Yesterday in the bookstore I noticed these two books, titled 丘吉尔 (Churchill) and 希特勒 (Hitler):
Now am I crazy, or do these two historical figures both look really evil, perhaps Churchill even more so than Hitler??
Apparently this was just a bad choice of photo (and color) in the cover design, though; if you click through to either Churchill’s or Hitler’s Amazon.cn pages, you see lots of other books in the series. Only Mussolini looks as evil as these two.
According to the introduction on Amazon, the book about Churchill is not an explanation of how he was actually Britain’s greatest supervillain. That’s a relief.
It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:
On the City
> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899
> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904
> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919
I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.
On Foreigners in China
> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899
> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original.–D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).
The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.
What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:
> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]
The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:
1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.
2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).
3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.
To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.
The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”
So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.
Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.
Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.
You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.
In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.
So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?
It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:
Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)
OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?
According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING and HAVE +EN, respectively.
Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:
Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects, and also marks aspect with adverbs….
If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): 了, 着, and 过. It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.
In the case of 了, the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying 了 (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).
着, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs 正 or 在 (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.
It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.
(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)
I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs 会, 能, and 可以 (all of which can be translated into English as “can”), I recalled a nice Venn diagram on the topic and dug it up.
What creates the most confusion with these three modal verbs is not that they can all be translated into “can” in English. The problem is that they are usually explained over-simplistically something like this:
> 会: know how to
> 能: be able to
> 可以: have permission to
This is not a bad start, but this sort of definition is eventually revealed as insufficient to the learner because in usage, the three modal verbs actually overlap. Enter the Venn diagram. The image below is a reconstruction of the one on page 95 of Tian Shou-he’s A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese:
> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“会” is more common than “能“)
> Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.
From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.
Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:
Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?
The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:
Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.
An Alternate Color Scheme
OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?
In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:
1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.
2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.
There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:
> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.
> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.
These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.
Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.
As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.
While on vacation this past week, I finally had a chance to dig into Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. This passage jumped out at me:
> There are two kinds of Communists: the arrogant ones, who enter the fray hoping to make men out of the people and bring progress to the nation; and the innocent ones, who get involved because they believe in equality and justice. The arrogant ones are obsessed with power; they presume to think for everyone; only bad can come of them. But the innocents? The only harm they do it to themselves. But that’s all the ever wanted in the first place. They feel so guilty about the suffering of the poor, and are so keen to share it, that they make their lives miserable on purpose.
Hmmm, I wonder what the Chinese would think about that.
Not surprisingly, I especially liked (and identified with) Brendan’s. If you don’t know DeFrancis and you’re at all interested in Chinese, by all means, check out the man’s work.
I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until recent word of DeFrancis’s death that I realized when it was that I first read The China Language: Fact and Fantasy. While I was studying in Japan in 1997, I checked it out from the Kansai Gaidai library. It was perhaps that book, more than anything, that kindled the spark of interest I had in Chinese, impelling me to formally study it after I went back to the U.S., and ultimately to travel to China after graduation.
I was reading the book Nudge recently, and this passage struck me as odd:
> Visitors to London who come from the United States or Europe have a problem being safe pedestrians. They have spent their entire lives expecting cars to come at them from the left, and their Automatic System knows to look that way. But in the United Kingdom automobiles drive on the left-hand side of the road, and so the danger often comes from the right. Many pedestrian accidents occur as a result. The city of London tries to help with good design. On many corners, especially in neighborhoods frequented by tourists, the pavement has signs that say, “Look right!” (91)
I learned to drive in high school as a 15-year-old through a driver’s ed class. The only really vivid memory I have of that class occurred in a road test. The instructor was in the passenger seat, and he had his own brake. I was stopped at a red light.
When the light turned green, I confidently stepped on the gas. The instructor immediately broke hard, giving me quite a jolt. I glanced up to see that, yes, the light was green. I turned to the instructor, expecting an explanation for his mistake. But no, he was livid.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m going straight. The light’s green!” I replied.
“Did you look to see if there were any cars coming from the left or right?”
“No, but the light was green,” I insisted weakly.
“You didn’t even look, and that can get you killed. I don’t care if the light is green. You still have to look.”
The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior. Likewise, traffic patterns are so regular and predictable that pedestrians only really need to look one way when they cross the street, no matter what they supposedly learned in driver’s ed.
It’s easy to call traffic in countries like China or Mexico chaotic and uncivilized, and there’s clearly some progress to be made, but isn’t it better for pedestrians to be putting a bit more effort into protecting their lives? Isn’t it better for drivers to be a bit more alert for unpredictable pedestrian behavior?
At the very least, I’m pretty sure after living in China, I don’t have to worry too much about crossing the street in London.
I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)
> A: Your English is not like American English.
> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.
> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?
> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.
> A: Is it like Chinese?
> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.
> A: Oh, I see.
The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”
What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??
I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.
Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.
It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.
I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.
Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.
In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.
Those of us with an adopted country always have very complex relationship with both our home countries and our adopted countries. Obviously her situation is completely different from mine, but Iranian author Marjane Satrapi makes an interesting analogy in an interview:
> So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?
