How Reading in Chinese Changed My Life

When I first moved to China, I didn’t speak any Chinese, however I was determined to learn. I had a lot of encouragement from friends who did speak, I ground through the daily tasks of life that required some Chinese, and later I bought a textbook and started waking up an hour earlier every day so I could study before I went to work. Characters looked like spooky animals and many friends had said things like, “you don’t need to learn to read Chinese,” or “learning characters will slow you down,” but a good friend of mine encouraged me to begin learning and made a good point: “If you can’t read, then you’re illiterate!”

caveman_2aAbout two years into my China life, I still couldn’t hold down a conversation. My studying went in spurts and starts. I knew a lot of words and characters, but putting it together was a challenge. I was only able to communicate in short words and phrases. I felt like a primitive caveman who had to use grunts and hand gestures just to get my meaning across.

At that time I was working with Chinese investors to start educational programs in China. Once while I was interviewing an experienced teacher, he excitedly told me about extensive reading. While he was teaching at a university in Bangkok, they had used this method with great success in TOFEL test preparation. In one experiment, they put two groups of students through TOFEL training where one went through a traditional class while the other focused on extensive reading. At the end of the term, the extensive reading class significantly out-performed the other on the TOFEL.

My interest piqued, I began researching Extensive Reading. Could it really be that good? Over the course of the next few months, I read dozens of academic papers on the method, talked to experts in the field, identified successful programs, and reviewed available materials. There was a mountain of evidence demonstrating the superiority of ER, but the more I learned, the more it simply made sense.

Most of the research on ER is for English learning, but if it works for people learning English, could it work for me learning Chinese? I sought out graded readers in Chinese and found only one series. I bought every book I could get my hands on and I started to read. The first book was at a 300-character level and I moved very slowly. I was not accustomed to reading in Chinese and, while I knew most of the characters, my recognition speed was quite slow.

Quote_astonishing_change2The first few chapters were really slow but soon thereafter things began to click. The first book was a bit of a slog, but I did it! The second book took about 30% less time to read. My reading speed and comprehension began to improve. I started to see how words were used in different contexts. The grammar started to make more sense.  At one point, I found myself laughing at part of a story. I stopped, astonished, and said to myself “I’m laughing at something in Chinese!”

The most astonishing change I experienced was how I stopped translating in my head. I knew the meanings of the words, but now I began to read at such a speed that didn’t give me time to translate and I began to simply understand Chinese! It broke me free from a habit that had slowed my progress for so long.

My colleagues were the first to notice the change. I was understanding more of their conversations. I replied to questions in Chinese. Within three months, I completed 10 books and I was finally able to hold a conversation in Chinese. Everyone was asking what I had done; “Just reading Chinese” was all I could reply. It seemed so simple I didn’t feel like I could take credit for anything. The difference was night and day and the feeling was so empowering! I forever would be able to say that I’ve read books (note that is plural with an “s”) in Chinese!

From that point, my life in China became just that much easier and my opportunities became greater–all from reading some books in Chinese 😉

Jared Turner

22 Comments

  • Andrew45 Posted January 27, 2014 11:36 pm

    Bravo! Bravo! I am so glad to hear this. I love hearing about success stories like this.

    I will need to look into this Extensive Reading!

  • Dustin Posted January 29, 2014 8:37 am

    This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing.

    Any plans for making a traditional Chinese version of the stories?

    • Jared Turner Posted January 29, 2014 12:56 pm

      Thanks Dustin! Traditional versions are in the works. You can expect to see them Spring 2014!

  • Kate Posted January 29, 2014 1:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing your life changing story! I hope to achieve similar success. Am now looking forward to the traditional versions.

  • Janus Bo Andersen Posted February 2, 2014 6:22 pm

    Hi Jared and John,

    Great product and idea to set up Mandarin Companion, hope you will have a lot of success with it. I’ve been looking through some of the sample books on iTunes/iBooks, and have purchased the first one as well, The Secret Garden. However, noticed that some of the titles are only available for purchase in the US store, and not in e.g. the Danish store. I could for instance not purchase The Country of the Blind. Hope that you plan to make all the titles available to a wider international audience.

    Best,
    Janus

    • Jared Turner Posted February 3, 2014 1:07 pm

      Hi Janus, thank you for your comments! Indeed some of the titles are not available in some areas due to copyright restrictions. The works of H.G. Wells, author of “The Country of the Blind”, do not enter the public domain in Europe until 2017 and therefore will not be available for purchase in Denmark until that time. My sincerest apologies!

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  • Marc Posted February 11, 2014 1:06 am

    Hi, are the books also available as audiobooks, i.e. MP3 files?

    • Jared Turner Posted February 11, 2014 9:09 am

      Hi Marc, that is in the pipeline! We’re working on producing print and audio books early this year. Stay tuned!

  • Teresa Kozak Posted February 28, 2014 9:16 pm

    Nice idea, indeed! There’s no language you can translate and go…. especially as far as Chinese you ought to move ahead phrase after phrase. It is the same on the contrary: instead of understanding word after word you’ld just understand the whole phrase. Isn’t it?
    Teresa

  • chiara Posted February 28, 2014 9:43 pm

    Hi! Mandarin Companion is a GREAT idea, I’ve been trying to find something to read in Chinese and there’s really not much out there in terms of graded readers. Will you publish something targeted at higher level in the future?? I mean, something like 1500-2000 words.

    • Jared Turner Posted March 1, 2014 1:00 pm

      Thanks Chiara! We have higher levels planned but it will take us a while to work up to the levels you mention. In the meantime, even if you know 1500+ characters, you can still improve your Chinese by focusing on your reading speed and the speed of your character recognition among the characters you do know. This is where graded readers are helpful even if they are below your level. Good luck!

