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Looking for my Ideal Textbook


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I’ve been studying too many languages to dedicate the time to learning Mandarin that it deserves. I’m on vacation in China for the next 2 weeks, then it’s off to Taiwan for a week. I’m going to do a little damage control over the next 2 or 3 months. My weaknesses are grammar and the written language, which makes sense as I’ve focused on the spoken language only. So I went to TLI in Shanghai (xujiahui) with the purpose of getting a handle on basic reading. I really like the handy little books they use for learning characters and reading, but that’s another story. Anyway, my teacher asked “why are you learning how to read already when your grammar is so bad?” I was floored that a teacher would say such a thing, but it did serve to reinforce the fact that I never studied grammar. Apparently not studying grammar doesn’t work for me. So now I’m dedicated to finding a good text. And I do mean a text, not just a cut and dry reference grammar. Now is the best time, because if I need to be in China to get it, here I am.

When I say good text, I mean good for me. Here are my requirements.

1) Must cover all basic grammar in a logical, systematic way. This is the most important thing that I need in a text. In my mind this not only includes clear introduction and explanation of new concepts, but also a philosophy throughout the book that provides adequate reinforcement, blending the old and new concepts, etc, in such a way that maximizes the probability of retention.

2) Must not have small text. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. Most texts that I see are ok, but a few are really a strain. This is my number 1 fear of ordering a text online without having seen inside.

3) Must be available in traditional characters. I have a background in Japanese, so traditional is easier for me. I also study simplified versions of new characters as I encounter them, but I want my primary reading practice to be in traditional for the time being.

4) Must have pinyin for new characters.

Now here are some preferences, which are not as important as the requirements above. Pick as many of these as you can, but don’t let a lack of them eliminate a text that fills the above requirements really well.

1) fun

2) good audio component

3) lots of examples to get me used to the grammar

4) positive feedback

5) not dense, meaning not a dozen new grammar points on a single page

6) video component

7) a weaning-off of pinyin for already known material

8) well organized and indexed

9) good quality paper, cover & printing

Here are some other things that apply to me which may affect your recommendations.

1) I know over 2000 Japanese kanji, and will know 1000 hanzi when I start using the text, so a big focus on characters isn’t required

2) I speak the language fairly well (except for grammar apparently), so a big focus on pronunciation isn’t required

3) I consider myself a beginner when it comes to Mandarin grammar, meaning I want a text that assumes I know nothing to begin with


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Hello leosmith

I assume that you are looking for a grammar book that has English explanations rather than one which is written entirely or mostly in Chinese? In that case, I don’t think there are any good grammar books published in mainland China at the approaching-intermediate level; at least I haven’t come across any. And just to show that I am unbiased, I don’t think there are any good textbooks published here either. (No, I don’t like NPCR at all and think their grammar explanations are atrocious.) Hmmm….I think I’ve become a troll.

I’ll list two grammar books which I really like and which I have not seen in China. I should point out that while I really like both of these, I’m not sure how much I’ve actually learned and retained but that’s not the fault of the textbooks! (See this thread http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/35-traditional-simplified-characters247)

I also haven't read them from cover to cover.

(1) Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar by Claudia Ross. This has traditional, simplified, pinyin and English for every example. It also has an accompanying workbook which you can purchase separately.

- Very readable for a grammar book and not at all “dense”.

- No video or audio.

- Well organized and in an interesting fashion. The first 20 or so chapters cover basic grammar and the next 40 or so cover topics e.g. “Describing people, places and things.” or "Expressing Cause and Effect or Reason and Result"

- Lots of cross references in the body of the text (which I don’t find distracting.)

- It could be more comprehensively indexed but isn’t bad.

- Well printed

(2) Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington There is also an Intermediate book. (which I own but haven’t really looked at much. It seems just as good though.)

- Simplified, Pinyin and English – no traditional

- Good quality printing. My eyes aren’t good either and I find the characters slightly easier to read in this one compared with Claudia Ross’s book. In both cases I’d like them to be bigger still.

- No video or audio.

- A little denser maybe but also very readable. I think it explains a little more than the Claudia Ross book but is more of conventional grammar book.

- I find the exercises very helpful indeed (although the answer key is poorly laid out) and these the lots of extra examples.

Neither of these books are cheap when compared to those published in China books but I think they are far superior.

If you want to browse in Shanghai, I’ve found the following bookshops are the best. I’d be interested in hearing about any others you come across that look good. (I’ve no idea about any of the university bookstores).

Foreign Languages Book Store. 390 Fuzhou Lu (福州路390号)

This is on the north side of Fuzhou Lu, between Fujian and Shanxi Nan Lu. (Get off Line 2 Subway stop at Nanjing Lu and walk south)

Textbooks are on the ground floor on the left. Beat off the staff trying to sell you expensive language tapes.

