7 ways to upgrade your Chinese reading skills in China

Reading skills are vital, not only for high-level proficiency of the Chinese language, but also for daily survival: from opening a bank account to ordering plane tickets. Reading is key. Here are seven ways to boost your Chinese reading ability while staying in China.

In China?

Presently, entering China is (still) a real challenge. Flight prices are skyrocketing and the costs for a mandatory two-week quarantine in a second rate hotel room have to be covered by yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not. Also, tourists and international students currently aren’t permitted into the country. So I mainly share this article with you in the hope that in the near future people can visit China again, for leisure and study, without restrictions. And some tips work outside of China as well.

The best price Skyscanner could give me for a flight from Berlin to Beijing and back.

1. Photograph Chinese characters you encounter

One of the things I liked the most about learning Chinese in China is that you find Chinese characters on every corner. As soon as you leave your apartment, all kinds of Hanzi are waiting to be decoded by you. This can be almost anything: the local notice from the security post, scribblings on the wall, shops with strange names, flyers in your bicycle’s basket and so on. If you’re serious about learning Hanzi, one of the most original ways to improve your reading skills is taking snapshots of Chinese characters you encounter “in the wild” for further study. You’ll also find that asking locals about these mysterious signs is an excellent conversation starter.

Two interesting characters I spotted in China: the left on reads “chāi” (), meaning “tear down”. It can be found on many old buildings that are to be demolished. The right one reads “fú” () and stands for good fortune, typically sighted around Chinese New Year.

What if you want to know the character’s meaning right away? The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco provides an optical character recognizer that allows you to instantly look up Chinese characters and words by pointing your phone’s camera on them. WeChat has a similar function that scans and translates Chinese words or texts you hold in front of your camera into English.

2. Change your smartphone’s language settings to Mandarin Chinese

Most people spend more than one hour on their phone every day. Why not challenge yourself and switch your phone’s language to Chinese? You can also change the language settings of frequently used apps. At first, this slows you down, but the more you practice, the better you get. It’s an easy way to increase your exposure to Chinese characters. I wouldn’t recommend it for WeChat though, since you lose the ability to translate Chinese text to English.

3. (We)chat with Chinese friends

Mentioning WeChat – it’s hard to survive in China without it. Literally everyone uses it. If you meet interesting people, ask them the rhetorical question if they use WeChat and scan their personal QR code to become friends on the Tencent app. Once this becomes a habit, chatting in Chinese with your expanding network is the next best thing to do. Simply ask one of those many questions you have as a foreigner in China. There’s no better practice than real communication, be it oral or written. If you never want to stop reading, you can join group chats about almost any topic. And did you know you can read books on WeChat as well?

4. Purchase Chinese children’s books, comics and manga at your local bookstore

Books! Normally I don’t recommend reading Chinese children’s books, because they tend to be much harder than they look. Even books for 5-year-olds typically contain plenty of difficult and less frequently used vocabulary. But that being said, Chinese bookstores usually offer a broad array of reading material that is worth checking out. Books like 小王子” (The Little Prince), “儿童十万个为什么” (Science for kids) or “成语故事” (Chinese idiom stories) are worth a try for more intermediate learners. The key is to find something you’d really love to read. Just don’t expect the book to be easy.

books for children I bought in Chinese bookstores
Books for children I bought in Chinese bookstores: “小王子” (The Little Prince), “儿童十万个为什么” (Science for kids) or “成语故事” (Chinese idiom stories).

5. Try Chinese Graded readers

Children’s books aren’t working for you? Consider giving Chinese graded readers a try. The great thing about graded readers is they’re not limited to intermediate or advanced levels. Instead, they allow you to start reading right from the start, that is to say from a 150-words-level.

The idea is simple: improving reading fluency by reading as broadly as you can within your level (extensive reading), instead of focusing on a narrow selection of relatively complex textbook texts. I’m not saying anything new here, but the best way to speed up your reading is to read (a lot). Our brain needs time to adapt to Hanzi.

If you don’t want to order hard copies, try Pleco’s graded readers like “Journey to the West” which you can read comfortably in the dictionary app. And while you’re reading and discovering the story, you’ll learn new words on the go, without much conscious effort.

Chinese graded readers
Graded Chinese readers: lots of choice for different levels.

6. Watch Chinese soap operas with subtitles

Speaking of learning without conscious effort: many Dutch people (the writer of this article happens to be Dutch) state they’ve learned English not by paying attention during English class, but by watching English spoken TV with Dutch or English subs. The same approach can be applied to learning Chinese, using Chinese-English (or Hanzi-only) subtitles. Getting even more exposure to Chinese isn’t going to hurt. The power of “extensive watching” shouldn’t be underestimated. When you’re already doing plenty of active learning, a little passive learning is a great supplement. Watch Chinese TV shows like “Love defense wars: 爱情保卫战“ or drama series like „Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴“ with subtitles. 

7. Reading and writing with Journaly

Reading and writing are closely connected. You may have heard about Journaly. It is a new foreign language journaling platform that you can join for free. Basically, Journaly is like blogging in a foreign language. As a Chinese learner you can write in your target language about the stuff you really care about or that has a big impact on your life, living in China for example. The best thing: you receive instant feedback from native Chinese speakers. This feedback becomes part of your posts. It can be studied and reviewed anytime. Moreover, there’s a steady flow of new Chinese content being published every day. By reading the articles of other learners you can learn from their mistakes as well.

That’s it. Do you know of any other tips? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Learning Mandarin: how to continue after you leave China?

In 2016, I studied Chinese in China for six months. Returning to Europe, I felt that I had made remarkable progress, but I should have stayed longer. The time simply wasn’t adequate to study such a vast language and become fully fluent. Back at home, I knew I couldn’t continue studying with the same speed and intensity.

Once you fly back to your home country or where ever you’re heading, you exit the only real Chinese language environment and stop being immersed 24/7. You’ll also no longer be “forced” to say what you have to say in Chinese, have fewer opportunities for this kind of “natural practice” with native speakers and test freshly learned vocabulary and other things. Whatever learning routines you may have adopted, it will be hard – at least in my experience – to maintain them outside of China as your old or new life continues. But there are a number of things you can do to counter these circumstances in order to keep improving your Chinese skills.

How to continue improving your Chinese after you left China?

Keep regular interaction

First and foremost: keep regular interaction with Mandarin. Don’t let your Mandarin skills rust away. Because that is what happens if you stop. You have to keep swimming against the current, so as not to be washed away. This can mean watching Chinese tv-shows, scrolling through Weibo, reading Chinese books, listening to Chinese audiobooks and lots of other things like writing a Chinese journal or chatting with Chinese friends. The better you know why you’re learning Chinese, the easier the “how” becomes.

