The Tyranny of the Textbook

Lately I’ve been working with Nick Kruse of Reign Design on a new project at work called OpenLanguage. Much of our discussion has centered on teachers and students, and the language-learning experience in general.

Nick related to me a story about taking the very limited Chinese he had learned in the classroom back in the States, and then traveling to China and applying it extensively. He discovered that some of the language they learned from Practical Chinese Reader, besides being outdated, was, well… not so practical.

Specifically, when Chinese people encouraged him over and over with the same sentence — “中文!” (“you speak great Chinese!”) — he didn’t understand what they were saying because he hadn’t learned two of the key words.

When he got back to the States, he had a conversation with his Chinese teacher that went something like this:

> Why didn’t you teach us [speak] and [great]?

> It wasn’t in the book.

> But those are useful words!

> We have to follow the book.

I’m happy to see the overall attitude toward language learning changing, and I’m even happier to be a small part of that change.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. That’s the same textbook that I had to use for TWO Chinese courses. The teacher said she used it because she liked it, but like your friend, I either didn’t learn much that was practical, or else I already knew what was in the book. However, other than actually going to China, I am seeing some books out there now that would be more useful in the classroom, and certainly other vehicles such as ChinesePod outrank most I’ve seen.

  2. The quality of books varies, I don’t think anyone would recommend the original PCR any more. Though I don’t know how much better the new ones are.

    I basically get lots of vocab and sentence patterns from books, but rely on Chinesepod for the most useful conversational stuff. They seem to make an effort to be current and colloqial. Whenever I commit an interesting little cpod phrase to memory, I always get a chance to use it (except the zombies). However, I can see that from a teacher’s point of view this stuff might seem harder to teach; but learning the formal stuff definitely not enough.

  3. So, what textbook do you recommend these days? 🙂

  4. The order in which material is introduced is essentially arbitrary, though, right? I’m not saying that 讲 and 棒 aren’t useful, but if you’re a newbie there are necessarily going to be gaps in your vocabulary no matter whose ordering you use (not that I’m a proponent of PCR — far from it).

    Instead of the “Tyranny of the Textbook,” perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the “Tyranny of Learning from a Single Source” (doesn’t roll of the tongue quite the same…).

  5. Luís,

    I asked my readers this question in another blog post, but I myself don’t have any strong recommendations. I used Integrated Chinese in college, and while it wasn’t very exciting, it taught rather practical language (although it’s no ChinesePod).

  6. John B,

    That’s another issue. The teacher didn’t reply, “there was other more essential vocabulary you needed to master first in order to cover communication basics.” He answered, “it wasn’t in the book.

    That’s the tyranny of the textbook: when it determines completely what is taught and what is not.

  7. He answered, “it wasn’t in the book.“

    Well, that may also the case with ChinesePod or any other textbook/service/teacher. Maybe you never went thru a podcast with 讲 [speak] and 棒 [great], because you just didn’t find it. Tyranny of ChinesePod?

    No. In the beginning you need guidance, and a textbook with tapes may be a good choice. Afterwards you need a lot of input and motivation to find the “gaps”. The HSK vocab lists are a good way to find them. But nobody will help you with this task – no teacher, no textbook, no ChinesePod etc.

  8. Hi John,

    You’ve got quite the readership — two people already forwarded this to me! I just wanted to mention as well that this took place 10 years ago — which is why my class was using PCR.

    Although I think PCR was a pretty miserable textbook, there is one part of it which is excellent — its explanation of how to make those consonant and vowel sounds that are so alien to an English speaker. It includes detailed descriptions — even diagrams — of how to contort your mouth, tongue, and throat. From what I’ve seen of Integrated Chinese, they chopped that down a lot, which is a shame.

