This past summer, I took advantage of the two month gap between the end of medical school and the start of residency to do some serious vacationing, visiting family in Taiwan and sightseeing through Singapore and several cities in southern China. Leading up to this adventure, I spent some time beforehand – starting in the last year of med school – starting to learn Chinese.
I’m in a fairly common position for an American-born Chinese guy. Growing up, we spoke Chinese at home, so I picked up a fair amount by osmosis – but only the sorts of things that parents would talk about with their kids in casual conversation – no curse words, no analysis of Warring-States era philosophical schools. So I started out with a decent grasp of grammar and vocabulary, and the challenge was to go the next step and learn to read and write. My informal goal was to be able to read at a grade-school level – the point where I could walk down a street and read signs, menus, and sitcom subtitles.
The vacation was a lot of fun, involving lots of sightseeing, catching up with relatives, and good food. I also got plenty of opportunity to continue studying the language, and I found to my surprise that I had largely achieved my goals; I could get around town, order from menus, and even read simple books – and I’d gotten there with a minimal investment – studying Chinese about 15 minutes a day before my trip. Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons and made some mistakes, and I wanted to share this experience for anyone else looking to pick up Chinese reading skills.
Use spaced repetition.
About a year before my trip, I sat down and tried to figure out what kind of study plan would make sense to try to accomplish my goal. I realized that what my problem really boiled down to was matching characters to pronunciations and definitions – often, words that I already knew how to use in conversation.
I then realized that spaced repetition flashcards would be a great tool for this job. I’ve been a fan of spaced repetition for a long time – it forms a core component of my book Learning Medicine – and flashcard programs like Anki really shine when it comes to vocabulary learning. The electronic flashcards would let me test myself for both reading (“here’s the character, what’s the definition?”) and writing (“here’s the definition and pronunciation; what’s the character?”), and the spacing algorithm could monitor my progress and ensure that I spent time on just the words I most needed to review.
I found a list of the 3,000 most commonly used Chinese characters and converted them into an Anki deck. For each word, this deck contains a card showing the character and asking the definition, as well as a card showing the definition and asking how to write the character. Paired with the touchscreen of a phone or tablet, this let me conveniently practice writing and recognizing characters. I worked my way down the list, learning the characters for all the words I already knew how to use in conversation. Starting several months in advance with a very leisurely schedule of 5-10 new words per day, I had almost a thousand characters under my belt before heading out. I also created a card of a few thousand of the most commonly used words and phrases. I found this to be essential in a language so reliant on compound words, where single characters, such as 认, might mean to believe (认为), to be conscientious (认真), or to recognize (认识).
Quick and dirty
In Chinese classes, they usually teach characters by having you learn a character, then write it out a dozen or so times. This is a classic massed practice technique, and it makes sense in the classroom setting. Having intensive training lets you lock in the words, and since your teacher can ensure that you’ll start seeing those words in your vocabulary lessons immediately, you have the spaced practice component as well.
Real life, however, isn’t as well organized as a vocabulary workbook. You’ll be seeing street signs, magazines, TV subtitles, and more, and your goal is comprehension, not scoring 100 on a test. There are statistics floating around about how if you learn the most common 200 characters you’ll be at 50% comprehension, but that’s a pretty misleading notion. Yes, you’ll be able to recognize 50% of the characters in a sentence, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a 50-50 chance of figuring out what it means. Just imagine reading that previous sentence without knowing what “recognize,” “characters,” or “figuring out” mean – even small holes in a sentence – usually around the more difficult or specific vocabulary words – can kill your comprehension. Getting over that hump – from understanding a few words but losing the gist, to understanding the gist but missing a character or two – is very important to making the most of immersion.
That means the breadth of your vocabulary is key. It’s much better to have a general sense of the meanings of 1,000 characters than a superb grasp of 100. So be aggressive about adding new words to your vocabulary. Don’t worry if you have shaky or vague sense of what they mean – that’s what Anki and everyday immersion are for.
For similar reasons, speed is more important in the real world than it was in school. In the real world, you don’t have more than a few seconds to read a sign or catch a subtitle, so when you’re out and about, it’s important to deliberately train the skill of reading fast, even at the expense of some precision.
Simplified or traditional: pick one
As you probably know, there are two Chinese writing systems. Traditional Chinese characters are used in all pre-1949 writing and are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Simplified Chinese characters are used in mainland China and Singapore. There are complicated linguistic arguments in favor of both systems, but in practice, just pick one system and stick to it. If you’re going to a country (Taiwan, Hong Kong, some Chinatowns) where traditional characters are used, learn that; if you’ll be in a place where simplified characters (China, some other Chinatowns) are more common, go with simplified.
Transitioning between one system and another is doable but very tricky, especially for a beginner. As with most languages, the transition from traditional to simplified characters applied a small number of definite rules, plus a lot of idiosyncratic decisions. As a result, you can use the rules and mostly understand a sentence from the other writing system means, but it takes a fair bit of effort and there will be gaps in your knowledge. My uncle, who lives in Taiwan, related that he once needed to consult a rare engineering textbook that was only available in simplified Chinese. He managed to get through it, but it involved quite a bit of effort – like reading Chaucer.
My experience bore this out. I’d focused on learning simplified Chinese in my studies, but part of my trip took me to Taiwan, where traditional Chinese ruled. Here, I was much less adept; often I’d be puzzled by a character and look it up, only to find that it was simply the traditional version of a word I already knew. This confusion effectively shrunk my vocabulary, which reduced my comprehension and hindered my progress.
There are a lot of apps that help in learning Chinese, but Pleco was the best I found. It has an extensive dictionary that allows you to look up characters by writing them on a screen, as well as a cool OCR feature that lets you take a picture of something you want to read – a billboard or a printed page – and can identify the characters for you. Either way, you can look up new words on the spot, and save them for later review – every word you see, even when you’re out and about, is a potential addition to your vocabulary. This is a powerful way to build your vocabulary quickly.
“Respect your elders!”
One thing that I definitely got out of this experience was a new appreciation for my parents, and for immigrants in general. Even with some reading ability, when you’re using a different language, every little task – from navigating the subway to ordering at a restaurant – is just a little bit trickier, and this burden definitely adds up over time. And yet, at my age, my parents were able to make that transition and read and speak far better English than I speak Chinese. On my desk I have a small stack of kid’s books that I’m slowly working through; at my age my father was reading grad school textbooks. I may never get to that level of fluency, but if I get no other use out of my language-learning adventure, I can now really appreciate what a big hurdle that was.