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Taking my Chinese reading ability to the next level

I have come a very long way since I started learning Chinese little more than five years ago. I can read novels, academic papers, textbooks, newspapers and most other types of writing I come across, without using a dictionary. I can even do so without thinking that language is a major problem. Of course, I don’t read terribly fast (about 200 characters per minute for easier newspaper articles; much slower for heavy academic reading), but I would say that I’m literate in Chinese.

The relationship between input and output when learning languages isn’t obvious, but the theory I tend to adhere to the most is that massive amounts of input gives a solid foundation on which a near-native output ability can be built. This is true for both listening/speaking and reading/writing, but in this article I will only talk about the latter. In other words, reading huge amounts of Chinese will hopefully give me the potential to acquire a near-native level of writing in Chinese.

Looking back at how I learnt English

Back ground: I have spent a total of three weeks in English-speaking countries and have learnt most of what I know in normal compulsory education plus a lot of reading/listening on my own. How did I achieve my current English level?

After having learnt how to communicate most things I wanted to say/write in English (which probably happened in high school), I spent an awful amount of time reading in English. I also listened to loads of audio books. I estimate that I have read or listened to about five hundred books in English. That’s a lot, even compared with educated native speakers. This gave me a very solid passive knowledge of English. but it didn’t make me good at speaking and writing, at least not directly.

Turning this passive knowledge into increased writing ability came only in 2006 when I started studying English at university. I found that I was usually able to intuitively tell whether a sentence was grammatically correct or not; sometimes words I couldn’t even tell what they meant popped up in my mind, seemingly from nowhere, and when I looked them up, they actually turned out to fit into the sentence I was writing.

However, reading isn’t enough to become good at writing. I don’t mean to say that I’m a brilliant writer in English (or any other language), but I do think I have mastered the basics and that I’m slowly inching my way towards actually being able to write well. This is mostly because of the fact that I’ve written at least a thousand pages of text in English during the last five years. When I say a thousand pages, we’re talking about composition, so chatting or any other kind of sporadic typing obviously doesn’t count.

I think that the best way to reach a native writing ability is to read an awful lot and spend a thousand hours or so of deliberate practice converting that passive knowledge into active writing ability. Naturally, these aren’t serial processes; it’s perfectly possible (and advisable) to both at once. However, I do believe input is where most students fail.

Taking my Chinese to the next level

Even though I can express myself fluently and with reasonably accuracy both in speaking and writing, my Chinese is still very limited compared to my English or Swedish. Sometimes, that leaves me very frustrated, but then I think of the amount of time invested in the other two languages and find that the comparison isn’t fair. Swedish is my native language, so I didn’t have much choice that to study it for thousands and thousands of hours before English and French appeared in school. Regarding English, I’m not a native speaker, but as I’ve already explained, I have spent some serious time studying English.

I have probably spent more than ten thousand hours learning Chinese so far, but that’s just a small fraction of the time I’ve spent on the other two languages. With that in mind, who am I to say that Chinese feels impossible to learn at times? Shouldn’t I at least spend as much time learning Chinese as I’ve spent learning English before I say it’s hard? I think I should. Chinese is obviously harder than English to learn for native speakers of Swedish, but that doesn’t mean that the method I used to learn English won’t work for Chinese. Sure, it might not take me to the same proficiency level, but I will definitely close the gap.

Thus, I intend to read a lot. My general plan is to try to reach a hundred books as quickly as possible (novels, textbooks, prose). In this article, I will outline a plan. After that, I will publish a list of what I’ve read so far and then keep that list updated.

A reading plan for 2013

My goal is to read at least 25 books in 2013. It doesn’t really matter what books I read as long as they meet certain criteria (for adults, for native speakers, read from cover to cover). In order to make sure that I have a strong enough motivation, my plan is to mix books I really want to read with books that I feel that I ought to read but might not enjoy that much.

