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New Practical Chinese Reader + Audio / Chinese Made Easier (Preliminary)


Luobot
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As part of the Chinese-Forums Book Review Project, this is just a first glance review, similar to what I do when I go to a Barnes and Noble, pick a few books of interest off the shelves, and retire with them to the B&N coffee shop to browse through them and form a purchasing decision. The only difference, here, is that I also had the opportunity to sample the audio CD’s, which isn’t possible at B&N (and I didn’t have to stand on line to use the facilities).

For this review, I received the NPCR (New Practical Chinese Reader) textbook-1 with CD’s and workbook-1, and I also received CME (Chinese Made Easier) book-1 with CD’s. All of the books and CD’s arrived in New York from Beijing in perfect condition. Given this and the quick response to all my email inquiries, I would have to say that the quality of service couldn’t really get any better.

My very first impression of NPCR is that it’s a nice size for reading. It’s length and width (around 11¼ inches by around 8¼ inches) is a good match for the notebook that most students are likely to carry around with them. The large size allows for a large font, which improves readability. The font is also pleasant and easy on the eyes. Clarity and eyestrain, especially with regards to Chinese characters, will not be a concern with this book. The thickness of the textbook is about one-half inch, so, overall, it’s by no means too bulky to carry around.

Upon initially opening NPCR and flipping through the pages, one notices right away that the textbook has numerous interesting drawings throughout. After I’ve had a chance to work with the book for a while, I'll have a better opinion as to whether this is just pleasant eye candy or whether it adds real functionality. There is a large, folded pull-out chart of pinyin initials and finals about a third way through the textbook, which is also a comfortable reading size. The appendices contains a vocabulary index and a list of supplementary words, both of which are ordered by pinyin. There is also a character index, which, at this point, I don’t how to use, but I now expect the book to teach me this Chinese mystery.

NPCR starts off with an introduction to the nine main fictional personalities that the book uses to tell an ongoing, developing story throughout the lessons. I happen to be a sucker for a good story, so this gives me hope that the colorless world of memorizing vocabulary lists will instead become more of an escape into fantasy. After I’ve completed the book, we’ll see whether this inferred promise is kept.

The main body of NPCR consists of 14 lessons, each of which contains several sections. Each lesson starts with a dialogue between the story’s characters, and each dialogue is accompanied by one or more illustrations. The illustrations appear to give one a contextual feel for the dialogue and also spur on one’s imagination. This is followed by one or more shaded boxes containing the new words to learn. The new words box is columnar and contains the pinyin pronunciation, the part of speech to which it belongs, its Chinese characters, and the English translation. This is followed by a notes section, where each note has a number that corresponds to a line in the preceding dialogue with that footnote number. This should make it easier to refer back and forth between these two sections. For further convenience, each note repeats a line from the dialogue and provides its English translation, often followed by further explanation. This section is followed by a drills and practice section, followed by a number of varying sections, depending on the lesson. One other section that’s consistent throughout the 14 lessons is a Chinese characters section. This section shows the character, the strokes necessary to form the character, and the number of strokes. Best of all, many characters also have an illustration that may be helpful in remembering the character. For example the character for teacher has a stick drawing that looks something like a professor wearing a cap and gown and is also slightly reminiscent of the character, itself. I have no idea whether there is any etymological validity to this. What matters to me is whether this will help to fix it in my memory – and this is yet to be determined in the full review.

There is one error in the book that I noticed on this first glance. The table of contents lists an appendix for “Abbreviations for Grammar Terms” on page 224. However, page 224 starts the vocabulary index, and the grammar terms index seems nowhere to be found. Will it turn up later buried within the body of the book? Will it matter whether it turns up or not? Stay tuned for the full review to find out.

. . . . .

Now for a first glance at CME (Chinese Made Easier). CME, at about 10 inches in length by about 7¼ inches in width, is more compact than NPCR. Yet with a clear and adequately sized font and good use of spacing, CME gives up nothing in the way of readability. Also, in CME’s pages that ask you to “memorize the following characters,” those characters are drawn huge. CME is not noticeably thicker than NPCR, though it has roughly 50 to 60 additional pages. The “real feel” carrying around weight difference isn’t noticeable; however, CME does feel more compact when held in the hand.

CME, like NPCR, is also furnished with illustrations throughout. These illustrations brighten up CME, though perhaps NPCR, at a first glance, has the edge here. The important thing is how well the chosen illustrations contribute to the learning process, and I hope to express an opinion on this in the full review.