Maintain high-quality input

Maintaining high-quality input is another crucial thing. Use the internet to get that daily Chinese language input that suits your target level. You’ve probably already covered the basics, so you’re free to be more picky and focus on topics that really interest you. Here are some Chinese language learning formats I enjoy for example:

Even more choice you find here. The great thing about these two websites is that they sort completely subtitled / transcribed videos by HSK level, so you always find something to watch and study:

Do more reading

You hardly can do enough reading. Maybe you focused on communicating during your stay in China and didn’t have enough time to read authentic Chinese. When it came to reading in China I for instance mostly read textbooks and HSK study material. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the benefits of extensive reading and broadened the scope of my reading with the help of graded readers and apps like DuShu and WordSwing. Here I listed some other useful reading resources that I’d recommend if you want do more reading.

Keep communicating with Chinese friends

At least equally important is to keep learning by real communication. Since by now you’ve probably made a number of Chinese friends who you can contact, this is quite possible. If you haven’t, consider joining some Mandarin learning groups on Facebook or other online learning communities. Here you find plenty of native speakers who want to learn English or other languages and are willing to “teach” Mandarin in return.

Failing that, you can also book online lessons with a Chinese teacher on a tutoring platform:

  • Italki – An online tutoring platform with probably the biggest range of teachers to choose from. 
  • Verbling – An online tutoring platform similar to Italki.
  • Preply – Find native speakers and certified private tutors.

Solidifying & finetuning

Once you’ve left China and your learning progress is decelerating, it can be a good time to look back on the covered terrain and not only review what you’ve learned, but also work on some specific areas that didn’t receive the attention they require. In my case that would include the pronunciation of the tones and understanding and writing characters. As far as tones are concerned, I wasn’t corrected as much as I should have been after ending Pinyin base camp. When it comes to writing, I learned to write a fair deal of HSK vocabulary, but sometimes neglected understanding the basic components. In other words, it can be useful – after a time of quick progress – to “retrospect” and solidify the foundations.

Chinese learning challenges

In the long run, keeping that motivation to improve your Chinese skills and maintain those daily learning routines is essential. That’s why the final thing I’d like to recommend is to team up with other motivated learners and join the Chinese learning challenges by hackingchinese.com. The idea is to join with other motivated people for a kind of Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal like listening to 20 hours of Chinese this month, make it public and give it what you got. I always find that I’m far more focused and productive teaming up with enthusiastic people who share the same objective. To join simply check the upcoming challenges and sign up.

Be inspired

Oh and if you run out of inspiration, listen to the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast once in a while. John Pasden and Jared Turner form an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin and host interesting guests who share stories about how they achieved Mandarin fluency.

I hope you enjoyed this post. As always feel free to leave a comment down below!

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Real immersion: Learning Chinese at Keats in Kunming

One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to join a Chinese language program in China. One of the key players in this field is Keats School in Kunming. They facilitate Chinese classes, accommodation, events and much more. I talked to the co-founder of Keats School Zier Liu (刘子尔) and asked her why students keep returning every year and how Keats adepts to the present Covid-situation.

In the realm of Chinese language education Keats is a household name. How did you start out?  

Keats School was founded in 2004 in Kunming. At that time, there was no Chinese language school in Kunming. Many foreign friends wanted to learn Chinese but had no luck to study at a professional language school. The founder Mrs. Xue Feng used to be a doctor in the First Provincial Hospital of Yunnan and then quit her job to start Keats School. I joined her in 2013, after I competed my bachelor studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The biggest challenge we had was how to create efficient methods for westerners to learn Chinese in an easy and fun way. Many students are intimidated when learning Chinese as they tend to think it is the most difficult language in the world. After years of research and development, we finally got what we want. Many students like our interactive and efficient ways of teaching and they keep coming back to Keats every year.

There are many Chinese language programs for foreigners in China. What does make Keats stand out?

Keats School has the most professional Chinese teaching team in Kunming. We also have developed our own in-house Learn-Repeat-Recognize-Produce (known as LRRP) learning methodology, which includes many methods that help students learn practical Chinese fast.

All of our Chinese classes are carefully prepared and delivered by certified Chinese teachers. The teaching team will review the learning content and collect feedback from students on a regular basis. This ensures that every student can enjoy the Chinese class at a comfortable pace and learn efficiently.

In terms of operation scale, as of 2021, our headquarters in Kunming owns 53 single dorm rooms with private bathrooms, gym, cafeteria, and 60 classrooms with computers in the school building.

We believe that students not only need professional Chinese teachers but also a Chinese language immersion environment. Therefore, we organize all kinds of activities with Chinese people outside of classrooms, so that you can practice your Chinese with your Chinese language partners.

What sort of qualifications do your teachers require?

When we select teachers, the teachers must have either 教师资格证 (teacher license required at a public school issued by the government) or 国际汉语教师资格证 (Certificate for Teachers of Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages issued by the Confucius Institute). This is just the very basic and intro requirement for the interview. If one passes the interview, the candidate has to take the training at Keats and learn to use Keats methods. Only by passing the training selection, the candidate can officially become a Keats teacher. The teachers will also be evaluated by the students to make sure that the student is satisfied with the progress made.

Kunming is probably not on top of the list for most people who want to join a Chinese language program in China. Why should learners of Chinese come to Kunming?

Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan province. Reputable as the “Eternal Spring City”, Kunming has the mildest climate in China, allowing you to escape the scorching heat during summer and the bitter coldness in winter. There are countless cultural and natural touring attractions for you to experience after your Chinese classes or during the weekends and holiday.

Unlike other major Chinese cities, Kunming is a city where you enjoy a slow-paced life while maintaining modern convenience. Since it is a less well-known Chinese city with fewer international people, Kunming offers more chances for language learners to practice speaking Chinese with locals during their stay.

Though Kunming is not as developed as Beijing and Shanghai, it is still easy to reach in terms of transportation. Kunming is already considered the transportation hub of Southwest China and is working hard to become the international transportation hub of Southeast Asia too. Kunming boasts the fifth largest international airport in China, making it convenient to fly in and out from this lovely city to different corners of the world.

Famous for the diversity of plants and animals, Kunming is the home for The Conference of the Parties (COP 15), which is a United Nations environment program.

Kunming has cleaner air than Beijing and Shanghai and is an ideal place for a comfortable stay.

Due to the pandemic visiting China from abroad can be difficult. What do people who want to come Kunming and join one of your Chinese language programs need to know?

The Chinese border is only partially open to international people at the moment. We’re still waiting for a policy-update regarding international students. We would suggest to pay close attention to the updates from your local Chinese Embassy to find out when you can hand in a student visa application. We would be happy to provide the invitation letter and other required documents to facilitate your visa application. We also post regular updates on our blog.

