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Reading Chinese, where to start?

Many adult Chinese language learners, when learning reading Chinese, want to start with children’s story books. They believe these books must be written in the simplest language, and would make good reading materials for them. 

I see it differently.

Why children’s books are not suitable for adult Chinese language learners

When Chinese children grab a book and begin the task of learning to read, they are already fluent in speaking Chinese. They’ve also gained tremendous amount of Chinese cultural insights.

Their Chinese background helps them read books with ease even when there are many unknown Chinese characters in the texts. 

This is a huge advantage that a Chinese child of three or four years old has over most Western students.

  • Language in Chinese children’s books

When writing to children, writers don’t have to use the simplest Chinese language. They are quite liberal in using cultural references and in dropping Chinese idioms (成语).

What really makes a book a children’s book is the simplicity of the story, such as the good guy and the bad guy, or tiger and rabbit. 

Plots are always simple enough for children to follow. Pictures are often huge. Comic books (Manhua) are very popular among children.

Such a style may not appeal to adults.

Few adult readers are attracted to reading a few lines per page while knowing the end of the story already.

  • Children’s assistants

Because children are children, they get lots of help from adult.

Their number one assistants are their parents.

Many children read with their parents. When they are lost in the story, they can simply ask their parents “what’s going on?”. 

Not only will their parents explain the story in vivid language, but also do it with exaggerated gestures and voices.

Besides their parents, children also get help from the community which encourages them to explore their reading interests.

This is the luxury adult students no longer have. 

When to start learning to read Chinese

Although Chinese children’s books are not the best for Chinese language learners, especially beginners, there are lessons we can learn from how Chinese children develop their literacy skills.

Chinese children begin to learn to read Chinese AFTER they’ve learnt to speak. 

This sequence is very important. It allows children to correctly guess certain characters without difficulties.  

Therefore, the most sensible thing for an adult student to do is to learn spoken Chinese first, followed by learning to read. 

Also, learning to read can also be achieved more efficiently if students have already had some understanding of China through reading related materials. I have some recommended books written in English for this purpose. Or just read anything that picks your interests.

Where to start learning to read Chinese

  • Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories series

When students are ready to learn how to read Chinese, the most reliable reading materials would be the tailor-made materials which are carefully crafted based on how many Chinese characters and combinations students know. 

It’s like that, after students have learned some characters and words, a book is handed to them, which they can enjoy.

That’s the philosophy behind the Chinese Reading and Writing series. After learning ten new characters and some combinations, students can really have fun reading the exercise sections in the books. 

After they’ve finished the entire series and learned 320 Chinese characters and over 1,200 combinations, students can enjoy Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories Series. 

The best part of it is that everything in the series is written by students. 

  • Graded readers

The next is Chinese reading APPs, which provide graded reading materials. 

I’ve seen quite a few and it’s clear that they’ve put in huge effort in creating these reading materials. 

Students can switch between simplified and traditional characters. There are options for choosing pinyin. English translations will be provided when needed. Audios are also available. 

  • Materials created by Artificial Intelligence 

Technology has brought us a game changer, AI, which can be used in improving your reading skills.

A chat bot, such as ChapGPT, can rewrite difficult materials in simpler languages, explain words, or give cultural backgrounds. All these are immensely helpful for students at all levels!

Read more about it here: How do students learn Chinese from A.I.?