Having spent the last few days breezing through ten lessons or so of the Mind Snacks Mandarin app, I’m so happy to get back to my old way of plucking at Chinese: randomly buying a book that looks neat at the Asian grocery store, and trying to read it!

The little games on my app have been parading phrases at me, often lists of vocab organized into groups like “careers” and “body parts” — which is all well and good, I guess… But I found myself thinking, “after all these adrenalized rapid-recall quizzes, have I really internalized anything?” I thought about it, and I realized that actually, the app was doing very little to help me put these words into any meaningful sort of context.

Jumping right into reading, I’ve been told, isn’t the easiest way to start learning a language — especially Chinese — but I think that if someday I’m able to read Chinese, this will be how. I open a book, see a page of Asiatic hieroglyphs and suddenly I feel like I’m holding a torch up to the wall of a tomb, or peering at a grimoire… It gives me a little thrill, even though Chinese is technically every bit as practical and boring as English — to a Chinese person, anyway. But not to me. Woo, exoticism at work!

So far I’ve been getting illustrated books for children with pinyin above the characters, just until I learn enough that I’m not looking up things every five seconds. The books that I’ve chosen, largely
with a “I have no idea what this is about, but it looks interesting” approach, have all turned out to be based on pre-existing folk tales. Luckily, here is where the apps can come in handy, in particular the dictionary apps: whereas it took me forever to figure out that “Sun Wukong” (the monkey king from 16th century classic literature) was a proper name and not “grandson awakened emptiness” before I had an iPad… Today I typed in the pinyin of some characters into Pleco, a dictionary app, and it spit out “the Queen Mother of the West (a mythological figure, usu. described as a beautiful immortal, who dwells at Jasper Lake 瑤池 in the Kunlun Mountains and in whose huge palace grow the magic peach trees which bear the fruits of immortality 蟠桃 once every three thousand years.” That’s what I’m talking about! MAGIC PEACH TREES. Way more fun than learning the characters for “subway” and “salesperson”.