Beginning Chinese (Yale Language) Paperback – 1 Jul 1977
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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.
If you really want to learn chinese, then Beginning Chinese was and still is the ultimate chinese textbook.
Beginning Chinese doesn't offer you lively conversations written in natural Chinese but rather stupid conversations in unnatural Chinese.
And in the stupid conversations written in unnatural Chinese lies the true strength of Beginning Chinese.
It is not designed to entertain Chinese but to teach foreigners Chinese.
In natural conversation you leave many things out if it is clear from the context.
In the unnatural conversations of Beginning Chinese you will leave them in, because you first have to learn before you can them leave them out.
That is why the conversations seems unnatural to the Chinese but they are really most helpful to you .
Professor DeFrancis' pedagogically eloquent Chinese Language textbook series (the Chinese language learning "gold standard") ensures future generations benefit from his unique gift for teaching. The series' building blocks are based on data, not guesswork - while a human, sometimes puckish, touch leavens the reliance on metrics. (See "Pedagogically Crafty" page at Syber Group.) Ten of the series' publications are listed at the end of this review - a full description can be seen at Teton Sands' "Professor John DeFrancis Chinese Language Learning Series" page.
Regrettably, despite highly inflated claims by marketers of fad diets and products such as Berlitz and Rosetta Stone, no shortcuts exist. Headway entails digesting the right stuff. Anyone over the age of ten who wants to do more than mouth a few phrases faces a multi-year project requiring considerable investment of time and effort. Mass market products often lead to bad habits and dead ends. Significantly better ROIs can be obtained from an academically-grounded, integrated "family" such as ABC's community (DeFrancis Series, ABC Dictionaries, translations, corpus, Wenlin, and the forthcoming AI system) which has been honed by world-class educators and is impeccably correct in representing classical and current usage. As a side benefit, students assimilate culture and develop lifelong skills in using associated tools such as dictionaries and Chinese word processing applications - and "club membership" conveys a certain cachet.
More than 20,000 Chinese characters exist. Mastering the "right" 2,400 is sufficient to read many modern writings - as few as 400 get you started. The question is, which 2,400 and which 400? DeFrancis designed tightly integrated courseware (grammars, audio recordings, character texts, flash cards, and reading materials) based on well-conceived metrics before Deming, Rackham, and James pioneered similar statistical concepts in manufacturing, sales, and baseball.
Years before Ross and Lakeoff, DeFrancis recognized explicit language and grammar convey only a fraction of the meaning within human thought and communication. A significant amount of meaning - some claim the vast majority - is embedded, often physically and nonconsciously, in referents and metaphors. DeFrancis also recognized that written language "fluency" depends on more than memorizing a particular number of characters: it requires experiencing their range of context and meaning. To that end, DeFrancis collaborated with specialists to facilitate access to and appreciation of Chinese literature, culture and thought - including what Minsky and Rumelhart would later call frames and schemata in the mid-seventies.' His collaboration with Victor Mair is particularly noteworthy.
Mair uses his expertise as one of the world's foremost translators of early Sinitic languages to explicate China's cultural roots. His monumental Anthology (The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature) is full-body immersion via selections of divinations, philosophy, religion, verse, prose, fiction, and performing art. His equally monumental History of Chinese Literature complements the Anthology and ploughs new ground by interconnecting periods and genres, from divine to profane. Research by Mair and his colleagues has occasionally caused a mainstream currency to deflate. Mair is also general editor of the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series - including DeFrancis' Chinese-English and Chinese-English/English-Chinese Dictionaries - which each year saves students and scholars many millions of hours of drudgery.
Based on extensive experience with Mandarin curricula and courseware using English, French, and Mandarin metalanguages, I am wary of courses based on alternatives to DeFrancis' series. It's simply the best. Teton Sands' "Footsteps" page describes how a dedicated community of scholar-teachers developed this integrated family of language tools.
ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary (ABC Chinese Dictionary Series)
Beginning Chinese Reader (Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I)
Beginning Chinese: Reader Pt. 2 (Linguistic)
Character Text for Beginning Chinese: Second Edition (Yale Language Series) (English and Mandarin Chinese Edition)
Intermediate Chinese (Yale Language Series, 7) (English and Mandarin Chinese Edition)
Intermediate Chinese Reader, Part I (Yale Language Series) (Pt. 1)
Intermediate Chinese Reader, Part II (Pt. 2) (English and Mandarin Chinese Edition)
Character Text for Intermediate Chinese (Yale Language Series)
Advanced Chinese (Yale Language)
Advanced Chinese Reader (Yale Language)
Character Text for Advanced Chinese (Yale Language)
*** Supplementary Integrated Literature (Selected)***
The Student Lovers
The Herd Boy and the Weaving Maid
The Poet Li Po
The Heartless Husband
The White-Haired Girl
Wu Song Kills a Tiger
The Red Detachment of Women
Episodes from Dream of the Red Chamber
Annotated Quotations from Chairman Mao (Yale Language)
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.
He explained that the communists forced unwelcomed changes to the Chinese language and it is because of communist rule that people don't speak exactly this way anymore. One example he mentioned is that communists demanded that the word for "girlfriend" also be word for "wife". He believes times are changing and the culture is slowly re-embracing the original ways of speaking Chinese. I am not an expert in Chinese affairs so I am not able to comment either way on that issue.
For me, the book is well structured and easy to follow but I've only covered the first 2 chapters. My instructor has been teaching Chinese for 35 years and he's had his copy for at least 15 years. He highly recommends this book. He knows more than I do so I'll stick to what he suggests.