What makes reading materials "simple" in Chinese?

Hi all,
Lately I’ve gotten back to thinking about simplified Chinese (I mean easy to read, not necessarily in simplified characters) reading materials.

There was/is a section of the English Wikipedia in “Simple English”, and the Voice of America also provides broadcasts and print materials on the Web in simple English. They seem to use a limited vocabulary as their basis.

I’d like to know what your opinions are, as learners or teachers of Chinese, about what makes a reading passage easy (or at least level-appropriate, so that you could think about reading it, say, to just strengthen your Chinese, as opposed to slogging through it with a dictionary and a three-volume reference grammar at your elbow).

This is what I’ve come up with so far. If you were going to read a short article in Chinese “just for fun”, so to speak, what/which would be important to you (you can vote for all of them, or add some, of course!) I’m assuming the article is about some fairly interesting topic that has some relevance to you.

[ul]Limited vocab, certainly. Not more than 10% unknowns.
Repetition and (artificial) use of things like “which is to say” and clauses explaining words that have been used.
Simplified grammar (i.e., perhaps limiting connectors to basic ones like “因為”, “但是”, “所以” and “雖然” and disallowing “deeper” ones like “則”.
Shallower structures – especially for the whole XYZ 的 ABC thing. I mean, not allowing the part that modifies the noun to be more than a few words long, unlikes some articles we see where there can be several clauses before you finally hit that elusive 的 that points out the noun is coming.
Shorter segments – more use of shorter sentences, and emphasis on SOV order rather than topic-comment stuff; making sure to break up long sentences into shorter ones and use a pronoun to refer to the topic/actor in the subsequent short sentences.
Always spelling out the whole phrase rather than using an abbreviation.

What sort of Romanization support (if any) would you prefer in this sort of thing? A parallel text with the Romanization, some sort of glossary/footnotes, none…??

In this vein, does anyone have a flat-text or spreadsheet version of the vocab from AV-Chinese I and II?

:laughing: TELL me about it! I’m sure every learner feels this way. I STILL feel this way, after 12 years of study, because the difficulty of my reading material rises to always slightly exceed my ability.

The guidelines you have above are good. I can’t think of anything to add to them in terms of what makes them simple. Are you considering producing materials like this, or what?

In terms of format, it would be nice if a series of 20 or so colloquial novels like 離島醫生 by 侯文詠 Hou Wenyong were available with more difficult characters and expressions footnoted, with Pinyin and English explanations in the footnotes, but I doubt anyone would produce such a thing. Hanyu Pinyin would of course be the best romanization.

The extensive availability of texts for young readers with zhuyinfuhao throughout is of course nice, and there are some novels available with English and Chinese on opposite pages, allowing one to check comprehension easily. But footnotes would improve these.

I’m definitely thinking about it. I’m thinking about slightly lower levels, though. Although annotated materials are a nice idea at higher levels, too.

But – of course TOP is the system of choice (although it’s basically Hanyu Pinyin). I’m naturally not even suggesting that anything be produced in (gasp!) Tongyong…

I agree – materials for children are not really the thing for us. They’re for little native speakers (darn them!!)

I don’t want to produce something with English or a translation. What I’d like to do is to provide what’s called “extensive reading” practice. The materials might be a bit contrived in their repetitive nature – hammering basic words and structures – but a beginner can get a real sense of achievement being able to read a real story/book/whatever entirely in Chinese. I taught high-school Spanish and had my kids read specially written materials of this type in Spanish, and they loved being able to read and understand even at their level.

I’d like to get a group of like-minded, fairly competent people together and make some good reading stuff. I’m planning to provide hosting on my site for this sort of thing. It also occurs to me that the entire contents of the wikipedia sites is public domain, and there are thousands of interesting articles in Chinese there that could be simplified quite easily. If the original writing is fairly good, it’s fairly easy for a foreigner with decent Chinese to “reverse-engineer” it to make it comprehensible to learners of Chinese, I think.

There was some talk about doing something like that there, but apparently the wikipedia folks “don’t think simplified versions are a good idea”. Must be nice to be so absolutely fluent in all your languages, what?? :noway:

What’s TOP?

