Chinese Project Notes 7: How To Read Books That Are Too Hard For You + Crossing the OS Rubicon

Crossing the OS Rubicon

The OS is dead! Long live the OS! I’m writing this from my freshly installed copy of Windows XP Traditional Chinese Edition. Let jubilation run freely (does that even make sense?). First impressions…sometimes, I feel like running with my tail between my legs back to my Japanese OS. I’ve been in a Japanese-only PC environment since February 2005, so about two and a half years. In that time, I’ve gotten really used to it, to the point that using an English OS is always a bit of context switch [“編集・・・コピー…Paste…what the English?? Oh, wait, I know English, too…”]. I’ve even gotten to the stage where I can kind of skim Japanese (not yet as quickly as English, but getting there). But now, in Chinese, going back to having to read error messages and program notifications word-by-painstaking-word-to-make-sure-I-get-what-the-heck-is-going-on-
so-how-do-I-get-the network-up-again? got me a little frustrated. But I’m fine; I’m calm now.

Chinese Windows welcome screen

How To Read Books That Are Too Hard For You

So, up until now, I’ve always had a Japanese book with me in my manbag/over-the-shoulder European carry-all. The problem was that this isn’t very good Chinese practice. So, I started carrying a Chinese book. But the ones I wanted to read, while I understood them almost fully because they contain material I’ve previously been exposed to in other languages (they’re almost all books from movies and/or translations of other books), contained too many readings that I didn’t know — I know what the character means, but not the reading. This was discouraging, because I felt that I wasn’t growing: I had tried writing them down in a notebook for later reference, but that failed miserably because I hate going back through old notebooks; I tried looking them up one a time as I hit them, but this is really slow going when you’re on a train, and often required me to have 3 arms). For a while there, I even stopped carrying Chinese books around, since there seemed no point taking them; they were “too hard”. Anyway, by accident, I found a solution for myself.

Reading books with stickers

It’s pretty simple: when I hit a character whose reading I don’t know, I stick one of these tiny sticky labels on it. Then, when I get home, I can go through and collect sentences containing those characters. The cool thing is, I don’t have to feel guilty about not instantly looking up a word when I’m on the road: I know I’ll get to it eventually because I’ve marked it up. Also, it’s much better than pen in that it’s cleaner, it’s quicker, and you don’t have to deface your book (so it’s OK to do on library books — assuming you get removable stickers that come off without taking a healthy chunk of book with them). Plus there’s that great sense of achievement from removing the stickie: it’s like taking off a training wheel or something. The sticky labels are about the size of 1-2 characters — just right to cover a word — and perhaps best of all, you get to see the word in the exact context where you first found it. Finally, it also makes me realize that I actually do know a lot of readings, relatively speaking: in the book I’m reading right now, I usually miss about 1-2 per paragraph, so in that sense it’s encouraging, it gives something of visual-numeric perspective of my current state of knowledge — when I stumble upon an unknown word or reading, I often feel dumb for not knowing it [and busting out a dictionary each time I stumble made it seem like reading takes forever; it made things painful], but seeing that on any given page there are only so many of these sticky labels, it makes me realize that things aren’t so bad at all — in fact, things are pretty good.


Funny story — I slack off Chinese to watch Japanese shows sometimes. Japanese has gone from noble endeavour to guilty pleasure. When no-one’s looking, I watch Trick.

  28 comments for “Chinese Project Notes 7: How To Read Books That Are Too Hard For You + Crossing the OS Rubicon

  1. David
    October 12, 2007 at 22:49

    Hey Khatz,

    where did you get your Chinese Edition of Windows XP from? I’ve been looking for that for ages!

  2. Jonathan DeSousa
    October 12, 2007 at 22:57

    Hi Katzumoto-san,

    Thanks for the great post. I found it very helpful on both sides. You have convinced me to install Japanese-OS on my laptop.

    Also, I think I am going to implement your idea for reading books. I also find that when reading books, I get pretty frustrated in not knowing compounds, etc.

    Fortunately, I am going to finish RTK1 one week from today!!! Then I can begin on my sentence journey.



  3. khatzumoto
    October 12, 2007 at 23:00

    This site sells it in Japan:
    In Taiwan: (unfortunately they do not ship internationally).
    Should I find a way for users outside of Japan and Taiwan, I will let you know.

  4. October 12, 2007 at 23:42

    That’s a great tip with the sticky idea. Way better than my method, which is to not mark anything in any way, and then try to find it by flipping through the pages randomly. A highlighter would work too, if you didn’t mind the mark being there forever.

  5. Sutebun
    October 13, 2007 at 05:58

    Someone also mentioned those invisible ink markers before. I haven’t tried it myself (now trying to bulldoze through RTK), but they said it worked well.

