As a heritage speaker, I always struggled with learning to read Chinese. I went to Chinese school for a couple of years when I was a teenager but promptly forgot everything afterwards. We were taught to practice writing characters by hand over and over in those exercise books with the square grids and I hated it. Rote learning just didn’t work for me because I hate repetition.
Recently, I decided to seriously learn how to read Chinese because I didn’t want to be illiterate any more. I tried a bunch of different apps including Duolingo, vocabulary apps, graded readers, HSK flashcard apps, and literally nothing worked until I started doing this:
1. Went to Pleco, selected ‘browse entries’, literally started from A and worked my way down the list of words. Whenever I recognised a word based on its pinyin and definition (since I already knew a lot of words by *sound*) I would add it to a flashcard list of “words I know”. I figured the best way for me to build my “reading” vocabulary was to build on my existing “listening” vocabulary. I only got to about the middle of the B words but I already had a sizeable list of more than 700 words.
2. I started googling stuff in Chinese. Just typing questions using Chinese characters and see what came up. It had to be stuff I was genuinely interested in, or a question I wanted an answer to, for example “*What do Chinese people think about…*”. Sometimes the results were articles, other times there were posts on Zhihu and similar Chinese social media platforms. Reading was very slow and frustrating at first, but I downloaded a Chrome extension called *Zhongwen: Chinese-English Popup Dictionary* and it has helped immensely. It only works on desktop. When you hover your cursor over a Chinese character or word on a webpage, a definition with the pinyin will pop up. When I’m on my mobile I will just copy and paste words or passages into Google Translate or Pleco, sometimes I will use Google Translate to read a passage aloud and I read the Chinese characters along with it. On some Chinese websites/apps there is a read-aloud function (Baidu Baike and Zhihu both have this function) and I use this sometimes as well. Most of the time I can understand what is spoken.
3. I forced myself to watch Japanese content on [this Youtube channel](https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHUYtwH5E41O6MiYoC19ng) which only has Chinese and Japanese subtitles (and no English). Since I don’t know any Japanese, this meant that I had to read the Chinese subtitles to understand what they were saying in Japanese.
I struggled for a long time to find resources for heritage speakers and could not find any that worked for me. I now realise that most Chinese language apps/online courses are designed for beginner learners (ie. foreigners) and were too tedious for someone like me, who already had an intermediate level of listening and speaking ability in Chinese but needed to focus on character recognition and acquiring more advanced vocabulary.
I personally think the best way for heritage speakers to practice reading and/or writing is just to use Chinese the way you would use English on the internet. It may be hard at the beginning but once you get over the initial “resistance” (which is basically your brain being lazy) it will pay off and you will accelerate along the learning curve because you already have a lot of foundation knowledge and vocabulary, especially if you have previously learnt some characters, even if they are only the basic commonly used ones. I am a contextual learner and I found that the more I read, the more I started to recognize characters that I had seen before, and sometimes I could even guess the character based on context.
Anyway, I hope this helps. When I first started seriously (re)learning how to read Chinese, I had to start from nothing and it was back to HSK 1. I would say now, my reading comprehension is intermediate. If it’s a topic I’m familiar with I can read maybe 80% without needing a dictionary. Even if there are words I have to look up in a dictionary, it no longer feels like a struggle. Using a dictionary is second nature and I see it as an essential part of the learning process.
If I can do it, you can do it too. I am in my late 30s and I only started learning late last year (and even then, only sporadically when I had time) so I hope you take that as encouragement. I was actually surprised by my own progress since I hadn’t really been learning consistently, so I thought I’d share this in hopes that it will encourage other heritage speakers to learn to read Chinese.
I think the key is not to give up. Even if you take breaks from learning Chinese, if you keep coming back to it and if you keep trying, you will get better.