How To Rapidly Expand Your Vocabulary And Fluency In Chinese

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A goal I’ve had since I began learning Chinese was to read a Chinese newspaper without difficulty. I thought if I could reach this goal, it would be a major accomplishment. While studying diligently, I would always think someday I’d be able to read a newspaper. But, every time I tried reading a page of text it felt nearly impossible to understand the meaning. Almost every other word became “something” because I couldn’t read it.

Even when I discovered browser plug-ins that made it easy to look up words, reading was still laborious. I realized I had to do more than read to make significant progress. So, I learned more characters, and reading Chinese became easier and more enjoyable.

Reading provides repeated exposure to characters you’ve learned so they stick in long-term memory. It also provides exposure to words in different contexts and helps increase your vocabulary.

When reaching the intermediate level of Chinese, it’s easy to stay stuck there longer than desired. Conversing with native speakers about general topics is easy for intermediate learners. It’s also easy to rely on Pinyin for reading Chinese. These factors can contribute to an illusion of competence. But, to reach an advanced level of Chinese, you’ll need to learn characters and read often.

Before smart phone apps and online tools, reading Chinese was a painful process. Now, you have the benefit of technology that makes reading Chinese much easier. You can use these tools to your advantage and accelerate your learning.

Why Reading Chinese Can Speed Up Your Learning

The more Chinese you read, the less likely you’ll forget words or use them incorrectly. It will also help rapidly expand your vocabulary and fluency in Chinese. Reading provides exposure to grammar patterns and words in their context. Repeated exposure also helps for learning sentence structures and patterns that can help when writing and speaking.

Reading makes learning Chinese fun and interesting because stories are engaging. With Chinese history lasting as long as it has, you’ll never run out of stories. The more you read, the faster you’ll be able to progress to the next level. Once you start reading, you’ll discover writers and literature you would have never been exposed to if you didn’t learn to read. Though there are English translations, reading a translation is reading an interpretation by another writer; it’s never the same as the original.

How To Read Chinese So You Don’t Lose Interest

Now you know the benefits of reading Chinese, let’s look at how you should read. It’s important that reading is fun and not a chore; otherwise, you’ll have no interest to keep reading. So, start with short articles or passages to build your comfort level and confidence. Don’t look up every word you don’t know. Instead, read what you can and try to guess the meaning through context. Consider printing out the text and underlining the words you don’t know. Look up words only if you have trouble understanding the meaning.

When you reach the end of a paragraph, ask yourself if you understood it. If not, read it again and determine what is unclear. Sometimes you’ll encounter names of people or places you may not find in a dictionary. The names can be hard to tell apart from words that provide greater meaning to a sentence. But, as you read more, you’ll recognize patterns and find clues in the text that indicates a name.

Another issue you may face is long, complex sentences that are hard to understand. You can try to break the sentence apart to understand its meaning. A good starting point is determining the subject, verb, and object of the sentence. Often, long sentences will have many modifiers that make it complex in meaning. But, if you can break a sentence down to its roots, you can build up your understanding like putting together puzzle pieces. Don’t worry if you still can’t make sense of it; keep reading and see how much you can understand.

If you’re unable to understand much of what you read, then it’s a good sign you should try reading less challenging text. Don’t get discouraged and don’t force yourself to get through it. There’s plenty of reading material to find that’s more suitable to your level. Remember, as you read and learn more, you’ll be able to progress to the next level.

What To Read

The amount of material to read is limitless. You can explore many types of writing from comics to classic literature. Start with topics or genres that interest you. If you want to get comfortable reading Chinese, start with magazines or short online articles. As your comfort level grows, you can progress to lengthier articles, short stories, and even books. Here are some recommendations below.

The Chairman’s Bao is a website that provides short news articles. Some nice features of the site are HSK level indicators and narration for each article by native speakers. The site releases several articles throughout the week and is a good source for quick reading.

Slow Chinese is a website that provides 5–7 minute pod casts that are transcribed and translated in a few languages. The narration is at a slower pace and helpful to Chinese learners. It’s a great source for listening and reading Chinese, but content is not released as often (about once a month.)

Decipher Chinese is an app and website that offers short news articles by HSK level. It features clickable words for definitions and Pinyin. You can add words to a vocabulary list for review later and listen to text-to-speech narration one line at a time. Most of the articles average less than five minutes to read.

For longer reads, try graded readers like Chinese Breeze or Mandarin Companion. Graded readers come in different levels and are designed for Chinese learners. They are a good entry point to reading books. Learners can enjoy reading stories while improving their reading ability.

Clavis Sinica is a website that has a library of reading material (some with audio) for beginners to advanced learners. The site also has a link to a Chinese text sampler assembled by the University of Michigan that includes modern literature, Chinese classics, and fables.

ReadChinese! is a site that has online reading lessons created by the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. The reading lessons are aimed at beginner and intermediate learners of Chinese, and a nice feature of this site are the learning activities that accompany the reading material.

The Chinese edition of the New York Times website is a good source of long-form writing for advanced learners. A nice feature of the site is being able to see English translations next to the Chinese.

Helpful Tools For Reading Chinese

Some tools to help you read online content are plug-ins such as Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary for Chrome, Perapera Chinese Popup Dictionary for Chrome and Firefox, and Frill for Safari. These plug-ins allow you to hover over a word and get a pop-up with its definition and Pinyin.

