Edited by 顾月云 (上海译文出版社, 2005)
Review by: John Pasden
According to the preface, “most Chinese textbooks are intended for students studying full-time, not for the working foreigners. My Chinese Classroom has solved that problem by providing a study program specifically designed for working foreigners in China.” Its claim of being especially practical as well as its unique target audience made me curious.
Before even delving into the lessons, I noticed two things about the cover: (1) The title is in English, Japanese, and Chinese. In fact, the entire book is trilingual. (2) The handwritten hanzi that make up the background are traditional characters. Why? I can’t think of a good reason for this. Simplified characters are used throughout the book (except in the Japanese).
Lesson 1 contains simple vocabulary, an introduction to pinyin and the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, and an introduction to tones. The final page is a “brief introduction” to Chinese characters. A grand total of ten pages were used to cover these essential topics, and that’s in three languages. In my mind, the only excusable explanation for such brevity on the important fundamentals of the language would be if the book is intended only to complement instruction by a native Chinese-speaking teacher. However, the preface states, that this text “is [also] intended for those who study Chinese by themselves.” Unfortunately, the overly brief introduction severely limits the usefulness of this series. There is an accompanying CD which provides a clear pronunciation model in both male and female voices, but it’s quite dry (the stereotypical “language lab” recording) and contains no English. If you’re an absolute beginner, forget self-study with this series unless you have a thing for frustration.
The format of the rest of the lessons breaks no new ground: (1) Sentence patterns, (2) Dialogue (characters/pinyin), (3) Vocabulary, (4) Dialogue Translation, (5) Exercises. Notably absent is the familiar “grammar” section. The only thing resembling it is the sentence patterns right before each dialogue. The writers have purposely minimized grammar, preferring instead to take a more functional approach. Sentence patterns and exercises are the only “grammar” you’ll see. I personally prefer a grammar-oriented approach, but I’m sure many expats would welcome this small change from textbook tradition. Still, grammar cannot be mastered solely through inference and intuition, so again, I think a teacher’s guidance would be necessary.
What I did like about the lessons were the character exercises. Although the expected “practice writing the character” sections are there, there is also a section that encourages the student to discover properties and commonalities of Chinese characters on his own. Two examples:
Tell the same components of each pair of characters. 他——她 吗——妈 海——江 认——识
Circle the dependent strokes “zhé” and “gōu” in the following characters. 四 九 门 代 书
Weaknesses aside, I think the book really does do a good job of introducing really useful words and phrases. It’s quite an accomplishment for only ten lessons. There’s very little extranneous vocabulary, except perhaps for the proper nouns section, which includes Japanese names (does the beginner student really need to learn how to say the Japanese name 木村一郎 in Lesson 4?) and Shanghai locations. Of course, the former will be useful to Japanese students, and the latter shouldn’t be a problem either, as this series seems to be available only in Shanghai for the time being.
I also liked the non-Beijing-centric standard Mandrin. 那里 is taught instead of 那儿, etc.
Overall, I think this book is mostly what it claims to be. Although I wouldn’t recommend it for self-study, I think it would work well as the main material for a person who wanted to learn only useful Mandarin as quickly as possible without much grammar. Don’t expect to find this series outside of China, or even — for the time being — outside of Shanghai.