Since last year, Chinese people have pretty much been living a normal life and are back to work. Vaccination programs are proceeding here as well and it is estimated that 80% of the Chinese population will complete their COVID-19 vaccination by the end of this year. All Keats teachers and staffs have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and only a few infections cases have been reported in Kunming in the past half year, so you don’t have to worry about your safety when learning in Kunming. Keats School has also prepared an emergency plan to take care of the students in case that there is a breakout or lockdown.

What’s the best time to come to Kunming?

Many students choose to study at our school during summer and winter vacations. It is mainly due to the mild climate weather of Kunming. Besides the weather elements, many students choose to study at our school during touring season as well (from June to September, December to next May).

Yunnan province, where Kunming is located, is the most popular touring destination in China. Not only for its amazing landscapes, varying from tropical forests to snow-capped mountains, but also for its abundant ethnic minority group cultures.  All these destinations can be reached conveniently from Kunming.

Yunnan is a large province that is home to 25 different ethnic minority groups. Therefore, the ethnic minority festivals time – Songkran Festival for example – is also a very popular period of learning. Many students choose to study at Keats before the festival and fly from Kunming to Xishuangbanna to enjoy the water celebration.

What about the local Kunming dialect? Is it very different from Standard Mandarin?

The Kunming dialect, which belongs to the northern dialect family, is quite similar to Mandarin. China is a vast country where you will hear various dialects from north to south. But Kunming dialect is definitely simple to understand. Most people you meet in Kunming can speak standard Mandarin: excellent for practicing Mandarin on the street or in a restaurant.

You offer courses not only in Kunming but in several locations. Can you tell me more about that?

Keats School has set up a few branch schools in different locations such as Lijiang, Dali, Xishuangbanna, Jingmai Tea Mountain, Jianshui, Yuanyang, Tengchong and Puzhehei. Our students can combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan.

Which Chinese programs do you offer?

We have 8 major Chinese programs available currently:

Which program is the most popular and why?

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes, the Small Group Chinese Class, the HSK Test Preparation Course and Online Chinese lessons have been the most popular ones since 2004, because by following these programs students can really boost their Chinese proficiency.

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes offer the most immersive Chinese language experience. You can choose to study one-on-one with a certified Mandarin teacher for 4 hours per day or 6 hours per day. The course content will be completely customized according to your level and your goals. It is the fastest way to improve your Chinese.

If you are looking for a budget-friendly program in China, then the Small Group Chinese Classes at Keats is the best option. The price is low, but you can still enjoy personal attention in class with no more than 5 students. The Small Group Chinese Classes are lasting for 4 hours per day, with levels from new HSK 1 to new HSK 9.

As Chinese language is getting popular, we have seen a huge increase in the need of taking the HSK test. It is required to enter a Chinese university and to work for Chinese companies. By doing research in helping students pass the HSK test led by Keats head teachers, Keats maintains a 94% passing rate with 42% of all Keats students taking the HSK Test Preparation Course.

What about online courses?

Because of the pandemic more and more students start to take online Chinese lessons with Keats. The added value is that you can learn Chinese anytime and anywhere. We offer online Chinese lessons 24/7 to fit your schedule. You can decide when to take the lessons and how many hours of lessons you would like to buy. You can even start with a 5-hour package. At this moment, the online lessons are delivered one-on-one. The small group online lessons are coming soon.

Which Chinese language level do I need if I want to join one of your programs? What if I’m a (almost) complete beginner?

There is no minimal requirement of language level for enrolling in Keats Language programs. No matter which level you are in, beginner or advanced learner, we can always provide an appropriate learning schedule for you, based on your current language level and learning goals.

If you’re a complete beginner, your teacher will start with basic content such as Pinyin and standard pronunciation to help you lay a solid foundation before you can move to the next stage.

What does a typical study week look like?

According to your learning plan, you will attend Chinese classes from Monday to Friday, 4 to 6 hours per day. Aside from the Chinese class, you will enjoy a series of Chinese cultural activities and events organized by Keats School.

Free language exchange will be held on Monday and Wednesday evening (only offered in Kunming). You will be able to practice what you have learned in the classroom in real-life situations with native speakers.

Every Tuesday is movie night or drama night at Keats; Every Thursday, a cultural night will be organized with cultural activities or DIY classes such as Chinese mahjong, Chinese tea tasting, dumplings making, Chinese paper cutting, Chinese painting, etc.

Every Friday night is snack night where you and your Chinese friends will try local snacks.

On weekends, you can sign up for the free Saturday excursion with a Keats Chinese teacher and your Chinese language partners. By joining the excursion, you can make the most out of your time by sightseeing and learning at the same time.

You mentioned Chinese language partners…?

Yes, we also facilitate language exchanges and can match you up with a native Chinese speaker. Keats has an English school which has many English learners who are eager to learn English and make friends with foreigners. We organize language exchange activities every week.

If I were to plan a two-month study visit in Kunming and maybe some of the other locations you offer, what would the costs be (rough estimation)?

Taking the Intensive one-on-one Chinese classes as example, the price of a 8-week study varies in different locations. The prices listed below include one-on-one lessons and accommodation for your reference:

  • Kunming USD 5,700
  • Dali USD 8,178
  • Lijiang USD 8,178
  • Jianshui USD 8,178
  • Tengchong USD 8,550
  • Puzhehei USD 8,550
  • Yuanyang USD 8,550
  • Xishuangbanna USD 8,798
  • Jiangmai Tea Mountain USD 8,798

How can you combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan? Can I change location every week for example?

The multi-location option is currently only offered for the intensive one-on-one Chinese program. You can choose to study at different locations with a duration that fits your schedule.

For example, you are planning to study at Keats for 8 weeks, you can study in Kunming for 4 weeks and study in Dali for 2 weeks, and study in Lijiang for 2 weeks or even spend 1 week at each location. You can decide how many weeks you want to spend at each location and then combine them together.

It is completely customized and flexible. You can let us know which locations you’re interested in and what cultural activities or classes you would like to join. We will also recommend to you the best time of visiting and duration of staying at different locations. Aside from learning, if you need any assistance with a local touring trip, we would be happy to arrange it for you as well. 

What do students value the most about their experience with Keats?

Keats welcomes 40% returning students each year and many of them come to study at Keats every year. What keeps them coming back? It must be the Chinese course quality and school facilities. The Keats teaching team is always dedicated to delivering the best Chinese class for students. No matter what level you have and what your learning goals are, Keats School will accommodate the learning schedule to help you achieve them. Well-furnished dorm room and well-organized school facilities bring every Keats students the warmth of home. Keats Team also provides thoughtful service and assistance for students in both aspects of study and life. This ensures that you will enjoy a hassle-free learning time at Keats School.

