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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.
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on July 6, 2002
I really want a book like this, but this isn't good enough. I want a book that gives me a ton of conversational Chinese in Pinyin so I can get a lot of language "practice" with the vocabulary, grammar, etc. used again and again in all kinds of scenarios.
This provides all of that but, frustratingly, it's of no use.
My wife and her family are from China. I let my wife see this book once (the Chinese character edition), and she quickly scrunched up her nose and said, "Nobody talks like this!"
Later, when my wife was out, I tried the same test on my wife's aunt (who doesn't speak any English). She seemed reluctant to comment. I think she was afraid of causing me to lose face, so I showed her another Chinese text that contained hanzi (Chinese for Today, Beijing Languages Institute) and asked which one she thought was better. After about 20 seconds of page scanning she got very excited and said (in Chinese), "Oh, yes, this is the normal way people talk" (yiban de shuofa), and "you should study this one".
Unfortunately, Chinese for Today probably contains less than 10% of the total quantity of example text in Beginning Chinese, with not very useful vocabulary and skimpy grammar explanations, so I'm not a big fan of that one, either.
But despite the wonderful quantity of example material in Beginning Chinese and its sequels, it's of no use to me if what I'm getting so much great practice in is bad Chinese. I can come up with plenty of bad Chinese on my own. ;-)
To be honest, I don't know how much of the "bad" is just the Mainlander's reaction to Taiwanese Mandarin, but my wife and aunt (who like to watch Taiwanese dramas) claim "they don't even talk like this in Taiwan". (I never mentioned Taiwan until after they had rendered their verdicts.)
If only the publishers would update this series to make the language sound natural to the ears of educated Mainlanders, it would be one of the most useful Chinese texts on the market. If that happens, I'll recommend it to everyone.
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on November 6, 2001
I have been studying or trying to study Chinese for many years now. Most books seem more geared toward travel conversation(how much does it cost? etc). This book seems to really teach the language. I think that all languages change fast enough to make any book out of date quickly, this book seems to go deeper and really teach the structure and grammar that can be applied with newer slang. The fact he is aware of the differences between Taiwan Mandarin and the Chinese spoken in the PRC says alot to his credibility. However, the book is dry as are all books of this nature. It does provide a great beginning to learning the language. I think the other levels are now out of print.
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on July 3, 2001
When I studied Chinese back in the 1970's this was the beginning text we used. I was not extremely satisfied with it then, and I am even less satisfied today. Arguably, it covers the subject of Chinese grammar in considerable detail, but my overall impression of the material presented is that it simply isn't the "way that Chinese really speak" - that is, it really doesn't reflect colloquial Chinese as it is actually spoken, even taking into account that it is supposed to be Taiwan Chinese. It is as if there is too much interference from English grammar in the way it is presented.
I am even less satisfied with it nowadays, with the large amount of language study material now available from China. While some of the material printed in China can be a bore, some of it is really extremely good - Beverly Hong's "Situational Chinese" springs to mind as perhaps the best book on colloquial Chinese I have yet found. I'd suggest to the would-be learner to review the material available from Beijing before investing any of the books in the old Yale Asian series.
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on May 10, 2001
It is a good book for a beginner learning traditional chinese. The use of sentence patters and drills really helps to develope grammer. You really need a teacher for this book to make sure you are saying the correct pronounciation. It is an old book, but great to learn off of. Like most chinese books there are always discrepencies in a few characters.
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on July 26, 2000
I'm not an academic, so I have no professional qualifications to evaluate this book. But I enjoy learning languages, and I know what works for me.
This is the best learning textbook for Chinese that I've come across. Granted, it's somewhat dated, but the presentation of the grammar is clear, and the drills are first-rate. (important note: buy the tapes that accompany the book; try the language lab at Cornell, or Far Eastern Publications, in Yale. The language lab at Seton Hall University used to sell them as well).
There are 24 lessons, and the common theme throughout is the experiences of an American student in Taiwan. Each lesson begins with a dialogue, and is followed by new vocabulary and what DeFrancis calls "sentence build-up"; the new vocabulary is introduced first in small phrases, then in full sentences. Each lesson introduces 4 or 5 grammatical patterns, with illustrative sentences. The lessons also have pronunciation practice, addditional drills, dialogues, puzzles, etc. Again, the tapes are excellent, and indispensable.
The book is geared toward spoken Mandarin; all the Chinese is in pinyin romanization. If you're interested in the written language as well, there's his 2-part Beginning Chinese Reader that excellent, as well.
If you're serious about learning Chinese, want to know more than a few phrases, and you're willing to invest the time and energy to learn it well, it would be hard to find anything better than this.
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on July 22, 2000
Although a few points could be updated (for example, ni hao a? is no longer common usage), this does not detract from it's usefullness as a learning tool. The exercises are clear, building from single words to complete sentences, and this book does indeed have supplementary tapes which I have found necessary, as pinyin is not absolute (at least not to my ears). Characters are not used, but for those interested, a companion book is available, and follows the pinyin text in this book.
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on June 11, 2000
This book appears to be designed to be a supplement for a class. It is difficult to follow, does not address the use of chinese characters, and is weak in the pronucation. Admitly this is a problem for any book on chinese that does not come with audio tapes. However, for 30 dollars one expects more.
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