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 need to learn tens of thousands of words, to be able to read Chinese comfortably

Now the question changes to, do you have to learn 10K words first to begin to enjoy reading Chinese materials? 

That seems to be a pretty long and dark tunnel.

The pain of accumulating new words

There are many many Chinese words.

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. 

For these reasons, many students put in great effort to learn new Chinese words. 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, and newspapers.

They generally use the following strategies.

  • Flash cards and rote memory

Learn new words with a flashcard system, which is combined with a SRS software.

This is pure rote memory and can inflict quite a bit of pain on students.

  • Read slowly 

Start reading a book. Read a few pages every day and learn all the new words encountered there. 

This is a slow reading process. It will take ages to finish a book, and it’s hardly an enjoyable experiences. 

  • Read books that are already familiar

Some students believe 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. 

However, very often the translation itself is the problem. Many Chinese translations tend to follow the styles of the original texts, and are quite rigid as Chinese. 

Reading such translated books is no fun. The story is already known and the Chinese language is kind of strange.

These strategies share the same undertone, which is “no pain no gain”. 

Students hope that after enduring bolts of pain of accumulating news words for some time, they can finally relax and enjoy reading a good book later. 

A different approach

Learning new Chinese words is very important. But joyless reading is a problem. 

What if students can enjoy reading Chinese without worrying much about new words, and really read for pleasure?

I promote “enjoyable reading” time, a quality time students spend with themselves. Students choose to read something purely because reading provides so much fun. 

Textbooks should not be included. 

No reading report should be required. 

No need to answer any questions at the end it.

Since it’s hard to enjoy reading Chinese books when every line is filled with new words, the most important task is to find something that is interesting and does not contain many new words.

Graded readers are a great resource.

Another possible solution is from students themselves.

In the middle of 2021, I organised a little literary event, Chinese Writing Contest, inviting all Chinese learners worldwide to write something, stories, essays or poems, using only 320 Chinese characters. In the end, the best 17 entries were published in a book, Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories, Book 1.

These writings make superb reading-for-pleasure materials for beginner students. 

While reading these materials, although all Chinese characters are known, there are 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.

An added advantage is that, for students who take part in Chinese creative writing, a whole new level of learning experience is unlocked for them.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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