This summer I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 2011 ACC-CLASS K-12 Chinese Language Teacher Training program in Beijing, China. For six intensive weeks we focused on becoming better Chinese teachers, learning new ways to help inspire and engage students during classroom activities. Our goal was to learn how to give students the skills and knowledge to not only understand, but also effectively use the Chinese language. Lecture after lecture was devoted to understanding how different students learn a second language, and how we could adapt our teaching strategies to those individual demands.
What I didn’t realize before heading to Beijing, was that during those six weeks I would learn more about how to become an effective Chinese learner that I ever though possible. At least once a week I silently wished that what I was learning, could somehow be transferred to my former self. I wondered how much more I could have gleaned from the (at the time) seemly mysterious language that we refer to as Mandarin (汉语: Hàn yǔ).
One particular lecture, given by Dr. Michael Everson on the topic “Reading Chinese as a Foreign Language,” really stood out to me, and I would like to share a little bit of what I learned during that lecture, along with other strategies discussed in second language acquisition. As non-native speakers of Chinese, increasing our reading comprehension (阅读能力: yùedú nénglì) is a crucial step on the path to near-native fluency. Written and spoken Chinese operate in two very different systems, forcing us to not only understand them both separately, but also draw on their corresponding connections. While reading Chinese is difficult at times, there are many strategies available to help increase and develop our Chinese reading comprehension skills, apart from using Skritter daily, of course.
First, in order to effectively comprehend a reading, it is important to select texts and materials that coincide with one’s current language level. Research in second language acquisition suggests a strong correlation between the amount of unknown words in a text and its affect on reading comprehension. While this may seem quite obvious, it implies that our brain has a limit to the amount of new material that we are able to process at any given time. Since second language learners are always operating with an incomplete lexicon, foreign materials (such as new vocabulary) should be introduced in small chucks that can be acquired (习得: xí dé), stored (储存: chǔ cún), and extracted (提取: tí qǔ) later on. The more new material we are exposed to, the less likely we are to commit any of it to long-term memory retention. So, if you are in first year Chinese for example, trying to read a newspaper cover-to-cover looking up every new word is not the most effective tool to increase reading comprehension, instead it might be better to read a short story that only introduces a few new vocabulary words and grammar points.
Second, when reading a new passage, we should be selective about what we are trying retain. Our focus should be on materials that can be understood, rather than what is unknown. In this way we can gain an understanding of the general meaning (大意: dàyì), allowing our brains to “tolerate ambiguity” and use linguistic context (语境: yǔ jìng) to make informed and intelligent guesses about unknown material. It is important to note that when making these guesses one should not simply rely on Chinese, rather, we should connect the passage to our own individual background knowledge on the subject, even if that background knowledge is in our native language (母语: mǔyǔ).
Another tool for increasing reading (and listening) comprehension is to consider the Chinese rhetorical structure. These are the basic four steps of Chinese essay writing, which is called: 起承转合 (qǐ-chéng-zhuǎn-hé). An essay starts with an introduction (起: qǐ), and is then followed by the development (承: chéng) and transition (转: zhuǎn). Of course last but not least is the conclusion (合: hé). Keeping the rhetorical structure in mind will help to predict (预测 yù cè) how a text will proceed, giving us a better understanding of how each individual sentence and paragraph fits together to form the full argument or statement.
Of course, as we become more proficient in reading comprehension skills we must develop new reading strategies to help with extended texts. The first is increasing our superficial or extended reading (泛读 fàndú) skills. For those of us who are preparing to take a Chinese proficiency exam or are reading extended texts, this is perhaps the best way to deal with the sheer amount of data in a timely fashion. Much like the above-mentioned selective retention, we should only focus on the important elements of an article. However, for test prep we shouldn’t be checking any reference materials (since you can’t do that on a proficiency exam). Superficial reading is a skill that gets better through time and exposure. Eventually, after an increased exposure to similar types of material (daily reading of the economic section of a newspaper for example) we begin to notice grammar patterns and key-phrases that reoccur often.
The second method is a focus on the details and particulars (细节: xìjié) within a text. This method allows for the adding of new vocabulary to our lexicon. Our awareness is on the frequency (频率: pínlǜ) of certain characters as they appear in a text and searching for technical terms or proper names (专有名词: zhuānyǒu míngcí). A general rule of thumb that my Professor at Peking University (北京大学: Běijīng Dàxué) recommended to me was the “three times rule”. If one sees a word (单词: dāncí) or phrase (短语: dǔanyǔ) appear three or more times in a text, it should be considered both important and high-frequency, meaning we should take the time to commit it to long-term memory (or add it to a Skritter vocab list!). The other words in the text, such as technical terms, should also be understood, but we should be more selective about the information that we wish to retain for the long term, because we can only handle so much new information at once.
With effective reading strategies, and large amounts (大量: dàliàng) of reading practice, the process (过程: guòchéng) will become much more automatic (自动: zìdòng) and natural (自然: zìrán). More tips and reading materials for increasing reading comprehension can be found on the National Foreign Language Center’s Website for reading Chinese. If anyone has their own tips for increase Chinese reading comprehension skills, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. For now, happy (Chinese) reading!
The vocab list for this blog can be found here.