    One more thing to add about PCR in the “irrelevant” category — it taught that this is wrong:
    and should be this:

    To give another example:

    Is that grammar accurate in any context? Certainly not in everyday spoken Chinese, because I’ve never heard anyone speak like that. But the old textbook insisted…

  9. Hans-Peter,

    You’re right; the problem is not the textbook itself, but a system in which a teacher only teaches what’s in the textbook. So technically it’s “tyranny of the traditional education system where the teacher is an unthinking cog,” but I thought my title was catchier. 🙂

  10. Nick,

    Both forms are correct, but in spoken Chinese, the object is often topicalized and moved to the front (你中文讲得很棒). The other way, where the verb is repeated (你讲中文讲得很棒) is wordier.

    I touched on this (almost the same example!) in an old post: Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety

  11. Like everyone who studied at SOAS, I learnt my first Chinese from the 1984 edition of “Colloquial Chinese”. This was in 2001 and we were learning about taking the Trans-Siberian Express to Beijing and meeting comrades on the commune.

    Actually, I enjoyed the anachronism and it can be entertaining for Chinese people if you use language that’s 20 years out of date. Besides the grammar and most of the vocab are as useful now as they would have been 25 years ago. Besides it does suggest a certain lack of imagination on the part of the learner to think that one textbook could ever cover all their needs.

  12. @James J —

    I enjoyed the anachronism too, while I was in the US. When I was alone in China trying to use the one year of Chinese I’d studied and finding it mostly worthless, my enjoyment of the anachronism dissipated pretty quickly.

    In the end I think we have to differentiate between “aspirational” learners, who see learning (in this case, Chinese) as an end, and “instrumental” learners, who see it as a means. You sound to me like the former. I’d say I am too, but when I was thrust into a situation where my practical ability was lacking, I wished my education had been more immediately useful.

    Besides it does suggest a certain lack of imagination on the part of the learner to think that one textbook could ever cover all their needs.

    I believe John’s original point in his post was that the teacher was lacking imagination in teaching everything that’s in one textbook and nothing that’s not. The “ideal” learner owns and actively manages his education, but realistically most will follow the teacher, if even that, no?

  13. To be honest, I still like the original PCR: I wouldn’t recommend it as the sole component in anyone’s Chinese education (and like Nick, I’ve got stories about being led astray by it: I once missed a train looking for the second building at Beijing Railway Station because I’d never learned that 楼 means the same thing as 层 in common usage for multistory buildings), but I think it’s still got some things over other introductory textbooks I’ve seen. The New PCR textbooks don’t impress me much: they do away with a lot of what I like about the original PCR (the campiness, the detailed explanations) and replace it with a bunch of useless crap (“cultural notes” about, e.g., 香蕉苹果). I never used Integrated Chinese, and I understand it’s popular now, but when I get asked to recommend textbooks — bearing in mind that all textbooks are bad — I still go with the original PCR, particularly when the person asking is a language geek.

    I see your point about the dangers of relying on the textbook as a sole means of input — but really, do you know of any serious language learners who do this with any language?

  14. There is nothing wrong with some tyranny of the textbook (especially for beginners), as long as the textbook is good. Supplements are obviously wonderful, but a beginning to intermediate (and really advanced also) student is going to have to spend some time getting his basics down cold. The problem is just a truly horrible textbook tradition for chinese learners. Keep in mind, this problem does not exist for most other languages.

    Those ‘basics’ are what seem to elude textbook writers (but strangely not the foreign language learners after they have some competence). People who think after one year of studying mandarin a student shouldn’t know the word 講 is essentially expecting a first-year student to be not ready for communication of any kind outside of the classroom. That’s fine, if you think a first-year student shouldn’t have that ability, but I take it that most first-year students would kind of object to that.

    The new Interactions series tries to solve this problem by just telling students they’re going to have to learn a billion words, quick. This as opposed to the IC/PCR model of providing less words and more generally useless words. (We don’t really ever need to study tea, thank you. Maybe you could tell me how to actually ask interesting questions first.)

