories. Download now for iOS and Android.

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