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How To Be Excellent In Reading Mandarin

Reading mandarin is undeniably hard. If you ask a Chinese native, most of them will acknowledge that their mother tongue could be the hardest language in the world. Even a Mandarin speaker must take at least seven or eight years to read 3000 Chinese characters, which is just enough to be accepted as “literate.” Compared to French, Spanish or Vietnamese, they only need to memorize no more than 30 letters and spend only 3 to 4 years to comprehend the comparable levels of writing. 

As a Chinese learner, what are you thinking right now? Do you want to give up already?

万事开头难 – “All things are difficult before they are easy.

Chinese Proverb

Do not let the difficulty disheartens you in learning Mandarin. Once you know Mandarin, you will feel attached to the Chinese characters’ beauty, complexity, and mystery. The more you learn, the more intriguing, addicting, and easier to understand they can become. They are not just characters. They are arts. They can carry deeper meanings and emotions. All you need to do is an appropriate learning method to approach and master the language.

Top methods to master reading Mandarin 

1. Build a firm language foundation

千里之行,始於足下 – “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Lao Tzu

To master Mandarin reading skills, the first thing you need to do is acquire the right new vocabulary and grammar. Many Chinese learners make the mistake of jumping right to practicing reading skills, then they can hardly understand anything, and they start to feel discouraged. Do not let yourself be in that situation. Start with very simple tasks: learning vocabulary and grammar.

Let’s imagine your journey of learning to read Chinese is similar to that of building a house. Vocabulary and grammar are the foundation, and your reading skill is the house. A good foundation will determine how strong and firm your house will stand. 

Learn the new vocabulary

There are many ways to learn new Chinese words. One impactful method is spaced repetition. It means that you will learn a small number of new words at a time (usually no more than 10) and review them after increasing time intervals. For example, let’s say you want to memorize the Chinese word 你好 (Hello). The first time you study the word, you put it in your short-term memory brain area. Every time you review the word afterward, maybe after ten minutes, four days, or one week or so, you push it closer into your brain’s long-term memory. Once it sticks in the long-term area, not only can you remember it, but also use it subconsciously and naturally as a native speaker. 

Language tools that help you learn Chinese with this learning method are Spaced Repetition Software (SRS). One of the most reliable ones is  Pandanese. It teaches you to remember Chinese characters with a perfect mnemonics system, breaking them down into small parts and giving you exciting explanations to help you store them more accessible in your brain. Pandanese also offers the most appropriate learning curriculum based on your learning purpose: travel, business, or school.  You can sign up to try Pandanese for free or check out Pandanese Flashcards to learn some excellent Chinese radicals right away. 

Learn the new grammars

Grammars are how words are arranged in a sentence that can convey meaning. There are many situations where you know all the words in a sentence, but you still do not entirely understand what it is about when you read the whole sentence. That is how grammar works. The order of the lexis components also conveys some meanings. 

Do not be so surprised that Chinese grammar can be a little different from English. The different way they arrange the words in a sentence reflects how they perceive the world.

2. Practice reading Mandarin based on your foundation level

Beginner level 

At this point, according to Mandarin Bean, you must have learned at least 300 basic Chinese words. At this level, the reading materials for this level are pretty straightforward. The words usually make up all sentences, which means if you remember beginner-level vocabulary with just some simple grammar, you would be fine. 

The appropriate reading strategy for these low-level readers is intensive reading. Intensive reading means that you will focus on a text, read word by word and try to absorb as much information from the text as possible. Your goal is to understand any new terms coming up at this stage because those are the most frequently used. Reading Mandarin passages in textbooks is highly recommended as they are designed for beginners. If you can master the materials deeply, you will get familiar with the Chinese written style. In the future, when facing a more challenging passage, you will be fine as you have been well-prepared since the very early stage of the Chinese acquisition. 

However, this strategy requires a high focus. Regarding the psychology of beginners, you must be excited when learning it because you have just undertaken something new. Moreover, the materials for beginners are fascinating and simple, which makes you feel that learning Chinese is not that hard. Therefore, you must make the best out of these positive feelings about Chinese learning by adopting intensive reading strategies. But you should always choose the right time when you are mentally energetic and only spend from 25 to 35 minutes practicing reading mandarin, just to make sure that you do not suffer from any burnout. 

