A Guide and 5 Defenses Against Chinese Reading Fatigue
Over the past few months, I’ve seen quite a number of posts by learners around the web about reading progress. In these posts, one thing that I’ve noticed coming up again and again is the problem of reading stamina — many of the even quite advanced learners have commented about feelings of ‘weariness’ after reading in Chinese for longer than half an hour or more than a few chapters.
Encountering this mental stumbling block is unfortunate, as the more you read, the better your Chinese for one and greater your motivation for another. As such, I’d like to share what’s helped me achieve a decent stamina for consuming Chinese-language content and how you might go about doing so as well.
A year or so ago, I found the thought of spending over 30-40 mins on just a simple kid’s book daunting. Now, I can comfortably read for hours at once and indeed do so on a regular basis.
Time spent reading on 微信读书 recently
What I’ll be sharing here will also be drawn from discussions I’ve had with some other Chinese-language bookworms who’ve the stamina to read for longer periods of time as well. But before launching into the thick of it all, I’d first like to make clear a few things:
The advice I write here works well for me but may not for you; please don’t follow it blindly but rather take it more as guiding thoughts on your own learning journey.
There’s no silver bullet that will give your stamina a manifold overnight increase. Regardless of what actions you take, it may take (quite some) time before you start seeing noticeable results. But the ultimate benefit is worthwhile!
Some people might not be able to read for long in their native language, let alone Chinese, and that’s alright — not everyone is cut out for tons of reading, be it due to personality or upbringing. While I firmly believe there’s never no room for improvement, don’t beat yourself up if that improvement takes too long — after all, there’s plenty of other Chinese-language media out there for you to explore.
Now, onto the tips — here are five strategies I’ve found over the past year to be most helpful towards building my reading stamina.
#1: Choose the right material
The importance of this really can’t be understated. The type of content you choose can greatly influence how much time you’re able to read it while maintaining a good focus. I, and those I’ve talked with, have identified three overarching hindrances.
Perhaps intuitively obvious, your interest in the content will directly influence how much time you can spend reading it. The more compelling you find some book/story/article, the longer you’ll be able to focus on getting through it.
Your original goal may have been to read some of the 4 Great Classics, but if you find them boring, you clearly won’t be as willing to spend as much time — and hence learn as much — with them. Thus, unless you’re in a position where there’s simply no other content available (i.e. just starting out with graded readers), I’d strongly advise simply dropping content you find too dry.
I write ‘relative’ here because what may be simple for you might be challenging for another learner, and vice versa. As for ‘difficulty’ — mountains of research shows that you shouldn’t be reading anything below 90% comprehension (where you understand 90% of the words on the page). Even at this point, content will be quite difficult and hence diminish stamina.
Ideal, ‘extensive’ content theoretically begins at the 98% boundary; I’ve found the closer I get to 100%, the more I can read in one sitting. The latter might sound difficult to reach, but if you’re reading webnovels with millions of characters you can go chapters without reaching for a dictionary surprisingly quickly. Another thing this does mean, however, is that it might not be the best idea to jump straight into 《三体》— while a good book, it and similar more complex stories are not accessible to more intermediate learners.
To illustrate how stark a difference difficulty can cause, I’ll steal Wolfi’s words from our wonderful Discord server of Chinese learners, natives, and enthusiasts:
I’m currently reading 2 novels, one is lower upper intermediate and the other I’d put at advanced. And reading one 3k chapter of the advanced one takes me as long as reading two 5k chapters of the upperint one. I can only read one chapter of the advanced and then I just don’t want anymore because my brain is fried even though I want to know the story. But if I had the time I would read more and more of the upperint without trouble.
Not sure what an extensive text looks like? This Hacking Chinese post answers that well.
As for finding such texts: you can estimate the difficulty of some text with this tool I made (technical but allows personalized difficulty) or this online one (accessible to non-coders but you’ll have to estimate difficulty off of the general stats for a text). A list of novels graded by difficulty can be found on Heavenly Path here.
