One of the major hurdles for anyone wanting to read real Chinese, Chinese written for Chinese natives, is the simple fact that Chinese has no alphabet. The characters in which it is written can appear overwhelming to the neophyte. This in itself discourages many from plunging into reading as would be the case with a language having an alphabet.
As the author of a course in spoken Chinese ( Michel Thomas Method Speak Mandarin Chinese; three levels) and a former student in the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan, I am very familiar with this dilemma. No one studying Chinese is immune from this issue; we all have to either find a way to learn to read and write or, essentially, remain illiterate in Chinese.
Most current Chinese language instruction follows the model for other languages, languages with alphabets. The student learns to speak, read and write more or less side by side.
I don’t find this approach helpful.
It wastes valuable time that could be used to just become comfortable with communicating in the language. In addition, the enormous burden it imposes on already burdened students all but assures that many students will just give up.
So my approach, which works well for me and many others I teach, is to just get the student speaking with native Chinese speakers. This gets them really excited and they naturally want to go on. It gives them a lot of motivation that the traditional way of teaching doesn’t permit.
But what about reading real texts?
The fact is that Chinese does have systems of phonetic, alphabet based ways of reading.
The Communists introduced what is called pin yin. This uses Latin characters to pronounce Chinese. It was actually developed with Soviet help and was used for teaching Chinese to foreigners and also for communication with the outside world. However, there are no books meant for native Chinese in pin yin.
I have a lot of material in pin yin but it will only take you so far. In my opinion, it should be learned by the student if only to use dictionaries that enable one to look up material using pronunciation.
However, there is another system of writing Chinese using phonetic symbols which is much more useful for the student.
It originated on mainland China and was developed by Chinese for Chinese.
It is called bo po mo fo, after the first four characters in the alphabet. Kind of like saying, ABC’s.
The official term is Zhùyīn fúhào ( 注音符號).
Since all children in Taiwan learn to read using this system, there is abundant material available in it. This basically means that if you know the Mandarin pronunciation for a character then you can write it in bo po mo fo without any hesitation.
Even better, you can read a text in Chinese characters annotated with bo po mo fo and you will understand every bit of it assuming you know the meanings of the pronounced words. If you don’t, you can easily look up the word in a phonetic dictionary of which there are many. You could even use a pin yin phonetic dictionary which is the type you would find outside of Taiwan.
There is a daily newspaper, Mandarin Daily News, which many school kids in Taiwan read. It is an amazing aid to learning to read in Chinese since it uses the traditional characters and the bo po mo fo side by side.
There are many, many books in Taiwan that use this system.
When I was there I bought over one hundred of them.
I have Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin ( a French detective character), Chinese and Western history and biographies all using this system.
Let’s face it, most stuff for students is really boring.
So I love to read these texts because they are what I would enjoy reading in English anyway. Since they are in Chinese and I either know or can look up the words in a dictionary quickly, the language just opens like a flower.