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 do more of it, then?
Well, we’ve discovered that the way Chinese people remember so many characters is because they are relentlessly exposed to them. The means of recreating this is therefore simple: we have to immerse ourselves in characters.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to motivate yourself to get out the books and repeatedly write out new characters and ones we’ve forgotten.
The good news is that if you actually use the written language in your daily life, then this will both provide you with the necessary review and will allow you to continue to grow your repertoire of characters.
If you’re in China, then you really have no excuse not to have Chinese friends. You don’t have to ditch the Laowais altogether, but let’s face it, they’re not helping you learn Chinese. People will literally walk up to you on the street in China and say ‘can you be my friend?’. They usually have no qualms with speaking Chinese to you, either, and usually are happy just learning about you and where you’re from. Add them on WeChat, and just text them all the time! Chinese people don’t seem to mind you texting them just to chat or say hi, and will probably do the same to you.
Although I must admit I haven’t yet done this myself, setting your phone’s language to Chinese is probably a good move.
Read articles online, go on forums, etc, etc, rinse and repeat until literate.
What if I don’t have Chinese friends, and hate reading the news?
There’s still hope for you yet!
Do you like video games?
I don’t know why it took me so long to think of this, but playing the Chinese versions of video games is an amazing way to do a lot of reading, particularly if the game is dialogue-intensive.
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! As long as you actually read the dialogue rather than just skipping it, there is a ton of useful vocabulary to learn. If you play for an hour, then you’re really doing about 50 minutes of reading. That’s pretty good, and it’s a hell of a lot easier than sitting down and actually reading a book, especially since at the beginner/intermediate level it can be difficult to find something to read that isn’t mind-numbingly boring or that isn’t a mildly condescending graded reader.
Even if you don’t have a console, there are a range of emulators you can get that work on your Mac or PC. If you send me an email I can send you a link to the Chinese version of Pokémon and the emulator that I use on my Mac. So get gaming!
What are the limitations of reading?
You may have heard or read complaints about how the Chinese youth of today are losing the ability to write Chinese characters due to the rise of technology. Even the West is experiencing that, but you can imagine how much easier it is to lose a skill like writing Chinese characters.
Chinese kids learn characters in school, and then read them for the rest of their lives even if it’s just on their mobile phones. They will always be able to read the characters, but they are unlikely to be able to write them very convincingly.
The limitation of reading as a method of practicing characters is that, as a passive activity, it only maintains your ability to passively learn and remember characters. You will quickly forget how to reproduce them by hand. In a digital age, handwriting is, arguably, a largely redundant skill. You’ll still be able to use Pinyin-input on your computer to type the characters, anyway.
If you’re learning at school or University then you will still be required to write the characters by hand. I personally find this pretty annoying, as I don’t really have much of an interest in calligraphy and know as soon as I graduate I will immediately forget how to handwrite characters.
In conclusion, therefore, if the ability to handwrite characters is important to you, then you’re going to have to practice writing them out over and over in order to maintain this skill. But if you, like me, only want to read and use your computer to type, then intensive reading is a great way to maintain your characters and learn new words, phrases and grammar patterns.