CME essentially consists of two distinct parts. The first is an approximately 60 page discourse on pronunciation, which breaks down into 32 mini-lessons of a few pages each. This appears to be pretty extensive, and for the benefit of the full review, I will try to work my way through it. The end of this part has its own appendices, which includes a few sections containing some linguistic jargon, which I really do hope I can skip over (except just to let you know that it’s there). My initial impression of the first part is that it could have been an entirely separate book, standing on its own, except that I’m not sure how well it would have sold. But that’s a question beyond the scope of this review, so let’s move on to the second part of CME, which looks a bit friendlier and more like … well, Chinese!

The main body of CME consists of 10 lessons. Each lesson starts off with a box that summarizes the material that the lesson will cover. This is followed by dialogues, where the Chinese characters are positioned above the pinyin, as in NPCR. But unlike NPCR, where everything is nice and big, the Chinese characters in CME’s dialogues appear larger than the pinyin. Apart from making the characters clearer, which is a worthy goal in itself, I perceive that this also has the effect of drawing my eye first to the Chinese characters rather than to the pinyin. Assuming that this is CME’s intention, then I rate it at somewhere between a useful feature to outright brilliant. By contrast, in NPCR’s dialogues, the pinyin is not only the same size as the Chinese character, but it also has a brighter color, thus drawing my eye first to the pinyin rather than to the Chinese character. CME uses the same black color for both character and pinyin. A suggestion for CME would be to use a brighter color for the Chinese character to further enhance the eyes natural tendency to focus on the larger, brighter, more colorful object. A suggestion for NPCR would be to adopt CME’s concept of drawing the readers eye first to the Chinese character. For anyone reading this review who is wondering why I'm mentioning this in the first place, it’s because an important goal for progressing in Chinese studies is to break away from pinyin ASAP.

CME’s dialogues are followed by English translations. Unlike NPCR, the English translations are not incorporated into a “Notes” section. CME, instead, has several separate notes sections. Also unlike NPCR, CME does not use footnotes to tie lines in the dialogue to the notes, or in reverse, to tie numbered lines in the notes section directly back to lines in the dialogue. NPCR’s approach, at least at first glance, seems more convenient for referring between the two sections; but of course, we’ll see if that really matters in practice in the full review.

The next section in CME covers the new vocabulary. Here we have a similar format as in NPCR (a columnar arrangement containing the Chinese characters, its pinyin pronunciation, the part of speech to which it belongs, and the English translation). The difference between CME and NPCR, here, is that CME starts off with the Chinese character, whereas NPCR starts off with the pinyin. It may sound small, but my initial impression is that CME is using a subtly significant improvement by again emphasizing characters over pinyin right from the start.

Continuing on with CME, a supplementary vocabulary section follows, and then there are various and varying sections on grammar, sentence structure, and notes. Towards the end of each lesson from lesson 6 forward is a page that commands you to “memorize the following characters,” which are illustrated in a wonderfully huge font, with accompanying pinyin and English in a small font. My initial thought is that being told what to memorize at each stage in the process is something that will benefit many self-learners who need a more guided approach, as they are lacking the structure of a class. Also, I think that many students, in addition to self-learners, really want to know, in the face of an overwhelming abundance of information, what to focus on, and what absolutely must be mastered before proceeding to the next step. In case you’re wondering what actually forces you to memorize those characters, I think it’s simply, as the books states, because you’ve seen those characters 10 times already and because the pinyin for those characters will no longer appear. In the full review, I’ll discuss how well I found this approach to actually work in contrast with NPCR’s approach.

CME closes out with an E-C vocabulary list, followed by a C-E vocabulary list. NPCR has a C-E vocabulary list, but not an E-C vocabulary list in its appendix. For both books, the C-E vocabulary list is ordered by pinyin.

. . . . .

So there you have it at a first glance, what you might see if you browsed through the books at a bookstore. I’ll conclude this initial review with a word on the audio CD’s. The audio quality of NPCR far surpasses CME, with NPCR having crystal clear CD quality and CME being noticeably a grade or two (or even three) below that. I’ll write more fully about this and everything else after I’ve had a chance to work through the actual lessons and listen to all the audio. At this point, I wouldn’t want to draw any final conclusions or make any recommendations, but this first glance sets up a number of expectations. As this review progresses, we’ll see how well the books deliver.

Any and all comments are welcomed.