For instance, I just finished reading the first part of 三體, but instead of starting on the second part immediately, I will add something dryer in between and continue with 三體 as a kind of reward once I’m done with the next book. In general, the plan looks as follows:

  1. Read lightweight books (novels) if I’m behind schedule
  2. Read heavier books (textbooks) if I’m ahead of schedule

As I just did with 倪匡, I will review and write about my quest to find good science fiction in Chinese. Next on the review list is 三體, but I’ll most likely wait with reviewing that until I’ve read the two sequels. As for the rest of the books I plan to read, I will write about them only if I feel like it, so don’t expect too much.

Looking back at the road behind me, I know that I’ve come far. Looking at the road that stretches out in front of me, I realise that most of the journey is still ahead. Reading a hundred books in Chinese won’t be enough to reach an educated native level, but it will propel me in the right direction. Hopefully, I will also enjoy the scenery as I walk.

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  1. Scott’s avatar

    I’m curious to know, what proportion of your reading is done silently and how much is done out loud? Also how much do you re-read and review things that you have already read?

    I’m trying to find my own reading method at the moment. Initially I started reading a lot silently and with little review. I found although I really enjoyed reading I didn’t feel like I was learning many new words and structures. I was reinforcing the common stuff that I already knew but new words and structures that would be seen once in a book and then not again for such a long time that I would have probably forgotten it by the next time it came around.

    Now I’m trying to read more intensively. I have a method where I look up every new word I come across and add it to anki so I will remember it. I read every page out loud twice and then when I get to the end of three pages I read them again from the start. I do this again for the next three pages until i reach the end of the chapter and then I read the chapter out loud again from the start. When I have read to the end of the book I plan to read it again from the start straight through. So this way every sentence gets read at least 5 times out loud in something resembling a spaced repetition model (sort of).

    Doing it this way I’m only on chapter 5 and I’m getting antsy to read something else. But I really feel that I’m really absorbing the language from the book (Catcher in the Rye) and it’s becoming apart of my speech.

    Do you often read novels intensively? What do you feel are the drawbacks and advantages of intensive and extensive reading respectively?


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Good question! I don’t read aloud very much, mostly because it’s way too slow. Almost all my reading is of the extensive kind, but it should be mentioned that I don’t actually “study Chinese” at the moment. I don’t actively look for new words, I don’t study sentence patterns and so on. I would if I could, but I simply don’t have time to do that. The obvious advantage with extensive reading is that you cover more material and provided that you understand what you’re reading, you’re constantly reinforcing and tweaking your knowledge about the language. More intensive reading is more likely to spill over to active use. If you need to get better at output, I suggest reading more intensively. If you need to get better at input or just better in general, I suggest extensive reading. That’s making a long story short, but that’ll have to do for now. :)


    2. Warp2243’s avatar

      You say you’ve spend 10,000 hours on Chinese in 5 years, so that’s about 6h/day… and that’s only a small fraction of the time spent on English, seriously?
      By the way, 500 English books sure is impressive, ahah. I don’t care so much about English nowadays but I’ll try to do that in Japanese and Chinese (I’m rather reading-focused, don’t care so much about oral/written output, and anyway when I need it comes quite naturally thanks to the huge input).

      Oh, here’s some interesting thought. I strongly believe it’s easier to become (almost) native-level in Chinese (or Japanese) compared to English, especially in production. I’d say that past the 3-year mark learning Chinese (at a high pace) you’re so used to it that it shouldn’t feel alien in the slightest bit. You’d probably have internalized it so strongly that absorbing and reproducing words should feel really smooth and natural. So, the thing with production is… we have hanzi. It helps you recalling the most precise word for any given situation very easily. I’ll take an example from Japanese since I’m not good enough in Chinese yet to explain this but…

      Let’s say I want to talk about a decision, I’ll directly think about the character http://tangorin.com/general/*%E6%96%AD* (you should really make hanzi work here, ahah). Then it’s easy to recall the 2-character compounds using it, look at the first four ones. Using the second character (and your knowledge of the word usage of course… I’m absolutely not saying you can guess word usage uniquely from the characters here), you pick up the most adequate word for decision, and here you are. Native-like word-recalling and word-choosing ability…

