How I Learned to Read Chinese, Published on Matador

Reading Chinese characters
I detail my pathway to Chinese literacy in "How I Learned to Read Chinese," published on Matador.

Great news! Matador just published my article titled “How I Learned to Read Chinese.”

For those of you dying to know about my path to fluency, this piece tracks how I left illiteracy in Chinese behind. Curious? Here’s a snippet:

When I came to Hangzhou, China in August 2001 as a writer – and to work on Mandarin fluency – I faced a great, embarrassing wall: I was illiterate.

Sure, I could speak and understand basic conversational Chinese, because I’d studied while teaching English in China from 1999 to 2000. Then, as a beginner, speaking and listening in a tonal language was so challenging that I didn’t want to deal with the characters.

But in Hangzhou, my ignorance was a big deal. Even though I could chat with locals, order food and ask directions, I was baffled by business cards, menus, and even store signs. I needed to read so I could build vocabulary and truly be fluent. But how?

For the “thrilling conclusion” — and to discover the Meteor Garden connection in all of this — read the full piece at Matador. And if you like it, share it. And thanks! 😉

UPDATE: Got this in an e-mail from Matador:

I wanted to let you know that your article was featured in this week’s Traverse newsletter, which means it was picked out by senior editor David Miller as one of the strongest pieces published during the week.

That made my day!

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10 thoughts on “How I Learned to Read Chinese, Published on Matador

  • November 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    That is awesome. I was born in Hong Kong and had exposure to Chinese growing up, but it was still difficult for me to read and write characters until I took a year of upper-level Chinese in college. Being exposed to the language everywhere makes it a LOT easier. Karaoke is so much easier now that I go so often and can make out the words.

    I still can’t write nearly as much as I can speak or read, but I think that might be the case for a lot of this “digital” generation!

  • November 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for writing this, Jocelyn! I’ve forwarded the article to my daughter, who wants to be fluent. It’s encouraging and inspiring to read about how you put it all together. It’s also helpful, I believe, that you show others how a multi-pronged effort that combines various strategies, personalized for the learner, incorporating fun, hard work, and collaboration with others, often works best.

  • November 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    The article inspired me so much to watch dramas this time WITHOUT the English subtitles and to text more in Chinese. Thank you! You make us see that it is really possible!

  • November 4, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    @quadshock: “I still can’t write nearly as much as I can speak or read”

    I wouldn’t worry too much about that. We’re all always stronger in the receptive skills (reading and listening) than in the productive skills (speaking and writing), even in our native languages, and writing is always the hardest skill to acquire, regardless of the language. So long as you keep working on those skills, you’re ok.

    @Jocelyn, great article, and I totally agree that using things you enjoy greatly helps the study. For me it was sitting down and reading a novel (Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi, as it happened) simply for pleasure and not stressing the new words unless they really did hinder my understanding that was the big boost.

  • November 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    I’m currently learning Mandarin full-time, and I’m disheartened with my (lack of) progress even without the distractions of career, family, etc. I need some sugar in my life too, perhaps comics, since I prefer reading (have TV ADD!). I also learnt traditional characters as a child, and am still confused by simplified. Anyway, thanks Jocelyn, for sharing!

  • November 4, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Jocelyn, what a great article!
    Every time I read your page I can’t help but think how much our lives are similar: girl from Ohio (I’m from Columbus), married to a Chinese husband, used Meteor Garden to learn characters (yes I did the same thing).
    All the best to you!

  • November 6, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Congrats! I love Matador and I’m happy to see your work there!
    As for learning to read Chinese, I’ve been using the Heisig method and it REALLY works for me. I complement the book with flashcards and I obsessively scour every sign, slogan, subtitle, etc. I can see for words I know. When I can actually read something, it’s like flipping a switch and lighting up a previously dark room! Like Chris, I’ve also used Chinese fiction to supplement my learning, but I have to admit I had to use a short story collection published especially for Chinese learners. 🙂

  • November 6, 2010 at 3:33 am

    Luckily for me, I have my family there to help me out. I grew up in a Caucasian-majority town in Canada, as a result I can only read and write Chinese at grade 2 level.

    Fortunately, I am fluent in mandarin, so on trips to China, I ask family or friends every time I see a sign or word that I can’t understand. Then if I had my notepad with me, I’d write it down and attach an English definition. If people I know used a word I don’t understand, I’d ask them and write it down if it wasn’t a serious convo. At home, I’d rewrite those characters or character phrases over and over until hand ->tired. Then, use characters to make sentences.

    It seems that every visit, my reading/writing comprehension improves dramatically if I put in the effort. If dedicated, learning over 20 new characters a day is attainable.

    If it wasn’t for natural fluency, plus help from family/friends, I wouldn’t have nearly picked up so fast.

    However, Chinese locals think I am absolutely RETAARDED because I have the vocab of a 7-year-old plus an overly expressive nature, the kind never shown in China. (plus this guys got a notepad and pen of all things)

    At least you guys LOOK like foreigners. You’re not “supposed” to know any Chinese, and people would be more than happy to help you out. You and your big innocent looking eyes + white card can get away with anything short of crime, heheh. 😛

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  • November 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Great article, Jocelyn! I looked Meteor Gardens up on PPS and it looks like I have a new drama to follow.


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