  6. ffhk
    October 13, 2007 at 07:55

    It seems like you’re making progress with your Chinese. Keep going! 加油!

    Thanks for the tip with the sticky labels. I have a question about sentences. I have some books with plenty of sentences, but they don’t give the readings in hiragana. The books have it in romaji and I don’t really want to rely on that, and things like mangas don’t have translations of the sentences. So where would I get the readings for the kanji and the meanings of the sentences? In the beginning should I only use books that are intended to teach you Japanese, where they give you the sentences and their meanings?

  7. khatzumoto
    October 13, 2007 at 08:42

    Invisible markers? Like the red/green kind? Where? On this site? I want to try some!

  8. khatzumoto
    October 13, 2007 at 08:50

    In principle, you should read whatever you want. For example, in Chinese, I read lots of Star Trek-related websites. I know the internal/fictional and external/production history of Trek really well, so there are no surprises when you tell me that Voyager was aired to launch UPN, in any language. Also, I have software package for Chinese, that, among other things, converts jianti to zhengti really accurately and produces pinyin/bopomofo automatically.
    In practice, looking up readings is tiresome, especially when you’re just starting out and you don’t know that many — and therefore need to look eeeeverything up — it’s better if you just had them given to you. The same goes for the meaning of the sentence. So, in those situations, beginners’ books that give you everything are good [it’s not like you’ll be using them forever: since you’re picking through them for sentences, they’re acting as a true stepping stone and not a crutch]. Outside of that, try reading Japanese books or articles on subjects about which you are already very knowledgeable.

  9. Sutebun
    October 13, 2007 at 13:55

    Try this amazon link.

    They’re UV light pens that write ink only visible under the light. There’s probably different brands out there you can find and ones that work better than others.

  10. Kumori
    October 14, 2007 at 12:16

    Hello khatzumoto!

    So whats your opinion about the new hanzi books Commander Heisig is publishing?

    (…you once mentioned that you mentally picture James Heisig as being black. For some reason, I always picture him as being Gendo Ikari. That’s why I address him as Commander Heisig.)

    Bye bye!

  11. khatzumoto
    October 14, 2007 at 12:18

    Haha! Ikari Gendo.
    I’m really excited he (and Timothy Richardson) are finally doing it. My only teeny, tiny complaint is that they only do 3000 chars total…plus, the first book is only coming out with 1500 chars or something…

  12. quendidil
    October 14, 2007 at 18:24

    Reading shounen manga and children’s books are also very helpful for learning readings, since furigana are on most of the kanji.

    Just my 2yen but honestly speaking, as a native speaker of Mandarin, I think that learning the reading of a Chinese character at the same time as its meaning is not that much of a stretch if you are familiar with the four tones, because Chinese characters on the whole have only 1 reading; those with 2 are usually those with a more archaic reading which is somewhat closer to Middle Chinese, which you probably won’t use in most situtations. e.g. 給与/给予 is ji3yu3 instead of ge3yu2. These words are rather rare though, we don’t have the 呉音・漢音・唐音・訓読み difference in Chinese. This of course, applies but to Chinese, if you’re learning Japanese, I’d say follow the classic Heisig method.

  13. khatzumoto
    October 14, 2007 at 18:58

    Thanks for your comment. I have had many people share that opinion with me…I personally found it easier to do it the Heisig way, even for Chinese, because while there is a stronger sound-character relationship than with Japanese, and fewer multiple-reading characters…there were enough exceptions, enough non-patterns, to make it frustrating (and slower) for me personally to attempt to do readings at the same time.

    So, this is me speaking as just one guy, who went from seeming to have 0 chance at Chinese literacy (I failed miserably at my first Chinese class at university because I was fixated on looking for a way to memorize the characters long-term, and not just for the upcoming test), to using a variation of the Heisig method and becoming a kanji nerd, able to understand, write and read characters of arbitrary number and complexity. If Heisig’s method can be said to be a divide-and-conquer approach, then his was the division that worked best for me: one adult with no strong phonetic associations with Chinese or Japanese at the time.

    However, like you said, it may well be not be that much of a stretch to learn reading and meaning together, and I would join you in recommending that any curious person give it a try: they may be pleasantly surprised. Some people have also suggested learning a single kun-yomi reading while learning characters in the Heisig way for Japanese…

  14. quendidil
    October 14, 2007 at 19:52

    Well, seeing as 漢字 are not foreign to me, my opinion is rather skewed for a 漢字-newb foreigner; I can’t say at all that it works, it just seems to me that way.

    At any rate, any form of the Heisig method is decidedly better than how we native 漢字-users learn new characters at school – by copying rows of characters dozens of times. We take about 10 years of education to master all the common characters, very inefficient compared to the Heisig method.