  • Margit Posted March 5, 2014 12:40 am

    Your story sounds like the behavior of a child learning to read. In first grade, they sound out every word, and it is clear that in their mind, it goes through the sound back in. Then, usually 2nd or 3rd grade, they read and read whole Harry Potter books and babysitter club and can’t get enough – and they dare using vocab they only read, didn’t hear…

    My question is: How do you do this? In English, if you read and see a word you don’t know, you usually can guess from context and expand your vocab. WIth CHinese, I can occasionally guess if a character is formed according to the rules, but often not. To me it is frustrating to scatch them out and look them up and that causes delays. I do read little stories my husband creates for me with both characters and pinyin, so that helps, but it is not possible to do extensive reading with. I probably recognize fairly reliably 500 characters, and 800-1000 sometimes if in context.

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  • Evelyn Posted June 23, 2014 9:09 am

    Hi Jared, I’m really encouraged by how far you’ve come and the contributions you’ve made to the Mandarin-learning community. I had to read native-level Chinese articles for my uni course this semester and it was definitely a pain like you described it in your other article. I found myself looking up words so often that it really turned me off Chinese so when I started to check out graded readers it was really refreshing to be able to understand things! I’ve only read the sample of ‘The Secret Garden’ and I think it’s something I will definitely purchase some time in the future when I have some spending money.

    Until that time comes, I was wondering if you could tell me what 300-character books you were reading when you first started. If you can remember the titles/series that would be great otherwise, what kinds of materials/resources did you have at your disposal? Before you created Mandarin Companion, what were the ‘graded readers’ that you used? And if I were to go to China and find a bookstore, what books do you recommend I buy? They’ll certainly be a lot cheaper there than in Australia. Were you limited by your vocabulary to only read children’s books? I find I have to do this often when I’m browsing for material at the library but even then there’s a lot of new vocab found in children’s books that you don’t necessary need. For example, do I really need to learn what 恐龙 means?

    Then there’s another problem. Even though I can read characters in a different context/placement, there are often times when I can’t make sense of a new word when they’re placed differently. Example (using 恐龙 again): I knew 恐怕 and 龙 but when I read 恐龙, I could read it out loud but not understand it. Is this something I just have to learn to deal with? Or is there some method to learning that you could recommend for me?

    Sorry for the super long post but I really wanted to ask someone who’s had the experience and been able to succeed in learning Chinese well in spite of the obstacles with such great results.

    Thanks!

    • Jared Turner Posted June 23, 2014 4:20 pm

      Thanks Evelyn! I can understand the frustration in trying to read native level texts! Graded readers really are the best thing to read, especially at early levels.

      As for coming across new words where you know the individual characters but not the word, this is a good problem to have. At least you know the characters! When this happens, it’s a good idea to first try and “guess” what the word is based on the context of the sentence and paragraph. If it’s repeated a number of times, this will give you more clues of the meaning based on the context. In fact, if you are reading something at your level but encounter a word where know neither the characters or pronunciation, you may still be able to guess the meaning if the word is repeated often enough. Overall, it’s a good idea to attempt to infer the meaning of the word in your specific case.

      For instance, you said you knew the word 恐怕 and 龙, but not 恐龙. Well, you know that 恐 is associated with something scary/frightening and 龙 is a dragon. So you could image than 恐龙 would be some sort of scary dragon. Keep that in mind and when you see it again, from the context you might be able to guess that it means dinosaur (especially if there’s a picture). There are a lot of words that work like this (as well as many that don’t). The bottom line is that you should develop your instincts to make a connection as opposed to immediately going to a dictionary for validation. This is the method followed for extensive reading in phonetic languages such as English. It works!

    • Hipployta Posted July 28, 2014 9:48 am

      The 300 reader series I’m using is Chinese Breeze

  • Bruce E Dinger Posted July 8, 2014 1:52 pm

    Jared, GREAT work. I just got done reading the 60 year dream….very well done. Keep those books coming….I’m going to order my next book. You mentioned that you read 10 books in 3 months…..can you let me know what those books are and where to buy them? How many more books to you guys have in the pipeline over the next 2 months?

    Bruce E Dinger

    • Stephan Posted December 29, 2014 1:39 pm

      I would also like to know what the 10 books are that you read, please.

  • Bruce E Dinger Posted July 21, 2014 9:41 am

    Just beginning my read on The Secret Garden. Looking forward to another great read 🙂 Thanks to your team! Keep doing what you guys do!

  • Peter Palme Posted January 20, 2015 12:06 am

    I just read the Secret Garden in less than a week and it was such a pleasure to read without looking up words in the dictionary. It felt like reading a book in English. Now I am reading the Monkey’s Paw and I am already at 40% (Kindle edition). I do all this with ease after roughly 32 hours online training, after I finished the Course: “Chinese words spoken by frequency 0-1000” by Ben Whately on Memrise: http://www.memrise.com/course/1224/chinese-words-by-spoken-frequency-0-1000-2/ in just two months.
    Well I guess there must even be a faster way to achieve such basic literacy in order to read your wonderful level 1 books. You always mention the magic number of 300 characters – are these the characters that are taught in the HSK1 and HSK2 level?
    My mission is to be able to read a Chinese Newspaper by 31.12.2015 and also to help other to learn to read fast. Not to make this a too long post you can more details about my mission here: https://ppalme.wordpress.com/mission-2015-able-to-read-a-chinese-newspaper-in-chinese-by-31-12-2015/

  • Victor Posted June 7, 2016 4:11 pm

    I love this story and all the other comments by the writer. I am impressed by the readers that have been created for learning Chinese. I have spent so much time working with my Japanese students to get them to the same level. Where are the graded readers for Japanese? Are you planning to make any?

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