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Describe the experience of reading your first novel

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I am finishing up my first adult novel. I am curious to see the experience of others as they advanced from novitiate to first-time bookworm. I just read an article on pinyin.info in which the author said it took him three years to read his first, while somebody he studied with allegedly could not read more than two or three pages in a couple hours, even after 10 years of study. Is this the case for other people? I'm 11 months and a few days into my study of Chinese, which for the first few months saw most of my waking hours being involved in cultivating my knowledge thereof. If I'd spent even three hours a day during those introductory months, I'd probably still be a year away from where I am now.


How much difficulty did this journey entail? Did you look up words on every page? Every paragraph?


Page 319 of 鹤惊昆仑 was my first page without any need for a dictionary. Especially since then, it's been quite smooth sailing. I've written about 62 or 63 pages of notes, for a total of maybe 7,500 words in a novel of almost 600,000 characters.


How much time did you spend on this? 


I went from around 45 minutes per page at the start, down to around 5 minutes (including taking notes on new or forgotten characters, words, tones) now that I'm on page 515. 


Did you enjoy it? And, most importantly: How did the experience of your second novel contrast with the first?


I'm worried about this last issue the most. Wang Dulu is, I think, a relatively unique writer.  I have about 100 novels in Chinese I've ordered from JD (excellent) and Amazon (5 times the price, even with shipping!) since I began studying, and I've read several pages from most of them. Some of the others are not nearly as understandable or readable as his, so I fear that if I read the next book in the pentalogy, my lack of exposure to other styles will be less beneficial as picking out another author (I'm thinking 边城, it looks like a mediocre challenge before moving onto something bigger, like Jin Yong)

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Congratulations on your progress. I should have started a daily reading habit years ago. Nothing has been better for developing my ability to attack intimidating blocks of Chinese text.


After reading my first two novels in Chinese I analyzed my reading rate data for a statistics class project.

  • I read sentence by sentence, aiming for 100% comprehension and only looking up any words I don't know once I have tried to understand the whole sentence.
  • I don't keep any notes, but Pleco saves my history of search queries. I hope to one day analyze that data to identify any stubborn holes in my vocabulary.
  • You should read books in the format you enjoy, but I'd recommend reading books in an electronic format to ease vocabulary lookup.
  • Any gains in reading rate from the first book may not be immediately apparent when you start reading the second book, especially if your second book is of a completely different genre like mine was.
  • After my second book I started reading the news in Chinese, mostly《今日话题》(InTouch Today) and The New York Times Chinese edition. I think the larger breadth of topics is better for developing my reading ability.



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I'm on my sixth novel, and still looking up words, but finally reading is becoming enjoyable, and my comprehension is excellent. I still encounter the occasional section where there are a number of lookups required, but even then I could skip the lookups and still mostly understand. 


I usually read aloud, and sometimes I'll read 3-4 pages with no lookups, knowing both the meaning and the sound/tone. 


I think I am still a few novels away from feeling I can read virtually anything with no phone/computer nearby, but now that I can read 10-20 pages in an hour or two, reaching the goal seems close now.


And I still prefer books made of paper. I want to spend less and less time staring at a screen.

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How much difficulty did this journey entail? Did you look up words on every page? Every paragraph?

83% through 活著, the beginning was somewhat rough, I was looking up words every sentence or so. Now it's more like every few sentences, definitely there's a word or at least some kind of adjective  in every paragraph. If there are too many words but I get the meaning, I won't necessarily look all of them up. I tend to look up words when I feel like I'm missing out on something important by not knowing them - or when I feel like I've seen them before and should know them. A 30 minutes reading session will generally produce 10-15 new words and I'll probably look up half of these. I'm a little self-conscious that I'm only doing OK with this novel because I've seen the movie already. The areas where the novel separate from the movie can be more vague and challenging for me. 


How much time did you spend on this? 

A lot. I read it off and on, and didn't really commit to it until a about a month ago. I've ready 30 minutes of it on most days so I would say I've easily put 10 or so hours into it. 


Did you enjoy it? 

Yes, very much. 



