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Learning to Read

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Do you remember learning to read? What’s your earliest reading memory?

Although I learned to read Chinese and English at the same time when I started kindergarten one, my parents taught me to read in my native language at home first. As you might realize, the building blocks of the Chinese language are individual characters that could mean one thing (or several things) and totally formulate and endow new meaning when certain characters are combined or grouped in a syntax pattern. I remember learning words by listening and hearing first, before knowing how to write the characters. My parents introduced pictorial flash cards that teach characters and their meanings. By the time I started school, I had a working knowledge of basic characters and words that slightly put me ahead of the other kids.

A heavy amount of reading materials was devoted to helping kids understand the tones and homophones, since the language has over 18,000 characters but just over 400 monosyllables. By the time I could read basic prose in Chinese, English, with just 26 alphabets and a phonetics that is a far cry from the complicated Chinese tones, was just a piece of cake. The only difficulty in English is the grammatical inflections–the tenses, voices, and numbers, which Chinese lacks. For both languages, I learned to read at a fairly early age and reading was incorporated into my daily routine.

10 Responses

  1. Hi Matt, how wonderful that you are able to read in both languages! Being bilingual must be fantastic and is such a valuable asset! I’m interested in knowing how much is lost in translation between books, do you ever read a Chinese book in Chinese and follow it up with an English translation?


    • I surely did read a book in the original text and follow up with the English translation. Owing to the different construct of languages, in this case the difference’s being even more drastic because English is a romantic language and Chinese is tonal, non-alphabet based, loss of meaning (subtexts) in translation is inevitable. I give the translator credits for Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang; but her robust, sometimes judgmental observation on the time period in which she sets her novella is irreplaceable.

  2. I learned to read at school, though my parents read to me quite a lot. Initially, I found reading difficult, until it was discovered that I was extremely far sighted with a pronounced astigmatism. It was a matter of simply not being able to see the text. As soon as I was fitted with corrective lenses, I learned very rapidly, almost overnight. From that time on I was a very active reader, but not one who can concentrate without a lot of effort. It seems I’ve always been an avid day dreamer.

    • Interesting how my parents would gladly pay for the books I picked, but they never read to me. Not even a bedtime story. I cultivated my reading interest on my own, and learned the basics before I started school. I remember enjoying reading so much more than writing, as for homework I was to write out page after page of new characters I learned in class. I just didn’t fare well in repetitious task. I rather read through the remains of the day after I came home from school.

  3. I didn’t learn to read until I started primary school at 4 years old as I only spoke Cantonese at home in England. I have had flashes of “memories” of being shown (as a class) individual words on flashcards to read aloud at nursery but I’m not sure if these are real memories or ones that I have created to explain what I had “seen”. I do however, remember being taught to read using synthetic phonics and then blending the sounds in the very early stages but then being introduced to sight words through reading books. The primary school did put a fair amount of emphasis on reading, especially in the early years, where we had to read every day (both in class to the teacher on a 1-1 basis and at home where a parent had to sign our reading card) from a prescribed reading scheme.

    • The idea of a prescribed reading card sounds very interesting. I remember the focus was not on reading in English. We were so caught up with grammars and structures as we took home everyday exercises in verb tenses, prepositions, and clauses. In Chinese language, it’s the other way around. We learned from reading papers, textbook prose, and “dictation.” The teacher would recite a passage and we were to write it down word for word on paper.

  4. Wonderful! My father’s first language was French – from being raised on the Maine side of the Canadian boarder. I think it’s a little sad that neither myself nor my cousins speak French. I always thought it would be a lovely gift to give a child a second language.

  5. I also don’t remember learning to read, or not knowing how. My dad taught me as a preschooler. I took French for two years in high school and by the end of that second year could read grade school level stuff. i should have kept it up.

  6. If we’re talking about literature, I remember reading Like Water for Chocolates when I was in high school. That’s the first novel my brother had convinced me to read 🙂

  7. I remember being keen on books from an early age. My parents never bought us any books, or read to us, but they had a friend who we called Uncle Peter; he was like our Santa Claus.. He brought Roald Dahl into my life 🙂 We had a massive library in primary school which I took great advantage of. The first books I remember reading are the Cat in the Hat books.

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