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"Old-fashioned" textbook recommendations?


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Hello folks,

I'm new to this forum and have recently decided to start learning Chinese. I became a fan of Chinese pop about 3 years ago under the influence of my two Chinese e-friends; that's probably what made me want to learn the language, since I listen to it every day and find it so interesting. I already know a few words (probably around 15, heh) and can pronounce pinyin. Sort of.

Anyway, since I'm not planning to visit or move to a Chinese-speaking country anytime soon and mostly want to focus on reading and writing, I'm looking for a good "old-fashioned" textbook (read below for my lengthy definition of "old-fashioned textbook"). By this I basically mean a book that:

  • Does not merely teach you ready-made sentences and catch phrases without ever explaining the meanings and usage of the individual words and structures that make them up. (I think this is essential if you want to ever be able to write sentences of your own without hesitation.)
  • Has good and necessary grammar explanations, even if the trend nowadays is to leave those out in order not to end up with a "boring" book. I don't want a book full of pictures, dialogs and expressions with no explanations. Explanations are a must.
  • Has grammar exercises, preferably with answers (Who likes to do stuff without knowing if it's right or wrong?). The exercises can be in the book itself or in a dedicated workbook; I don't care as long as they're useful and enough. And the answers can be in a separate teacher's book; that's fine.
  • Has pinyin transcriptions and English translations of everything.
  • Is focused on serious learning and not just on traveling and casual usage of the language.
  • Has audio CDs or tapes available, of course.

And, preferably, but totally optionally (read: please do not discard a good book because of this), that:

  • Is written in traditional Chinese.

So what did I mean by "old-fashioned" textbook? I don't know if this is also the trend in Chinese learning, but all modern Western language textbooks tend to be full of pictures and colors, merely teach you ready-made phrases and expressions, put a lot of stress on conversation and listening and ignore grammar almost completely. It looks like no one can release a textbook nowadays if it's not full of pictures and stuff, and the negative thing is that these pictures usually replace important and necessary things like decent grammar explanations and grammar exercises because they are "boring." They may be boring, but I find them essential for properly learning a language. I love grammar. When I was learning English, I tried three different modern textbooks. None worked, and I'm a fast learner. My pronunciation was great and I could communicate fluently, but only orally and using the catch phrases I had learned. Whenever I wanted to make slight variations or reuse structures I already "knew" I found myself incapable of doing so, for I had learned them as indivisible units instead of learning the actual meanings and usage of their components. So I took the plunge and got started with the textbooks my mom had learned English with decades ago. It didn't have tapes, pictures, or colors. The workbook was mostly made up of tiring, boring and repetitive grammar exercises. But I went on because I felt that I was learning, and that's how I built up the grammar I have today. Hadn't it been for those books, I would have probably hesitated numerous times in writing this post, I would not have been able to type it with my typing speed being the only speed limit besides language-independent brain processing speed, and I would have surely made several grammar mistakes.

I think Chinese naturally requires "old-fashioned" textbooks more than Western languages do, so I don't know if the above is also the trend in the field of Chinese textbooks. If it is, I'd like to find a good book that doesn't follow this trend.

By the way, I already have a copy of Learn to Speak Chinese I by Wang Guo'an that a friend lent me, but I'm more than willing to dump it in favor of better books you guys could suggest. I don't want the fact that I already have this book to influence my decision of choosing the best book. I like this book so far because it's pretty "old-fashioned": It has zero drawings and pictures, has grammar explanations and the stuff it does explain it explains well. However, it doesn't explain everything it should, it's probably rather short, it doesn't have any exercises of any kind, and they could have picked better people for pronouncing stuff. A very positive thing about it, though, is that, below every sentence or paragraph, there's a pinyin transcription and English translation. It even has pinyin transcriptions and English translations for the titles and grammar explanations. I find this very useful and consistent.