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I had studied Chinese for several years as I begun reading my first novel. It was something I knew I had to do eventually, and I remember making a "New Years resolution" on several years, like, THIS will be the year when I finally read my very first Chinese novel! But it wasn't until a Chinese teacher of mine made all students get a book and read it. It could have been any book, even a children's  book, but the point was just to get into the habit of reading. I went for a long novel, but I deliberately chose an American book which had been translated into Chinese. This was my strategy from the beginning to make everything a bit smoother. I thought if I start with an original Chinese novel, there will be too much cultural and historical background and references which I wouldn't be able to understand. 


Oh man. I was devastated of how slow my reading was, it was truly a wake up call! At that point my Chinese was already on a HSK 4-5 level in a classroom, but I had to look up words constantly! At first, I looked up every word which I didn't know, but later I found out it was just slowing me down because in 70% of the times I could follow the story without knowing the exact meaning of a chengyu or a word. For example, if I knew that the unknown word I'm seeing is most likely a name of a flower/tree/plant etc. I'd just skip it. During those times considered 5 pages a day a very good speed. There were also several days in a week when I did not read. It took me months, maybe 5? to finish this first book.


I was annoyed with myself. 不行不行. I had to do better than that. I looked for a new book.This too was an English book translated to Chinese. It made me SO happy every time I encountered vocabulary that I had just learned from the previous book. I saw great improvement in my reading speed. Of course I would still use Pleco a lot. Then came the third (translated) book. I had truly built up my confidence and I enjoyed reading so so much.


I decided it was time to move on to actual Chinese novels. I started with Yu Hua's 活着. I highly recommend this book, even to beginners, because a) its a catchy story and you don't wanna stop reading it , and b) Yu Hua's writing style is quite simple. Huozhe also has a lot of dialogues in it, which makes it quite fast to read. 


I will not go back to reading translated literature anymore. Reading Chinese books is such a rewarding feeling. It gives me such sense of pride when I go from page to page not looking up any words. Still, up to this day, I ALWAYS read with a pen! I always make remarks, for example if I see a cool expression that I rarely use, I highlight it as a reminder to myself. Also, I often forget tones, so I like to mark those on my book. For example, now Im reading Yu Hua's 许三观卖血记,an example from page 71 is "...., 我就会被毙掉,...". I forgot which tone 毙 is because it's not a word I use in my daily life :D So I looked it up and drew a tone mark above it. 


My advice to all of you who are afraid to start reading is to start doing it anyway. Reading is the only way to improve reading. The beginning will suck. It will be slow. But you will see great results in a short period of time. Make sure you get a book that is INTERESTING, otherwise your speed will be even slower! Create a new category  in Pleco for each book. Read with a pen and do make notes. If you see some grammar and vocab that goes way  beyond your comprehension, just move on. 

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I read my first book in my fifth year of studying (I had started a few books before that, but gave up). Looking up words slows me down, so normally I look up as little as possible, unless it's a 字 in a name of a recurring 人物 that I don't know the pronunciation of, or a word that I don't know that is hampering my overall understanding. For the last two or three books I started underlining unknown and useful-looking words to look them up afterwards and study them in Anki, and that also has its advantages. But I do that after finishing a reading session, not during.


I don't know what my reading speed was in the beginning. For the past few years, I've always calculated with 10 pages per hour, but of course that's a bit nonsensical: 10 A4 pages of cyber detective is not the same as 10 small pages with big margins of happy-go-lucky travelogue. I think if the book is engaging enough I actually read about 20 pages (not A4, regular book size) per hour.


I'd recommend:

- Pick a book that is not too difficult (obviously).

- Don't look up every unknown word, just the ones you really need. Looking up words all the time takes you out of the story and slows you down. If you want to learn more vocabulary, look up words afterwards.

- Read actual Chinese books, not translated English ones. The cultural aspects are not that different and the language is more natural. Chinese translators (as many translators worldwide) are underpaid and the translations they produce often stay closer to the English than the Chinese in an original Chinese book. Also, now that you can read actual Chinese books, why would you use that power to just read English books again?

- Pick a good moment in your day where you can read every day, for half an hour/an hour/two hours. Then do that every day.

- Post about your experience and the books you read in the various book topics of this forum 🙂

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