    The oddest thing about the IC and PCR books is how poorly their ‘dialogues’ model actual speech. There are no books that traffic in actual speech (or better, conversation) outside of a contrived situational context (which tend to have actual speakers of a language usage as opposed textbook writers conceptions of how someone will talk to you when you go to buy a train ticket.) Cpod does have actual speech, but it’s not like radio, a podcast, news, a panel show. (Though of course cpod does sample these which is obviously good). You do get somewhat stiffly modeled ‘formal’ speech in stuff like ‘across the straits’ and some other works, but it’s still off in a textbook sort of way.

    I assume the insistence on teaching the V Sbj V 得 C, form as the ‘prestige form’ exists solely due to textbook use. I imagine it would come up more naturally in a third year text sometime after 黯然 but before 盎然.

    As for the nostalgia for outdated and bad textbooks, I can’t say I feel the same way as I used to about that. After seeing how bad the texts were for English learners in China and understanding that they were largely wasting their time learning how to write a formal english essay like someone from the 1940s and other fun things like that (to address everyone as sir/madame, to say pardon, etc., etc.) I think feelings settled on a feeling of anger at education planners, textbook writers, and language teachers. Are Chinese students nostalgic for their years of insistence that a bathroom be called a water closet? Or their bad pronunciation nurtured by years of neglect and poor phonetic transcription? Or If they are, should they be? Is that really a good thing?

  15. The fact that one might have a limited vocabulary isn’t the fault of textbooks or teachers. No textbook or teacher is going to magically impart useful vocabulary into your brain. You’re only going to get it by a lot of hard work and imbibing as much input as you can, over and over and over. The source of input isn’t all that important. Once you have acquired the vocab, do you really care what the source was when it comes time to use it? Some people are a bit lazy and take the stance that their textbook or teacher is lacking when in reality it’s their own work ethic that is deficient. No one can learn a language for you.

  16. I agree that no serious language learner should rely on a textbook, but neither should the teacher.

    When I was learning Spanish, there were some textbooks that would use certain words from one country but not words commonly used in other countries. I recall one textbook in particular having crazy example stories that weren’t particularly useful. It was the book the school was supposed to use. The teacher pushed it aside in favor of another, better, book. She also used other resources, such as songs and the “501 Spanish Verb” book, to teach us. It didn’t matter where we were learning from, as long as it was useful. She encouraged us to ask questions and looked things up when she couldn’t explain the answers. Isn’t this what a teacher ought to do instead of going by the book? Otherwise, I might as well have simply read the book myself.

  17. bluedaisy Says: August 26, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Hey, OpenLanguage looks interesting. Is the target audience schools in the US, though? Because the English is kind of awkward – just glancing at a few pages, the grammar and sentence structure seemed like it wasn’t written by a native speaker…

  18. I find the teacher’s attitude disheartening. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation for any textbook or even course to teach all the commonly used phrases of a language within a single year. Unless students are in a particularly intensive course, there’s just too much ground to cover.

    Adding “Nǐ zhōngwén jiǎng de hěn bàng!” to the curriculum might mean removing “Bú huì ba!” or “Jiè guò” or “Nǐ shì shéme xīngzuò?” or some other commonly heard phrase. In the end, if a student is living in an L2 environment, it’s up to them to figure out what they need to add to their classwork.

  19. “No textbook or teacher is going to magically impart useful vocabulary into your brain. You’re only going to get it by a lot of hard work”

    Really? And 講 is one of the things I can’t expect from my teacher or textbook?

    No one is saying you aren’t going to have to do a lot of hard work, but I mean, the job of getting that critical vocabulary and grammar really should be the sort of thing you would expect a good teacher and or textbook to take pretty seriously. If they can’t handle that, exactly what purpose do they serve?

  20. @hsknotes

    I guess I’m just more of a self-directed type of learner. I can’t imagine relying solely on a teacher or a textbook to acquire new vocabulary. I think the purpose that teachers and textbooks serve is to be just another way of many to interact with the target language. One can learn fine without them though.