Regardless of texts’ difficulty, genre plays a role. This ties in somewhat with the limiting factor of interest. At least for myself, reading a fantasy novel with bite-sized chapters is much easier to do for much longer than doing the same for, say, a technology magazine — even though I have a similar level of interest in both. The way in which content is written and structured has an impact on how easy it is to consume; I’m sure you’ve seen something akin to this in your native tongue.
#2: Consider incorporating listening into your routine
Surprising as it may sound, listening more can help boost your reading stamina. Reading, listening, writing, and speaking aren’t strict, independent processes — gains in one can bring gains in another. The reason why improvements in listening are particularly useful for reading stamina is because they bring you greater familiarity with characters. To read fluently and quickly (the next suggestion), you’ll want character recognition to be lightning-fast.
To put this another way, what tires out your brain is the effort it puts into decoding Chinese. If you can minimize this effort by making characters’ pronunciation and meaning more familiar through listening to e.g. podcasts and audiobooks, you can maximize the time over which your metaphorical pool of energy is spread out. Heavenly Path has a list of excellent audiobooks/dramas and podcasts if none come to mind.
Should you find not reading to be too unattractive a form of improvement, consider doing both reading and listening at the same time — I’ve commented in detail about this in another post here. And of course, it goes without saying that more reading (over time) will also make recognition more effortless and hence the ability to spend more time (in one sitting) on reading greater.
#3: Improve your reading speed
To give quite the simplification, reading faster = reading more in the same timeframe = more fun. And more fun = more motivation = more energy you find yourself willing to put into reading. By reading faster, you’ll also gain the additional benefits of a:
greater sense of accomplishment and….
smaller sense of loss in terms of the opportunity cost of reading in English instead (as the difference in reading speeds will have shrunk)
On Heavenly Path, I wrote an entire post dedicated to improving your reading speed here. By making use of the 7 main strategies described, I’ve now brought my reading speed up to 500 cpm from somewhere probably below 200 this time last year. Perhaps the most important of these is once more finding extensive, understandable content — another learner saw an improvement of 80 to 180 cpm in a couple of months by investing in some appropriately-leveled graded readers.
#4: Find and set aside a reading time
If you only have a limited amount of time to spend reading each day, yet want to rapidly build up your stamina, nothing helps more than making a consistent habit of it. I’m not talking about the general habit of just reading each day — if you do so all over the place in short bursts, stamina improvement will clearly be negligible.
However, by carving out a decent chunk of time when you feel best prepared to consume foreign content, this improvement is likely to be much more visible. What’s more, if this chunk is regularly at roughly the same time, you’ll accustom your brain into being in optimal Chinese-reading mode (that is, maximum-energy-allocated-towards-reading-Chinese mode); each session’s energy/stamina will be at a high and continually pushing up against this limit will help make it only higher.
Personally, I’ve found a couple hours late in the evening to be most conducive towards longer reading — my mind is free from the worries of the day and body relaxed. However, others have found morning hours make it easier to read longer — trial and error will quickly reveal what works best for you. Of course, if you want to read during other times of the day then by all means do so, but if you’re explicitly working on stamina and have limited time to dedicate towards reading, aim for times closest to your previous reading sessions.
#5: Consider your ‘tech stack’
This may not be as immediately obvious, but is still quite significant. Font, text size, app UI, and device type can all contribute to how long you are able to spend reading in one go. For example, I think the 李国夫手写体 font is the best thing since sliced bread, but processing it is difficult for my computer-font-accustomed eyes and reading just one chapter straight with it selected is a stretch. Similarly (though to a lesser extent), text size, spacing, and general user interface can be impactful — make reading as comfortable and aesthetically pleasing as possible.
Finally, one last factor to bear in mind is the device you use to read. Some might find e-readers or paper books to be comparatively easier on the eyes. Even for those who don’t, the distraction a phone’s many apps pose or its small screen size can serve as obstacles to reading for long.
Should you be reading a lot in Chinese now or in the future, a specialized device may be worth the investment. A discussion and comparison of such readers can be found here.
I sincerely hope this post has given you some useful food for thought, and please do share your own experiences below!
This post was originally published on Reddit here and can also be found on Heavenly Path.
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