Statistics about Chinese Newspapers Are Kind of Silly
Reading the news in Mandarin is a new daily habit that my teacher insists that I take up, and I’m grateful that I have. Like most people, one of the first pieces of information that I heard about Chinese learning was the often-cited statistic of needing to know 3000 characters to read a newspaper.
Now that I’ve actually started to read the newspaper, I realize how completely unhelpful (and in some ways meaningless) this statistic actually is. It’s meaningless for a couple of reasons but my top two are the following:
- First, who actually sits down and reads an entire newspaper from cover to cover? Not me. I pick my favorite sections and read those first. If I have time, I skim a few other “important” sections and go on with the rest of my day. What’s wrong? The statistic doesn’t address this type of repetitive reading or explain the range of characters needed per section of the newspaper.
- Second, who actually counts how many characters they know? And even if you are counting, let’s be honest, it’s not about characters but actual words. For example, I may know that “small” is 小 and “heart” is 心 but if I don’t know that the word for “careful” is technically “small heart” (小心) then the sentence reads as complete gibberish. What’s wrong? The statistic says nothing about how many “words” you have to know, only how many “characters.”
That said, hearing these statistics does keep me motivated to some extent. For example, I recently read that the average university student knows 6000 characters, but to read 90% of a newspaper one only needs to be familiar with less than 1000 characters. While, I’m still not going to sit down and count how many characters I can recognize, the comparison between “person who can read the newspaper” and “well educated person” gives me marks to strive for. In other words, just because I can read a few articles online doesn’t mean I should sit back and get lazy. There’s plenty more to absorb. On the other hand, I don’t have to be a scholar to be able to be able to learn important information by reading it for myself.
Benefits of Reading the News
Access to the source :: I have learned that a healthy level of skepticism is a really good thing. Sometimes it just helps to read material from the source (and in the original language). Plus, not everything is translated into English. If I can’t read something in Mandarin, then I often miss some good ideas and opinions that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
Real life information :: My go to reading material is often comic books and short stories for kids and teens. But reading the newspaper gives me current and up to date information about the world around me. Most Taiwanese newspapers include world news (while most American newspapers don’t say much about Taiwan). So, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Specific (themed) vocabulary :: Newspapers are amazing about separating information into themed sections. By reading a newspaper, you can easily concentrate on theme specific vocabulary. With all the sections of the newspaper, there’s a little something for everyone. But it’s important to stretch yourself and learn about topics you’re not all that interested in. I’d suggest rotating throughout the newspaper, giving yourself several days (or weeks) to absorb the theme specific vocabulary.
Besides being a good exercise in vocabulary expansion, you can focus on other aspects of language learning even if you’re not so invested in one particular story. For example, you can practice identifying interesting grammar patterns or trying to figure out a sentence when you don’t have a perfect grasp on the subject. At the very least, it helps you zone in on some of your weaknesses.
Finally, don’t just read the articles. Check out the advertisements, read the headlines, and browse the obscure random stories.
Disadvantages of Reading the News
Some bloggers point out that reading a Chinese newspaper isn’t for everyone. And if you’re a true intermediate learner, some articles will be way over your head. You won’t be able to read all of the vocabulary and this may be disheartening. My advice, keep at it. Pick articles that you genuinely care about so you are motivated to learn the words. Then, do an activity that requires you to use the language immediately. Chat with a friend about the story or write something about what you just read.
If you need some extra help, you can read a bilingual newspaper that prints in English and Mandarin or a newspaper that includes the pinyin or the zhuyin (I’ve only seen these in print). Maybe you don’t want to start with a traditional newspaper. Try a specialized newspaper, a magazine, or a blog. Don’t try to read the whole paper in one day. Just pick a reasonably sized article and tackle it sentence by sentence. If you find yourself getting overly frustrated take a break, pick a new section, and come back to the task in a couple of weeks. Keep your expectations reasonable, and don’t give up. (Good luck!)
