Friday, December 2, 2016

A Novel Way to Read Chinese

For me, anyway.

This is, likely, the first in a series of posts, and ironically, one I'm writing as I come to the end, temporarily, of a reading program that has covered a couple of years.  You see, over that time, I've read four Chinese novels of varying era, genre, and style, in the original Chinese: 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592), 生死疲勞 Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), 邊城 Border Town (1934), and 圍城 Fortress Besieged (1947).  I'll be discussing those works in later posts.

This program is something that I could not realistically have considered more than a few years ago, because at the start of this reading program, my Chinese reading skills were not to the point where I could have attempted to even begin any of these novels.  To explain that, and the evolution of my literacy since then, I have to explain a little about my own background, as well as a remarkable little application called Pleco.

I call myself, among other things, a first-generation Chinese American, by which I mean that I was born in the United States, but my parents immigrated here.  (Some people call that second generation, but I think it's somewhat more common to call it first generation.)  As is common in children with my background, my parents spoke to me in Chinese, and I spoke to them in Chinese...and English.  Technically, in fact, Chinese is my first language, but it has been a long time since it was my best language, and my parents have stories of me speaking in a kind of pidgin with Chinese vocabulary but English grammar.

As is also common, my parents shuttled me off to Chinese school every Saturday morning (as a matter of fact, they and their friends started the darned thing), which was a real hardship, you had better believe, because (a) cartoons were better then (they reran all the theatrical shorts they used to show before movies in the theatres), and (b) this was before DVRs or even VCRs.  Time shifting was not even a twinkle in any commoner's eye yet.

For two hours every weekend, rather than watching Bugs Bunny, my friends and I learned to read and write Chinese and a smattering of Chinese culture as well (we also got that at home, to be sure).  I don't want to make it seem as though it was some kind of prison camp, for we enjoyed the company and I, at least, always found the idea of being bilingual in English and a totally different language such as Chinese rather interesting.

I went to this Chinese school—which is still a going concern, by the way, forty years later—from age six all the way through high school, and finished with a vocabulary of maybe 1000 to 1500 characters.  To give that some context, a child growing up in China or Taiwan has that kind of written vocabulary probably by the age of about eight or so.  Since Chinese characters have to be more or less memorized one by one, as opposed to spelled with an alphabet of tens of letters, this is no mean achievement, at age eight or eighteen.

I should add, incidentally, that this does not mean that I had the fluency of an eight-year-old.  A native eight-year-old Chinese speaker would have spoken circles around me.  Chinese characters, though perhaps the most outwardly obvious representation of the challenge of Chinese fluency, are only one aspect.  The grammar is another, and plain practice using the language is another.

Then, too, the 1000 to 1500 characters I knew were not necessarily those that a native eight-year-old would know.  There were some interesting gaps that I now attribute to the sometimes inconsistent attention of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (I think?) who issued the teaching materials we worked with.  It's a little as though you learned how to write "chocolate" but not "however"; both are common words, but "however" as a function word is more important than "chocolate" is as a concrete noun.  (And in fact, although I knew how to say it, I didn't learn how to write "however" until later, and partly in consequence, rarely used it in conversation.)  What's more, although Chinese looks like a long sequence of distinct characters, it is actually organized into words of mostly two or more characters, and there are some tens of thousands of those, and I knew a much smaller fraction of them.

The bluntest indication of my limited literacy was that I simply could not read a newspaper, which in Chinese as well as in English requires the vocabulary of about a twelve-year-old—about 2500 or so characters and probably ten to twenty thousand words.  It had taken me (and my teachers) about twelve years of fairly dedicated effort to get me halfway there.  On my own, it would take much longer than another twelve years to get the rest of the way there.  I considered taking Chinese language courses at college, but they met for an hour once a day at eight in the morning, and even I, who found the idea of becoming literate in Chinese more than a little intriguing, was not quite ready to make that level of commitment.

So at the end of college, I still had more or less those same 1000 to 1500 characters in my vocabulary when I went on the Taiwan Study Tour, which is known informally (and rather hoarily) as the Love Boat, for all of the extracurricular activities that go on there.  I don't really know about that, because in line with my rather generally nerdish outlook, I went there to learn Chinese and so I did.  I might have picked up a hundred or two hundred additional characters, but what really changed was my broadened awareness of Chinese literature.

The program spanned six weeks, of which most of the mornings and the early part of the afternoons were spent in language and culture classes.  In the latter part of the afternoons, and the early evenings after dinner, we were pretty much free to do what we liked.  I liked to play basketball, so I tried that once or twice, but Taiwan is in the tropics and the court was outdoors, and it was both hot and humid, so that was a no-go.  I already felt like I had to take a shower every four hours as it was.