There is a huge 7 story book store on the opposite side of the street closeby which also has textbooks for English speakers learning Chinese. I think they are on the 4th floor. Selection not as big as the Foreign Languages bookstore.

Garden Book Shop. On Changle Lu, close to the Shaanxi Nan Lu intersection. (Line 1, Shaanxi Lu Stop and walk north.)

Go upstairs – don’t be fooled by the small selection on the ground floor. Coffee, ice-cream and pizza (very loosely speaking) and pasta also available.

I don’t know what’s available in Taipei. But when I was there recently, I went to the main Eslite bookstore, near Taipei 101. Nice bookstore (very) but the selection of textbooks grammar books was disappointing. There must be better places for these.



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A grammar book is a good thing to have, but it might not be the best thing for actually learning grammar from scratch.

Probably the best thing for you is a comprehensive course (you said that you wanted audio and video and all that) that you can work your way through, and knowing characters will only help you get through it faster. Any one of the usually recommended books will do, like NPCR, Integrated Chinese the DeFrancis reader, or similar. Boya is also popular.

If you have the possibility of browsing through several popular textbooks in a bookstore, it will make your choice easier. Very few people can give you detailed comparisons of all popular textbooks.

For my part, I've had good experience with NPCR. You can have a look here for some scanned pages to get an idea. It fulfils many of your requirements: traditional character version is available, the text is very large, pinyin is used for new vocabulary, but is not used for text after the first volume, there is good quality audio and video (videos can be found on youtube, but the quality on the DVD is better), and there are workbooks with lots of grammar exercises.

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HedgePig, thanks for your excellent suggestions and info about Shanghai. I'll have to check it out. There are some huge book stores here, impressive but confusing to a guy who's still learning characters. Are you in Shanghai? Buy you a beer?

renzhe, I agree with you completely that what I need is a "comprehensive course", at least as far as a full textbook vs a bare-bones grammar is concerned. Audio & Video would be icing on the cake. I've heard a lot of good things about NPCR, but does it cover all basic grammar in a logical, systematic way? I've always had the impression, maybe unjustifiably, that it just sort of gives you new grammar points as you need them to get to the next reading. Could be totally wrong, but I'd like your opinion.

Daan, what text do you recommend?

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renzhe, I agree with you completely that what I need is a "comprehensive course", at least as far as a full textbook vs a bare-bones grammar is concerned. Audio & Video would be icing on the cake. I've heard a lot of good things about NPCR, but does it cover all basic grammar in a logical, systematic way? I've always had the impression, maybe unjustifiably, that it just sort of gives you new grammar points as you need them to get to the next reading. Could be totally wrong, but I'd like your opinion.

I don't know, I had enough grammar already to cover the first couple of volumes when I started with NPCR.

You should keep in mind, though, that the texts are also structured in a way that introduces the important grammar points in a reasonable order. They also follow the HSK guidelines, so they are not random. This should be the case for every integrated textbook, actually.

Your best bet would be to visit a large bookstore, put several textbooks next to each other and compare them to see which one best fits your requirements. With NPCR, you can also preview the videos on youtube. The later ones are obviously more interesting.

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Daan, what text do you recommend?

Any comprehensive course should work. My university used Integrated Chinese (level 1), Crossing Paths, Shifting Tides, A New Text for Modern China and some in-house publications. I was quite satisfied with those textbooks, but it's probably a good idea to stick with one series if you are studying on your own. You'd probably be best off following renzhe's suggestion and comparing some textbooks in a bookshop.

I'm in Taipei by the way and intimately familiar with all bookshops here, so if you need any help there, let me know :wink: I'd also be happy just to buy you a beer, of course. Send me a PM if you like.

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300 Grammatical Points isbn 7800054209 is good to have. It has English, pinyin, simplified. I think it has lots of exapmles and good explanations.

Taiwan Today by Cheng and Tsui is good because it has interesting topics, has some grammar in every chapter. I would call this a low intermediate book. My 3rd and 5th grader just started using this text. Answers in the back to lots of the exercises. Has audio but no video. See the reviews on Amazon.

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I second Renzhe's opinion on NPCR. I started volume 5 now. I focus on simplified but this textbook has both versions, both versions include additionally main texts in the other script simplified or traditional. I like the audio, grammar, pace, drills, dialogues and stories themselves, the font size is good! Pick the volume, which suits better for your level. From volume 2, Pinyin is only used for introducing new words and in the vocabulary.