    Seeing as you, a foreigner who hasn’t had any prior exposure to 漢字 before trying out Heisig’s method, have memorized the shapes and meanings of around 4000 characters with the no-reading method, your opinion is definitely worth more weight for the foreign learner of Chinese/Japanese than mine.

  15. ジェームス
    October 15, 2007 at 03:43




    困難なのは 「憚る」という語。色々調べたがどうやらピントがこない。



  16. khatzumoto
    October 17, 2007 at 00:00


    It depends on the context, but it’s basically something along the lines of “the man looked around nervously”…Do you have the rest of the context?

  17. Max
    October 17, 2007 at 10:55

    Hey Khatzumoto,
    I’m getting to the finishing stages of RTK 1, and was wondering what you’re opinion was on going ahead and doing the extra 1000 in RTK 3 before going onto sentences. I run into kanji from book 3 pretty often.

    Can I ask how long it took you to learn the 4280 characters you started with? My measly 1800 have seemed to take an eternity.

  18. Charles
    October 17, 2007 at 16:08

    Hi Khatz,
    Not sure were to put this but since I see that you are now in Chinese OS territory, you’ve finally conveinced me to swap my safe English OS for an adventurous Japanese OS (all Windows). My question is somewhat related. I’m in the IT field and I spend far more time studying for IT certs than studying Japanese. I figured that I could *theoretically* kill two birds with one stone if I studied for my IT certs in Japanese. Any thoughts on that? (I’m mainly looking at the MS stuff and I assume that it would be quite painful at first but get better with time… also, the amount of katakana may lessen the blow). As always, thank for your inspirational help:)

  19. khatzumoto
    October 17, 2007 at 19:44

    >kill two birds with one stone
    That sounds like a brilliant idea. Definitely definitely definitely go for it.

    >the amount of katakana
    It will. コンピュータ、インターネット、インストール、ドライバ・・・

  20. khatzumoto
    October 17, 2007 at 19:47

    >Can I ask how long it took you to learn the 4280 characters you started with?
    It took me a while. At about 2500-3000 I started learning sentences and doing characters at the same time.

    >doing the extra 1000 in RTK 3 before going onto sentences
    You could if you want. Most people who are done with RTK1 are often raring to go with sentences, but if you want to get those extra kanji now, it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Go for it!

  21. Netta
    March 29, 2008 at 09:43


    I am beginning with Chinese and was wondering if I should follow the same method that you recommend for Japanese. I am not studying Japanese but was directed to the site as a reference to how I should go about learning Chinese. What do you recommend? I apologize if this question is out of place. Thank you for your time.

  22. khatzumoto
    March 29, 2008 at 20:00

    Yeah, I think it would work. I mean, I would follow it; I am following. There are only 3 principles. The Three Laws of Linguistics, if you will:

    1. Have fun.
    2. Always do stuff in [target language] that agrees with principle 1.
    3. Follow principles 1 and 2 all day every day.

    The more geeky version goes:

    1. A human may not bore herself or allow herself to become bored.
    2. A human must read/hear/listen to/speak stuff in her target language, and it may not violate the First Law.
    3. The First and Second Laws must both be obeyed, all day, every day. Allowances are made only for situations that would impair your ability to obey the Second Law.

  23. Netta
    March 30, 2008 at 03:41

    Thanks so much! But I have one final question, sorry:

    I was told that it is best if I learn everything other than the characters and save those for last. Is it true? I find that I pick up characters and new words and phrases at the same time just by watching Disney movies, as you did. I believe that I have answered my own question, but would still appreciate your input. Thanks again. C:

  24. khatzumoto
    March 30, 2008 at 05:28

    Learn characters….FIRST.
    Learning Chinese without Chinese characters is like learning English with katakana…ridiculous.
    Seriously, I don’t know what people are learning if they’re not learning Chinese characters, because whatever it is, it’s not Chinese.

  25. Netta
    April 24, 2008 at 05:54


    It’s me once more. (Sorry)
    I was wondering, how did you learn the tones? Were they hard for you? I cannot find an effective way to learn or remember them.

    Thanks (again) in advance.

  26. August 15, 2008 at 17:40

    Learning English using katakana sounds pretty interesting, actually. If this Japanese thing doesn’t work out for me, maybe I’ll just try to mess up my English instead.

    Khatz, can you recommend any Japanese books on programming? I’m trying to nipponize my personal library, but I just don’t know what to look for. I suppose I could go for translated versions of the books I already have, but even then, I don’t know their Japanese titles. orz

  27. February 8, 2009 at 15:22

    This is totally late on this post, but, I guess anyone reading these comments might be interested in an alternative to the sticky-things. Using posted notes instead, which you can then write on, and have the readings there in the book with you. I’ve not used any books where the readings weren’t shown yet, but I’ll get there eventually. I use posted notes all the time with the チャレンジ小学国語辞典.

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