> I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country.
If you haven’t read Persepolis, I highly recommend it. I read graphic novel Maus as a teenager, and it left a deep impression on me. I haven’t gotten quite that feeling since, but Persepolis comes very close.
Ever since reading Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek, I’ve been reading his blog occasionally. He has some interesting ideas on language learning, and I value his opinion because he’s a smart guy and he’s apparently gained competence in many languages. I’ve considered writing about some of his ideas before, but when his latest article hit the internet hotlists last week, I had to put in my two cents.
My overall impression of Tim Ferris is that he’s a very bright, enthusiastic go-getter. He has written an inspirational, interesting book with valuable information in it, but I think ultimately the man is not in touch with his audience, i.e. the people who actually read his book in order to put the ideas to use. To put it another way, Tim Ferris’s ideas are interesting and they work for Tim Ferris, but they’re not going to work for most people. Whether Tim Ferris knows this or not is unimportant; he’s still making big bucks.
His latest article is called How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour. I have to say first that the title is entirely misleading. The whole point of the article is to describe a method for assessing a foreign language that will help you to determine how easy it will be for you to acquire. This is not what “learn a language” means to me. I know Tim Ferris is good at hype, but this is pretty blatant false “advertising.” It just makes him look bad.
Now suppose the title were not misleading. Suppose he titled it How to Evaluate a Language for Acquisition in an Hour. What’s the point of this? How many of us are really just looking for a foreign language–any language–to learn? It seems to me that the reason so many Westerners are starting to study Chinese is that they feel it will be useful to them in the future. Or maybe they feel a personal connection with it. It’s pretty safe to say there is some reason for it. The only person who’s going to choose a random language to learn based solely on ease of acquisition is a linguist with too much time on his hands… (perhaps someone who only works four hours a week?). If you’ve already got your language picked out and just want to evaluate it using Tim Ferris’s method, that makes sense, but it seems like the method would be really useful only to someone trying to decide between Japanese and Spanish or some similar situation.
Despite all the misleading hype, it’s still an interesting read, and what he says makes sense. Check it out.
One of the nice things about living in a country with a total lack of respect for intellectual property laws is that if you really need to, you can have an entire book photocopied for cheap.
I borrowed a book from my professor which compiled the results of various investigations into foreigners’ studies of Mandarin Chinese. There were quite a few investigations with some relevance to my own research, so I really wanted to buy a copy of the book. None of the bookstores in Shanghai carried it, though, and the bookstore employees seemed to indicate that special ordering it would be a long, difficult process. Even good old 当当网 (China’s most famous online book seller) didn’t have it.
Rather than launching a long crusade to track down a seller of the book, I finally just had my professor’s copy photocopied in a little shop near the school. The book’s cover price was 29 RMB. My photocopied version, bound and all, was 25 RMB.
I still would have rather bought the official book, but this convenient alternative is not so bad.
[For those of you interested in the specifics, the charge was 0.1 RMB per page, but each page was A4, horizontal, covering two pages of the original. So the 450 page book came to 22.5 RMB total, plus 2.5 RMB for binding. I dropped the book off in the evening and picked up my copy the next day around noon.]
Mouse Umbrella is a “free beautifully illustrated Chinese/English children’s book.” I probably would have written about it sooner if it were e-mailed to me rather than submitted as a new blog on the CBL.
The author’s explanation:
> As an educator I was hoping you would take a look at my book and give me some feed back. This beautifully illustrated 6 page haiku is intend for Pre-K children who speak Chinese as a first language or English speaking children learning Chinese as a second language. A little mouse is enjoying a bright red cherry at a restaurant when he is washed away by a flash flood. He has only a drink umbrella to help him. Originally written and illustrated by me – Tansy O’Bryant as a bridge between Chinese speaking children and English speaking children. Chinese translation was provided by and Chinese student who was afraid to write because her characters where not perfect. It was esteeming for her to know that the act of not writing is far worse than a little “wobbly” writing. Helps children understand both the power of writing and the beauty of reading with Mouse Umbrella.
It is a nice book, and the illustrations are great. The art reminds me of one of my favorite illustrators ever, Graham Oakley. It’s not the best book for studying Chinese, perhaps, but I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it. (Anyone out there reading stories to their children from an on-screen PDF file yet?)
You really want to improve your Chinese, but for a while now have been feeling like you’re lacking something. You take a trip to the book store to browse its offerings in the “Chinese” section.
One particular title catches your eye. You’ve never seen it before. Leafing through it, you decide you like the layout, and some of the examples given. It has a lot of interesting content you could benefit from. A warm feeling comes over you; this is the book that you need to give your Chinese studies a boost! You quickly purchase the book and head home, your fresh new inspiration under your arm.
A week later, the book is sitting on your shelf. It’s been days since you picked it up. You’ve been busy. It’s really a good book, and you’ll definitely use it later.
As time goes by, you wonder why your progress in Chinese is so slow. You want it bad, and you’re dedicated. You can tell that much just by taking a look at your bookshelf. It’s chock-full of books on learning Chinese.
And therein lies the problem.
