“The rabbit and the lion walked through the jungle. All of the animals ran away. Afterward, the rabbit said to the lion, ‘I told you they were all afraid of me.'”

This was the story I struggled through last week. Yes, I was sort of proud that it was written in Chinese, but it is quite humbling that most of my reading material is purchased in the books section of Toys ‘R’ Us. Some of them came with free candy. Others were pop-up books. I particularly like those. All of them are decorated with little cartoon drawing of smiling monkeys and happy flowers.

If your ego gets away from you, as mine often does, just ask the nearest seven year old to help you with your reading practice. This will bring you back to Earth in a hurry.

Learning to read and write Chinese turns you into a study hermit. Chinese children spend five hours a day, from about age five to age fifteen or sixteen, writing endless lists of Chinese characters. In other words, it takes them ten solid years of studying five hours a day, seven days a week, to learn their native tongue.

One reason it takes them so long is because every single piece of vocabulary has to be taught. When you learned to read and write in school, your teachers taught you some very basic vocabulary. Probably through about sixth grade you had spelling tests and vocabulary exercises, but you were only taught a very small percentage of your vocabulary, the rest you acquired passively from listening and from reading and studying your other subjects. But for Chinese, every single piece of vocabulary has to be taught. Even native speakers can’t do much with a word they can say, but don’t know how to read or write.

As an adult foreign-learner you are at a huge disadvantage compared to the native speaker children. For one thing, they already know the meaning of every word.

When you first sign up for Chinese classes, in Taiwan or China, you are given a choice of speaking and listening only, or the complete set of reading, writing, speaking and listening. When I first began learning Chinese at Taipei Language Institute, for the purposes of survival, I chose speaking and listening only. At that time I was the only foreigner on two Chinese Kung Fu teams, training with each team once per day. This gave me several hours of exposure to the language each day outside of the 2- 4 hours per day I spent in the classroom. As a dedicated learner, with the opportunity to hear and practice the language, I reached a point where I was getting through a chapter of our book every two and a half days.

One of my American friends, call him Jim, chose the complete set of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In the six months that it took me to complete all of the books from beginner to upper intermediate, he hadn’t completed book one. He could read and write every single word that he knew, but he knew only about 1,000 words when he left Taiwan.

We had another classmate, call her Su Ling, who was a Taiwanese American. At home, her parents only spoke Taiwanese. So, she had returned to Taiwan to study Mandarin for the first time in her life. She could neither read, write, speak, nor understand any Mandarin.

The three of us went to a restaurant, and the waitress automatically handed a menu to Su Ling, and began speaking to her in Mandarin. I interrupted, explaining to the waitress that, in spite of her looks, Su Ling didn’t speak Mandarin. The waitress smiled politely, and resumed her incomprehensible babble with Su Ling.

“Tell her again.” Said Su Ling, “I don’t think she believes you.”

When I finally was able to convince the waitress that I was the one she needed to talk to, she handed me the menu, which I immediately handed to Jim, the only one of us who could read. Jim read the menu aloud, which I understood, but we had to translate into English for Su Ling. When we decided on our order, I told the waitress what we all wanted.

Basically, the point of the story is, if you can’t read Chinese, it takes three people to order off a menu. And, since I often find myself dining alone, I needed to learn to read.

I returned to Taiwan in June 2008, and began taking private lessons in reading and writing in late July. Once I got through my first hundred characters, I realized that learning reading and writing would be a very, very different experience than learning speaking.

When I was learning to speak, I spent as many hours in front of my teachers as possible. The only way I could get any input, any new learning, was sitting with my teachers. But in reading and writing, you have to do it all yourself. The best student will be the one who puts in the most hours of homework. Before, I had the teachers teach me the new material, and I saw them twenty or more hours per week. Now, with reading and writing, I have to teach myself the new material. I work through the chapters completely on my own, and then meet with my teachers just to correct, or go over what I have already done on my own. My ration now is only six to eight hours per week lessons and twenty or more hours per week of self-study.

When we were at Taipei Language Institute, I remembered Jim telling me, “With the Chinese, for every single word you learn you have to learn three things: the way it looks, the way it sounds, and its meaning.”

It’s true. With Chinese, unlike any European language, it is possible to know thousands of words, and not be able to read them or write them. This is where I was when I started studying. The other possibility is that you see a word, you know how to pronounce it, but you forgot what it means. Or, that you remember the meaning, but forgot how to say the word.

One example is the Chinese have about three ways to express the concept of a week. Each of these is composed of two characters. Very often I am reading, and I know the sentence says, “I study Chinese three times per week.” I use the word “sin chi” to express one week, but my teacher corrects me. “These are the characters for li bai, which also means week.” Two different sets of characters can have the same meaning, but different pronunciations. In English we have a lot of homonyms, which are written and spelled completely differently, but have similar meanings. But, because of our phonetic writing system, it would be impossible to look at the word “demise,” and say “kick-off.”

For myself, the last two don’t happen as often because my vocabulary, going into my basic reading class, was already well over 2,000 words. So, while I could maintain a fairly normal conversation, my reading book has sentences like, “My name is.” and “How many glass of tea did Mr. Wang take?” When any of my Taiwanese friends open my textbooks they always look at me in surprise. “This is so easy. You are way beyond this.” They learned to read so long ago that they forgot that someone who speaks Chinese well may not know how to read at all.

Interestingly, my second-grade students don’t think there is anything strange about what I am doing. They watch me do my homework and often say proudly, “Teacher, I can read all of that.” Half way through the page, though, they inevitably stop and ask me, “What is this word?” Yesterday, one of the kids asked me about five different Chinese characters in my homework. I was so proud of myself. If I study really hard, I might qualify for elementary school.