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Not Your Usual Sink-or-Swim Chinese Textbook
on January 20, 2004
A few reviewers below have said that the conversations in this text are too old-fashioned and that no one talks this way in China anymore. I haven't shown this book to any Chinese friends but I can't see how the relative colloquialism of these texts would be a big problem. They don't seem very different from others I've read, and the Second Revised Edition (1976) does discuss Revolutionary changes ('airen' versus 'xiansheng' for husband, etc). It seems to be the equivalent of any English text from a few decades ago - people might not talk quite the same way now, but the vast bulk of vocabulary is the same, and anyway, no one ever faults a foreigner for having too bookish or old-fashioned a manner: on the contrary, we often find it charming. Not to mention that Chinese is spoken differently Beijing, Taiwan, Los Angeles, etc. Strikingly, the illustrations, though much superior to the cartoons in other Chinese learning texts, are very old-fashioned: Americans in Western suits and Chinese in silk longcoats. (Though I did see a man dressed like that in an LA supermarket last week!) If the drawings were updated, I bet the texts would not make half so bad an impression.
And the advantages of this work far outweigh the disadvantages. With almost all Chinese language learning texts I've used, I've felt that I had been thrown into a sink-or-swim, suffering-is-good-for-you situation. Brute memorization seems to be the traditional Chinese learning method. In most modern textbooks there is little attempt to explain grammar, and when it is attempted, it is done extremely poorly. Also, there are very few exercises; what exercises there are often stress the wrong things; and the student ends up memorizing lots of vocabulary words and grammar points that he really hasn't seen used in more than one context and so doesn't really understand. The whole presentation seems quite thoughtless and haphazard.
Defrancis, by contrast, seems to have taken the writing of this series as a labor of love. He obviously put a huge amount of thought into them. The presentation is well linked together. Each vocabulary word is thoroughly defined and the grammar notes are extensive. And there is lots of practice: each chapter uses the new vocabulary over and over in the "sentence build-ups," "substitution tables," "pattern drills," and many other added exercises suited to the learning task at hand. For example, in Chapters 3 and 4, when numbers are introduced for the first time, along with the usual "sentence build-ups," etc., Defrancis adds several extra exercises: "Number Practice," "Multiplication table," "Numbers and Measures," "A Charge Account," and even instructions for a number-learning game called "Boom!"
A short, concrete example of how much better Defrancis explains grammar: "Integrated Chinese," which my school uses for first-year text, defines the particle "a" as a "[particle] used at the end of a sentence to emphasize agreement, exclamation, interrogation, etc." It seems like a definition, but when you think about it, it makes no sense: who's agreeing, the speaker or listener? And if "a" is an interrogation particle, how is it different from "ma"?
Now, Defrancis' definition: "The particle 'a' added to a statement changes it to a polite command, suggestion, or presumption. It often suggests that the speaker presumes his listener agrees with him; thus the Chinese sentence 'Ni hao a?' is like English, 'You are well, I suppose?' or 'How are you?' spoken as a greeting rather than as a real question." A clear and thorough explanation of the function of 'a' -- you don't have to spend the next year trying to figure it out for yourself.
The "Beginning Chinese" text is all in pinyin and you should also buy the (traditional) "Character Text for Beginning Chinese" if you are learning to read Chinese characters. Thirdly, there are the "Beginning Chinese Reader, Part 1 and Part 2" books by Defrancis also that are loosely tied into "Beginning Chinese" but present characters in a much more sensible fashion (easier ones and radicals first) than the way they are introduced (or, rather, not introduced) in other series. Another big advantage to this set is that all Chinese characters are written large enough to be easily legible. (Not a given in other texts!) It may seem unreasonable to people who have not tried learning Chinese to have to buy 4 thick texts instead of one. But anyone who has studied Chinese for a while knows how much you need to take a slow, rational approach. This is not French or Spanish or even Hindi. Texts that look easy are actually much more difficult, because they have simply left huge amounts of salient information out.
All-in-all, the "Beginning Chinese" series makes an extremely difficult job (learning Chinese for the English speaker) much, much easier and less frustrating. I am currently going through it to pick up everything I missed in "Integrated Chinese." I really think it's a big mistake that the Defrancis series has largely been put aside for newer, much less well constructed texts. (And may I say that, just because a textbook writer or teacher is a native speaker doesn't mean he knows anything about teaching Chinese to Westerners. On the contrary: often he has little idea of what his students are going through and his answer to protests about poor materials is "Work harder" - not smarter.) The United States is crying out for more Americans to learn Chinese and the texts used in most college courses are as much roadblocks as they are paths to learning. It would be a great service if someone would bring out another edition of these books.