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Nice (preliminary) review Loubot. I have worked my way through 2 volumes of NPCR and I am considerably less enthusiastic about it than you are. But most of my criticism is of the books content so I will save it for later.

I think I can clear up one question that you raised:

There is also a character index, which, at this point, I don’t how to use, but I now expect the book to teach me this Chinese mystery.

The Character index on page 241 of the book tells you which chapter of the book the character was introduced on. I assume the purpose is to provide a quick look up for characters you are unable to identify. The way to use it is: 1) scan for the character in the index, 2) find the chapter, 3) go to the table of contents to find the page the chapter starts on, 4) turn to the chapter and 5) start thumbing through the pages until you find the definition. This is so luborious that it is easier to just look up the character by the radical in a pocket dictionary. Just think of how many pathetic hours of searching they could have saved by putting the page number of the definition directly into the index.

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I just read you audio review:

The audio quality of NPCR far surpasses CME

I agree with this. In fact I think this book has the highest audio quality of any textbook avaiable. This might not be true for long, as I hear that they raised the bar so high that Cheng & Tsui are upgrading the audio for the next edition of "Integrated Chinese".

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Character indexes are often a method to check how much you have learned - testing yourself. Might as well put the whole definition of the character in the character list.

Overall I am very happy with NPCR, finished volume 3, have got volume 4 but I haven't started, saving it for classes - using other resources instead.

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Mirgcire,

Thanks for solving the character index mystery.

On the subject of audio quality, there’s only so good you can get with speech, and NPCR is just about there. CME’s audio has a lot of room for improvement. I didn’t include this in my preliminary review, but as I listen to it, I’m finding that CME’s MP3 audio has an inconsistent quality, with parts sounding little better than your typical home recording. NPCR’s audio is designed as a CD, and it sounds professionally engineered. That quality can be matched, but it would be hard to exceed it by any measurable amount. I would say that the parts of NPCR that I’ve sampled are on a par with Pimsleur, which also gets top sound quality grades.

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I'm on the last lesson of book 4, and I'm very satisfied with the books. I personally have very little to complain about.

Anyway, NPCR (at least later books) also have a dictionary in the back in addition to the character index, so you can look up all the characters and words that were introduced in that volume.

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Many thanks for your helpful comments re. Chinese Made Easier. I agree with you on the inferior quality of the CDs (esp. Book 3). The publishers are tackling this problem at the moment, but it will be a while before better CDs are available.

It is important to see CME as a whole series because there is a progression as regards the layout of the textbook, e.g. the characters start off big and sit above the pinyin in Book 1, but after that the characters and pinyin stories are displayed separately. The purpose of this is to gradually wean the student off pinyin, but in a way that isn't too frightening.

I do appreciate the time & trouble you are going to in so carefully scrutinizing the textbooks and am really looking forward to the "full report"!!

Martin Symonds (author of CME)

P.S. It is interesting (for me) that the two textbook series you have chosen to compare are NPCR and CME. If people tell me that they don't like CME and are looking for an alternative, I always strongly recommend NPCR!!

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Martin Symonds,

Thanks for the feedback on this first glance review.

I should say that the audio is just one factor of many, and I haven’t found it to be a show stopper. But it’s part of the complete picture and needs to be seen as such.

I can understand your wanting the CME series to be reviewed in its entirety, given that its method works by progression across volumes. And if I have the opportunity, then I’d love to follow-up with the additional volumes in the series.

ps - I thought comparing CME with NPCR would be interesting because they take two different, unique approaches, while both standing squarely within the genre of modern Chinese language instruction, and both series are among the few that take the student from complete newbie into at least solid intermediate territory. Of course, I'm also looking for the best path for myself in the process :wink:

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In all the present and ongoing discussions concerning Chinese Made Easier vs. New Practical Chinese Reader, it is important to ask the question: What type of student did the authors of these textbook series have in mind when they designed their textbooks?

As regards Chinese Made Easier, the sort of person I had in mind was a westerner who was living in China and needed a series of textbooks to help him/her survive, live and make friends in China. So CME first & foremost is practical. Hence, CME is of no use for the person who simply wants to either learn to read & write lots of Chinese characters or to take the HSK. In other words, CME is designed primarily for communicating in Chinese, not simply studying the Chinese language.

It would be interesting to hear from the authors of NPCR as to whom they had in mind. Once this is clear, it is then easier to critique the books.

Martin

P.S. Luobot, many thanks for your comments. I trust you get past Book 1 fairly quickly!! ... and do take a look at my website www.chinesemadeeasier.com which is designed to give the students additional useful resources to go with CME.

