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Reading speed

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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:

Progress
(pages read)
Reading speed
(characters/minute)
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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