In the last post I put up a quick primer about learning to speak Chinese. The first few months will be tough, but everything about Chinese will be so new, that you’ll find it totally funny and fascinating. And once you come to China, you’ll love using the language every day, and watching your speaking ability soar. Speaking is absolutely the most important thing (making Immersion by far the most important determinant of your language ability) but what about reading and writing Chinese? Despite being almost totally butchered by the ubiquity of cell phones, yes, you still have to learn to read and write Chinese. Yes there are books to help build up a base of Characters (while you’re in your home country) just to get some momentum, but once you do, you can start to have some fun.
The reason I mentioned going to a Second Tier city is because it will force you to learn all this stuff. Have a Chinese friend take you to the local bookstore (yes they have those), and help you pick out something you’d be interested in reading if it were in English. Horror stories, sports biographies, business books (yawn), Harry Potter, Twilight, whatever. For me it was this huge collection of legendary writer/director Alfred Hitchcock’s short stories, all translated into Chinese (not just one huge book, but two). This method works for me: it’s expanded by vocab massively in the last two months, and best of all, it’s actually enjoyable.
1. Crack the book open and try to read one page of text, and highlight in bright yellow any words you don’t know. This should take you about five minutes, depending on the font size. Adjust accordingly. If there are some words you don’t know, that’s okay: think of them like speedbumps. Skip over them, spending but a few seconds to guess at the sound/meaning, then move on. Get comfortable with ambiguity.
2. In lined notebook, try to write out all the characters, or groups of characters you don’t know along the left side, one phrase per line. Remember, you could very well know the exact meaning of each of the characters and still not know what the heck it means (these are idioms or expressions, most likely). Write ‘em down anyway. For Chinese, that’s ‘Chinese characters/汉语拼音/English meaning’. Where did I get the Pinyin and English from? Next step.
3. You’ll need either a Smartphone for this (I have Android and an iPod touch–both work). Go into the language settings and switch on the Chinese language input (if your monochrome Nokia phone doesn’t have this, you’re sunk). Fiddle around with the settings, until you’ve switched on the International Keyboard (Chinese/Simplified) and something Touch Input (手写). This will allow you to ‘draw’ the Chinese characters with your finger. The trick is, if you want to write it slowly, don’t take your finger off the screen until you know what to write next. Two seconds after you take your finger off the screen, the phone will give you suggestions. Test it out so you can write basic stuff in Chinese, and send a Chinese text message to your friends. Cool! It’s just like 汉语拼音 but 10 times slower! In all seriousness, this little piece of tech is a godsend (you don’t know want to know how Chinese paper dictionaries work).
4.Now go back to that list of new words on your lined notebook. You should never have more than one full page (one side) of new words– it’s too intimidating/daunting. Any more than that and definitely scale back the amount you’re reading (or switch to an easier novel/comic book). Using your smartphone and Google Translate (you should bookmark the site, creating a one-tap link, for these daily study sessions). Google Translate will give you the Hanyu Pinyin (Romanization), and the English meaning. Write them both down in your lined book for each new Chinese word/expression.
5. Lastly, read through the original Chinese text again, this time with your ‘cheat sheet’, and be sure to understand everything that’s going on in the story. Good job! Now you’re hooked.
(Optional: Use this lined bookas a Vocab list, and read through it before each daily session. As you memorize more pages you can tear out the oldest pages)
Update 5/1/2013: Once you get up to an decent level.. you’ll want to read faster and faster, and the whole ‘making lists’ thing will feel like a drag. Instead, just read along with a smartphone and as you come upon new Chinese characters you don’t know, use your wifi-enabled device to look up the character (Google Translate is decent) using the input method where you draw the strong directly on the touch screen. You’ll get the English translation back, as well as the Pinyin Romanization (which you can write the directly on the page, if you want, assuming you own the book) and then continue on with the story. This will dramatically increase you reading speed and your engagement level in whatever you’re reading.