Last night, I hit an incredible language learning milestone.
I finished my first book in Mandarin Chinese.
Yes, I know, I’ve been studying Chinese for a year, so why was this such a big milestone for me?
For every language I’ve learnt up until this point, the thing that I struggled with the most was listening comprehension. I assumed it would be the same with Mandarin, so I spent the bulk of my time listening to a wide variety of audio resources, memorizing characters, and getting in as much speaking practice as possible.
When I started taking practice HSK exams, however, I noticed that this trend didn’t continue with my Chinese learning. I was scoring high on all of the listening portions but failing nearly all of the reading comprehension sections of the the tests.
I took a second look, wondering why, despite knowing the meanings of all the (or nearly all) of the characters in the reading sections, I wasn’t understanding the texts.
Turns out, memorizing the meanings of individual characters through Memrise doesn’t help you learn how to read in Chinese.
I Felt Like I Would Never Learn How to Read in Chinese
After realizing that my greatest weakness with Mandarin Chinese was reading comprehension, I made it my mission to focus on and improve that area of my study. I bought children’s books, books that I love translated into Chinese and Chinese books that I heard were really popular.
Something would eventually have to trigger my interest and I would be reading in no time.
Instead, I struggled through even the children’s books that included pinyin just because I didn’t know enough multiple character words, names of characters, or names of places in Mandarin.
So then I decided I would switch to comics. They have pictures, so it should be easy, right?
Even with the images providing me with some context, I still struggled to get through the text. I ended up using my month of calligraphy to quickly scribble out the characters I didn’t know (since I didn’t have the pinyin to look them up), photographing them and posting them on Instagram to ask for help.
But even when I had the translations, I was just too burnt out and frustrated to go back and re-read the texts I wasn’t understanding, putting them into place.
Then I started to wonder. Would it always be this hard?
I was worried I would either have to give up on reading or that it would be something I’d have to work on for decades before mastering enough to read The Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones in Chinese.
And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want to wait that long. So, I started looking for another solution.
How Graded Readers Changed My Life
I began researching strategies other Mandarin language learners used to develop their reading skills and stumbled upon Mandarin Companion.
For those of you unfamiliar with the company, they provide Chinese learners with a series of graded readers to help them get started with reading in the language. Their current catalog includes a Sherlock Holmes-like tale, “The Monkey’s Paw”, and “The Secret Garden”, among others, all adapted for beginning readers. As of right now, they only have level 1 readers, but I will be the first in line for their more advanced releases.
As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, I opted to start with “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Curly Haired Company”, an adaptation of “The Red Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story, albeit simple, was interesting to read, easy to follow along, and best of all, I understood enough of it to finish the entire book.
And upon finishing it, I did a quick dance around the house announcing that I had read an entire book in Chinese (to no one in particular) before settling down to read “The Secret Garden”. Because, you guys, I read my first book in Chinese! The feeling was so wonderful, I was ready to do it again.
About the Level 1 Mandarin Companion Books
The books each have somewhere in the vicinity of 300 unique characters (and about 10,000 total words). They include clickable footnotes in the digital versions that allow you to reference their English equivalents when needed and quickly click back to the page you were on without interruption. For reference, I used the iBooks version of the book, so it might work differently in other applications. Either way, the functionality I experienced while using the electronic versions of the books was extremely intuitive and looking up words didn’t derail or distract me as I progressed through the stories.
While the two books that I read, “Sherlock Holmes and the Curly Haired Company” and “The Secret Garden” were greatly simplified, they didn’t lose any of their intrigue. It wasn’t overly reduced to the point it became boring to read, but don’t go in expecting them to be full Chinese translations of the texts. The stories were reduced so that they’d be accessible to those just learning to read in Chinese and there’s only so much detail that can be included while using around 300 unique characters.
I also really enjoyed how the story was adapted to include Chinese elements, names and locations. While some may argue that these changes are a negative mark against the books, I think that it is a positive because it allows the story to stand on its own. I was less likely to draw comparisons between the original books and the adaption while reading.
For those of you interested in a more academic or intensive approach to your Mandarin learning, the books also have Grammar Wikis available for each book from Mandarin Companion (see an example here). Each grammar provides you with the opportunity to make the most of your experience with the books with more than enough material to really maximize the time you spend reading.
The Mandarin Companion readers are available in both Simplified and Traditional characters, which is a fantastic option for Mandarin learners.
Things That Could Be Different
All of the above being said, there are a few things that could be different with the Mandarin Companion books.
I don’t necessarily have a solution to this, but I thought it would be worth mentioning. The book does an incredible job of providing footnotes for words they feel the reader is likely to be unfamiliar with, however, there were still a few words that I had not yet come across in the books that did not have footnote translations. I had to kind of skip over them while reading.
While it would be possible to avoid this by providing translations or explanations for every word or phrase, the number of footnote links would get out of hand, potentially ruining the reading experience. Every learner has a slightly different vocabulary, depending on the resources they used and the interests they have, and there isn’t really any way for Mandarin Companion to know which of the words the reader will know and which they won’t. For me personally, it just so happened that there were a few words I probably should have known but didn’t, and therefore wasn’t able to translate. Despite this, I was still able to understand the story overall, so it really didn’t bother me too much.
On the other hand, there were words I knew quite well that had a footnote link every time they appeared and it was borderline distracting. I think an easy way to fix this would be to include footnote links only the first two or three times the word appears rather than every time.
Other than the above two items (which are kind of really just one item), the books are outstanding and a really great way to get your feet wet with reading Chinese.
I highly recommend the Mandarin Companion readers because it is so satisfying to be able to read and understand a story in another language – especially Mandarin.
That, and they’re one of the most engaging, interesting readers I’ve come across in any language.
Please don’t tell me I’m the only one tired of dual language poetry books?
I have studied the language for a year and reading is still something I really struggle with. Reading the Mandarin Companion books, however, made me forget that reading in Chinese is supposed to be hard. I was able to focus on the story (not individual Chinese character meanings like I was with other texts I’ve tried to read), and it felt like a huge win when I reached the 100% mark in the book.
Experiencing that sense of accomplishment is so critical when learning a new language. On a daily basis we’re encountered with frustration and discouraging moments so every win can be an incredible motivational tool to help us keep going. For me, Mandarin Companion was the tool that inspired me to continue pursuing the development of my reading ability in the language and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.