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Learn Chinese in China

Stages of reading


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This is (as far as I can remember) how I progressed from zero Chinese reading ability to the heady heights of being able to read a newspaper with a dictionary and coffee. This whole process took me about 3 years of irregular study.

I learnt in China. Obviously that makes a difference.

1) The 'what are these funny little squiggles' stage. You can't read anything, but you notice some squiggles reappearing. My first character was 京, which I saw on cars all over Bei京. Other possible first characters are simple ones like 大 and ones you see on street and shop signs - 东南西北, 店, etc.

2) The 'hang on, these mean something' stage. Outside of my textbook, the first Chinese stuff I read would have been the children's 语文 textbooks at the school I worked at - the heady days of 'My school is beautiful', 'Karl Marx loves children very much' (I used to be able to recite that one) and 'The Wonderful Day China got the Bomb). Simple, lots of pictures and pinyin. Continue at this stage until you a) get bored or B) find yourself wearing a red scarf to work.

3) Joke books - bite-sized chunks of simple, descriptive language. Man walks into a bar, Woman runs over a dog, but never Sartre investigates 15th Century literature in the post-modernist context. Problem with this stage is that I never found a funny joke.

4) Story magazines. More substantial, but you can still get through a story in a sitting. Stay away from anything literary and stick with the confessional 'My ax-murdering husband married a lesbian' type. I remember reading 故事会, but someone told me it would rot my mind.

5) Newspapers. By now you should be able to start to tackle narrative type articles - Man killed by car - and get the gist of more analytical stuff - Why are cars murdering men?

6) From this point you should be able to have a shot at anything you are interested in. There will be a massive amount of new vocabulary, but the fact you can actually choose stuff you are interested in will keep you going. Academic journals, literary magazines, newspapers, dodgy internet forums - it's all waiting!


PS The stories in 2) really exist, and 马克思非常爱孩子 was probably the first non-trivial piece of Chinese text I managed to understand.

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I think this was a good post. That sort of learning is much more fun than just cranking through textbooks until you might one day be 'ready' for the real stuff.. Also, the language in Chinese kids materials is more authentic .

For those in Taiwan, you probably already know about 《國語日報》. If you don't, this is an awesome way to learn Chinese from about level 3) or 4) on the Roddy scale of Chinese. Just need Zhuyin and you are all set for hours of fun five days a week. And, of course, the thousands of books with Zhuyin, though nearly all of those are level 4) or 5). Annotated classics, biographies, and other stuff.

Another, though very different, possibility (for male heterosexuals, anyway, though others as well), as a level 4) or 5) text you may wish to try 《閣樓雜誌》. I found it motivating :)

Sorry, there's no "Stories" section as in the English edition. At least as late as early 2003 you could find old copies at the $69 Bookstores in Taipei (particularly at the one on Bookstore Street).

PS The stories in 2) really exist

What about 4) ?


Michael Jackson also loves children.

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Interesting read.

I myself am just starting to learn Chinese.

I have one question though.

In your post you say that you had zero Chinese reading ability but how was your spoken Chinese at the time? Did you know some/any Chinese at all or

did you learn it as you went along?

Ok, so that turned out to be more than one question. I hope you'll forgive me


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I find my textbook hideously boring, plus it is terrible when it comes to pronunctiations. Though what's holding my reading skills back probably more is the fact that it fails to present words and phrases in anything other than bloody pinyin!

I would love to pick up some of those childrens textbooks you told me about, any idea where a Brit could find one?

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Split two topics from here as it was getting a bit messy. Please consider starting a new topic if your question is significantly off the original one.

PDA's and character recognition

Teach Yourself Chinese book

EDIT: and a third one while I've got my admin hat on.

Use and Abuse of Dictionaries

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I really enjoyed reading your post. It's completely accurate. I'm now at a 2.5 years irregular study in China stage. I would add one author I find particularly worthwhile to read and that is 几米. His picture books are suitable for children, but the themes have a level of maturity that keeps them interesting for adults, and in fact many adults do read and enjoy his work.

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