As for the romanization, I don’t think a parallel text would be very appropriate: you would probably only want to refer to the romanization of specific characters whose pronunciation you don’t know, and it would be less than convenient to have to wade through a large piece of text in order to find it. I think footnotes for the less-than-familiar characters would be the best way to go.

That having been said, if you’re planning on putting this online, it shouldn’t be very difficult for different versions to be generated from the same text. For example, all the words which are rarer than X could be given a footnote, and a fully romanized version could be generated just as easily.

Anyhow, this sounds like a great idea!

Can you share any tips on how to generate the various versions? I would be using MediaWiki on my own site. I do have as many mySQL databases as anyone could ever want as well, if that helps.

(For the previous poster, TOP = “Tonally Orthographic Pinyin”…it’s all over the archives here on Forumosa.)

It looks pretty good to me.

One thing that might be useful is when you spell out the whole phrase when there is a widely used (newspaper, tv…taxi drivers , etc.) abreviation- you could include the abreviation in brackets.

I Googled TOP to learn more about it, and virtually the only instances on Google of folks advocating it were all posted by some Dr. Waltz… one of which said “my TOP”, making it seem like something that the good doctor invented herself. :wink: I tried to find, using Google, the actual details of the system to see how intuitive it would be for those who know Pinyin, and couldn’t find anything! The links by Dr. Waltz said to do a search, but I came up empty. Finally I came back to Forumosa and searched, finding this:

After reading that, I agree that TOP is a nice idea, although visually inelegant. Bottom line, it doesn’t accomplish anything diacriticals don’t, and is inelegant, so why bother? I can type diacriticals in Word.

But my point is that if even someone as familiar with various Chinese phonetic systems as myself has to search this hard to find information on what TOP is, it should hardly be called the “system of choice.” The system of choice, IMO, would be what the majority of users know and want – diacritically marked Hanyu Pinyin. Sorry! :stuck_out_tongue:

I was very sceptical about the advantages of TOP, but I gave it a try and now I don’t use anything else when studying.

TOP is a great system for memorising tones with new vocabulary. The reason it’s better than tone marks (in my opinion) is because it ‘sticks’ in my head a lot better than a little mark over a vowel. Perhaps it’s due to conditioning, the fact that we normally pay attention to upper case and lower case letters when we read English.

Whatever the reason is, I find it much easier to recall an item of vocabulary if it’s written using TOP (CHAOjI Shichang) as opposed to regular Hanyu pinyin orthography (chāoj

IMO, the romanization issue is actually one of the least important of all the questions asked in this thread.

The vocab for books I and II is available here, but I’m not sure if its something that you can copy freely. You’d have to extract the data from the PDB files, which is not easy, but can be done.

All in all, I think supplemental reading for the PAV series would be fantastic. I know I really could have used it when I was on those books. I’m sure a lot of people could benefit from any material that you produce.

Great. Thanks for the vocab lists.

The bottom line for romanization is, she who creates the site chooses which one to use. :smiley: Right now I’m grappling with the more important technological problem of getting the on-demand transformation from simplified to traditional Chinese characters.

TOP is ugly. I never said it wasn’t. But remember it’s for learning only, not for Romanizing signs or books or stuff where a lot of people would be looking at it a long time. It’s more intended for vocab lists, flash cards and maybe short readings or footnotes to readings.

But tonal spelling works for learning Chinese. Prevents the old “write the tone mark as an afterthought and then scratch it out when you find you wrote the wrong one and end up with chicken scratch on top of the syllable and you unsure which really IS the right tone” thing. With TOP you pretty much have to start from scratch if you get the tone wrong. That was the biggest problem my students had when I taught Chinese at a US university some years back. I like Pinyin better than any other widely-used system, but I’d like it to be tonally spellable, which is why I push TOP. You could just as well use a color-coding system. Anything that reinforces the visual differences between syllables with different tones, while keeping the similarities they have being the same phonetic syllable, is a good thing in my book. I believe that any visually-enhanced Romanization system (you could call it that, I guess) is preferential for Western students, given they way we are educated and the way our native languages work (no tones).