You’ve been putting time and effort into finding just the right books to learn Chinese rather than buckling down and just doing it. Rather than getting you significant progress, all the time and energy you’ve put into Chinese has gotten you a bookshelf full of books for learning Chinese… and not much else.
This is the bookshelf problem.
I’m intimately acquainted with the problem, and I have the bookshelf to prove it. I’m not ashamed I fell into it (there are far worse vices to be ensnared by), but I’ve had to put a brake on the “book-buying instead of studying” mentality. I really do have all the books I need.
I think the bookshelf problem isn’t exclusive to books, either. Have you ever found yourself on a wild goose chase to find “the perfect Chinese blog,” or “the best flashcard program” or “the “best Chinese TV show?” Worthwhile quests, to be sure, but it’s really easy to get caught up in the pursuit and forget what you were really after.
This doesn’t mean that there is some magic formula like:
Buy 1 textbook + 1 good dictionary + 1 grammar book
…and then never buy another book again!
Of course not. The occasional new acquisition can keep your studies fresh and boost your motivation.
I’m just saying that if the situation above sounds at all familiar, you might want to consider the bookshelf problem before buying that new bookshelf.
While we’re on the topic of Military Weaponry for Kids, let’s explore that book, shall we? Here’s what the book’s cover looks like:
The big name on the front is 画童学画, which could be cleverly “translated” as “Draw Child Study Draw.” Here’s what a few of the pages look like:
Each page basically does three things: (1) teaches the kid how to draw something across the top, (2) using pinyin, teaches the kid how to say the name of the object in the middle, and (3) gives the kid practice writing the character at the bottom.
1. The characters offered for writing practice in the book are at a kindergarten level, but the weaponry vocabulary is at a much, much higher level. (I don’t even know the names of some of those guns in English. Clearly I come from a totally un-war-like culture. Ahem.)
2. The part at the top that “teaches drawing” isn’t helpful. I used plenty of those “learn how to draw” books growing up, and this one just sucks.
3. Hey, this book is pretty useful for someone like me to learn weaponry vocab. Among the Chinese vocabulary taught in the book are: machine gun, heavy machine gun, handgun, rifle, semi-automatic rifle, uzi, revolver, hand grenade, flame thrower, rocket launcher, smoke grenades, tank, aircraft carrier, bomber plane, fighter jet, guided missile, stealth bomber… and more.
4. One of the guns is called a 来福枪 (lit. “come luck gun”). Hehe. Wenlin says it means “rifle” (a kind of transliteration) but it looks more like a shotgun to me.
5. Oh, right, I almost forgot: why do little Chinese kids need to be learning this stuff??
This kind of children’s book is not very uncommon; you can find similar books in almost any bookstore in China. (See the book here.)
Sort of related: see also Peer-See’s highly amusing entry on teaching incomprehensible weirdness to the children through bizarre blocks.
As I explained before, my wife and I are learning Korean here in Shanghai. Progress has been slow, though, because our tutor unexpectedly had to return to Korea for the summer. Dedicated students that we are, we seized the opportunity for a two-month break from our studies. She’s back now, though, so we’re back in the saddle. We all decided we needed a good textbook.
We textbook we decided on with our tutor is 新韩国语基础教程（上） (New Korean Foundation Course – Part 1 of 2), published by 大连理工大学出版社 (Dalian University of Technology Press). It may not be perfect or even particularly enlightened, but compared to the cornucopia of crap with which it shared space on the book store shelves, it seems like a Godsend.
The reasons I like the text are:
1. Chapter 1 of the textbook eases into the sounds and writing system of the language with extensive explanations of the simple vowels, then simple consonants, then diphthongs, then finals, then rules of pronunciation. That’s 32 pages! There are explanations (in Chinese) with IPA, examples, exercises, illustrations of the mouth, etc. There’s even a diagram showing exactly how the Korean writing system was designed to resemble the human mouth as it makes the sounds of the language (which is something I’d been curious about for a while). I complained last time about spending too much time on writing and pronunciation before learning any useful language and I still stand by that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a very complete reference in Chapter 1 that I can come back to any time.
2. The regular chapters are broken down into pretty standard sections: (1) sentence patterns, (2) sample sentences, (3) dialogue, (4) new vocabulary, (5) Chinese translations of parts 1-3, (6) grammar explanations, (7) exercises. Nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s all very usable and practical. The grammar explanations are clear, with helpful charts and diagrams. I haven’t really spent much time on the exercises yet, so I won’t say anything about that.
3. I like how outside of Chapter 1 there is no romanization of the Korean anywhere, and the Chinese translation is on another page. This forces the beginner to trudge through the Hangul, which is a necessary ordeal.
The big disadvantage of the series is that all the listening exercises are meant to be accompanied by cassette tapes. I guess that can be forgiven since the series was published in 1999, but that doesn’t change the fact that tapes are useless to me now because I own nothing that plays them (and I’m not buying a stupid tape player).
Anyway, if you’re looking for a textbook for learning Korean in China, I think that 新韩国语基础教程 is a pretty good way to go. The two book set cost 48 RMB altogether (without the tapes).