I noticed that one of your former students is Ruben Terlou who made several, successful documentaries about China. Are there other “famous” ex-Keats students?

Yes, Ruben studied at Keats and we admire his films as well. I think we do have many great students. Each year, Keats attracts a lot of top-level people in their fields. Most Keats students are gap-year students, university students, PhDs, lawyers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, teachers, tour guides, managers, IT developers, scientists, government clerks, photographers and artists etc. The language environment at Keats is not only immersive but also academic. All students who come to study at Keats are really serious about learning Chinese and their progress, so they want to spend their time in a professional Chinese school. But they are all low-key people and very humble.

What are your plans for the future?

Keats School will keep working hard on providing the best Chinese language and culture programs for our students. Now the NEW HSK has been launched, we have redesigned our HSK Test preparation course accordingly as well. To offer more destinations in China as options for learning, we will set up more branch locations in other Chinese cities where students can enjoy relaxing cultural immersion and also efficient Chinese courses. At Keats School, we aim not only to help students learn the Chinese language, but also to help students find their potential for the Chinese language and Chinese culture.

Everyone has a dream, Keats also has a dream. Keats’ core value is to make your dream come true, so Keats offers the most affordable immersion Chinese language programs. Every student is a milestone to Keats because we are one step closer to make our dream come true.

Where can people who are interested read reviews and find out more about you?

You are welcome to find more about Keats School and other students’ stories and experience in Kunming on our website. You can learn about other students’ experience with the Intensive One-on-one Chinese course here or here (for students’ experience with the Small Group Chinese Classes) or simply contact us directly.

I hoped you enjoyed this interview with 刘子尔 from Keats school! If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment down below.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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What are the pros and cons of learning Chinese?

Are you considering to learn Chinese? What speaks in favor, what speaks against learning one of the most difficult languages in the world? This is what the Mandarin learning community has to say about it.

The pros of learning Chinese

Cultural reasons

  • Learning Chinese will allow you to communicate with about a billion native speakers and other learners all around the world.
  • Learning Chinese opens doors to an ancient history and culture that are fascinating.
  • Learning Chinese is the key to understand present-day China and the Chinese people.
  • Learning Chinese makes traveling through China even more valuable as it allows you to connect with the locals.
  • Learning Chinese helps you enter the world of Chinese painting, film, literature, calligraphy and music and see the world through different eyes.

Career opportunities

  • Learning Chinese is an investment for your future and career that acknowledges the economic shift towards East-Asia. China is on its way to become the largest economy in the world and expected to surpass the US around 2030. This means that there are more and more opportunities for foreigners working in China or dealing with Chinese companies allover the world.
  • More and more businesses prefer to hire multilingual employees with Mandarin skills as marketers, communication experts and other positions.
  • When working in China, having at least a basic understanding of Chinese shows that you are committed to doing business and that you’re taking your Chinese partners seriously.
  • Before Covid tourism from China was on the rise. In the future, hotels, restaurants, bars, museums will want staff that can speak Chinese to cater to the growing number of Chinese tourists.
  • When working for big international organizations Chinese is a big plus. Chinese is one of the official languages at the U.N. and becoming increasingly important in international negotiations.
  • Stand out of the crowd with Chinese on your CV: It shows you’re not afraid of challenging tasks and possess long-term commitment.

Mental health & personal development

  • Learning Chinese exercises your brain in a unique way. Mastering Chinese characters and the four tones trains your cognitive abilities and benefits your mental health.
  • Learning Chinese will change you and your view on the world. You’ll learn to think in a different language and see things from a new perspective. You’ll become more open-minded and understanding towards different cultures and mentalities. You’ll start to question your own background and cultural habits (in a positive way).
  • Learning a new language like Chinese is the perfect opportunity for self-improvement and cultivating healthy life and study habits. It’s also the perfect time to rethink how you learn and what truly motivates you (on the long term).

The cons of learning Chinese

Linguistic reasons

  • Chinese is one of the most difficult and time-consuming languages to learn, especially when your own language(s) is completely unrelated to Chinese; meaning there’s no linguistic overlap to profit from like between Italian, French and Spanish for instance.
  • The writing system is highly complex. To be able to fluently read a news article you’ll have to learn at least 2000 characters, but in most cases a lot more. Knowing the words more often than not doesn’t cut it: understanding texts written for adults also requires developing reading comprehension through experience. This mean practice and practice means time.
  • Writing characters is another major obstacle. Every word has its own unique graphic representation. I can’t give a solid estimation of how much time it takes to master writing the first 1000 basic Chinese characters. But imagine studying (and reviewing) the stroke order, components and meaning for each character and writing each one at least 40 times. Then multiply that by a thousand. Isn’t mastering Pinyin, the romanization system for Chinese, sufficient? Well, not in the long run. Pinyin transfers the pronunciation, but not the meaning in most cases. This is because Chinese is a tonal language with a relatively small number of basic syllables. Many words sound similar but are represented by (completely) different characters. This means that for serious learners learning Chinese characters is mandatory.
  • The Chinese tones are both hard to differentiate and to reproduce correctly in active communication.

Career opportunities?

  • For a career-oriented person learning Mandarin might seem like an inefficient use of resources. Mastering the Chinese language or even learning it to a useful level takes years, whereas learning a programming language like Python can be done in months. Studying Mandarin in many cases means taking yourself of the job market for some years. The pay-off at the end is by no means set in stone.
  • The Chinese economy is not as booming and dynamic as before and China’s general outlook is bleaker than previously expected: “Our longer term outlook remains that economic growth will slow significantly in China (to 4% by 2025). As we recently argued (here), China is facing an ageing population (which is actually projected to start shrinking from 2030 onwards, according to US Census data), a very high debt load (335% of GDP), increasing tensions with several countries (which will hurt exports as well as limit needed imports) and weak productivity growth.” (Source: Rabobank April 2021)

Conclusion

It’s reasonable to consider the pros and the cons before you’re starting a big project and investing your time and money into it, although I’m pretty sure this is not how must people start learning Mandarin! In the end, it really boils down to the question if the glass is half empty or half full. And that’s up to you, my friends!

Personal note: the author of this article never thought about all of this when I started learning Chinese. My main motivation to learn Chinese was to be able to speak with my Chinese family and improve my opportunities for the future in a general sense. For me learning Chinese had not automatically lead to finding the best job ever, though it would have been nice. I look at it this way: Sometimes we’re drawn to do certain things. Some things have uncertain outcomes. I don’t use my Chinese skills in my present job. Can this change in the future? Sure, why not?

In the end, learning Chinese is an adventure. You can’t be fully sure where the journey leads, nor should you want to be. But you definitely should invest in yourself and learning new skills for the future! Nobody but you can decide if Mandarin is going to be included in that skill package.

