The Reading Method

Written by Julen Madariaga on October 15th, 2009

I know, I should be studying right now, and not writing posts. But I was just breathing slightly between two sessions of 模拟考试, and I reflected on the fascinating process of learning a new language, and on how, when you have been through it a few times, you end up developing your own secret methods to climb up the long steep ladder.

My approach to learning Chinese this year is based on the one I used with my previous languages: The reading method. It can only be used starting from intermediate level. In the case of mandarin, I would say this is not before 2 years of studying at a normal rate.

The method consists of acquiring first a minimum level of vocabulary to understand most simple texts, and from that point on dedicate your study time to the pleasant hobby of reading novels as captivating as possible. If you are a bookworm like me this works very well, because you end up putting in far more hours of study (reading) than you would if it were normal exercises. I know there are also many resources to read Chinese on the internet with cursor translator included, but computers tend to distract your attention very fast, whereas reading a good book gets your eyes glued to the characters for hours on end.

The result of this method is that you end up with a vast passive vocabulary and excellent character recognition abilities. Then it is up to you in your socializing time to go out and try to use these words in conversation, at the risk of locals saying you sound pompous. Sometimes you can even lift full phrases from a novel, and it is fun when you manage to use them in real life. For example, when I was reading Lu Xun’s “AhQ” I placed neatly my favourite line:

Little Yi:我讨厌我的老板,怎么办?

Uln: 你先估量对手,口讷的你便骂,力气小的你便打。

Little Yi:天哪!

Uln: 怎么啦?

Little Yi:你又在练习!

Uln: 我?没有啊。。。

Admittedly, my use of the method is a bit radical. But the social phase is an essential part of it, because once you have used a word a couple of times successfully, it quickly moves into your active vocabulary, and after that it rarely leaves you again. This is only practicable if you live in a Chinese environment, it never worked when I was back in Europe.

Reading speed

The key tipping point in the reading method is that moment when you realize that you can read a story fast enough to actually enjoy it. This is a function not only of your knowledge of characters/words, but also of the interest of the book and of your own personal nerdiness. When I read my first novel “Brothers” last year, I was so excited to taste the Chinese popular literary style that I gladly spent two months ploughing through the 700 pages of chengyu-ridden Yu Hua.

Since then, I have much increased my reading speed, to a point where I can sustainably read non-fiction without falling asleep. The preparation for the high-speed requirements of the HSK has helped me a lot for this, and I must say that, in spite of all my ranting in the previous post, it does make sense to force students a bit. Because the ability to read characters at normal native speeds is one of the most difficult to acquire, in my opinion.

Note that, when I say speed, I am not referring to the speed that comes from knowing all the words in the text. It is obvious that by using less the dictionary it is possible to read faster. My point is that, even for simple texts where all the words are familiar, I still read almost 3 times slower than a native Chinese, even after 1 year of reading books. This is an issue that has appeared only when studying Chinese, and not in any of my previous languages that used latin script, so I have strong reasons to think that it is tied to the use of characters.

I think it probably has to do with the way the brain processes the characters, and the way people schooled in Chinese from an early age have developed differently in this field. The post about reverse pinyin last week pointed me in this direction, and a few experiments I have done with my Chinese neighbours as well. I hope I have the time to write a bit more about this next week.

In the meantime, if there is a non-native advanced reader out there, I would like to hear your experience. Does it eventually get better, and do you manage to read at the same speed as the Chinese? Or do you have the same problem I note here? Let me know.

OK, off-line I go again. I already missed all Tuesday and Wednesday in an absurd meeting in Changsha so I need to catch up. I’ll be back after the HSK, if I haven’t showed up by Monday call the fire brigade.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Oct

    I’m probably at the same level as you are and I totally agree with your thesis of Western brains processing things differently from Chinese brains. But one should also consider this: I don’t know how you measure your speed, but I normally do so by counting the number of pages I manage to read in a certain amount of time. So when I was reading a French novel the other day, I was amazed at how fast I was progressing, when my French vocabulary is really not that much larger than my Chinese. What I forgot was that much more characters than words fit on a page. So when reading a page of characters, you actually read more content. Guess that slows down, too.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Oct

    My wife speaks perfect English and reads a lot, but it takes her much longer to read letters than characters. I think I can read a Chinese text at half the speed that I read an English text, but it’s still slower. Maybe this will change with more practice.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Oct

    Sorry late answer, I have had a couple of things this week.

