Learning Chinese by reading It
How many times have you been exposed to a phrase like "he forgot to lift the toilet seat" or "peed all over the toilet seat" in a Chinese lesson?"
Learning Chinese By Reading Translations of Material We Enjoy
I started reading Stephen King's "It" , the Chinese version, a few months ago.
I'd borrowed it from the library. Alas, I had to return it having only got to page 70. I picked up Doctor Sleep (again in Chinese) as an alternative.
In both cases I had the English versions also.
The idea was to learn to read Chinese from material that I actually liked.
When I first moved to Taiwan, I was interested in Tai Ji, and so my earliest attempts of learning to read Chinese involved reading Tai Ji instructional manuals.
A Novel Method of Learning Chinese
I've attempted reading a few novels in Chinese. I started of with "Game of Thrones" and gave up pretty quickly. Then I got to work on Andy Weir's "The Martian". I lasted a little longer there but the book, as you might imagine, was filled with a lot of technical jargon. Interesting, but not stuff I'd be likely to use in a conversation. Likewise Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. (Since I've bought those books, I will get back to them, but I feel like I should start on more "down to earth" stuff for now.) I've even had a good go at reading one of my favorite Jack Reacher novels in Chinese. I should add a proviso that it's hard to pick a favorite Jack Reacher novel. They're all good.
In all cases, these were books I enjoyed. I had the English version as a back up. And what I've found, having had a taste of a few Chinese translations, the translations tend to be, at the very least, paragraph by paragraph, but in most cases were it's possible, sentence by sentence. As a result, it has been easy to figure out the meaning of paragraphs and sentences using both the English and Chinese texts.
The trick was matching individual characters and "words" to meanings.
And in this regard, perhaps one of the most helpful things was having an easy way of looking up Chinese characters, even when I didn't know their pronunciation.
How Stephen King is teaching me to read Chinese
Having failed to finish reading quite a few books in Chinese, I've still picked up some Chinese.
One of the reasons I settled on Stephen King books was that I really like his writing style and the language he uses. The things he writes about, is the kind of stuff I'd like to be able to talk about or understand in Chinese.
And while I try not to pee on the toilet seat at least now I know how to describe that situation. And I also now know how to say whether the toilet seat is up or down and how to say "lift the toiled seat" or put it down.
I've also learned terms like widow, and hammer.
How reading novels has spaced repetition built in
Now if you are learning Chinese characters the good old fashioned way, perhaps in part via flash-cards and the like, you know the scientifically based benefits of spaced repetition. I've tried using Anki software for just that as part of a course I was taking. I gave up quickly on Anki because it seemed like such a pain in the but to use. (I'd sooner take notes in Note pad).
The nice thing about reading novels in Chinese is that the spaced repetition tends to occur naturally in the context of the novel itself. Names of characters will occur repeatedly and regularly and the same characters tend to occur over and over again also. And while with spaced repetition, you can test yourself on each character and have the card pop up again if you haven't learned it yet, you can have more or less the same thing while reading.
The benefits of an easy to use index for looking up Chinese characters
So what happens if I can't remember a characters' meaning or pronunciation?
If I fail to remember a character's pronunciation, I'll just look it up again (and again and again if necessary) till I get it. And that's one of the benefits of having an easy way to lookup Chinese characters. It makes Chinese character lookup easy. Because it's easy, it doesn't get in the way of the thing that I'm trying to do, which is learning to read Chinese.
As a side note, I spent about two months learning the Mandarin blueprint method (apparently soon to be trademarked!!!!). It's a method that makes learning characters, their meaning and for me most importantly, their pronunciation easy to remember.
I went through their foundation characters, which gave me the necessary tools and practice time for learning their method. And now I'm using it along with a simple device for looking up characters easily, so that I'm able to study Chinese characters relatively independently.
