Put the Chinese dictionary down!

Don’t check the dictionary on your first read-through of a text.

This is something that is extremely difficult to achieve, and mainly because when learning Chinese it’s not easy to find out the pronunciation of a word without looking it up. Unlike phonetic languages, when reading text you aren’t constantly reinforcing the pronunciation of a word, with Chinese you have to remember the pronunciation separately. The result is that you might forget the pronunciation of a word, yet remember the meaning, or vice versa. This can all add up to a very frustrating experience, and drives many people to have the dictionary constantly open by their side.

Step away from the dictionary!

When reading text, knowing the meaning of every single individual word is only part of the puzzle. If we take a step back, there is the matter of comprehending the complete passage of text – what is the author trying to say, on the whole.

In most instances, this is the most important thing – the main point of the article, the 重點. To understand a passage of text, you by no means need to understand every single word, 60% or so will usually suffice.

What you should do is read the complete text, or passage, depending on the length, and try to pick out the key points. If you come a across a word you aren’t sure of, just skip over it, or you can try and guess the meaning based on the surrounding words. Read the whole section, right to the end and see how much you can glean based on what you already know. Then, and only then, should you reach for the dictionary – but! There still are some guidelines that you should follow:

To avoid burnout don’t look up every single word that you didn’t know, you won’t last 5 minutes if you do this. Make some rules for yourself, such as only checking words that appear in the text more than 3 times, or that appear at what you believe to be a key point in the text.

Use these these guidelines as a starting point and make adjustments to suit your learning style. In summary:

  1. Don’t check the dictionary until the very end of the text
  2. Try to find the main points in the article before checking the dictionary
  3. Only look up words that appear more than a set number of times, or at a key position

If you employ different methods when reading Chinese text let us know below:

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  • “60% or so” will certainly absolutely verifiably NOT suffice, at least if you count characters in a sentence. With that amount, you might be able to patch together the structure of the sentence; or might not.

    Even 80% (the most common ones) puts you only close to understanding what the context of the story is.

    Only by losing a rare character here, another there (way over 90%) can you get into the gist of what a story is about. Of course, then you should look up those characters after the first skim-through of the article. Reading article in the ‘net with a mouse-over dictionary is handy.

    If you pass more than every fifth character, might as well grab a more familiar text.

    • Hi Sigs, thanks for the comment. Though you might have missed the point I was making – that to be able to understand the main points of an article, without checking the dictionary, then 60% or so will usually suffice.

      There’s no way that you need to know 9 out of 10 characters to get a “gist” of what the article is about – a gist by definition is a just the general idea, or the essence if a text.

      While writing this post I was reading a lot of Taiwanese news articles. When reading news, especially as a foreign reader, you need to be able to allow yourself to skip over what you don’t know, or you’ll spend all day in the dictionary – and in these cases it’s not possible to say “choose a more suitable text”, since this is the news we’re talking about. With other texts, if you find yourself constantly frustrated, then finding more suitable material might be appropriate.