Wow, that's a long post. Hope I haven't bored y'all too much, and I look forward to hearing any suggestions you may have, even if they don't meet exactly all of the requirements I stated above. :D


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Hey, you seem very smart, and I like your take on language learning. But I don't know why people ask this kind of question. You are really looking for a book that suits you in particular - I wouldn't take anyone else's advice if I were you. Get thee to the bookshop!

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Thanks for the reply. I would definitely go to the bookshop--if there were any bookshops carrying Chinese textbooks here. It's sad, but if I called or visited any local bookshops and asked about Chinese textbooks, they would probably laugh in my face. Argentina sucks when it comes to availability of anything I want. I tend to need stuff that most people here don't need, be it decent computer hardware or Chinese textbooks. No one here stocks anything they know they won't be able to sell a reasonable amount of, so it's extremely hard to find anything of decent quality (and therefore higher pricing) here. Chinese textbooks are just one example.

I've been spending hours lately trying to find a textbook matching all my requirements on Amazon, but it's not easy when the "look inside the book" feature is not available. I just can't afford to blindly get a book without seeing a couple of its pages, especially if there are only 2-3 user reviews of it (which probably means that it sucks, but that may not be necessarily true).

The one book that probably meets almost all of my requirements is Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, but it has a couple of major drawbacks, namely old-fashioned content and the lack of characters in the main book. I think it would be extremely ineffective to get the companion book that only has characters, and have English and pinyin on one side and characters on the other. I think that having the three things together is a must.

Another book that looks promising is Teach Yourself Chinese by Liz Scurfield, but it also has a couple of major drawbacks: it doesn't introduce characters until after a bunch of chapters, and it's written in simplified Chinese. I want to learn traditional first and, unfortunately, most of the better books seem to be written in simplified. :wall

It looks like I might have to "settle for" Integrated Chinese, which I don't like as much as the previous two but at least has English, pinyin and characters all together, and workbooks and teacher's books with keys available. I don't like the fact that the dialogs I've seen so far are only in pinyin, but oh well. Why can't they be consistent in making a book? :wall

Does anyone know of any good textbooks available in traditional Chinese other than Integrated Chinese?

Oh, and I'm also looking for a good grammar book with traditional characters. I hear A Practical Chinese Grammar and Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar are the best, but those two and most other grammar books I've seen either have no characters at all or have simplified characters. I definitely don't want simplified characters, unless there are traditional characters as well. And I'd rather not have pinyin only, but I guess that wouldn't be as bad as simplified characters only (I don't want to get traditional and simplified mixed up).


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I learnt with Scurfield's book, I think it is pretty good. As a beginner, I would view the introduction of characters halfway through the book and the use of simplified characters as a good thing. It is simpler! The sad fact is that as an outsider you will come across both systems and will need to know both if you want to get very far.

It is also relatively cheap.

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The introduction of characters halfway through the book may make it simpler because there is less stuff to look at, but I think that paying attention to characters or ignoring them until a certain point or forever should be the reader's decision. Some people may only want to learn to read pinyin or understand spoken Mandarin and thus not need characters at all, but other people like me may want to focus on reading and writing characters, in which case it sucks not to have them from the beginning. I think the book would be more versatile if characters were present since the beginning (even if they weren't explained at all until later) and the reader could choose whether to pay attention to the characters or ignore them completely or up to a certain point. I understand that the author may have considered the introduction of characters since the beginning "overwhelming," but I believe that it wouldn't have hurt to just toss them in, even if they hadn't been formally introduced until later chapters. I would have also liked to see the page numbers written in characters in addition to Arabic numerals. It's always nice to at least see the characters as one goes along; it helps to pick them up without even noticing it.

As for simplified characters being simpler, I only consider them to be simpler to write, i.e. the mechanical part of writing characters. Traditional characters make more sense to me, however, and I find them easier to remember by meaning. Also, I will probably learn both systems in the future, but I want to start with traditional, both because I like it more and because it would be simpler for me to switch from traditional to simplified rather than the other way around.

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