A big problem I’ve had in learning Chinese is that after a couple of years of study, it’s still really hard to read anything outside of textbooks. So I was really happy to find the “Chinese Breeze” series of little illustrated novellas with audio CDs. What makes these great for people in the relatively early stages of study is that the books use a limited amount of vocabulary and define in footnotes any words not in that set of vocabulary.
The easiest books in the series assume a knowledge of 300 common words. The next level assumes 500. This seems to me to correspond roughly to what one would get in the first and second semesters of a college course. I tried a few of the 500-word ones and could read them pretty easily with my 1.5 semesters of continuing education study; sometimes I also knew the words defined in the notes. It’s great to be able to read on a train or in a cafe without constantly consulting a dictionary.
Other things I like:
- The text is entirely in (simplified) characters. I actually prefer this to texts with interlinear pinyin because I find myself relying too much on the pinyin when it’s right there.
- Proper names in the text are underlined. If you’ve ever wasted a hour trying to figure out a sentence only to realize that you were trying to translate a proper name as regular words will appreciate this feature.
- The size; the books are in a small format that fits into a coat pocket.
- The storylines are reasonably interesting for an adult.
- At certain points in the story, you get directed to the back of the book where there are questions to check your comprehension of the text.
- They include a CD so you can work on your listening comprehension as well.
You might ask: why not just read children’s books if you need something easy? There are a few reasons, the main one being that the kinds of words you learn first as an adult (from most courses, textbooks, and podcasts I’ve seen) are not at all the same as those small children learn. Talk to any 4-year old and they know “penguin,” “princess,” and “purple,” whereas you’re unlikely to encounter these in any first-year college course. Secondly, many children’s books are just not interesting to read when you’re older. Finally, it can be kind of embarrassing sitting in public and reading some goofily illustrated, large format book.
The series is supposed to continue up to a 3000-word level (although I haven’t been able to find anything after the 500-word level yet), but at that point, I imagine one could read real things.