The Reading MethodWritten 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:
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.
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.