Reading materials for beginners: The Chairman’s Bao, Chinese Breeze, Mandarin Companion 

Intermediate level 

In this stage, you must acquire more complex vocabulary and grammar. You are being exposed to the deeper part of the iceberg. You start to realize how complex and complicated the language is. This is when you may become so unmotivated to keep learning Chinese that you could end up giving up. 

Whenever you have that feeling, please remember:  You have come this far. You cannot stop now. I can guarantee that you are patient enough to get through this torturous stage. You will never think of giving up again. The first reason is that you have already developed a committed and emotional bond with the language, which is hard for you to abandon. The second reason is that the rest of the journey will be much easier. You are fully aware of how Chinese works. Even if you are reading some texts with many words you do not understand, you still have a very familiar feeling, and you can use your guts to guess what the text is telling you. When you approach the Advanced level afterward and have to challenge yourself with the most difficult Chinese characters, it is not a big deal if you can overcome the psychological obstacles that emerged in this intermediate stage. 

The best reading strategy for this stage is extensive reading. Extensive reading means that you read to get the main idea of the text. You do not have to look it up in the dictionary every time you encounter an unknown Chinese word. If you attempt to learn every new word, you will get carried away from what the reading passage is trying to lead you to. Moreover, the extensive reading is meant to be joyful and pleasurable. You should only absorb the information that you need and want. You may read without a lot of mental focus. There is not any recommended time limit for extensive reading. You can read as much as you want. 

The reading materials are not limited to textbooks. They could be anything that you like. They could be books, comic books, short stories, or even Chinese comments on Youtube or short texts appearing on Tik Tok videos. This strategy is an excellent fit for Mandarin intermediate readers who are so prone to quitting learning. The plan will connect you to the interesting Chinese cultural side, making you pay less attention to the difficulty of the language. You will learn the language in the most depressing way and enjoy the journey to the utmost. 

Advanced level

You have already reached a very high level of Mandarin. Congratulations!!! However, please bear in mind that you will never rest on your laurels. The majority of advanced Mandarin readers are not very encouraged to progress in the language they are already good at. But you are different. You can always be better than yesterday. The better you become, the more advantages you will get compared to the rest. 

As an advanced Mandarin learner, you can adopt both extensive reading and intensive reading. 

Regarding extensive reading, do not read things just for entertainment. At this stage, you may not care much about the grammar of the vocabulary, but how are you making use of your Chinese level to get what you want. Choose a topic appealing to you to read. If you are interested in Chinese companies’ strategies, you can read relevant articles or books. Reading those professional materials can increase your comprehension reading ability as well as broaden your knowledge. Also, the good thing is that you have built a substantial language foundation and are mentally endurant with the difficulty of the Chinese language. Therefore you now can learn and read Mandarin much faster and easier than before.

How about intensive reading? Which kinds of reading materials do you choose for advanced intensive reading? Well, do you remember the same old rules? Choose an interesting topic, a short passage that you can read within 35 minutes, and read when you are mentally energetic. But there is one more technique for advanced learners. You need to adopt comprehensive input by Stephen Krashen (1981). It means that you need to read some materials with a difficulty level higher than your current level. This method, actually, can be applied to all learners regardless of their Chinese classes. Nevertheless, it is exclusively essential to advanced learners. It can remind them that there are still many things to learn, and there is no room for complacency. Moreover, when you have finished reading a challenging text, you can boost your reading skill to a higher level, not to mention a great sense of achievement and confidence you can get. 

Recommended online resources for advanced Mandarin learners: Haodoo, Chinese Text Project, Jandan


冰冻三尺,非一日之寒 – The three feet thick frozen ice is made by the bitter cold for not only one day.

Chinese Proverb

Mastering Mandarin reading skills takes a very long time. You sure go through a roller-coaster of emotions while trying to chew this language. Remember that no matter what levels you are at or what psychological stage you are in, there will be a way to enhance your Mandarin reading.  

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