A lot of people will point out the obvious – Chinese has characters – and that can make reading Chinese a bit different to other languages. That said, in many ways reading Chinese is just like reading any other language and here I want to focus on some ways to improve reading skills without learning more characters or words. This week we will look at what is perhaps the most important technique.
Tip 1: Ignore Words
A lot of language students will read a text, underline all the words they don’t recognise and systematically look them up in the dictionary. Some people will even look up words they don’t recognise as and when they see them. The problem here is that students end up focusing on the words they don’t know, and sometimes don’t even read a full sentence before cutting themselves off to use their smartphone dictionary.
Unless your aim is to learn new vocabulary I would strongly recommend against reading this way. By focusing on what you don’t know and constantly cutting yourself off from the text as a whole you actually make it far more difficult to understand what the article is about or what the characters in the novel are doing. Instead of looking up words I’d suggest the exact opposite; ignore words you don’t recognise. The perfect candidates for this approach are adjectives and adverbs because they often don’t add any meaning to a sentence, they just add details.
Let’s look at this sentence from a novel I read recently. When I read this sentence there were three words I didn’t recognise.
Firstly, I didn’t recognise 榕树 but since I know that 树 is ‘tree’ I can just guess that 榕 is the type of tree. Is it important to know exactly what type of tree? No.
Next we have 鬼祟 which I know is an adjective because it is followed by 的 and then the noun 身影 (shadowy figure). Again, it doesn’t really matter what kind of shadowy figure it is so I can just ignore the adjective.
Finally, we have 默默地窥视 which looks difficult. But on closer inspection we see the character 地 and on that basis know that 默默 is an adverb. As with adjectives, adverbs just add detail so we can usually ignore them without affecting meaning. That means we’re left with 窥视, which we know is a verb because it was preceded by an adverb. Now I don’t know what this verb is in isolation but if we read the sentence as a whole it is possible to guess. Firstly, who was performing the verb and what is the object of the verb?
By looking at the sentence as a whole we can see the last noun preceding the verb was 身影 (shadowy figure) and the first noun following the verb is 五姐弟 (five sisters and brothers). We therefore know that the shadowy figure was doing something to the children. It’s still difficult to guess but instead of looking up 窥视 in the dictionary we can look at the rest of the sentence for more clues. What were five brothers and sisters doing?
As usual we can ignore adjectives and see that the five children 五姐弟 entered a cave 入洞. A shadowy figure was doing something to five children as they enter a cave. Any guesses?
Even if you can’t guess it doesn’t matter because the five children are the protagonists, which you would know if you had read the paragraph as a whole (unfortunately I’ve only shown you one sentence!). So if we look at the sentence as a whole we can pick out a few key words to get as much meaning as possible and just ignore the rest.
洞外一棵树后 (outside a cave behind a tree) 身影 (shadowy figure) 五姐弟入洞 (five sisters and brothers enter cave)
So by focusing on less than half the words in the sentence we can actually get all the meaning we need.
There was a shadowy figure standing behind a tree outside the cave as the five children entered the cave.
Compare this to a full translation of the sentence
At this moment there was a malevolent shadowy figure behind a banyan tree outside the cave peeping his head out and silently watching as the five children entered into the cave.
Has any significant meaning been lost by ignoring more than half the words? No. It certainly doesn’t affect the plot development of this novel and the reader still knows what is going on (although, admittedly, the writing does become a lot less colourful without all those adjective and adverbs).
Ignoring words like this is a skill. At first it is difficult to ignore words, and it can be tricky to look at a sentence as a whole and pick out meaning. To start with the main focus should be to identify the adjectives and adverbs and ignore them. After which pick out the verbs and then identify the subjects and objects (who is doing what to whom). With time and practice you can get better at reading without learning more Chinese characters. The important thing is to just put that dictionary down! Stop using pleco on your iPhone for a few moments and trust yourself that you can pick out all the meaning you need.
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