Why are the characters so small?

When reading books or manga it can seem like the characters are so small, just a black dot on the page. Any effort to decode what’s actually written can leave our brains scrambled and our eyes sore. So how is it we are even supposed to be able to make out what it looks like, let alone read it.


First, before we move onto this I want to take a look at our own native language first, in my case English.


Defining the problem

Why is it that when reading characters or letters of a similar size in English it causes us no problems at all?


Is this because the letters in the English alphabet are less complex than the characters used in Chinese?


This may be part of the reason, but what I found early on is that characters that I struggled to make out, native speakers could read effortlessly and looked at me with a confused expression as they stated how clear everything looks.


So this would point the finger at a different underlying problem.


First, let’s take a look at this quote from a research paper at Cambridge University:


“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”


Notice how the letters are completely jumbled up, yet for native speakers of English, this is still incredibly easy to read. How come?


As it states in the quote:


“This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole”


We have become so accustomed to reading English through thousands of hours of exposure across the entirety of our life, that we don’t need to read every little detail to make out what is being said. All we need is for our eyes to pick up the gist of what is said, and our brain can fill in the rest for us.


When it comes to learning a second language, we lack this mass exposure over years and years that we have in our native tongue and this can cause a lot of problems.


How does this apply to me as a learner of Chinese?


Similar to how our brain can fill in the gaps of jumbled up words in English, with native speakers of Chinese their brains fill in the gaps and details in the characters that are too small for the eye to pick up alone.


But as learners of Chinese we don’t have this advantage, so what can we do?

The first thing may seem obvious but just read more. We all get caught up in intensive reading and trying to understand every little detail. Extensive reading, mass exposure to the language for pleasure, helps our brain slowly get used to the language and the more we read the easier it will become.


Not only will this help the characters become clearer, it will also massively improve your grammar and vocabulary as well.


However, this is a catch 22, we need to read more so we can make out the characters clearly, but we struggle to read because we can’t make out the characters clearly. So what can we do?


How to read as a beginner


The biggest advice I can give you on how to read Chinese extensively as a beginner is to make it as easy as possible for yourself. In order to do this, avoid hard copies of books and do as much reading as possible on your computer.


This is for two reasons. Firstly, if the characters are too small to make out you can simply zoom in or increase the font size. Then, as you get more accustomed to reading in Chinese you can decrease the size of the font incrementally as you go.


The second reason for this is that it gives you access to online dictionaries. Using a program like LingQ, or by using popup dictionaries on your web browser this makes looking up new words incredibly quick and allows you to manage more difficult content at a much earlier stage in your learning.


One thing I like to do is to save chapters of my book into an app called Pleco on my phone. This way I can use the Chinese reader in the app to easily read Chinese on my phone wherever I go.

How can we speed up the process?


The reason native speakers don’t have this problem and we as learners do is that their brain knows what the characters are saying just by the first glimpse. We as learners don’t have this advantage while we are reading in general. However, if we know what the characters are before we read them then our brain can do a lot of the legwork for us and we can get used to reading smaller characters.


First read through with an increased font size on the computer looking up the words you don’t know. When you come back to read the same text, this time at a normal size, as you already know what is being said you are able to fill in the gaps a lot easier.


I have even known learners when using hard copies use a magnifying glass on their first read. Then going back over it again, without the magnifying glass, is a lot easier as you already know what you are reading.

Another solution you can try is to take a clear picture of the word or phrase you am struggling with on your phone or tablet, and then zoom in on the picture so see what is being said.


However, one of my favourite solutions is to take advantage of the settings in Anki to get used to reading smaller and smaller texts. Anki is an SRS flashcards app. If you take my approach of sentence mining you will have a bank of sentences inside Anki which you can practice reading every day.


The font scale ranges from 0.1 times right the way up to 2 times the normal font size. You can change this in the settings from the flashcard viewer on your device as shown by the pictures below:

When I first started this process I found it so difficult to read anything, so I had the font scale maxed out all the way at x2. Then as I got more accustomed to reading I slowly decreased the scale lower and lower in my daily flashcards and eventually now I do my daily reviews with a font scale of 0.8.


The great thing about this approach is because the sentences are in your SRS, you are seeing the same characters over and over again giving your brain lots of opportunities for the repeated exposure it needs in order to fill in the gaps when reading.


Additionally, you can alter the font size in a matter of seconds whenever you want to allow easy adaptations if we suddenly decide it's too difficult to make out.




All of these methods are to help our brain figure out what is being said without having to read every single detail. However, the main underlying factor as to why we have so much trouble with a new script as opposed to our native language is just that, it's new.


In the beginning, reading will be very alien and difficult to you, and that's completely normal. This is why I would recommend starting out with more intensive reading in the early stages. Read over the same page or article many times and each time you go through it will get easier and easier.


Still, do some extensive reading to simple and short stories, and make sure to read on an electronic device so you can easily look up new words and enjoy the story.


Gradually as you get more comfortable reading Chinese you can shift your focus away from intensive reading and more onto extensive reading. Read large volumes of material for pleasure using electronic aids to make things as easy as possible.


This way you can enjoy your study and keep your attention on the story or book you are reading.


If you stick with it what seemed fuzzy and bizarre before long will start to become familiar and comfortable, and your reading will progress as you go.


Have you had to deal with a new writing system where you just couldn't make out what was being said? How did you deal with this problem? Let me know in the comments below!