So instead, I went out onto the street and browsed in stores, especially bookstores.  I've always loved going into bookstores and just browsing, from the time that my dad would take me to a department store and leave me in the book department while he went to do errands, back when you could do such a thing without having child services pick you up.  It was no different now, even though I couldn't read most of the books.  I just liked the look of the books—the typefaces (much more creative than for English, generally speaking), the arrangement of the text, even the cheap flimsy paper that many books used to save on cost.

It did irk me, though, that I couldn't read most of the books.  I finally found a book, however, that had pronunciation marked in for some of the text—not pinyin, which is used on the mainland, and more recently now in Taiwan as well, but zhuyin fuhao, which was the Taiwan standard at the time.  I still didn't know a lot of the characters, but it still helped that I could sound the characters out.  I didn't recognize it at the time, but this was the first time I really felt the benefit of having grown up hearing a lot of Chinese.

The book looked like it was a compendium of a few hundred mostly short poems (short helped!) with some explication after each one: a glossary and a synopsis, neither of which, notably, came with pronunciation keys.  Anyway, it looked interesting, so I bought it.  Only later, after I brought it home and showed it to my father, did I discover that it was possibly the most famous collection of Chinese poetry, 唐詩三百首 Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems.  (There are actually 310 in this edition, perhaps on the same principle as the baker's dozen.)  The poems are from the Tang Dynasty, from the seventh through ninth centuries.  These people were writing over a thousand years ago, and through the accident of my selection in some minor bookstore in Taiwan, I was touched by them.  I still have that same book on my bookcase right now, not ten feet to my left as I write this.

Learning to read through them, however, was still a daunting challenge.  A lot of this has to do with the process of looking up a Chinese character in the dictionary.  Looking up an English word is straightforward once you learn the alphabet; words are assembled in alphabetical order, which is sort of like numerical order for letters.

Chinese, not being an alphabetic language, has no such easy method for looking up characters.  There are dozens of ways to look up characters, some of which require you to know how to pronounce the character, which is useful if you're already literate but just want to know some fine nuance of definition, but useless for a learner like myself.  The rest are based more or less on some notion of how to break the character down into parts and looking the character up by those parts, but since characters are organized every which way, it's still not straightforward.  Someone in my position would take a couple of minutes to look up a single character.

Enter, at this point, Pleco.  At this stage, ten or so years ago, the earliest smartphone were just then making it onto the market, which was still dominated by the personal digital assistant (PDA).  These had touch screens but no phone.  It occurred to Mike Love, Pleco's founder, that that touch screen could make looking Chinese characters up a lot easier for language learners.  The one thing anyone knows who's trying to look up an unfamiliar character, is what that character looks like.  The touch screen made it possible to enter that character in directly into the device.

I downloaded the free app onto my Palm Pilot (remember those?), and bought the handwriting recognizer and a couple of the (inexpensive) dictionary packs, and for the first time, looking up a character took seconds rather than minutes.  I decided to start learning Chinese anew, and within a couple of months had added a couple of dozen more characters to my vocabulary.

But the real sea change happened when Pleco added a reader to their dictionary.  By this time, I had gotten an iPad (Pleco has used iOS as its flagship platform for several years now) and the larger screen made it more comfortable to use Pleco.  The new Pleco reader also made it possible to read online newspapers and books in Chinese, and if one encountered a new character, one simply tapped it on the screen, and Pleco popped up a definition, so that looking characters up was now essentially instantaneous.  What's more I didn't need to read something on one device or book, and look it up in another.  I was not interrupted in the process of reading beyond the minimal step of apprehending the meaning of the new character.

What followed was simply an explosion of new characters added to my vocabulary, at an average rate of dozens of characters per week, to the point that I probably now have a vocabulary of about 3000 characters, and I can (at last!) read a newspaper without needing to look something up more than pretty occasionally—not because I don't recognize a character, but because its use in a word is something I can't figure out on its own.  It's a bit like seeing the word "prevaricate" and knowing the Latin roots pre- "before" and varicari "straddle" and not being able to recognize the meaning "to lie".

At any rate, I got to the stage where I could reasonably attempt to read a novel, and the first one I tried (because it was available for free online) was the sixteenth-century Journey to the West.  Understandably, the language has a dated feel to it (sort of like reading Shakespeare has for English readers), which made it possibly not the best first choice, but it was still an instructive project.  I'll discuss this in my next post in this series.

But before I end this rather long article, I want to make one more plug for Pleco.  It's really an outstanding dictionary.  The app is still free (though the handwriting recognition costs a small fee), and I've spent probably over a hundred dollars on the dozen or so dictionaries and extra features I've added to it over the years, and I don't regret any of that.  The founder, Mike Love, is incredibly responsive and listens to all of the user feedback.  The user base is tremendously loyal and that's returned by the Pleco team.  If you're at all interested in learning Chinese, and you have a supported device, I can't recommend Pleco highly enough.

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