Tuttle Publishing graciously supplied this book for me to take a look at and review. Below are my thoughts on the book.
There’s quite a large number of Chinese textbooks on the market nowadays, so finding the perfect one is a challenge to any student. Mastering Conversation Chinese: Chinese for Beginners claims to held the student immerse in real-life scenarios, while speeding up their learning and avoiding common mistakes. Let’s take a look to see how this book stacks up!
The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the tone the author takes. Rather than coming off as an authority in the Chinese language, the author becomes more of a guide along the journey–something I very much agree with, if the title of this blog is any indication. This is definitely a nice tone for a beginner’s book to take, to ease the learner into the language.
Introduction to Pinyin
The author spends a few pages getting the student prepped up on Pinyin, which is used throughout the textbook. The author introduces the initials, finals, and tones, all with accompanying audio. The audio is quite clear and should help the reader to practice their pronunciation fairly well. The tones graph is a variation on the ones we usually find in Chinese textbooks, which avoids some of the overly drawn out tone marker lines. Instead, this book shows them all along a single line, using the top and bottom edges of the tone marks to show how they might compare with each other.
Like it or hate it, it’s definitely an interesting take on the tone charts and putting them all along the same line may be quite beneficial to some students.
Overall, the introduction is a nice, clear and simple introduction to pinyin that doesn’t get too caught up on over explaining it.
Each chapter is divided into 15 sections–which sounds like a lot but it’s well proportioned to not be too cumbersome for the early learner. There’s a brief introduction to the chapter, with a small background story, and then it’s right into the lessons. There are two dialogs and two sets of new words that go with each dialog. After each dialog and the new words, there’s a “Notes” section that the author describes a little bit more details as well as some of the nuances of the new words being used. Following that are three to four “Useful Sentences” that expand on the content of the lessons by showing new sentence patterns you can use. There’s an “Extend Your Vocabulary” section, with a few more phrases related to the lessons. The “Practice and Review” section is different in each chapter, usually having exercises such as switching out different vocabulary, circling the right answer, translating English sentence into pinyin, connecting English phrases to the corresponding pinyin, etc. By now you may be seeing one of the major issues I take with this book, which I will go into more below.
The chapters also include less formal sections, including “Chinese Cultural Tips”, “For Your Enjoyment”, “Suggestions”, “Did You Know?” and some concluding remarks on the chapter. This leads to two of the most unique aspects of this book:
The Weaving in of Classical Chinese Poetry
What really made me sit down and put time into looking over this textbook was the inclusion of Classical Chinese poetry. Just flipping through, the first page I came across was my favorite Li Bai poem “Thoughts for a Quiet Night”. While I take some issue with the way the poems themselves were translated (not by the author), I still find their inclusion rather welcoming. It’s more of a personal opinion, as my early Chinese textbook also included Chinese poetry, but I think it’s a very nice addition to any textbook. It’s a great way to work in a major aspect of Chinese culture, literature, and history.
Chinese Cultural Tips
Each chapter has a section entitled “Chinese Cultural Tips”, which provide a nugget of Chinese cultural knowledge that is in some way related to the text itself. I’m actually a big fan of this, because it teaches the culture along with the language and in a relevant way. Many textbooks opt for longer grammatical explanations or exercises, but adding the cultural tips makes this book a more unique choice, especially for beginners. This is especially good for individual learners who may not otherwise get these little cultural tips in their own learning.
The book also comes with an audio CD, with files that directly match the Pinyin exercises and the dialogs. For the most part, the CD has pretty good coverage of the materials in the textbook. The CD also contains a PDF file that can be printed, containing two appendices. The first appendix has a chart with the 23 initial sounds of mandarin, including how they lay based on whether they are unaspirated, aspirated, nasal, voiceless fricative or voiced fricative. There’s a second chart that lists out the 35 final sounds in Mandarin, and whether they are simple, compound or nasal finals. The second appendix is kind of fun, with three Chinese folk songs, which are another unique addition that could otherwise go unnoticed if you don’t explore the CD. A rather large misstep here is that the audio for these folk songs is not included, however the reader may be able to find them on YouTube instead.
As for the audio files themselves, they are all recorded clearly and without any background noise to detract from the audio. The dialogs, however, are read out very matter-of-factly and don’t have the forced conversation and sometimes awkward intonation of most textbooks. This does make it easier to practice, although it also makes the dialogs more robotic and potentially more boring. Here, clarity and ease of practice is taken at the expense of personality, which may be beneficial for some students, but it also causes some of the intonation and nuances of the spoken language to be lost.
One nice addition is that the poems in chapter also have audio files as well, and are recited slowly and clearly so you can practice along with them.
If there are some issues to be taken with this book, it’s in the over-reliance on pinyin. Although it’s used above all vocabulary and sentences, and many of the text and exercise sections still have the Chinese characters in them, I can’t help but feel that it begins to take on more the role of a crutch than a scaffolding that can be later removed. For example, a lot of the word bubbles being spoken by characters have pinyin above and English below, or oftentimes just pinyin alone. The absence of Chinese characters here is a little odd.
On large side affect of the over emphasis on Pinyin is there is next to no introduction on Chinese characters themselves. No introduction to the two writing systems (when a picture on the back cover and in the text use traditional characters while the book only uses simplified–a very minor detail that would normally go unnoticed, but it’s worth pointing out). And there’s no introducing how to write the characters, such as proper stroke order, or even potentially directing the reader to a place they can learn more about writing. This becomes even more apparent when you look at the “Practice and Review” exercises in the chapters. Often you are tasked with writing sentences… Using Pinyin, or, translate sentences… Using Pinyin. So, again, characters themselves take a backseat and the author does not explain their reasoning for doing so. I imagine it’s because this book so focused on “conversational Chinese”, but it unfortunately leaves out a huge chunk of Chinese culture–and a part of daily life in China in general.
In the end, for the price, I would recommend this book to someone that is interesting in getting going speaking Chinese and learning a little bit about the culture along the way. The addition of poetry in the lessons is a large selling point, because it shows the author does put in effort to really share important parts of Chinese culture with the student, which is something many textbooks lack. However, this is not a book that is for someone who wants the entire learning package. It lacks explanation on Chinese characters, and could do with less reliance on pinyin. Beginner students will likely find the book helpful, as well as anyone that may be looking for a way to brush up on their pronunciation.
It’s a fantastic place to start, however, and offers a less intimidating barrier to Chinese than other textbooks. It’s something individual learners can benefit from, so I do recommend checking out the book, especially as Amazon does provide a “See inside!” for this book as well.