Here are some of the most common (and a few not so common) newspaper sections
- Video (影音)
- Finance/ economy / business (理財)
- Entertainment (娛樂)
- Health (健康)
- Sports (體育 // 運動)
- Front Page (頭版)
- Top Stories (焦點)
- Travel (旅遊)
- Technology (科技)
- Celebrities (影視名人)
- Arts & Culture (藝文)
- Fashion (時尚)
- Politics (政治)
- International (國際)
- Society (社會)
- Film (電影)
- Lifestyle (生活)
- Forums (討論區 //自由評論)
Online v. Paper News Format
In an age of smartphone reading apps (新聞 Central is my favorite Android app) and very easy access to up-to-date news online, it just makes sense to run to the Internet for your daily Mandarin news fix.
However, if there are local places which sell (cheap) local newspapers in printed in Mandarin, you might want to check those out ~ at least occasionally. Here’s why:
- You might be a tactile person (like me). Sometimes it just feels good to have paper in your hand.
- Sometimes reading characters on paper is easier than trying to squint to see them on a bright computer screen. (Plus nothing is flashing at you, so reading is less stressful on your eyes.)
- You can mark up, circle, or highlight words you want to go back to. It’s also easy to write in the margins.
One advantage of reading online is that it’s a bit quicker to cut and paste words I haven’t learned yet or have recently forgotten. This can be both a good and bad thing. With the accessibility of instant translators, sometimes it’s just too tempting to just throw a word into a translator and get the meaning instantly. When I’m in print form, I know that it’s a lot more tedious to look up the words. I have to be more judicious about looking things up, so I make more effort to try to figure out the word from the context and think hard about which words are important or not to get the meaning of the story.
But hey, one thing you might try is to print out an article. Try to read the print first and then test out your understanding online with the assistance of a dictionary or a translator.
Side note: If you are reading in print, make sure you have a good dictionary. Know how to look up words either with a great handwriting recognition app (I use Hanzi Recognizer) or know how to count strokes and carry along a dictionary that lets you find words by stroke count.
Progressive Writing Activities
Reading a newspaper doesn’t just have to be about “reading.” Test what you’ve learned from your information mining by chatting up someone about a story. Or better yet, write about it.
- Short Summaries :: What did you learn from the article? Can you give a factual summary in English? What about Mandarin? Can you pen a paragraph about the story in Mandarin highlighting some of the new vocabulary learned or paraphrasing the story into your own words.
- Insert Opinion :: If you read a more controversial article, what did you think about it? Do you agree or disagree? Can you propose a counter argument? In, for example, an article about a new political initiative, can you point out the weaknesses and strengths of the proposal? Who does the proposal affect? What would be the consequences? Test those critical thinking skills.
- Combine multiple articles into a larger essay about the topic :: These days one topic generally saturates the headlines. (ex: you can’t type the word “Taiwanese” into a search engine without 5 of the 10 stories coming up about Jeremy Lin on the first page) Take advantage of that reality and use it to write an “essay.” Consider your reading of the top few stories as “research” and put together a larger story about that topic. Feel free to use quotes and cite the different authors. It’s especially interesting if your sources have different opinions.
- Write your own news story :: Take the new vocabulary you’ve learned and just start making stuff up. For example, if you’re interested in film watch an old movie and review it as though you were a writer for the newspaper. Or do a human interest story by interviewing your Mandarin teacher or friend about their recent trip somewhere.
- Create a mini newspaper :: This is a hefty project. After you’ve done the round of newspaper sections, create a special edition styled like your favorite periodical. Include a fake sports section (with real or fake teams); talk about the latest (imaginary) awards show for the entertainment section; give an (invented) update about the economy in the financial section, and so on. Add pictures and organize it like the regular print edition.
I also found an article written by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation on ways to use a newspaper to enhance language arts skills. It has some fun “classroom” projects and activities.
Other thoughts or suggestions?
Links to Online News (Taiwan in Mandarin)
For Taiwanese newspapers, my one stop shop is ABYZ News Links. In addition to a few radio and video broadcasts, it includes links to news sources like:
- Apple Daily
- Asia Today
- Central News Agency
- China Daily News
- Chinese Metropolitan News
- China Times
- Liberty Times
[For a more complete and ever growing list of Mandarin language online news sources check out my stack on delicious]