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it is important to ask the question: What type of student did the authors of these textbook series have in mind when they designed their textbooks? As regards Chinese Made Easier, the sort of person I had in mind was a westerner who was living in China and needed a series of textbooks to help him/her survive, live and make friends in China.

Thanks for contributing this insight, and yes, it would be interesting to hear NPCR weigh in. Here are just a few other random little thoughts:

Both series are sold to folks oversees, some of whom will go on to spend time in China, as I have (and hope to again), while others may never set foot in China, but still have an interest in Chinese language and culture. This discussion should be of interest to them. Also to note is that there is a separate review of CME coming from another forum member who is presently based in Singapore, so there will be several perspectives for Chinese-forum readers to consider.

Often there are relative strengths and weaknesses that can make one product more suitable under certain circumstances and less suitable under others. It’s worthwhile to get these factors before the eyes of readers so that they can make a more informed decision.

As for myself, I would not want to wait until I return to China to start using a methodical resource, such as CME or NPCR. Immersion in the target country is great, but being prepared by having a foundation in place when you get there is even greater.

It's been said that writing a book is like having a baby. When the baby enters the world, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of what its parents were thinking at the moment of conception.

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One thing I like about the NPCR audio component (in addition to the recording quality) is the segmenting of the components. In NPCR5 they have distinct tracks for a single chapter's dialogue, vocab, listening comp, reading text, etc.

That's one thing I hate about some other books is the lump 'em all together so it's painful use the audio to review while driving or walking. China Scene by T&S for example, has a track for each chapter that contains multiple sections each followed by the droning of new vocabulary. The very fact they feel 3rd and 4th year students need to hear pinyin pronounced is odd enough, but having to constantly fast forward through those parts (sometimes several times in one chapter) is quite irritating.

The upper level Princeton books are even worse... if you buy the CDs they are just the recording of the two sides of a tape so you get a single track that has multiple chapters with the standard vocab droning interspersed throughout. If you want to hear chapter 4 you put in disk one and down the FF button for a minute then try to guess which way to cue to find it. IMO it's unbelievable a school with that reputation in is willing to charge people money for that sort of garbage in the year 2008 when it would take an audio tech one day to get it properly indexed for easier use.

Oohhh I got sort of rantish there eh? Have a great day everyone!

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Luobot, thanks for your helpful contribution. Permit me to ramble on for a few more bytes on: "the sort of person I had in mind is a westerner who is living in China and needs a series of textbooks to help him/her survive, live and make friends in China."

I believe that the words "is living in China" are key, because it forced me, as author, to ask and answer the key question, "What does a westerner, newly arrived in China, need to do fairly immediately to 1. Survive, then 2. Handle daily living needs, and then 3. Make friends with Chinese people ?"

So, with a bit of luck, the topics in Book 1 are the main basic ones for survival, e.g. introducing yourself, buying things, ordering food in a restaurant, giving directions to (e.g.) a taxi driver, etc.

The person who is studying Chinese in the West does not have the same urgency for all this, so the order isn't so key. I find that most textbook series written in China, although stating that they are practical, etc., etc. don't adhere to this principle strictly enough (e.g. Beijing Opera and all the rest appearing too early).

Hope this helps.

Martin

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We have no plans for NPCR 6 in 2008. So I am afraid you cannot get it this year.

They really should make a push on this, as book five has been out for some time now and one would think the uncertainty would slow college programs from using their earlier books since the advantages of continuity of three years of study from the same series might not be there.

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They really should make a push on this, as book five has been out for some time now and one would think the uncertainty would slow college programs from using their earlier books since the advantages of continuity of three years of study from the same series might not be there.

I personally have been waiting for book 6 for a long time now, and, frankly if it's not going to be out this year, my Chinese is going to have advanced to the point where it's no longer any use to me. (Will probably still end up buying it though, because I'm obsessive like tha)

It wasn't my first textbook, but I used books 2-5 as my main text books the first year or so I was here, and I think it's one of the better text books on the market. I especially liked the grammar explanations in the books, which is better and clearer than others.

I was lent the whole series of Chinese Made Easier by my college earlier this year. Though by that stage they were to simple for my overall level, I used them for improving my tones. The thing I really like about this textbook is the pronunciation sections which is one of the best I've seen and is especially useful as it talks about how to pronounce two tones in sucession (i.e what does fourth followed by second look like).

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