What are your thoughts about the pros and cons of learning Chinese? Did I miss any major points that you’d like me to include? Please feel free to leave a comment down below! : )

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10 tips for learning Chinese in China

Chinese has gained popularity among language learners owing to the rapid economic growth of China. Many students would like to study Chinese in China as communicating with native Chinese speakers on a regular basis is one of the most effective ways for them to improve their Chinese. Well, if you want to make the most of your learning experience in China, we are here to offer you some tips that might help you make your Chinese learning more productive.

This is a guest article by That’s Mandarin

Improve Your Pronunciation

If you would like to quickly improve your listening comprehension and spoken Chinese, you will need to pay great attention to your pronunciation. Even a slight mistake in pronouncing the tones (there are four tones in the Chinese language) can lead to misunderstanding. Therefore, a good knowledge of the Chinese phonetic system will certainly allow you and your Chinese friends to better understand each other during a conversation.

Make Some Chinese Friends

If you are studying Chinese in China, it’ll be a good idea to make some Chinese friends. Nowadays young people in China are curious about different cultures, and they are also happy to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners. What you can benefit from making friends with Chinese people is that in addition to learning the Chinese language, you will also have the opportunity to know more about Chinese people’s daily lives. Exploring the local people’s lifestyle is quite interesting and can turn out to be an enjoyable experience on your Chinese learning journey.

Find Yourself a Learning Partner

More and more people in China have started to realize how important it is to have a good command of English as it’s the prerequisite of finding a decent job. If you are a native English speaker, it’ll be easy for you to find a language exchange partner in that many Chinese people are actually looking for foreigners to help them improve their English. Moreover, studying Chinese with a learning partner is considered a mutually-beneficial process that will make your Chinese learning more effective.

Attend Chinese Classes

Attending Chinese classes is an ideal choice for you to improve your Chinese language skills. Chinese language schools offering different types of courses can be found in major cities across China. The main advantage of studying Chinese at a Chinese language school is that you will be able to make gradual progress in Chinese under the instruction of a professional Chinese teacher. On top of that, you will have the chance to make friends from different cultural backgrounds if you choose to sign up for group classes.

Participate in Cultural Activities

In addition to Chinese courses, most Chinese language schools organize cultural activities like watching Chinese operas or making Chinese dumplings on a weekly/monthly basis. Participating in cultural activities would provide you with the opportunity to have an insight into Chinese culture and traditions, which could more or less stimulate your interest in learning the Chinese language.

Develop a Hobby

If you would like to gain a deeper understanding of the quintessence of Chinese culture, it’ll be helpful if you would be interested in developing a hobby such as calligraphy or paper-cutting. Even if you think it’s a bit hard for you to create nice “art works”, it’s still fascinating to, for instance, admire some of the greatest calligraphy masterpieces of ancient China so that you can experience the authentic traditional Chinese culture for yourself.

Visit Local Chinese Restaurants

China is famous for its rich food culture, and you definitely wouldn’t like to miss the chance to visit local Chinese restaurants when you’re in China. Despite the fact that local restaurants in China usually don’t provide English menus, pictures of most of the dishes are available, which means you’ll still be able to choose the dishes that you like based on what you see. Sometimes you will come across some traditional homemade dishes that are not on offer in those fancy restaurants, which is exactly what some passionate Chinese learners are looking for in order to have a clearer idea of what ordinary people in China like to eat.

Watch Chinese TV Series

If you are interested in knowing more about some of the social problems that can be observed in China at the moment, watching Chinese TV series could be a good option. The plots of most Chinese TV series are based on some typical problems that people encounter in their daily lives. For example, there are several popular TV series that are devoted to the stressful situation where young parents have to work extremely hard to provide their children with the best education. Therefore, if you consider yourself an advanced learner, it’ll be a good idea to spend some time watching Chinese soap operas to know more about what Chinese people really want from life.

Here are two famous Chinese TV dramas that may help you improve your Chinese language skills:

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids

家有儿女 (Jiā yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids
家有儿女

This TV drama is ideal for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese people’s daily lives. The main idea about this TV show is centered on an ordinary Chinese family, in which a remarried couple and their three kids strive to enhance mutual understanding between each other. This TV drama contains a large number of episodes, with each of them representing a separate story.

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù): iPartment
爱情公寓

This is a very popular TV drama among young people in China, and it’s all about the hilarious things that happen to seven people who share the same apartment. This TV show is more or less similar to the famous American comedy Friends, which means it would allow students to gradually improve their Chinese skills in a relaxing and enjoyable way.

Learn Chinese Characters

Learning Chinese characters is required for intermediate and advanced students in that they are expected to be able to read Chinese articles. Many Chinese learners think it’s very hard to master Chinese characters as some of them look really complicated. However, there is usually a logic behind a Chinese character based on its shape or meaning, which would make the learning process pretty interesting. Take the character “飞 (fēi)” as an example, it means “to fly” and it does look like a bird which is flapping its wings.

Read Chinese Newspapers

This final tip is for advanced Chinese learners who are interested in politics and would like to have a deeper understanding of China’s role in the international arena. If you want to carry out research on China, it’s indispensable that you understand contemporary Chinese politics. Moreover, it might come in handy even when it comes to job-hunting in China. Therefore, developing the habit of reading Chinese newspapers can be helpful for you to improve your Chinese language skills and develop your career in China.

I hope you enjoyed this guest article by That’s Mandarin and found their tips helpful. Here’s a short self-introduction from That’s Mandarin: “Founded in 2005, That’s Mandarin has been delivering excellence in Chinese teaching for over 15 years to more than 50,000 students of different nationalities. That’s Mandarin has excellent teachers with both online and offline courses on offer, and their various types of classes will suit all your needs for Mandarin learning.”

“Should you still learn Chinese?”

“Should you still learn Chinese?” – American YouTuber and expert level Mandarin speaker LeLe Farley poses this question in one of his newest videos. His answer is long, personal and includes many political detours. My own answer hasn’t really changed, how about yours?

Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago?

In an earlier post, I discussed the relations between politics and the motivation to learn Chinese, more in particular the impact of the mainly negative media coverage of China (e.g. Hongkong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Covid-19 etc.) has on us who are trying to learn Mandarin as a foreign language. It’s a sensitive topic, but I can’t see why it shouldn’t be discussed openly. It simply seems that Chinese is not as popular as it was 15 years ago. And the increasingly negative image of China and the political developments addressed by LeLe Farley in his video do play a role in this. At least in the eyes of many westerners.

Who is this YouTuber anyway?