For the smart phone, Hanping Chinese Popup is an Android app that makes it easy to read Chinese on any screen. It works by turning it on and placing the floating handle next to a word for the pop-up definition and Pinyin. This feature makes it convenient to look up words without having to leave the screen you’re on. It’s handy when chatting or texting with native speakers.

There are also apps that use your phone’s camera to read printed text. It works by pointing your phone’s camera at text on a page, and characters with definitions will appear magically on your screen. Hanping Chinese Camera is available for Android users and Pleco is another for Android and iOS users.

No Excuse Not To Read Chinese

With a plethora of resources and technology available to help learners read Chinese, there is no excuse not to read. Before any of these tools were available, reading Chinese required immense effort and time. If you’ve ever had to look up Chinese words in a paper dictionary, you can understand what it’s like. Now, you can be thankful that today’s technology reduces reading time and effort by more than half. If you’re serious about learning Chinese and advancing to the next level, then reading will help you reach your goal faster.

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3 Responses to “How To Rapidly Expand Your Vocabulary And Fluency In Chinese

  • I have read your latest article “How To Rapidly Expand Your Vocabulary And Fluency In Chinese” and it is very inspiring. Let me share my English learning experiences. I hated English when I was a student. My high school’s English classes were drearily boring. The textbooks in university were soulless. But in my early 20s, I love the English magazines, especially subjects on art and design. They have opened my eyes to the colourful world aside academia. Even after I graduated from university, the English language I encountered was still lifeless. I thought I would fulfill my ambition as a professional accountant. So there were hours of study during my weekends and as you expect, the English in accounting is mechanical.

    The infection point was in my early 30s when I quit study accounting, and It was like free my mind from strings. I was inspired by a Hong Kong writer, Tao Kit (but in a decade my love of him has turned to dismay. It is a change in perspective of both the writer and reader). His writings were the mix of the East and West. He had sparked my interest in English literature.

    Reading a English novel was extremely difficult. A novel is a writer’s experience and sensitivity. An accounting textbook is utterly informative and have none of the writer’s sensation. I challenged myself with reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. It was a very painful experience that I crammed word by word into my brain. Not to mention if I was resonated with the story, I could not even tell what the story’s about after reading the book.

    At the that time, I was working at a film post-production company. The workplace was a contrast to the stoic environment of an accounting firm. Co-workers were young and many of them came from Europe and US. I was eager to blend in with them. Communication is a two-way street. They were young, talking fast, lively and assertive, from backgrounds totally different from mine. How did I break the separation of the accounting department and reach out to them? And did they have patience to listen to me? Yes, I did experience defeats. But this world was so fascinating that I wanted to reach inside. I gorged myself on novels and the English broadcast, though I was still cramming word by word and they were not so much comprehended.

    A few years later I switched job and worked for an engineering firm. As expected, the work environment had changed again. My brain is not wired for this highly standardized work. Squeezing time for month-end reports, conforming to instructions with no flexibility, and staying overtime for extra work, in almost a year I was strained and felt isolated. Fortunately I found a soulmate and his name is Tom Rachman.

    Tom Rachman is a British-Canadian writer and was born in the 70s. His books depict the rootlessness of people nowadays. The writer himself was born in England, spent his childhood in Vancouver, then studied postsecondary in Toronto and New York, then lived in Rome and Paris as a journalist and writer. Though modern people in developed world are not fleeing their country to escape war, moving place to place triggers a sense of displacement. We want to feel settled, having a sense of belonging. Every weekend’s early morning, I sat in a cafe in downtown and read his book. My reading was slow, however it touched me at the emotional level. I had a desire to write ,as the writer, to connect myself to the audience out of the cell of accounting.

    The good news is that I was layoff due to restructuring.

    Now, with plenty of time, no rush to get another job, and with a desire to write, what should I do next? I registered to an English literature course at university. I was excited. The course was about African literature. I had read all of the assigned novels before the course started. I imagined myself, free of stress, sitting in the classroom lightheartedly and listening to the professor’s African stories. Very soon the reality proved it’s another defeat. Reading is the first level, comprehension is the other, presentation of your own thoughts is above all of these. Sitting among the bright 20-year-old kids I felt stressed and dumb. I struggled then admitted that the mountain was too steep to climb. I quit and went on my job search.

    Then I got a job at the theatre. Theatre for me is difficult but intriguing. The difficulty is the dialogs. Not only they are fast, literal and condensed, their dialect is also varied based on the setting of the play. When I watched my first and second plays, my attention sneaked away in the first 15 minutes, then I waited for the intermission, then I waited for the show ended. But after watching a few of shows I found this form of art is intriguing. A play is not as spectacular as movie. Its stage is relatively static. But the performance can be very intense and its message is very rich.

    Learning a second language is as hard as climbing the Everest. When one climbs to the mountain top, people are cheering and the cameras are flashing on him. Learning English is different. Even though you have done a lot of hard work and have a breakthrough, people will see that as very normal. Yes, the learning itself is intrinsic. Who will ask why salmons leap against the river current to spawn? Who will question why cicadas stick to the tree and sing in the summer? The answer is written in myself — the English language has widened my horizon.

    • michellerlee
      8 years ago

      Thanks for your comment and sharing your experiences. Learning Chinese hasn’t always been easy for me as well. But, the important thing is to keep trying and find other approaches if what you’re doing is not working. Thankfully, there are so many resources we can access to help us reach our learning goals faster. 加油!

  • 互勉 =)

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