The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It
Jan28

The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It

I’ve been spending an hour or so every day the last few days reminiscing about my childhood and playing the Chinese version of Pokémon! Why is reading in Chinese so damn important? Reading, when learning any language, is a useful method of acquiring new vocabulary, grammar patterns, and of seeing how words are used, and in what context they are used. In Chinese, however, reading has an extra level of importance due to its system of writing. Unlike a language that uses an alphabet in its written form, reading in Chinese allows you to constantly review the characters you’ve learned. If you’ve ever tried to learn characters, then you’ll be familiar with the constant struggle of memorising them, only to forget them moments later. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re making lots of progress, only to realise that although you’re learning 10 new characters a day, you’re forgetting 20. The fact is, without a regular and sustained routine of review and practice, basically any given character you learn, no matter how easy it may seem, will eventually slip from your memory over a long enough period. The power of reading is that the constant recall of every character will help ingrain it into your brain. I haven’t done a huge amount of reading into how memory works, but my understanding is that new information passes first from your short-term memory to your long-term memory (‘learning’) but that the information remains vulnerable and likely to be forgotten unless it is recalled or reviewed a number of times over an extended period. Eventually, though, after enough reviews, the paths in your brain should theoretically be strong enough that the information basically won’t be forgotten. Being in China, I’ve been thinking a lot about how such a large amount of people are able to learn the thousands upon thousands of Chinese characters necessary to become functionally literate. The secret I believe is due to the fact that the characters are everywhere, unlike in my own country where my only exposure to them is when I open my textbook. In China, you can’t escape characters; they’re on every corner, on every shop, every sign, and every subway station. Even when surfing the Internet or messaging their friends, Chinese people are practicing their characters. How they are able to retain a working knowledge of so many characters, when taking this into account, suddenly becomes clear. My theory is that recreating this character environment, at least until they are so ingrained that they will not easily be forgotten, is necessary to learn and retain enough characters to be literate in the first place. How do I...

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The First 24 Hours in China
Jan09

The First 24 Hours in China

If you’re from somewhere like Australia or America and have never done much travelling before – you might want to start elsewhere than China and ease your way into it. Although I have travelled before, including in Asia, China is the country most unlike my own in comparison to the others I’ve visited. And, despite being relatively China-literate (and yet so illiterate compared to some of the foreigners I’ve met here so far), I was pretty shocked from the moment the plane touched the ground. So you might want to start with a more ‘comfortable’ Asian country before coming here. On the first leg of my flight, from Melbourne to Shanghai Pudong, I befriended the Chinese family sitting next to me and shamelessly pestered them for language practice for the 10-hour journey. In reality, they were actually pretty stoked that I spoke their language (even though the daughter spoke quite good English and studied in the States) and even let me use their iPad to watch some Chinese TV shows aimed at 13 year-old Chinese girls. Language-tip: Fly with a Chinese airline! I don’t know whether it’s out of some sort of China-loyalty or what, but the plane was packed with Chinese with only a couple of foreigners scattered around the place. You’ll probably be seated next to some poor Chinese guy who will have to endure your endless questions. I transferred at Shanghai to a second flight destined for Beijing. I watched a couple of other foreigners trying to ask airport staff whether they spoke English so that they could tell them where they were supposed to go to catch their connecting flight, but their efforts were in vain: people don’t really speak English here. People will tell you that in the big cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc, you will find people who speak English at every corner, but it’s a lie, I tell you! I’ve only met a few who could, and they were at places that had a lot of contact with foreigners. You would think at a major airport you could find someone who could speak it, but from what I saw in Shanghai, I wouldn’t count on it. But maybe I’m just used to Europe, where you can pretty much count on people speaking English in many countries (and on them insisting on it, which is annoying if you’re trying to learn their language). I noted when I spoke to my Australian friend who met me in Beijing that many tourists in China have this arrogance in expecting people to speak English, as if they should just so they can help out some silly...

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