The video in question: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

For those who aren’t familiar with LeLe Farley the first thing you have to know about him is that he spent 12 years perfecting his Chinese. He was one his way to become a laowai celebrity in China, but his personal ethics and political views got in the way, eventually leading to LeLe being banned from China.

Lele uploaded a video of him imitating He Who Must Not Be Named in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Less than a day after the sketch was uploaded to YouTube, LeLe’s name was blocked on the Chinese internet. He was completely erased 1984-style, just like he had never existed in China.

A taboo topic

We’re all learning Chinese, why don’t we speak openly about this? I can see two reasons:

  • People in the field of teaching Chinese as a foreign language usually don’t have any incentive to discuss sensitive political questions as it’s bad for business and “social harmony”. A publisher, for example, won’t risk raising issues like Hongkong or Xinjiang in learning materials, because this can have serious consequences.
  • International learning community naturally tend to block out information that damage their motivation to learn Chinese.

Should you still learn Chinese?

LeLe’s take on this question is highly political and arguably somewhat one-sided, but relevant nonetheless, after all he studied Chinese for more than a decade, had real opportunities in China, but eventually chose ethics over career (in China). The way he poses the question – Should you still learn Chinese? – suggests that something has changed fundamentally:

Should you still learn Chinese? This “still” is essential because 10 plus years ago learning Chinese was the fashionable thing to do. Yes, back then there were both pros and cons, but the pros typically outweighed the cons, because most people thought China was the next global powerhouse with a burgeoning middle class pushing the country towards democratization. Hell, even China’s premier Li Keqiang said so as recently as 2013. But now XJP has cancelled presidential term limits, centralized power, crushed dissent and stoked the flames of nationalism all in an attempt to divert attention from him and his party’s failures.

YouTube: XJP & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Chinese (and China) not as “fashionable” as it used to be?

I’m not judging his assessment of the political situation in China, because this is a language blog. But his statement that learning Chinese is not as “hot” as it used to be, has some truth to it. The Google search data seems to indicate this as well for example. This decline of interest for the Chinese language probably relates to the increasingly negative views people have about China. If you look at these charts, you can see China’s popularity has dropped drastically in recent years:

Increasingly negative eveluations of China across advanced economies. This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China's international image has been suffering over the previous decade.
This survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that China’s international image has been suffering over the previous decade. Does this somehow correlate to people’s willingness to learn Chinese? If so, how big is the negative impact? PS. Keep in mind that they only used data from 14,276 adults in 14 different “advanced economies”, so this survey shows an overall trend in the respective countries at best.

The better your Chinese gets, the more you hate the CCP?

One of his main points in the video is that the better your Chinese gets, the better you understand China and the Chinese and the harder it becomes to ignore the negative impact of China’s political leadership. In his own words:

Trust me, from my personal experience, I can tell you if you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back. As is true with any language: the better you get, the more you’ll understand the culture. But Chinese fluency enables you to see the profoundly negative impact the CCP has on China and the Chinese people. You become a witness in the lost potential of what could be magnificent.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Becoming “China-famous”

“If you want to become China-famous, learning Chinese will only hold you back.” This statement reflects LeLe’s own story, joining auditions for Chinese TV-shows, but failing due to “political incorrectness”. I don’t think many people take on the challenge of mastering the Chinese language hoping to achieve fame on Chinese television though.

Looking beyond the here and now of politics

Thankfully, LeLe Farley is able to look beyond politics and all the negative distractions:

So if this is all true, then why why do I continue to learn Chinese? Simply put, because Chinese is fucking dope! Sharing nothing in common with Indo-European languages, Chinese builds you a completely unique frame of thinking through which to perceive the world. Characters represent ideas more than concrete words, giving rise to centuries of brilliant poetry, 20 character Tang-dynasty poems require pages of English translation and even then you still feel like something’s missing. And as your ears begin to discern between the tones of Mandarin you can enjoy the melodic cadence professional orators work years to perfect. You can feel the relaxed nature of a Chengdu accent, exude from the local speech. You can embrace the irreverent boldness of a Beijing accent getting drunk on rice wine with a bunch of old men, while chilling in the labyrinth of ancient alleyways. You can befriend enthusiastic locals that don’t speak a word of English yet remain tremendously curious about you and the outside world. You can even channel your frustrations with the communist party through satire. Try to reach out to those trapped within the great firewall and tell them you are not alone. You can try and be a force for the change that you want to see in the world. So if you’re looking to experience a wild roller coaster ride of a life, then hell yeah you should learn Chinese.

YouTube: Xi Jinping & China’s New Cultural Revolution: Should You STILL Learn Chinese? (23 Mar 2021)

Conclusion: “Should you still learn Chinese?”

It’s your decision

My personal answer is definitely yes, but most important of all: it’s your choice. We are all free to have your own motivations and ideas, as well as likes and dislikes. At the end of the day, it’s your call, nobody can decide for you. Not even a 100 percent fluent Mandarin speaker like LeLe Farley, let alone a simple blogger like me.

I personally value LeLe Farley’s courage and energy, but ultimately, this video provides his subjective account and (naturally) reflects his own experiences. In fact, I think that most people don’t care that much about the political stuff. I’m also not that sure a higher knowledge level of Chinese inevitably leads to an anti-CCP point of view (I’m not saying that the better you get, the more you’re going to fall in love with the party either). A more nuanced, multi-faceted point of view maybe. I do agree with LeLe that China (and the rest of the world) looked different 10, 15 years ago. I’m not without hope that things still can change for the better.

There are so many reasons to learn Chinese!

However, all this has very little to do with why most people develop an interest for the Chinese language. There are plenty of reasons to start learning Mandarin and most of them have nothing to do with politics. Just ask people in online learning communities what their motivations to learn Chinese are and you’ll see a wide variety of reasons:

  • “I like their literature and want to read them in Chinese one day.”
  • “Because I think Chinese will be as important as English”
  • “To communicate well with Chinese company for smooth business development”
  • “Because I like Chinese dramas”
  • “I want to further my studies in China”
  • “Because of my in-laws”
  • “Cause never stopped to put challenges in my life”
  • “We have a saying in our native language that translates to “one who thinks in different tongues (languages), thinks more rationally”.”

People have all kind of motivations to learn Chinese. They don’t need to be serious or thought through the end. This is a very personal matter – just like LeLe’s own story shows.

Learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor

I’ve written before that the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. Serious learners will acknowledge that you have to invest a huge amount of time and energy, so – if possible – your learning success shouldn’t be depending on any of that. Although I have to admit that this is easier said than done. I think the present Covid-situation illustrates that external factors can sometimes “explode in your face”.

