The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It

reading

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.

Author: Dan

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  • Scott

    Another great post Dan, I think many people hear that you need to learn to recognize 5000+ individual characters to read Chinese and then believe that learning to read Chinese is a near impossible feat.

    Although this is true it’s only part of the story. Despite the fact that English words are made up of letters that can be sounded out in order to read words that we have never encountered, we rarely do this with anything other than brand new words. As fluent English readers we just look at the shape of a word and instantly understand what the word means.

    So the real difficulty in learning to read Chinese comes from pairing the pronunciation to the visual form which is less direct than in languages with an alphabet. However once you’ve done this reason chinese is just as easy as reading nglish

    • Thanks Scott!

      You’re exactly right. 5000+ seems like a crazy number (and I guess it is) but it is definitely achievable. Especially once you get started, it only gets easier and easier.

      I’ve never really thought about that, but you could be right that reading in English is closer to reading in Chinese than you might think! If we’re reading ‘shapes’ rather than the words as individual letters in different combinations, then it really is quite similar a concept.

      I’ve found that the characters I’ve known for longer than a year or so are so ingrained in my brain that I instantly know what they mean and how to pronounce them. I can’t wait until I’m able to read books and newspapers (I’m not quite at that level yet)!

      • Scott

        I think the only advice that can be given about taking the dive into native materials such as novels and newspapers etc is that it doesn’t get easier by avoiding it! Although it would be incredibly unpleasant and inefficient to start with native materials from the beginning I believe at some point in time you just have to take the plunge. It will be cumbersome and frustrating to begin with but its the only way to do it.

        I found I avoided listening to news casts in Chinese because I found them too fast and the vocabulary too difficult. I kept waiting for my listening ability to get better and would occasionally tune in to the news only to find that I still wasn’t at that level. Finally I decided to take the plunge and go through news casts one by one looking up all the vocab, creating Anki cards and listening to the audio dozens of times. Sometimes it takes me 45 minutes to an hour just to thoroughly learn a 2-3 minute news segment properly. After having spent a couple of months and dozens of news segments doing this I think I have only brought my comprehension of the news up from about 75% to 85%! The point is no matter how long you spend looking up new vocabulary in a dictionary from any one movie, novel, or newspaper article the very next new piece of native speaker material will be the same all over again. The only was to get better at it is by exposing yourself to it constantly!

        I’m sure you are already aware of this so my message is not really aimed at you, but anyone who happens to read your blog, so please don’t misinterpret this as a lecture. 🙂

    • Vitor Souza

      OMG are you serious? 5000… how how fantastic, I guess that’s why the other dudes said to me that Chinese was so more easy, which I doubted cause I always though that Japanese was the easiest language I ever saw. 5000 hanzis in a year is just 14 a day, you can easily get them done in half of a hour, just a year for incredible levels of badassity, not a bad trade if you ask me!

      And if you are more like me and like to learn them in bunches of 60 then you can learn this amount in 3 months (already considering occasional downsides), however the material I’m using only have 4300 hanzis so it’s the farthest I can go 🙁

  • Eliot

    It’s been pointed out in the comments that reading native material can be a big challenge. Luckily there’s been an effort to make more reading material available to Chinese learners. The folks over at Mandarin Companion, for instance, are making some fun graded readers.

    And at Epic Mandarin (epicmandarin.com, which I run) we’re trying to combine a clean interface, popup dictionary, and a flashcards system to make reading “normal” material easier (see the example image).