Every now and then I am fortunate to run across people who have accomplished amazing things. I present to you one of those unique individuals, Marc, one of our readers from Belgium who recently shared with me his powerful experience in learning languages. Keep in mind that Marc is 58 years old and studying Chinese.
My native language is Dutch, my first foreign language was French, most of which I picked up from friends, but learning a language just by conversation about ordinary topics never will bring you up to the level that you need if you are serious about a language. So, from the age of 15 onwards I started reading French books, novels mostly. The books that I chose appealed to me one way or another. In fact, now that I think of it, I had only one rule: interest. Adventure stories, history, popular science, etc. That was what interested me and that was what I read: in Dutch, French, (later on) English, German, Spanish… Even now, most of the books that I read are in a foreign language.
Over the years I have mastered these foreign languages and I agree with your analysis that ‘extensive reading’ can give a tremendous boost to your knowledge of a language. I became fluent in English, French, Spanish and German because of the many hundreds of novels that I read in those languages. Key is the number of words that one can understand from the context in relation to the number that you really know. And many thousands of books later (I am 58 and I have always read a lot) I can definitely state that extensive reading works!
When I started learning Chinese my goal was (and still is) to be able to read Chinese books about martial arts, especially about Taiji Quan (太极拳), fluently. In that respect I may not be a typical student of Chinese. I am still not there yet, but I do believe that only by reading tons of ordinary material (again stories, novels, nonfiction stuff) that is more or less at my level, I will get there. But the going is rough and the path is steep.
Graded readers are a very good idea but so much more useful to me for Chinese than for other languages because if these ‘black holes’ appear too frequently -as they do in most authentic reading material- they slow me down and prevent me from absorbing the thousands of pages I need to read to increase my fluency (I am not even mentioning the frustration). The control over the amount of new material makes it possible to reach certain goals as far as the volume is concerned while still allowing me to learn new words and characters, but in moderation. The books that are available now at level 1 are too easy for me, but still useful to get those patterns and pairing of words and sentences into my head.
Another big advantage is that you not only practice and maintain vocabulary, but also grammatical structures and pairing words and sentences with other words and sentences. Nothing can replace quantity of exposure for this. I am reading “The Sixty-Year Dream” now and I really think that it can help me a lot in this respect.
There are two key things that I take away from Marc’s story:
The Power of Reading
Marc’s life is a testament to the power of reading. I will note that I think I made only 1 minor grammatical correction to his whole story, which is less than I make when writing the first draft of a blog post! His mastery of English shines through and it’s because of how much he has exposed himself to the language through reading. The same level of mastery awaits those who are able to read similar amounts of texts, regardless of what language they are learning. Because of the unique nature of written Chinese, Marc has found graded readers to be of even greater help than in other languages. Reading is powerful and arguably one of the most effective ways of learning any language, if you are reading at the right level.
It’s Never Too Late to Learn
A favorite saying of mine goes “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the next best time is now”. It’s never too late to learn. I’ve met people who have lived in Shanghai upwards of 10 years who still do not speak any Chinese and often the reason I hear is that it’s too late for them. However, I recently met a lady named Jane from Romania living in Shanghai for 6 years and she finally began learning a year ago. She’s still working through the elementary level, but she’s so excited about what’s she’s learning and how much more independent she has become. People like Marc and Jane are excellent examples to all of us no matter what our age, location, or circumstances.
What’s your story?
We want to hear your story of how reading has helped you learn Chinese, or any other language! Send us an email or write us a review on Amazon or iBooks. We look forward to hearing and sharing your story!
– Jared Turner