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Reading my first full-length novel in Chinese

One of my long-term goals for learning Chinese is to reach a level where I could survive an MA degree courses in Taiwan, preferably in a Chinese-heavy subject related to languages or teaching. To be able to do that, I think reading speed is of paramount importance. As it is now, I can read fairly difficult texts and understand what they mean, but I do it incredibly slowly. Thus, I have decided that a least for the time being, I will aim for quantity. I want to read many different kinds of texts in many different styles, but most of all, I want to read many texts.

My first project was thus chosen to be a translated version of Robert A. Heinlein‘s (海萊因) Citizen of the Galaxy (銀河公民), a book I read in Swedish at the age of twelve and liked immensely. Before re-reading it, however, what I remembered about the story could be summarised in three short sentences (see below). This won’t be a review of the novel itself (perhaps that might come later, I haven’t decided yet), but rather I want to share some of my Chinese-related reading experience with you. Still, before I do that, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the book.

Citizen of the Galaxy is part of a collection of novels Heinlein wrote for young men/teenage boys to challenge their way of thinking and their imagination, although most of these books have reached a far wider audience. It focuses on the boy Thorby, a young slave who is bought by an enigmatic and crippled beggar known as Baslim. As it turns out, Baslim is far more than an ordinary beggar, and under his care, Thorby grows up to be a determined an loyal fighter against slavery in all its guises. The book spans 330 pages in Chinese and roughly 165 000 characters (this is almost five  times more than the second longest book I’ve read).

Since reading speed was one of my primary goals, I did some pseudo-scientific measurements. I measured reading speed over two pages and divided the number of characters read by the time it took. I read as fast as I could, skipping characters I didn’t know, but slowing down enough to understand the sentences. Here are the results:

(pages read)
Reading speed
0 61
100 91
200 112
300 130

It might look exaggerated that I have more than doubled my reading speed just by reading this novel, but if we look closer it’s not weird at all. First, a certain improvement should be due to increased familiarity with the translator’s way of writing and the book itself. Second, 330 pages of text is a lot for me, perhaps it equals all books I’ve read before combined!  No wonder that reading twice as much text improves speed. Third, the book is translated from a language I know, so perhaps some logic from English remains even in the Chinese version. It should of course be noted that reading speed itself is a very elusive concept, and  saying 130 characters per minute means almost nothing outside the text in which this was achieved, but the increase still makes me happy and confident that I can improve further!

Another thing I’ve gained from reading this book is more courage to breach “the Great Wall of Chinese”, i.e. the daunting effect a full page of Chinese characters has on most non-natives. Simply looking at the first page made me a bit uneasy, but I think that this is a psychological obstacle that will wear away quickly with time. Being scared of something you’re supposed to learn must be one of the worst ways to approach a challenge.

What now, then? More reading, of course! Apart from things I have to read for my Swedish courses, I only read in Chinese. I’m going to be a bit more relaxed for a while and read a couple of the children’s books I picked up during my time in Taiwan. They will be very easy compared to Citizen of the Galaxy, but they will hopefully offer some complementary vocabulary and more opportunities to increase reading fluency. When I feel that I’ve amassed the courage needed, I’m going to approach something more formal, perhaps literature related to grammar, linguistics or something like that.

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  1. Chris’s avatar

    That’s great Olle, this weekend I’d planned to go Chinese novel hunting myself. A bit of fiction would be nice, so we’ll see. May I ask how you dealt with new words and tricky sentences? I plan on just noting down new words that keep reappearing however did you ever find a sentence or part that you just didn’t understand? Also, do you read the words aloud in your head?



    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Good questions! I encountered very, very few sentences I didn’t understand after looking up missing words. That being said, I did what I felt like. If I was tired and just planned on reading two pages before sleeping, I never looked anything up. At other times, I looked up every single word I didn’t know. Remember I have my electronic dictionary, which makes this fairly easy.

      Regarding reading aloud in my head, I try to do all three combinations, i.e. I sometimes read aloud to myself (i.e. “out of my head”), sometimes with clear pronunciation in my head and sometimes I try to stop sob-vocalising, even though that’s pretty hard. They are all good for various purposes!

      The most important thing is to have fun, so if I felt it was too taxing to look up words, I wouldn’t do it.


    2. Sara K.’s avatar

      Well, now I’ve finished my first novel in Chinese.

      I haven’t done a benchmarking of my reading speed yet (I plan to do that in a day or two), but I know that my reading speed did not double. I expect my reading speed increased by about 5%, or at most, 10%. Of course, increasing my reading speed by 5% in 25 days (the time it took to read the novel) is still a worthy achievement.

      Even though the novel was about 1800 pages long, I think had previously read more than the equivalent amount of text in comics, so I was already at a stage where all increase in speed are more incremental.

      So yes, now I too have breached a wall of Chinese, and it was a long wall. However, I already knew the plot, which really helped me get through the challenging sections (and it especially helped when I was tired – getting through 1800 or so pages in 25 days meant that I sometimes did reading when my mind was not exactly fresh). I know very little about the plot of ????, and I am worried that it will make comprehension much more challenging. However 1) I am now very familiar with the writer’s style 2) I extracted a lot of vocabulary from ?????, so I should encounter far fewer unfamiliar words/idioms in ???? and 3) even though I know very little about the plot of ????, some of the characters from ????? reappear in ????, so it would not be quite the same as embarking on a completely unfamiliar story. So comprehending ???? probably won’t be as hard as I think, and now that I have finished a novel it’s probably good to add at least one type of of new challenge to my next novel anyway.


      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        Great! :) I think the increase in percentage would be heavily dependent on how much you’ve read before. I deliberately focused very, very much on speaking and listening during my last year in Taiwan, simply because I knew I could read Chinese equally well in Sweden. Thus, my spoken Chinese was receiving a lot more attention, so when I finally started reading properly, my reading speed had some catching up to do, if you understand what I mean.

        Personally, I wouldn’t care so much about adding extra challenges, simply reading Chinese is enough. I’m not saying it’s bad that you do, just that it’s good just to read a lot. :)