Bottom line: The study of languages should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care or lack interest. There will always be value in mastering the Chinese language. We create that value ourselves. We decide what is meaningful. At any rate, if LeLe’s assessment of the situation is true and we’re in a new Cold War, then we’ll need people with a deep understanding of the Chinsese language, history and culture more than ever. In the meanwhile, LeLe Farley’s story should be told and his voice should be heard. You can support him on Patreon.

That’s it from my side. “Should you still learn Chinese?” Feel free to let me know what you think about this question. Does politics influence your motivation to learn Chinese in any way, positive or negatively?

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HSK 6 Chinese Graded reader review: The New Housekeeper

HSK Chinese Graded Reader - The New Housekeeper - Front 2

Finding suitable HSK 5 – 6 reading material is still surprisingly hard. That’s why I purchased a copy of Edmund Chua’s and Ranny Ran’s Graded Chinese Reader for HSK 6 called “The New Housekeeper”. I’d only recommend it to a specific group.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The New Housekeeper

Here’s some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: HSK 6 (5000 words)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 172
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

This book is for all learners of Chinese, especially learners planning to take the HSK exams. Most of the vocabulary used in the stories come from the 5000 words required to pass the HSK Level 6 Exams. I have kept the use of words outside HSK Level 6 Exam word list to the minimum.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

Like the authors suggest, the reader is suitable for HSK level 6, but definitely not for “all learners of Chinese”. Reading should be enjoyable, not a struggle, so I wouldn’t recommend this book to beginners or even lower intermediate readers. In fact, it could be labeled as “HSK 6 only”.

How to read it?

Every sentence comes in simplified Chinese, pinyin and its English translation. Start by reading the English translation to understand the story. Then, read each Chinese word or phrase using its pinyin. You may choose to read the simplified Chinese characters instead. After you can read each word or phrase, read the entire sentence. Finally, read the story by paragraph.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

A good Chinese graded reader should come with some hints for the reader as for how to use the book and provide a short introduction to the story. The authors Edmund Chua and Ranny Ran offer some reading hints, but miss the chance to provide more background information about the story (e.g. author, year, why this story etc.). That’s a pity, cause I like to know what I’m reading.

What strikes me as odd though – considering this being a graded reader for HSK 6 – is the instruction to first read the English translation and the pinyin and only then read the characters. “Start by reading the English translation to understand the story.” Really? Isn’t that spoiling all the fun?

That’s a peculiar instruction coming from experienced Chinese teachers. In my opinion, upper intermediate learners can do without pinyin, not to mention English translations. The reason is this: once I’ve read the English translation, there’s no need for me to “crack” the Chinese text. My brain already processed all the information I need. The suspense of seeing the story unfold is destroyed.

What about the story?

Wu Xiao Ping became the new housekeeper for an old lady. She worked hard and managed to please the old lady. The old lady then assigned her a new task. This task would change her forever.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Synopsis

A graded reader may be primarily for reading practice, but the story should still captivate the reader. In this case, not only the plot – and I very much wish it was different – is thin and artificial, but also the main characters remain shallow and stereotyped. It pains me to write so, but the story reminds me of the kind of cheap novelettes that are sold in supermarkets, except that the quality of the story telling is actually below that standard. After all, even a silly and sentimental story can be told in a fashion that convinces me as a reader. “The New Housekeeper” however, doesn’t pull it off.

Language issues – fitting in as many HSK 6 words as possible?

It seems this graded reader has been written focusing on HSK 6 vocabulary. In a way, that’s excellent and very useful, here comes the ‘but’ though: some HSK 6 words are being used “wrong” or out of context. Since it’s hard for me to judge, I asked a native speaker (who happens to be my wife^^) to have a look. She helped me to find examples of words that seem out of place. They all happen to be HSK 6 vocabulary, so I guess the idea was to fit in as many HSK 6 words as possible or even come up with a story based on the HSK 6 vocabulary.

Here are some examples:

  • 捍卫自己的权利 (page 7) – This sounds a little over the top for a simple housekeeper, because “捍卫” means defending or safeguarding (like defending one’s motherland, defending national sovereignty, national interests etc.). “捍卫” is normally used in formal contexts where something abstract has to be defended (Example: 每个公民都要捍卫自己的公民权).
  • 对此,朋友遭到其他室友的批判 (page 69) – Again, “批判” (criticize, critique) is a formal word that doesn’t fit here very well. (An example from the Line dictionary: 她批判贵族,站在低层阶级一方)
  • 她们当场达成协议 (page 76) – This is very solemn way to state that two parties reach an agreement. In this case, an uneducated girl and an old woman agree on something. (Dictionary example: 如能达成协议,欧盟必须开放其市场).
  • 今天肯定要收到老夫人的谴责 (page 140) – “谴责” means condemning someone or something (like condemning violence for example: 我们谴责暴力和屠杀的循环,谴责过分使用武力). I understand what “谴责” is supposed to mean here (the old woman will tell her that she’s not satisfied with her), but this is not how the word is commonly used.
  • 妈妈要网上创立了一家低成本的小公司,贩卖风味独特的小吃 (page 155) – “贩卖” means so much as “dealing in” (e.g. art work, drugs, weapons, slaves). Here “妈妈” is selling local snacks online, but she doesn’t “deal” in them. (Dictionary example: 他两个月前因为贩卖毒品而被捕).

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The drawings are a bit childish, but I can live with that. Have a look yourself:

Opportunities for improvement

Here’s some things that could be improved:

  • I already pointed out that the pinyin and English translation aren’t necessary for this particular level (or could at least be printed considerably smaller). They occupy too much space – or to put it bluntly – they are a waste of paper. The actual story covers about 30 to 40 pages. That’s something to remember if you consider buying this book.
  • There’s also no need to first print the text in short paragraphs (with pinyin and English) and another time in longer paragraphs (with pinyin and English). It’s (again) a waste of paper and gives a wrong impression of the story’s length.
  • The provided vocabulary lists are too short and should at least include all “literary expressions”, idioms and less frequent words.
  • Since the text is packed with HSK 6 vocabulary, it would be great to highlight them or make them more visible in some way (or even include them on the vocabulary list).
  • The graded reader should have audio, so reading and listening can be combined.

Conclusion

Long story short: I’d only recommend this book if you’re preparing for the HSK 6 exam and want to brush up on your HSK vocab. If you aren’t put off by excessive use of pinyin and English, this graded reader is perfect for just that. Ask your Chinese friends what they think about the text, if it feels “unnatural” to them, which words seem out of place and why… In this way, the reader can be used to spark a discussion.

If you’re looking for a good story, however, one that is really enjoyable to read, and don’t care so much about HSK stuff, this graded reader is probably going to disappoint you. The story is mainly a carrier rocket for HSK vocab and unfortunately doesn’t have much to offer beyond that.

