Learn new Chinese words vs enjoy reading Chinese materials

To understand Chinese, it is important to understand words, not just Chinese characters. 

Although technically speaking, the top 2000 Chinese characters account for 95.6% - 97.9% of total character occurrence in today’s media, learning these characters alone is grossly inadequate for understanding Chinese materials. Students must know tens of thousands of words, which are created by combining these characters, to be able to read Chinese comfortably. (Read the article “Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem”.)

A small portion of Chinese words consist of only one Chinese character. The majority of words consist of two characters. The rest Chinese words consist of three or four characters. There are also proper names, abbreviations, and characters for structural purposes only. Picking out these words and special combinations in sentences is a trained skill, as Chinese does not show word boundaries. Also, meanings can be re-created if word boundaries are drawn differently. (Read the article “Deconstructing Chinese texts is the key to learn how to read Chinese”.)

For these reasons, many students put in great effort to learn new Chinese words. I’ve known that some students set their goals at learning 20, 30, or even 50 new Chinese words a day, hoping they can one day enjoy reading Chinese materials, novels, newspapers, and so on. 

They usually go through this learning process using a flashcard system, which is pure rote memory and can inflict quite a bit of pain on students. 

Another strategy is to read a few pages of a book every day and learn all the new words encountered there. It usually takes ages to finish a book, and it’s hardly an enjoyable process. Some students thought reading books that they are already familiar with might help, such as reading Chinese translations of Hunger Games or Harry Potter. They believe that the familiarity of the content of the books can help them guess the meanings of unknown Chinese words, and thus allow them to read at a faster speed. But very often the translation itself became the problem. If not done by a first grade translator, Chinese translations tend to follow the styles of the original texts, and as a result, are quite rigid. Reading these books turns out to be really hard.

Or students can use a combination of flashcards and a few pages of reading, and try to balance the time spent on each activity. 

The core belief of these strategies is always “no pain no gain”. Endure bolts of pain of learning news Chinese words for a long period of time, so that they can relax and enjoy reading a good book or a nice newspaper article later. 

Learning new Chinese words is very important. But joyless reading is really a problem. What if students can actually enjoy reading Chinese without worrying much about new words, and they can really read for pleasure?

It’ll be nice to have some enjoyable reading time, even for beginner students. 

“Enjoyable reading” should be some quality time students spend with themselves. Students choose to read something purely because reading provides so much intellectual pleasure. Textbooks should not be included in this category. No reading report should be required either.

Enjoying reading Chinese first, new words later

Since it’s hard to enjoy reading some Chinese books when every line is filled with new words, the most important task is to find interesting and level appropriate materials which students can enjoy at a comfortable reading speed. 

One possible solution, and a fun solution it is, turns out to be from students themselves. 

In the middle of 2021, I launched a little literary event,Chinese Writing Contest, inviting all Chinese learners worldwide to write something, stories, essays or poems, using only 320 Chinese characters. At the closing date of the contest, 30 qualified and quality writings were received. 

These writings will make superb reading-for-pleasure materials for beginner students. While reading these materials, although all Chinese characters are known, there will be some unknown words for them. It’ll be a good opportunity for them to either learn these words, or simply guess the meanings of these words and move on.

This Chinese Writing Contest shows how genuinely creative students are. I’m pretty sure they can write really nice reading materials for any level as long as there is a proper platform set up for them to do so.

Once there are more and better reading materials, a more enjoyable reading experience is nearly guaranteed, and consequently, students become better at reading and at guessing the meanings of unknown Chinese words. 

If they can use any of the new words into their own speaking or writing, they will be really growing their vocabulary. 

Moreover, for students who are part of the creative writing process, a whole new level of Chinese learning experience will be unlocked for them.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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