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:
- Read lightweight books (novels) if I’m behind schedule
- 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.