Thanks for reading this review. Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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Chineasy vs Uncle Hanzi: two radical approaches to Chinese characters

5

The biggest obstacle to mastering Mandarin for many people is its writing system. In a previous post, I focused on deep-rooted bad practices surrounding the study of Chinese characters. A relevant topic, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So what does work? In my own quest to improve my command of Hanzi, I found two interesting approaches: one is the well-known “Chineasy method”, the other is the “Uncle Hanzi way”. This is what you can learn from them.

The “Chineasy Method”

Visual mnemonics

Shaolan’s elevator pitch-like introduction to Chineasy (TED talk, 2013)

The Chineasy approach is to put Hanzi into a visual context and memorize them with the help of illustrations that depict the character’s meaning. Shaolan Hsueh, the entrepreneur behind Chineasy, managed to exploit this idea commercially better than anyone else. Chineasy’s impressive design and Shaolan’s smart marketing campaign even helped popularizing Mandarin and Hanzi abroad. For the first time, it seemed, someone had come up with an unique method for Chinese characters that makes them learnable for almost anyone.

Chineasy – a serious learning resource?

But is Chineasy really a “language learning system” as it says on Wikipedia? To what extent does it teach you to read and write Hanzi? It’s hard to ignore that some Mandarin teachers and other experts have pointed out some serious flaws:

The Chineasy approach: visual mnemonics
Source: Chineasy on Amazon
  • Chineasy teaches all characters as if they were pictographs. Pictographs are easy to explain (my teachers have been guilty of this kind of cherry-picking too), but unfortunately they only make up around 5% of all characters. This is misleading.
  • These characters don’t necessarily match the most frequently used characters which is unpractical for learners.
  • Chineasy mixes traditional and simplified characters for convenience. This is not best practice. Especially for beginners, it’s much less confusing to stick with either simplified or traditional characters.
  • Chineasy overreaches when it calls itself a “learning method” or “system”. It’s not a system, it’s rather a learning technique put into practice. It reaches its limits pretty soon though.

Visual mnemonics can be helpful

That being said, the visual approach exemplified by Chineasy can be useful. Associating a certain image with a character or its individual components makes memorizing Hanzi less of a struggle. It all boils down to this: Chinese characters have to make sense when you learn them. Yes, Chineasy’s approach is quite random at large and disregards the composition and history of the character, but applying some form of visual mnemonics is much more effective than blindly memorizing meaning and stroke order, especially when you’ve just started out.

The “Uncle Hanzi Way”

Richard Sears – also known as 汉字叔叔: “I found that almost all Chinese had learned to read and write by absolute blind memorization and almost no one had a clue where the characters actually came from.

Obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters

In the long run though, we shouldn’t stick with random images and stories. Instead, we should try to get the characters “right”. That means caring about their origin and history. Let’s discuss the second approach.

“Uncle Hanzi” is the nickname of Richard Sears, an American physicist, who has been obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters for most of his life. He created an online database of more than 96.000 ancient Chinese characters called hanziyuan.net.

In his own words: “At age 40, I got the idea that I needed to computerize the origins of Chinese characters so that I could sort out the crap from the truth. I started researching but did not get started actually doing it. At age 44 I had a near-fatal heart attack and after recovering, but not knowing when I might die, I decided I must get started.” At hanziyuan.net you can trace back the composition and meaning of almost any character to its origins as far as they are known. Take 家 (house) for example:

Hanziyuan: Input single Chinese character for etymology
The search results from hanziyuan.net for 家

Getting back to the source

“Uncle Hanzi” is an extremely interesting case, because he doesn’t come from the field of sinology and seems to be a lone wolf fueled by a hardcore obsession with Hanzi. (Just imagine a sociologist investing 30 years of his life into die-hard quantum mechanics research). Sears obviously wasn’t satisfied with blindly memorizing characters or Chineasy-style mnemonics. He wanted to grasp the “logic” and understand the origins. After all, the ancient Chinese didn’t just “make them up” as they went along according to Sears.

He also argues that practically all the first characters would have been pictographs which evolved and became more abstract over time. In other words, what today seems abstract, used to represent something concrete which we should try to understand to make our lives easier. The case of 家 (a pig under a roof) illustrates this.

Of course, it’s going to slow us down when we take a history tour for each new character, but I’m convinced that the more solid our foundations are the easier it becomes to add new layers. But how to put the “Uncle Hanzi Method” into practice?

How Pleco and Outlier Linguistics can help

Pleco breaks down each character into its components

The dictionary app Pleco (partly) supports this learning method by breaking down each character into its components. That’s good for a start, but doesn’t give you the full story like the example of 名 shows. Its components don’t add up to its meaning (name), so there must be more to tell here.

For those who want to gain insight into the etymology of Chinese characters, there’s a practical solution called Outlier Linguistics. Their dictionaries help you understand the history of Chinese characters that most Mandarin teachers fail to explain. You don’t need to install another dictionary app by the way, because they come as add-ons for Pleco in a “Mini” and “Essentials” edition. For most people this is probably overkill, but for serious Hanzi learners quick access to etymological basics might well be the key to progress. This is how I see it: the more profound your understanding of Hanzi, the easier it becomes to grasp and memorize new characters. They’ll start to make sense.

The Outlier Essentials Edition should get you a long way:

  • 2700+ characters as of newest update (plus regular updates until they reach 4000)
  • Simplified and Traditional characters
  • Detailed explanation for every character
  • Stroke order for all 4000 characters
  • Meaning tree for every character showing how different meanings relate to each other
  • Ancient forms for all semantic components

The dictionary (meaning add-on for Pleco) looks like this:

Conclusion

The “Chineasy method” and “Uncle Hanzi’s approach” both have their merits. Putting characters into a visual context does help, just like developing a basic understanding of their origin and history does.

Actually, to zoom out for a moment: we’re not really talking about methods, but learning techniques linked to different levels of understanding and experience. Mandarin expert Olle Linge came up with 5 different levels of understanding Chinese characters which gives us something to hang on to. I added Chineasy and Uncle Hanzi in brackets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this scale:

  1. Inventing pictures that disregard composition and structure of characters (Chineasy)
  2. Creating stories and associations that obscure functional components
  3. Using superficial pictures while being aware of functional components
  4. Using superficial pictures and encoding functional components
  5. Etymologically correct mnemonics with no shortcuts (Uncle Hanzi)

I’d label myself with level 3, although it differs from case to case. I know I’m nowhere as good as I could be with serious studying. Taking some inspiration from Uncle Hanzi, I keep aiming for level 5. I do hope though that it won’t take me 30 years to get there!

好好学习,天天向上!

What’s your take on Chineasy? Does it work for you? Do you think Chinese characters have logic like that can be understood if you study them long enough? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.


Further reading

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.


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