    Meimei, you are right that usually more information fits into one page with characters than with latin letters, although this depends on the choice of formatting, Chinese books and websites tend to have much less empty spaces and less space between the lines, they look very cluttered (at least to my Western eye).

    In any case, to fairly measure which of the 2 writing systems fits more info into a given space, you would need to asign some font and spacing that provided the same level of “confort” to the reader, which is a difficult thing to measure.

    Back to the reading speed: I have measured it using books that I have in both Chiense and English editions. My test book was Obama’s “audacity”, and I selected a passage that looked like it was a very accurate translation (but there again, this is debatable).

    The question is: can this speed be improved with practice, and if yes, with how much practice. To the first question I am pretty sure the answe is yes, because I see some improvement im myself in the past few months. To the 2nd question I have no idea, since I do not know any foreigner who reads Chinese as fast as the Chinese.

    Wukailong is clearly one good step ahead of me in reading abilities, but I hope that after a few more months reading books I will be able to catch up :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Oct

    PS. One more thing to note: it turned out that the 2 Chinese persons I tested read faster in Chinese than I do myself in English. I am not particularly a slow reader, so either
    1- Chinese actually read faster than us or 2- Those girls were trying to impress me.

    Anyway, the size of my experiments is too small to prove anything conclusively, I wonder if there are studies available somewhere.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Nov

    This is not directly related to your post on reading skills. But an observation I have made (and a disturbing one to me) is that your native language may dictate/constrain how far you can go when learning another language.

    Specifically, if your first language is: French, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Polish, Russian, Dutch (etc…) you will eventually attain a high proficiency in English after prolonged exposure and study. If your first language is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, you will only rarely attain a high proficiency in English, even after prolonged exposure and study.

    My observation is based on the professors in the US. They are the ones who did doctoral degrees in English speaking countries, have published tons of articles/books in English and have been teaching and living in the US for many many years. Yet, they still have problems in English - they lack the ability to use English at ease in speaking situations and even their written communication seems weak sometimes. And in terms of English proficiency, they are dwarfed by their counterparts whose first languages are French, Spanish…
    In colloquims, Chinese/Japanese/Korean professors seldom participate in spontaneous asking/answering. And I suspect it is because of linguistic deficiency.

    I have no explanation for this. But this is very depressing to me. I have been discussing this with other people and they agree with my observation.

    I have been told that many European countries extensively import English TV programs and that they put subtitles (instead of dubbing). This has been offered as an explanation for why Dutch, Swedish, etc.. people have a scary command of English. But this cannot be the only explanation as I have also been told that in France they do dub foreign language programs…

    The explanation may lie in the brain - in the form of neural commitment or whatever. But I don’t know. And whatever it is I suspect may explain the reading speed differences you’ve observed.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Nov

    Chinese is freakin’ hard. I’m chinese and I use english. ROFL

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov

    Yinbin: I think it has to do with the differences between the source and target languages. If your “source” language (that is, the one you grew up with) is sufficiently different from the “target” language (the one you’re learning), you will have more issues studying and using it. It’s not just from Chinese/Japanese/Korean to English, it’s also the other way around. I guess Mandarin will be studied by much more people in the future, and then Westerners will have more trouble than their Asian counterparts.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Nov

    Well I read somewhere that when we read the brain has to process the language visual information directing it to the recognition-meaning areas of the brain. When reading Chinese, we have to change those processes, as what we are recognizing is not a small fixed set of characters organized in a semantic unit, but picture-meaning units that have meaning in themselves and also (sometimes even different/not related one) in relation to other. Apart from the character recognition brain process, the input system is also different, so we need to adjust; I think for a foreigner it will be like if reading english “partnership” you will have the word understood as part/ner/ship so you have to process each and the whole to reach the final meaning. Probably alphabetic scripture language speakers and “pictorial” based ones process the information differently in the brain, that in turn, has become used and its proficient in that specific process.

    [Reply to this comment]

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