“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.

In learning to read, I thought a lot about what Jim said. And, although I understand the concept of why, at universities in the west, students are taught all four skills from day one, this must be a very daunting, very discouraging way to learn. Progress would be so slow. In my case, having learned so many words first, even with reading and writing I am getting through a chapter every three days. This is only possible because I already have the speaking and listening. Maybe this method of study would be better for university students in other countries. Maybe it is only possible if you are studying in a country where the language is widely spoken.

So much about L2 (second language) acquisition has been written based on how children acquire their L1 (first language). There are some fundamental differences, however, namely that an adult has more logic and experience to draw from. An adult also understands the mechanics and use of language. When I teach second graders that they have to use good grammar, they may not even be aware that Chinese has grammar. And certainly, their Chinese grammar wouldn’t be perfect yet.

One point that makes my current study of Chinese reading and writing more similar to the way Taiwanese children learn is that, like a Taiwanese child, my vocabulary is already large and I am already able to speak and communicate. Now, I have to learn the reading and writing. Even in the more advanced reading books, if I get stuck on a word, it is normally because I don’t know how to pronounce or recognize a particular character. But, if my teacher reads the character, I understand. This is exactly the case for Taiwanese children.

There are huge differences in vocabulary and usage, however, but more on this later.

One of my Tainan friends, call him Chuck, has lived in Taiwan for twenty years. He learned all four skills from day one. He had some very interesting points to make about language. First, he said, “I studied hard for the first five years. Then I took the exam and I scored 3,000.” Meaning his test results showed that he knew 3,000 or more characters. Three thousand is the magic number. At that level you should be able to read anything, even college textbooks, but you will still need a dictionary for specialized vocabulary that you may encounter. “I stopped studying at that point.” Continued Chuck. “And my Chinese stopped improving. I recently retook the test and still scored 3,000. so, I haven’t lost anything, but fifteen more years of living here didn’t cause me to improve.”

Chuck was touching on a subject I have written about extensively, namely, being in the country doesn’t mean you are immersed or that you are learning. Chuck has lots of Taiwanese friends and speaks Chinese all day, but in the course of a normal day or normal conversation, he doesn’t go beyond his three thousand words. The only way to move forward is to study.

Chuck also said, “There is nothing anyone can do for you, when you learn to read or write. Even your teachers can’t really help you. If you get stuck or you make a mistake, they can correct you. But you have to learn it on your own.”

And this means countless, lonely hours of reading and writing. Reading and writing Chinese, you become a study hermit.

Chuck told me about a foreigner who was teaching in Taiwan in the 1980s when the country was a bit less developed and regulations were in some ways looser. This foreign adult wanted to learn Chinese, so he went to an elementary school principle and obtained permission to attend classes, along with the children.

“For four years he sat in the back of the classroom learning the stuff children learn.” Said Chuck. “But to me, it seemed a little pointless. He didn’t need to know the name of every utensil in the house.”

Now we are back to the differences in vocabulary and approach of an adult learner, verses a child. I haven’t tried it, but I would bet money that if I took my basic reading dialogue entitled “At the Money Changers” and showed it to my second graders, they wouldn’t be able to read any of it. And if I read it aloud, they probably wouldn’t know words like currency exchange, travelers checks, or the technical names for currencies such as American Dollars or New Taiwan Dollars. They might not even be able to read the rates, which are posted in decimal form. At the same time, I don’t know how to say baby bottle or game consul. And I always forget how to call your father’s younger brother.

And perhaps most embarrassing, the second graders didn’t stutter when they were reading the story about the lion and the rabbit. It took me two days to read that.

This hits on my other writing focus. There is a myth that children learn language faster than adults. It’s just not true. For my work as an adventure writer, I need a lot of specialized vocabulary in the fields of international relations, politics, and geography. There is no way second graders would understand any of the concepts, so how would they learn and use that vocabulary. Often, we are talking about a second grader’s inability to learn these words and concepts in a foreign language. But now, I am comparing me, and adult learner, learning Chinese, to native speaker second graders. While they have many advantages in general reading and writing, by virtue of being native speakers, it will be years before they could read and explain the texts I will be using at university, a few months from now. And of course, if we compare an adult foreign leaner to a child foreign learner, the difference becomes even more extreme.

Learning to read Chinese means memorizing one or more characters for every single piece of vocabulary in your head. The characters are based on over a hundred base characters. So, after a while, you can see a new character and guess that it has something to do with talking or driving or is esoterically related to the heart or an open door, but for the most part, it is pure memorization.

The Chinese language is like an epic movie, starring a cast of thousands of characters.