Online video for 3 volumes (use MS IE to view, doesn't work Mozilla Firefox)

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Here's a review from amazon that makes me think twice about using NPCR:

As a textbook, The New Practical Chinese Reader leaves much to be desired. The format of each chapter is as follows: Dialogue, vocabulary, random non-concise grammar points, some hanzi information, and a one paragraph culture tid-bit. I feel that where the textbook is lacking is in it's breakdown of the grammar. Dialogues are given but very little it said of actual syntactic structure as well as why and how things are said in Chinese. Occasionally, you are given an asterisk that tells you about a phrase. Also, there is very little that is ever said in regards to Chinese culture which is very important when learning a language. Culture gives back ground and answers many "whys?" to a language. I feel the textbook could have contained more information.

Is "random non-concise grammar points" a fair statement?

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I didn't have that feeling and could understand the grammar explanations well. I've posted a snippet from NPCR3 explaining some of the complements, but there is generally much more than that in a lesson.

Keep in mind that people have VERY different opinions about these things. The review you linked to said that there is not enough Chinese culture in NPCR. But we've had many threads here which claim that there is TOO MUCH Chinese culture. People didn't want to learn about Buddhism, origin of chengyu or history. We've even had a guy here who was upset that he had to learn words like "brother" and "sister", because he thought they weren't important.

You'll have to get your hands on a copy and see for yourself. Don't trust random people on the internet, because they might be insane. This goes for every book.

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The cultural component in NPCR is split between the modern culture, the type you need to survive in a Chinese environment, which is integrated into the dialogues, and the more historical cultural references, which are mentioned in essays, or in additional explanations in English.

I don't know what sort of culture would help you learn language better, and she didn't write it.

Here are some of the cultural issues that are dealt with in the dialogues:

- fighting over a restaurant bill

- marrying a Chinese girl and visiting her parents in the countryside

- visiting a teahouse

- visiting Beijing opera (some people thought that this was too much culture)

- random people asking you about your salary and personal questions

- giving and opening birthday gifts

- the generational divide between parents and children (saving vs. spending/borrowing)

- Chinese-style painting

- Chinese vs. Western medicine

- Buying clothes (qipao, in this case) and related vocab

- ....

Basically exactly the sort of things that get discussed here on the forum by people who are relatively new to China and the Chinese culture. Also, there are some common cultural references, such as Chang'e and Xiannv, historical and scenic spots like Huang Shan and the Yangtze river.

So I think that they do a good job of touching on most important cultural topics, and manage to put them into regular, everyday scenes, so they are not overbearing.

TBH, I'm sure that most modern textbooks do it in a similar way. I'm not trying to sell you NPCR, I'm just saying that I've had a good experience with it, but that you should have a closer look at several popular textbooks and see which one fits your requirements best.

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  • 4 weeks later...


Hmmm...what do I recommend to you? I believe you can benefit from using either new practical chinese reader or Kuaile Hanyu. These are excellent textbooks specially for teens and adults.

You will gain ground in the four basic skills through lots and lots of drills and exercises. These books will help you with pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar.Also, the lessons go from simple to complex, with constant review of past lessons.

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Thanks all. Here's an update.

After extensive research in China and online, discussions with Hedgepig in Shanghai and Daan in Taipei, I've decided that a grammar is a better choice for what I want to do. This is because I came to the conclusion that no text does the most important thing on my list - cover all basic grammar in a logical, systematic way, as a efficiently as a grammar. The one that probably comes closest to it is probably Integrated Chinese, but it's now a moot point since I'm separating out the grammar.

Choosing a grammar wasn't as difficult, since there don't seem to be as many of them. I'm going to buy Schuam's Outline of Chinese Grammar when I get back home. I won't go into all the details why I chose this one, but this amazon review was the single most influential factor:

"I liked the Schaums better because the chapters built on each other and the examples and questions were substantially more intense. This book (Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar) takes the path of explaining each topic independently. However there's very little in terms of building up to something greater. You see something once, you see one or two example sentences, you do a couple trivial questions in the workbook, and then you never see it again. I found it hard to really remember much (and in general with foreign languages, find it hard to remember much) if there's not constant building, repetition, and review. Some people might like this format, but it wasn't to my liking."

As an aside, I said in my first post that I wanted to do some damage control while I was in China. I don't get much time to do "new" work in a language. Just 1 month this year, then I have to put the language on hold. So I mostly wanted to get on top of reading. I have made great progress, which is easy when you start from nothing. In fact, I have chosen to continue my new work during other parts of my travels this year, so when I finally put Mandarin on hold, I'll at least be able to read the Chinese Breeze type readers. Given my strange schedule, I think what Im doing is more beneficial that doing a few chapters of a textbook before going into hibernation.

So Grammar has to wait until I come back next year. At that time, if I find that it's sticking well, I'll probably continue on with native material. If not, I'll probably work my way through NPCR, which seems to be the best text for gradual and extensive reinforcement.

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