Sunday, June 01, 2008

Painless way to learn to read Chinese?

Via an article at Sinosplice I read a very interesting article by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese The basic premise seeming to be that learning to read Chinese can be relatively painless and become an acquired skill, the specific example quoted being the experience the author had whilst learning to read from and Taiwanese newspaper that had phonetic markup for each character (bobomofo). This is exciting (how sad am I?).

From experience I have to agree, although after less than two and a half years of self-study Chinese I wouldn't expect anybody to take my experiences as gospel. Where I would differ is that generally speaking I don't use annotated text as such but a whole plethora of other techniques to make reading a relatively painless experience. My reading is improving very fast but still has some way to go (primarily because my Chinese listening and speaking still has a long way to go). Reading has come on so fast that this morning I realized I was cheating too much by reading the subtitles ahead of the speech whilst reading watching a CCTV documentary (I don't understand all of a CCTV documentary yet but usually the gist with largish lumps of complete word for word understanding). I am pleasantly surprised that what I can read is often as fast as reading English text.

Much reading acquisition comes from reading electronic texts with some sort of mouse over annotation, I prefer this simply because there is effort and pause associated with the mouse over action and therefore a subconscious desire for my brain to reduce the incidence of this (without me being aware those little neurons are realigning to make life smoother). In a web browser all the Firefox extensions tend to give English definitions as well as pinyin but a quick modification of a style file means that the English in the chinesepera-kun pop-up is so pale and small I have to squint and press my nose against the screen (my neurons dislike this and re-arrange to reduce the chances of this happening).

The next biggest input to reading comes from many different ways of working with subtitles of which the strangest and most productive is watching English content with Chinese subtitles, every time I mention this, I get derided or ignored but I found it a huge boost to fluent reading (in reflection probably much bigger than the above example). Watching both series of Heroes in English with Chinese subtitles for example was something I did whilst relaxing with my wife (she has no interest in learning Chinese), my mind couldn't help but spend time working out what the subtitles said (not 100% but it gets better all the time).

One of the biggest objections to using technology in this way is often along the lines of "ohhh but it is too easy to cheat, my mind is too lazy", my counter to that is that using more traditional approaches it is too easy to spend time learning Chinese in a none useful way. You may feel you have been busy but the more you remove yourself from the real world actions of speaking listening and reading Chinese the more chance the skills you are picking up are not directly relevant. Besides you can always make small alterations to keep your mind on the game, it is your mind after all. When I sometimes now read printed text (the kind you can hold in your hand) I use a real Chinese zidian (character dictionary, no English) to look up unfamiliar characters, I played with the zidian a little now and again and now am getting increasingly better at identifying radicals etc.and I don't know or care what they are called (how sick is that ;)). If I still don't get it from the pinyin in the zidian or the Chinese definition (unlikely from the definition I know but miracles increasingly happen), then I punch the pinyin into a cheap electronic dictionary designed for Chinese users. Guess what my brain wants to select the character by looking back to the zidian and comparing (lazy brain) but I try to remember what it looks like and actually close the zidian and ignore the original text (those neurons really hate it when they have to look it up again).

Ok the freak show is over. I am sure there are hundreds of reasons why this is really dumb, but if a forty-ish guy, living in the UK, with no Chinese relatives etc, can learn solid speaking, listening and reading skills in approx three years as a hobby (my aiming point at the moment) then maybe some of the things that see obvious to me now will be obvious to other people in a few years time. Technology changes everything when it comes to learning we have to clear the playing board and reset the pieces.