reading mandarin

Strategies for Reading Mandarin at Any Learning Level

Reading Mandarin is undeniably hard. If you ask a native Chinese speaker, most of them will admit that their mother tongue could be the hardest language in the world. Even a Mandarin speaker has to take at least seven or eight years to read 3000 Chinese characters, which is just enough to be considered “literate.” If we compare this to French, Spanish or Vietnamese, we notice that learners of these languages only need to memorize about 30 letters and spend only 3 to 4 years to grasp 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   

Don’t let the difficulty of learning Mandarin dishearten you. Once you know Mandarin, you’ll feel attached to the Chinese characters’ beauty, complexity, and mystery. The more you learn, the more intriguing, addicting, and easier to understand they’ll become. 

They’re not just characters; they’re art. They carry deeper meanings and emotions. All you need is an appropriate learning method to master the language.

Top methods to master reading Mandarin 

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, then they discover that they can hardly understand anything and start to feel discouraged. Don’t let yourself be in that situation. 

Start with very simple tasks: learning vocabulary and grammar. Let’s imagine your learning journey to read Chinese is like you’re trying to build a house. Vocabulary and grammar are the foundation of that house, and your reading skill is the rest of the house. A good foundation determines how sturdy your house will be. 

Learn new vocabulary

There are many ways to learn new Chinese words. One highly effective method is spaced repetition. It means that you’ll learn a small number of new words at a time (usually no more than 10) and review them at increasing time intervals (that’s what “spaced” refers to). 

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 into the short-term memory area of your brain. Every time you review the word afterwardーfirst after ten minutes, then four days, then one week or soーyou push it deeper into your brain’s long-term memory. Once it sticks in your long-term memory, 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 Systems (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 in your brain so you can pull them from your memory quickly.

Learn new grammar

Grammar is how words are arranged in a sentence in a way that can convey meaning. There are many situations where you know all the words in a sentence, but you still don’t entirely understand what it’s about when you read the whole sentence. That is how grammar works. The order of language components also conveys meaning. 

Don’t 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.

Practice reading Mandarin based on your level

Reading strategies for beginner level

According to Mandarin Bean, you’re officially a beginner Mandarin learner when you have learned at least 300 basic Chinese words. At this level, the reading materials are pretty straightforward. These simple words usually make up all the sentences, which means if you remember beginner-level vocabulary with just some simple grammar, you could read the sentences in low-level readers just fine. 

The appropriate reading strategy for these low-level readers is intensive reading. Intensive reading means that you’ll 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’re designed for beginners. If you can master the materials deeply, you’ll get familiar with the Chinese writing style. In the future, when facing a more challenging passage, you’ll be fine as you’ve been well-prepared since the very early stage of the Chinese acquisition. 

However, this strategy requires a high amount of focus. Needing a lot of focus is no real trouble because, at the beginner stage, most beginners are excited to be learning and undertaking something new. Also, the materials for beginners are fascinating and simple, which makes you feel that learning Chinese isn’t that hard. 

However, you should always choose the right time when you’re mentally energetic and only spend from 25 to 35 minutes practicing reading Mandarin, just to make sure that you don’t suffer from any burnout. 

So make the best out of these positive feelings about Chinese learning by adopting a strategy of intensive textbook reading. 

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

Reading strategies for intermediate level 

By the time you reach the intermediate stage, you should have learned more complex vocabulary and grammar. You’re 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 abandoning your language learning. 

Whenever you have that feeling, please remember: You’ve come this far. You cannot stop now. I can guarantee that if you’re patient enough to get through this torturous stage, you will never think of giving up again. 

The first reason you shouldn’t give up is that you’ve already developed a committed and emotional bond with the language. The second reason is that the rest of the journey will be much easier. You’re fully aware of how language works. 

Even if you’re reading some texts with many words you don’t understand, you still have a very familiar feeling, and you can use your gut instinct 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’s 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 don’t 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’ll get carried away from what the reading passage is trying to convey. 

What’s more, extensive reading is meant to be joyful and pleasurable. You should only absorb the information that you need and want. You can read without a lot of mental focus. There isn’t any recommended time limit for extensive reading. You can read as much as you want. 

For intermediate learners, reading materials shouldn’t be 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 prone to quitting. 

This strategy of extensive reading of non-textbook materials (all the while not being distracted by every word you don’t know) will connect you to the interesting Chinese cultural side, making you pay less attention to the difficulty of the language. You’ll learn the language in the most interesting way and enjoy the journey to the utmost. 

Reading strategies for advanced level

You’ve already reached a very high level of Mandarin. Congratulations!!! However, please bear in mind that you can never rest on your laurels. 

The majority of advanced Mandarin readers aren’t very motivated to get better at the language they are already good at. But you’re different. You can always be better than yesterday. The better you become, the more advantages you’ll get compared to the rest. 

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

Regarding extensive reading, don’t read things just for entertainment. Extensive reading isn’t about reading book after book. It’s not about the amount of information you read, but how you understand the information.

Choose a topic appealing to you to read. If you’re 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’ve built a substantial language foundation and have good mental endurance when it comes to the difficulty of the Chinese language. So now you 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 mentioned above? Choose an interesting topic, a short passage that you can read within 35 minutes, and read when you’re mentally energetic. 

But there is one more technique for advanced learners, the ‘Comprehensible Input’ developed by the linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s. 

You need to adopt the method ‘Comprehensible Input’ developed by the linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s. The ‘Comprehensible Input’ suggests that you should read materials with a difficulty level higher than your current level”.

This method, actually, can be applied to all learners regardless of their Chinese level. Nevertheless, it’s 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’ve finished reading a challenging text, you can boost your reading skill to a higher level, not to mention gain a greater sense of achievement and confidence. 

Recommended online resources for advanced Mandarin learners: Hoodoo, Chinese Text Project, Jangan

Build-up your skill little-by-little  

冰冻三尺,非一日之寒

Three feet thick ice does not form on a single bitter-cold day.

Chinese Proverb

Mastering Mandarin reading skills takes a very long time. You are sure to go through a roller-coaster of emotions while trying to tackle this language. Remember that no matter what level you’re at or what psychological state you’re in, there will be a way to enhance your Mandarin reading.  
If you’re looking for a source with good material to enhance your reading skill, try Pandanese. 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.

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