The benefits of time based goals
Something else I learned while studying the mandarin blue print method is the benefits of having time based goals. I initially took advantage of a two week trial period, where you didn't have to pay. My goal was to learn as much as possible within that two week period and then drop out before having to pay. I actually learned a lot in that two weeks and liked the course so much that I stayed on for an extra two months. The thing was, I'd also had access to their pronunciation course, which at the time I got it, it was free. But I haven't done anything with it yet, as good as it is, because it's free. And that's another advantage with having a book and using it as a study tool. There's a definable end to the book. And even for daily or weekly studying, paragraphs and chapters make for easy to define goals.
The importance of Not Rushing
I should point out here, that using a book to learn to read Chinese, I'm not trying to speed through the book. Instead, I'll read over the same passage, or page a couple of times. One time to see how much I already know. A second time to look up characters I don't know. And perhaps a third time just to make sure. Something I'll also start doing is reading aloud so that I can get more comfortable with speaking Chinese also.
Learning novel terms in Chinese
Because I've basically built up my own database of Chinese characters, words and phrases, and am continuing to build up on it, one of my goals in reading Chinese books was to add to my database of Chinese terms. In particular I wanted stuff you wouldn't always find in an "official" list of recommended characters and words.
And that's one of the big advantages of learning from translations of novels.
But at the same time I also wanted to build up my own mental database of Chinese characters.
To that end, when I'm typing out characters and phrases, I try to remember phrases (generally ending at punctuation) and type them from memory.
Inputting Chinese characters via their Shape
Note that when I type Chinese characters I use a shape based input method. I learned this method, the cangjie input method, so that I could type Chinese characters even when I didn't know their pronunciation.
And while I could use pinyin to type Chinese characters, the nice thing about the cangjie input method is that it basically allows me to touch type Chinese characters.
Note that I could already touch type in Engish. And also note that on occasion I do have to select a character from a drop down for the occasional input codes that map to more than one character. But this is comparison to typing phonetically where you nearly always have to select characters from a drop down box.
Learning a Language from material we are naturally interested in
So why bother with all of this when learning to read Chinese?
For me the most important thing about learning Chinese is to be able to read the things that I want to read. Whether that is to learn, or simply to read for the sake of reading.
(I also love doing shufa, aka Chinese calligraphy. And so to that end I like understanding or at least having a basic idea of what it is that I'm writing with the eventual goal of being able to express myself freely in Chinese characters.)
And so rather than dealing with the dry material put forth in formal Chinese lessons, or even the, sometimes, more interesting fare put out by more enterprising course designers, there's something really nice about being able to learn to read Chinese by reading the Chinese translations of books that I love.
As a side note, it forces me to also pay more attention when I'm reading the same book in English.
A selection of Chinese Phrases learned from the translation of Doctor Sleep
Anyway, here's a selection of some of the more unusual expressions I've picked up from reading the Chinese version of Doctor Sleep (using Traditional Chinese characters):
- [sa¯ niˋ daoˋ shuiˇ caoˊ liˇ]
- peed in the sink
- [huaiˋ dong¯ xi¯]
- a bad thing, something bad
- [ta¯ rengˊ zaiˋ xi¯ daˋ muˇ zhiˇ]
- he still sucked his thumb
- [fei¯ shangˋ ceˋ suoˇ buˋ keˇ]
- need to use the toilet, have to go to the bathroom
- [ciˊ qiˋ]
- [tieˇ chuiˊ]
- [maˇ tongˇ quan¯ queˋ shiˋ fang¯ xiaˋ de˙]
- the toilet seat was down
- [jiang¯ maˇ tongˇ quan¯ fang¯ xiaˋ]
- put the toilet seat down
- [jiang¯ maˇ tongˇ quan¯ xian¯ qiˇ laiˊ]
- lift the toilet seat, put the toilet seat up
- [niaoˋ deˊ zhengˇ ge˙ maˇ tongˇ quan¯ daoˋ chuˋ dou¯ shiˋ]
- pee all over the toilet seat
- [yiˋ guˇ qiˋ weiˋ]
- a smell