Never Suffer Learning to Read in Chinese Again

Many Students Resist Reading

Today’s topic is all about learning how to read in Chinese. When I first talk about learning how to read with adult students, most students respond with some variation of @#$! that. I’m serious. You would think I am try to teach people how to chew tinfoil or something. No one even wants to try. With young kids, they don’t realize it is “supposed to be” hard, so they don’t resist reading in Chinese as much. The struggle with learning to read in Chinese really is not the characters. It is something else. But we will get to that later.

Basics for the Littles

So, how do we teach people to read in Chinese? Let’s start at the beginning, with young children. Most preschool-aged children are pre-readers. What we do to teach them how to read in Chinese at this stage is similar to what we do for all pre-readers. We teach features of print. Features of print are things like: what is the beginning of a sentence? What is the end of a sentence? We read from left to right and top to bottom. Now, if you are learning to read in English, you will also learn that that there are spaces between words. Also, you will learn about capital letters.

So there is a lot of overlap in the early stages of learning how to read in English and in Chinese. I should also note that while modern Chinese texts go from left to right, older texts go the opposite way. Sentences are also on vertical, not horizontal, lines. I think that this is not really worth going over until later.

Readers Need to Read

Preschoolers will learn features of print in the early stages of reading instruction. There is considerable, but not complete, overlap between features of print in English and modern Chinese. At this stage, teachers need to read to students. A LOT. Eventually, students are going to need to read on their own. This usually goes much more smoothly if they like reading and think of it as a pleasurable activity.

What comes next? In English, most students start their reading journeys know many “sight words.” Often non-expert adults think that sight words are just simple words in English, like I, me, the, or she. Any word can be a sight word. Sight words are high frequency words that learners recognize “on sight.” They do not have to sound them out. For most kids learning to read in English, sight words end up being words like he, said, can, etc.

The highest frequency words in Chinese are nearly the same. Children who see 我、他、说 (I, he, say) over and over again will likely recognize them on sight, without any specific instruction.

An Important Tangent on Phonics (that you can totally skip if you don’t care)

Most children learning to read in English will need instruction in phonics. Now, people often refer to learning how to “decode.” I personally hate calling it “decoding.” I have a couple rational reasons for this and one that is more of the “old lady shouting at clouds” variety.

My first rational reason for disliking the word “decode” is that it is a case of rebranding. Many people believe that phonics lost the reading wars. Calling the same old thing by a new term in hopes of making it appealing again strikes me as a bit pathetic. Use phonics and let the results speak for themselves. Why else do I not like the word “decode” for sounding out words? Well, I think it makes it sound harder than it is. That puts people off, and then they don’t even try.

And what makes me an old lady shouting at clouds? Well, that gets back to the rebranding issue. The word “decode” sounds more… scientific? Technology-ish? I think it is a sad attempt to make learning how to read sound sexy and important. Just like all the STEM stuff that is so fashionable right now. It is not. Reading is the most important academic skill a child will ever acquire. Making Lego robots isn’t. There, I said it. If you would like to skip to the comments section and tear me apart, go right ahead!

Phonics

Phonics or decoding is all about about the connection between words are their sounds. This can be pretty simple. “M” sounds like mmmmmm.  “R” sounds like rrrrrrrrr. (Often the liquid sounds are easier). But English does not make things easy. Sometimes we produce a “g” like in signal. And sometimes we don’t, like in “sign.” Learning to read through phonics is not a walk in the park. This is why it must be complemented with other reading experiences, like listening to someone read a story. Little kids will need the reminder that reading is not a totally laborious process.

English, like any other language, has a limited number of sounds. Phonics is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word.

Back to Chinese

If it seems like I have forgotten that I write a blog about learning Chinese, I haven’t. Just like English, Chinese has a set of sounds. Chinese reading is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word too!

How Kids Learn to Read in China

Let’s look at how children in China learn how to read. Chinese children learn how to read in first grade. It is actually illegal to teach reading in Chinese preschools/kindergartens.* When a Chinese child learns how to read, they already know all of the words that they are reading AURALLY. That is, they know what all the words mean by sound. When they are learn to read, they begin to recognize that q+ing+falling then rising tone (meaning of please) maps to 请 in text. That is a lot of information to connect in less than one second, but the human brain is a wondrous thing.

Chinese children learn to read about 400 characters by the end of second grade. Chinese students also learn pinyin. This is the phonemic awareness part that is so important. A college-educated Chinese person knows about 4,000 characters. I’ve heard a minimum numbers for basic fluency in Chinese reading of anything between 500-2,000 characters. The HSK 6 tests about 2600 Chinese characters.

What is Different for our Learners

This is the key point: Chinese children already know the words that they are reading. For students learning both the spoken language and reading at the same time, the situation is different. These learners don’t have a fairly compete sound system for Chinese the way that Chinese first graders do. They’re learning the sounds and the visuals concurrently, and not sequentially.

So my students don’t know very many words in Chinese. That means that they can only learn a small number of words in Chinese. What they will be capable of reading is really just a subset of the words that they know aurally. This may seem simple and logical to you, but the number of people who don’t get this is…. er… high. Very high.

The way that many teachers, particularly TPRS teachers, tackle this is through micro fluency. They teach students some language and then have them read only those words.

