17. a language adventure. reading and vocabulary growth

The next reader we had was more interesting. I still recommend this book. It was called Twenty Lectures in Chinese Culture. Developed at Yale in 1963 as an early reader, this book covered Chinese history and culture, in simple straightforward language. I still occasionally read the book to refresh my Chinese. Although the book is written for learners in simple language, the subject is real: Chinese culture and history.

Graded reading material is inevitable for the beginner, since reading easier material helps to create confidence and develop fluency. However, these readers should be on subjects of interest and not resemble children’s stories. Ideally there should be a selection for the learner to choose from. But as soon as possible, all learners should move on to real content.

After about four months, I read only authentic Chinese content, mostly using readers which had specially prepared vocabulary lists. The subjects varied, from history to politics to literature. Suddenly a fascinating world opened up to me in the original language: at first in books, and then as my Chinese improved, through the people I met.

I threw myself into the study of Chinese. I did not have the advantage of having studied Chinese in school for ten years, as had been the case for French. Still, I was determined to learn in as short a period of time as possible. I took charge of my learning.

I had my tape recorder on from the time I woke up, either in the background or at intensive sessions where I concentrated on pronunciation. I worked hard to learn Chinese characters, writing them down and reviewing them daily. I read as much as I could, and reread the same material frequently to improve my ability at reading Chinese writing. I studied the vocabulary lists that went with these texts. It always seemed as if I could never remember new words, but eventually they stuck with me.

Hong Kong is not a Mandarin speaking city and so I was quite isolated in my study. I could not just go out and talk to shopkeepers or others in Mandarin. While there were some Mandarin radio and television programs, I found I could only understand some of the language and then it was gone. On the other hand, I found that using a tape recorder to listen over and over again to material that I already understood was very beneficial to my learning. The problem was getting hold of enough interesting audio content at my level of comprehension.

When I lived in Hong Kong, tape recorders were not portable. Those were still the days of the open reel tape recorders that were large, heavy and awkward. I had to sit at home and listen. Today, modern technology makes it possible to easily find material of interest to download or record so you can take your listening everywhere.

Since Chinese essentially has no phonetic script, I had to learn three to four thousand characters, each requiring fifteen or more strokes. Needless to say, vocabulary acquisition is more difficult than in English. I realized that the dictionary had to be the last resort of the language learner. Looking words up in a conventional dictionary is one of the least efficient and most wasteful activities of language learning. Very often you forget the meaning of the word as soon as you close the dictionary. Using a Chinese Dictionary is even more difficult than looking up a word in a language based on an alphabet.

One of the frustrations we all face in language learning is the speed with which we forget newly learned words. It seems as if everything has to be learned and relearned so many times.

17. a language adventure. reading and vocabulary growth