  21. Chinese has a very rich vocabulary. Spoken Chinese is extremely dynamic. Most textbooks I’ve seen contain a fairly large number of words and expressions raging from somewhat outdated to having fallen out of use, though native speakers will understand. Textbooks are by definition behind. I think the teacher’s excuse is not that bad. Chinese teachers living overseas may not be aware of the hottest, latest expressions. Adding too many expressions to the syllabus may make a course too difficult to some students. As for PRC new edition. I think it is much better than the old edition. But it is also clearly a cash cow: too expensive, and too many materials (all separately packaged).

  22. I’m with you James, at Oberlin they start students on Princeton University’s horribly outdated Chinese Primer series. The calligraphy is really nice, but the dialogues are incredibly out of date. There’s one in which two students are arguing about how loud their roommate’s phonograph is turned up and they continue to refer to language tapes. Our teachers are good enough to correct our vocabulary when we say something that must sound downright medieval, but I wonder how much of what I’ve learned is actually useful.

  23. Colin Roberts Says: August 29, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Hey John, long time blog follower and fellow sinophile…
    I’ve been learning Chinese for the past year or so now and have a copy of the Reader which I don’t often use because of its lack of 棒. Can you recommend anything off the top of your head for a learner that’s sort of at the level of Practical Reader Vol. II type of person?
    Thanks a lot!

  24. All,

    Having lived in China off and on for half my life now, I’ve encountered many text books (both via class room study and self-guided study.)

    The curriculum that I currenly recommend to anyone who asks is called “Chinese Made Easier” (CME.) It is very user-friendly: grammar is introduced in layman’s terms, and the vocabulary is brilliant in its practicality. introduces the philosophy behind the curriculum much better than I have here.

    Just my two-cents worth. Alex

  25. As a language teacher, I am always worried about this particular issue with my students. I want them to be able to function outside the classroom, in the “real world” and constantly try to give the students the vocab they will need for that. I’m frustrated by outdated and incorrect textbooks that misinform or underestimate the students needs. I find I get a decent amount of resistance to introducing these real world phrases though, both from the students and the school. The students often protest that their previous textbooks or teachers taught them to speak that way (I’m thinking of the examples given by KSKnotes about madam, pardon, and water closet in particular). They don’t accept what I want to teach them because “it isn’t in the book.” Speaking of books, I generally don’t have any say in what textbook I am teaching from, either. The school generally selects the textbook without considering the teachers’ input. Some school administrators have even quite rigidly insisted that I teach the material as it is in the book, without alteration or addition. So, as a teacher, I sympathize somewhat with the teacher quoted here. As a language learner, I feel lucky to be living in a country where the language is spoken, so I don’t have to rely on textbooks for everything.

  26. […] a pretty contrived example, but it’s exactly what I thought of when I saw Sinosplice’s The Tyranny of the Textbook, in which he castigates textbooks for offering an incomplete view of a language. The student in […]

  27. True, textbook might be useful, but one should take them fast, and move on to native content.

  28. Some teachers who use the same textbook for a long time seem to internalize its vocabulary lists to a frightening extent. Case in point, my university teachers and the Practical Chinese Reader. After my first year of Chinese courses, I happened to spend the summer hanging out with some more advanced Chinese speakers, so I learned perhaps half a dozen new words. Small though the difference was, the second-year teacher immediately noticed my “unusual” vocabulary and assumed I had taken my first year at another school. This reflected no limitation on his own vocabulary – he was a native Chinese speaker – but he had learned to expect a certain very specific set of words among beginning students.

    I think that shows how teachers can easily get locked into the content taught in a particular textbook. It is important not to be afraid to alter the textbook content to make it more practical and up to date. Of course, as Nicki pointed out, that means facing up to students who only trust the textbook’s authority and ignore or complain about teachers’ emendations.

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