      In English? You can only rely on some kind of “rough, brute” memory, and you’re quite likely to come up with a lot less words… and you’ll NEVER have the satisfying feeling to have “found
      them all”. For this particular example, I think I can find more synonym words in Japanese that I would in my native language (French). Now that’s a huge, meaningful difference between Japanese/Chinese and, well, “the rest”…


      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        You say you’ve spend 10,000 hours on Chinese in 5 years, so that’s about 6h/day… and that’s only a small fraction of the time spent on English, seriously?

        Yes. Considering that I spent the rest of those days mostly in English, it might still be the case that I spend more time with English than Chinese. Since I’ve been learning English almost four times longer (counted in years), English quite easily outnumbers Chinese several times (although “a small fraction” might be an exaggeration).

        I strongly believe it’s easier to become (almost) native-level in Chinese (or Japanese) compared to English, especially in production. I’d say that past the 3-year mark learning Chinese (at a high pace) you’re so used to it that it shouldn’t feel alien in the slightest bit.

        For whom? Are comparing Chinese people learning English and English speakers learning Chinese? In that case, you might have a point, but I’m not convinced. I think producing native-like Chinese is extremely hard and might require upwards of ten years of diligent studying to accomplish. This is of course provided that we’re talking about the level of adult native speakers with a reasonable education.

        Regarding words in Chinese, when you get to a certain level (which is fairly advanced, I admit), you can often guess what new words mean from context and from the individual characters used. However, there are still lots of words that offer no clue whatsoever as to what they might mean. Also, because Chinese allows for this kind of combination, the amount of near synonyms is extreme in some cases. If you wan to produce Chinese like a native speaker, you need to deal with that and that takes some serious time.

        In short, learning to understand (written) Chinese at a near-native level is probably much easier than in English, but learning to produce Chinese at that level is incredibly hard. Ask me again in five years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer then will be that I still have quite a long way to go.


      2. Warp2243’s avatar

        Hm… I see, thanks for your thoughts about this. Thinking back about what I wrote, I may have gone a little overboard. I was actually comparing the difficulty of Chinese and English for the same Indo-European language native speaker… Saying anything about Chinese people learning English would be ridiculous. Almost everyday I’m wondering to what extent English is weird and characters are natural for them, and I feel I’ll never know the answer.

        What I said was based on my own experience (shame on me) of English and Japanese, but it’s not fair comparing them. My naive thinking was biased by the fact that I never learned English systematically, and surely I didn’t use Anki. I’m not making actual efforts to improve my English, and as a consequence, I believe I’ve been stuck at nearly the same level for years. In particular I’m not confronting myself to the harder stuff (I never read even one literature book, how bad is that). A few days ago I decided to record the words I didn’t know at all or only vaguely, here’s what I got already : coven, daisy, hazel, herring, horseplay, knuckle, lapwing, quack, skedaddle, (a) stole, to tow, to haul, understated, wart, to wean. I actually know them in Japanese (thanks Anki) and that’s how I got to see the English counterparts… So there’s a huge difference of treatment… As months pass by, I see my Japanese level surpassing my English one, and I don’t know if I should be sad or happy about this. Or maybe I should just marvel at what systematic language learning (and Anki) can do for you…

        You have learned English to an extremely high level, and I do perceive (a little) how good you became in production. For me producing English sentences has always been a chore, something I can’t ever feel comfortable doing. The worst thing is that it’s TOO similar to French, so I can’t ever be sure that I’m using actual English phrases or just mimicking French… With Japanese I have no fear for this to ever happen; even at a production level still lower than my English, I have confidence that what I produce IS good Japanese. I think that was the origin of my previous comment. You’re in a much better position to answer this question (“is it possible do become better at Chinese production than English production”), since you have kinda reached a very high level of English production and you just have to compare your Chinese level with it, the speed of progress, etc.