And for the irony-impaired, the phrase “of course TOP is the system of choice” was ironic. I do believe it is the most pedagogically useful for students, since it gives all the good points of Pinyin plus tonal spelling. And I’ll probably use it on the site. After all, it’s a heaven-sent opportunity – there don’t seem to be any competing sites with simple Chinese readings out there at present. But it’s definitely damn hard to find anything on TOP. Part of that’s because the only journal doing stuff related to Chinese language teaching in the US – the JCLTA – refuses categorically to print anything about any Romanization system. Pretty much shuts one off from traditional routes to popularize anything.

Ironlady, I agree with scomargo that additional reading would be fantastic for PAV 1 and 2.

I often supplement my lax study with guo yu ri bao, but the idioms, conjunctions, and native ability to speak assumption make it very hard to read most of the articles, unless they’re for 3rd graders. Which in turn, makes it boring to read.

I would have to honestly say that there must be a market for “readers” for Beginner - intermediate Chinese. I keep reading about how studying Chinese is growing in popularity, but I never see an improvement on the material offered!

Sorry I’m not offereing any constructive ideas, but I wish you good luck on the endeavor and I’ll test read anything you come up with for PAV2.

Oh! And thanks for caring about us at the low end of the totem pole! :bravo: :notworthy:

Fair 'nuf. I certainly support the idea of trying new things, and using anything that really helps the students! I just think that there are already too many systems out there, and once the students are done with the presumably limited resources available on your site, they’ll have to make the switch to a different system to use other sites, texts and dictionaries…

Ok, I’ll shut up now. Best of luck with this! :rainbow:


Proper use of periods and commas would go a long way toward simplifying written Chinese!

That is a consideration, and that’s one reason why TOP is a good thing to use…it doesn’t require any re-learning to switch to standard Hanyu Pinyin, because it IS Hanyu Pinyin, just with a different way of indicating the tones.

Don’t get too excited, y’all, because I get slower and slower as the days go by… :frowning:

Oh, I second Chris’s comment above, and add that proper nouns should be underlined.

I think you mean “English-style use of periods and commas”. Surely sentence structure works differently in Chinese (no category of run-on sentences, for example).

Well, for “real” texts probably the use of commas and periods should be the way real Chinese use them, but for simple texts, I think that shortening the clause length and clause depth (trying as much as possible to eliminate those pesky, enormously long modifiers where you can hardly find the noun) will help a lot. That would mean a lot more commas and periods, which do help learners to keep track of what’s going on. I think you have a good idea there.

Underlines – you got it. Since TOP is intended only for teaching, it makes sense to make it as learner-friendly as possible. For some reason I was thinking, “Real Chinese doesn’t underline nouns” but then again what difference does THAT make?

I’m still sweating out the character conversion issues though. May have to do a re-install from what I hear. Now to find enough free time to do it… :frowning:

Hi Ironlady,

I really like your idea for developing practice reading for learners.

When I was studying Chinese at university in Australia, we used a book of readings the professor’s previous students had written, (i.e. written in Chinese by native English speakers.)

They were pretty much as you described - sometimes basic and contrived, and much simpler than a native Chinese speaker would write, but they were really great practice for just that reason.

I remember feeling exactly as you described for your Spanish students, too - a real sense of achievement, plus I did actually read and reread them because they weren’t too hard. If there were a well graded series of these kind of readers, I’d be lining up for them! :slight_smile:


That’s an interesting idea! Maybe we could allow students of Chinese to submit their writing and use it as one portion of the offerings, after making sure it’s correct (even if not 100% stylistically slick as a native speaker would write).

I remember doing the same thing when I was in first-year Chinese at Georgetown. Our teacher had everyone write a short story at the end of the first and second semesters, collected them, copied them and gave us all the booklet. Like you said, it was fun to think that we could actually write and read something, even if it was pretty darn basic.

Repetition is the best way to REALLY learn new vocab and nail down old vocab…I’d just like to offer some really easy readings that have something to do with learner’s lives or interests. Reading about Chinese culture is great, but sometimes you want to talk about something that’s not quintessentially Chinese, and you’re out of luck if you know the words for “Cultural Revoluntion”, “street committee” and “oolong tea” but not for things in your own culture.