A common mistake people make when learning Chinese is to treat tones as a separate part of the pronunciation.
For example they’d look at the characters 妈、麻、马 and 骂 and think of the pronunciation as:
ma + 1st tone ma + 2nd tone ma + 3rd tone ma + 4th tone
This represents an incorrect mental model of the Chinese language that makes it difficult to learn and remember the tones.
Finding Chinese content suited to your current level is one of the most important things you can do if you want to read native materials.
If you try to read something too far above your current level then reading it will feel like a chore and it will also destroy your confidence. This is because even after learning hundreds (or even thousands) of new words you will still need to perform frequent dictionary lookups to understand the text and it will feel like you aren’t making any progress, despite the large number of words already learnt.
On the other hand, reading something at the right level, or only slighly above your level, will make you feel energized and give you a huge sense of satisfaction because you will feel that you can read Chinese! Which is an awesome feeling to have.
Sometimes it’s easy to convince yourself that you know a word even though your actions demonstrate that this is not the case.
For example, imagine you are reading something in Chinese and you encounter a word that you’re 90% sure of.
You look it up in the dictionary ‘just to check’, and sure enough, it means what you thought it did and it’s pronounced how you thought it was, and you think to yourself ‘yes, I was right, I do know that word’, and so you keep reading, oblivious to the fact that actually you were wrong and you don’t know that word.
It’s not uncommon for some learners of Chinese to decide that they want to learn Chinese as fast as possible, and they decide that the best way to do this is to try and learn as many new words per day as they can.
Although they have the best of intentions, this can be a flawed approach because increasing the number of words you learn per day can decrease the amount you learn, especially if you are talking about learning words in the long-term such that they are useful to you in daily life.
If you are at the point where you are starting to read native content but you find that your vocabulary is lacking, one of the least effective things you can do to boost your vocabulary is learn from word lists such as the HSK or other word lists based on general frequency.
The reason for this is quite simple - generic word lists are derived from a large body of content, spanning multiple fields, genres and topics. They contain a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and therefore only a little bit is going to be relevant to what you are currently reading and the rest will be words you are not going to use or encounter for months (or maybe even years).
Think for a moment about the things you’d like to be able to do in Chinese.
Would you like to be able to read a newspaper?
Would you like to be able to understand T.V. shows?
Would you like to be able to speak fluently using well-formed sentences?
Probably you’d like to be able to do all of that and more, unfortunately, there might be a large gap between your current level and the level required to be able to do those things, and so the question you find yourself asking is: how can I improve my Chinese so that I will be able to do X?
Regardless of X, the answer to this is simple.
Imagine that you’ve been studying hard for a couple of years and have finally passed HSK 6. Going by the HSK wordlists, you’d know about 2,600 characters and around 5,000 words.
The Chinese government defines literacy for urban, white collar workers as knowing more than 2,000 characters (source), so congratulations, you’re no longer illiterate.
Unfortunately, you may still feel illiterate because if you try to read native level newspapers and novels, you’ll be overwhelmed by new words and characters.
How overwhelmed you ask?
It’s quite common for people starting out with Chinese to want to know how long it will take to learn the language.
The answer to this depends a lot on what you consider it means to have “learnt” Chinese, after all, Chinese is deep enough that there will always be something more to learn if you want to, even after decades, so really, the learning will only stop once you decide you’ve had enough and are happy with your level.
What you really need to ask is at what point will you be happy with your Chinese such that you feel you have “learnt” it, and then you can consider how long will it take to reach this target.
For me, if someone says they know Chinese, then at a minimum I would expect them to be able to do the following things:
Reading speed is an important, but often overlooked part of learning a language.
Why is it important you ask? Well, imagine that it takes you 1 month to read a book. If you could double your reading speed, you could read the same book in 2 weeks. Or perhaps you’re taking an exam and it takes you 20 minutes to read a long passage of text. If you could double your reading speed, you could read the same passage in 10 minutes, giving you more time to answer the questions.
Maybe you usually try to spend 30 minutes per day reading newspapers or other Chinese material. If you could double your reading speed, you’d be able to read twice as much in the same time, which means greater exposure to the language and greater reinforcement of vocabulary and grammar structures, ultimately leading to better Chinese. The benefits of increasing your reading speed will flow on to almost every other aspect of your Chinese.