The Art of Reading Chinese (as a non-native speaker)

How I read quickly without a dictionary…or knowing all the characters

Have you ever been reading something in Chinese, gaining momentum as you go, when suddenly you come to a grinding halt? Staring you in the face is some weird-looking character or obscure phrase that you have no idea what to make of. You open your favorite dictionary app to look up the offending text. After 30 seconds, you find it, think “ahhhh, now I get it” and go back to reading. However, in focusing on the dictionary lookup, you’ve forgotten what that sentence (or perhaps the paragraph) was talking about, so you go back and start at the beginning again.

This cycle repeats itself several times as you read the article, and it feels like it’s taking forever. Sometimes, even when you look up every word in a sentence, it still doesn’t make sense. By the time you finish the article (if you don’t throw up your hands up and stop out of frustration before that), you’re exhausted.

Are you convinced there’s no way you’ll ever be able to read even a short article without looking at your dictionary at least once? Maybe you should just plan to keep your Chinese dictionary app pinned to your Home screen.

Is there a better way?

That depends. Are you a serious student who’s willing to put in some hard work and effort now to make each and every one of your future readings faster, more fun, and maybe even dictionary-free?

If you’re not interested in investing in hard work and practice up front, this approach probably won’t work for you. But, if this sounds like you, let me share how I mastered the art of reading Chinese.

Whenever I feel myself coming to a screeching stop while reading, rather than reaching for that dictionary like a lifeline, I first try asking these five questions:

1. Is it a Chinese name?

The vast, vast majority of Chinese names follow a set pattern that you can use to your advantage to identify them:

[1 Character Surname] + [1 OR 2 Character Given Name]

Take, for instance, 杜尚成. Here is the surname, and 尚成 is the given name.

The key thing to exploit in perfecting your ability to recognize Chinese names like a native speaker is the set group of characters that make up Chinese surnames. Colloquially these are known as the 老百姓 “old hundred names”.

If you see one of these characters and can’t figure out what it’s doing in the sentence, there’s a good chance it’s the beginning of someone’s name. These names are a vocabulary set that you can learn over time. You don’t need to go crazy and memorize the whole list at once, but the more familiar you are with these characters, the easier it is to pick out names.

2. Is it a transliterated foreign name?

Foreign names in Chinese are a whole separate system from Chinese names. Most foreign names are transliterated into Chinese characters, meaning they take the sound of the name, and try to approximate that using similar sounding characters.

For instance, Jack Jones is 杰克·琼斯

In the above example, notice the little dot in between the 杰克 and the 琼斯. If you see that, it’s a dead giveaway that you’ve hit a foreign name, since that punctuation mark isn’t used anywhere else.

However, not all foreign names get transliterated as first name · last name. Sometimes only the last name makes it into the translation, and that ever so useful dot disappears. For instance, Barack Obama becomes just a transliteration of Obama: 奥巴马. What now?

Context is your best friend. Does the topic of the text, for instance, ‘foreign trade’ or ‘international tourism’ suggest that a foreign person might be mentioned? Is there a title or country name that you recognize nearby? If you know how to pronounce the mystery characters in question, you can sometimes even “sound out” the foreign name.

For instance, let’s say you’re reading an article about American foreign policy and come face to face with this string of text: 美国总统特朗普…

You know:
美国 = USA
总统 = president

You know how the next three characters, 特朗普, are pronounced: tè lǎng pǔ
But you have no idea what they might mean. However, when you say them aloud together, you realize, “Oh! That sort of sounds like ‘Trump’ ”.

Finally, like Chinese surnames, there are certain characters that appear again and again in foreign name transliterations, such as . The more familiar you are with these characters, the more quickly and easily you’ll be able to recognize foreign names.

3. Does the radical tell you what the character means?

What if you run into a character that you’ve never seen before? Over 90% of chinese characters are 形声字, literally ‘form and sound characters’, which have two components: a radical that approximates meaning, and phonetic piece that approximates pronunciation.

An example:

In characters that are split between left and right sides, the left side is usually the radical representing meaning, so I’m going to guess that
Radical (meaning): => fish
Phonetic (sound): => probably pronounced lu or lv, but I’m not really sure

Notice that I am not sure how 卢 is pronounced, but if I am just trying to figure out generally what this character means, the amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter– I can make a mental note that this is very likely some kind of fish, probably pronounced lv or lu, and move forward.

4. Does context give you the meaning?

You can also use the surrounding characters and phrases to figure out approximately what something means and keep moving forward without losing momentum. In fact, you probably already do this all the time when reading in your native language, you just need to practice doing it in Chinese.

Take, for example, the following phrase from a Beijing Youth Daily news article on nationwide health insurance direct billing:


The context is someone’s situation being featured as an example of how the new cross-province direct billing system works. As I’m reading, I get stuck on the phrase 胸闷 . I know that means chest. 闷 seems to have a gate / door radical 门, but I can’t figure out what something related to a door combined with someone’s chest would mean. But, if I keep reading I see ‘老毛病’ which I know means old problem or chronic illness. The sentence structure ‘A 的老毛病’ suggests that A is some kind of chronic illness. That in itself is enough for me to keep reading– I don’t need to know exactly what kind of chronic illness it is to understand the overall article, as the article is focused on the benefits of the new direct billing system, not her exact illness.

5. Are you splitting up the phrases () wrong ?


You can still read it, right? But you probably need to put a bit more effort into thinking about where to split the letters apart into words, and you might make a mistake occasionally and have to go back and try splitting a sentence up differently.

For instance, YOUROAR. Is that “you roar”? Or “your oar”? It really depends on context.



This is exactly what happens in Chinese.


我 喜欢 上一个 人 =》 I like the previous person

我 喜欢上 一个人 =》 I came to like one person

When you’ve figured out the characters, but the sentence isn’t making sense, try experimenting with splitting up the phrases differently. A little creativity goes a long way.

Finally, it can be very comforting to know that Chinese native speakers have this problem too– even after they are college educated adults! As one of my friends told me, trying different ways of splitting characters up is just part of the reading process in Chinese.

Do you want to get off your ‘dictionary crutches,’ read faster, and actually be able to enjoy what you’re reading? Find a short article (or even an upcoming lesson in your textbook) where you recognize some but not all of the words, and try applying the five questions above. How far can you get without turning to your dictionary? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.

Happy reading!


One Reply to “The Art of Reading Chinese (as a non-native speaker)”

  1. Interesting read. Nice Article Katie! I found as well that if I go through an article without a dictionary, just the fact that I have been through once and have the whole context means I spot a lot more the second time around!

    The thing about names is so true as well! Great advice 🙂

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