Keep is Simple at the Beginning

Readers for students learning to read in English use simple, short sentences. They should also mostly include words that the students can sound out. Readers in Chinese should also use simple, short sentences. I do mean simple. Painfully simple.  If students are expected to read independently, their readers should have a glossary with 100% of words in the text listed.

Yes, students need to be able to understand 100% of the words in a text (or very close to that) in order to read it on their own. Of course they can read texts with more unknown words, but that needs to include teacher support.

The Real Challenge of Learning to Read in Chinese

This brings us to the big challenge of teaching reading in Chinese to non-natives: the dearth of appropriate materials. There are just not enough readers out there for students learning to read in Chinese! Diane Neubauer has a blog post here that highlights a few options that are out there for beginning readers.

Diane mentions Terry Waltz and Haiyun Lu, both authors whose books I use in my classes. I also use books from Imagin8 Press, which are both appropriate for intermediate readers AND they also teach about Chinese culture. I could go one about books and other materials that are appropriate for students learning to read in Chinese, but this post is already 1400 words! This must be a record for me! Any suggestions for reading materials in Chinese? Share in the comments.

* If you would like a source on this, email me and I will send you my master’s thesis. Be careful though, I might die of shock if anyone actually wants to read my thesis.

Don’t Trust a Pillow: On the Use of Chinese Characters in the US

People in Western Countries Love Chinese Characters

Walk into any home décor store and you are sure to find a throw pillow or some wall art with Chinese characters on it. Usually there is an English translation somewhere too. While it is nice that people are interested in Chinese culture, this is not really how written Chinese works. It is very common to see a character like 爱 on its own and then the translation “love” written in smaller font.

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… But They Usually Don’t Understand How They Work

This is misleading to anyone who does not speak or read Chinese because Chinese words are usually the combination of two characters. So while 爱 does in fact mean love, we have many words that are love-related that use the character 爱. For example, the word for romantic love is 爱情. The word for patriotism is 爱国. Just translating 爱  as love on a piece of wall art misses a great deal of the richness of Mandarin Chinese.

There are also cases in which the translations written on a candle holder is wrong or misleading. It took me .000235 seconds of Googling (okay, maybe a little bit longer) to find the below image. It is a pillow with the character 牙 on it and the English translation is “fang.” The word for fang in Chinese is actually 獠牙 (like a monster’s fang). On its own, 牙 can mean tooth, a tooth-like thing, or even ivory. Without the addition of the character 獠 in order to clarify the meaning, 牙 does not translate to “fang” at all.

photo of pillow on it with Chinese character
Yet another example of Chinese characters with a misleading translation

Don’t Trust a Pillow to Tell You What a Character Means

It is great that people appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. I would not, however, trust anything that you can buy at Target. Just like any other language, Mandarin Chinese is complex. A piece of wall art with the character 静 on it and the word “tranquility” below does not give the full picture of how the character is used in context. It may look cool, but there is a lot more to it.

For a laugh, the blog Hanzi Smatter is devoted to “the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” There are lots of embarrassing tattoos! (Some content is adults-only).

More on written Chinese:

Chinese Writing: The Mechanics

Do you have a funny story about seeing Chinese characters used and misused outside of China/Taiwan? Share in the comments!

Library Resources for Second Language Learning

Free Chinese Books in San Antonio

I teach Chinese in San Antonio, so this post has to do with finding resources for learning Chinese in the San Antonio (Bexar county) public library system. Similar resources should be available in other large cities, or even smaller ones, consult your local library.

As I wrote about for the Rivard Report, reading is very helpful for learning a second language. The kind of reading that people do for pleasure is especially useful, meaning that it is helpful to find material on your own, that interests you. This is where the public library comes in. It is not that easy to find Chinese-language books* in the San Antonio public library system, but it can be done!

How to Find Chinese Books at SAPL

First, visit MySAPL.org and find the library catalog under the services section on the menu bar.

library catalog

Click on the library catalog. From the scroll down menu, choose the advanced search. The next part is where it gets a little clunky, you have to put something in the search field so I put an “A.” There are more than books of course at the library, but I ticked only “books” for the type of material. The next set of boxes is the important part, this is where you check “Chinese” for the language. Then hit “search”!

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There are lots of results that come up, including textbooks, children’s books and novels. The children’s books are a great resource for parents who would like a resource for helping their children acquire a language outside of the classroom.

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If I scroll down, I see that there is a copy of Farewell, My Concubine. I have already watched the movie so I might like the book too. This copy is published by HarperPerennial. Based on the thumbnail picture of the cover, it is probably an English translation.

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They also have a copy of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng).

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If I click on the details, I see that this version of Dream of the Red Chamber has both Chinese characters and pinyin. It is also published by a children’s publishing company (name is in pinyin in the listing). It is hard to tell without actually looking at the book. This book could be appropriate for intermediate-high level Chinese learners.

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If I want to see if there are any works by authors that I like, such as Lu Xun, I can do that. All I need to do is search for just those using the search field. Read the catalog listing carefully however, before going down to the library or requesting the book from your librarian. The one search result that I can see for “Lu Xun” at San Antonio public library is actually from the Beijing Foreign Language press.  It is probably in English and not Chinese.

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Searching for Chinese language books at SAPL shows that you really do have to poke around. Students have to make sure that results are actually in Chinese and are what you’re looking for. It is not a perfect system, but it’s free! If you’re not sure about what you (or your child’s) should be reading, talk to your (or your child’s) teacher.

*There are also Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi, French, Japanese books and more.