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ChristopherB

Why don't more people use John DeFrancis' Chinese Reader series?

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ChristopherB

Sometimes I feel a bit like some kind of apostle regarding Mr. DeFrancis' work, most especially his Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced Chinese Readers. Indeed, several of the surprisingly few threads on his Readers are by me and there are only a small handful more on this site by other Chinese learners. Why is this? There are an umpteen number of discussions on other readers like the Practical Chinese Reader series and the like, which do look quite good, but which in my (most humble) opinion pale in comparison to the masterpiece of Chinese pedagogy that constitute the three-volume reader series by Dr. DeFrancis.

At the risk of answering my own question, I'll try and preempt a couple of possible answers to the question:

1) The readers were produced in the late 1960s, ie. about 40 years ago and consequently aspiring learners of Chinese may assume that the material is in some way outdated and therefore unusable.

2) The series predominantly uses traditional characters, which have largely (but of course by no means entirely) fallen out of usage. The majority, or at least a good percentage, of Mandarin learners seem to focus on simplified because it is the official set of Mainland China, where Mandarin is most widely and natively spoken.

Well, in response to the first criticism, it is true that these readers were produced several decades ago, but judging by a thread I posted on this very matter some months ago, it appears the content is still perfectly usable, allowing, of course, for the occasional outdated term or historical reference. By and large these readers are as good as they were when they were first published.

As for the unending traditional vs. simplified debate, if one is preparing to stick with Chinese for the long-haul, I think learning traditional first is an approach that can only do you good, since it is likely easier to make the transition from a more complex set to a simplified set. Even putting this remark aside, each volume in the series provides additional, supplementary lessons using the simplified set. All in all, I can't see how you can go wrong using this series, regardless of what your particular character set preference is.

Beyond this, there is of course the marvelous, indeed, ingenious structure to the books which I won't spend too much time going into here, but suffice it to say that the book places a due emphasis on BOTH characters AND their respective combinations and that each character and combination is repeated regularly through the series to avoid under-use thanks to a deliberate and carefully thought-out spaced repetition system. Having begun on the Intermediate reader myself, I am constantly amazed at how nearly effortless it is to learn to read Chinese. I feel I can honestly say that John DeFrancis has made learning to read Chinese an easy task. And by read, I emphatically do NOT mean deciphering. I mean reading, as one does any language, with ever increasing levels of fluency, comprehension and facility.

Another bonus of this series is simply the sheer amount of content. The entire series, combined, yield about 4000 pages, of which at least 80-85% is pure Chinese dialogues and narratives. The remainder contains illustrative sentences, character and combination review and, of course, the introduction of new vocabulary. Each volume/level contains about 200,000 characters of running text. Given the absolute necessity of extensive reading in a language like Chinese to move beyond "slow decipher work", the amount of content packed into these books should be enough to arouse anyone's interest. How much content do other, more modern readers provide by comparison?

So, I pose the question to all Chinese language keeners on this respectable forum: Have you ever considered using the DeFrancis readers? If not, why not?

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anonymoose

Well, in the UK at least, I haven't ever seen them available anywhere.

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ChristopherB

http://amzn.to/hbSguz

I doubt they're available anywhere in actual stores, except perhaps University stores. I haven't seen them myself. But they're readily available online. There's volume one for twenty pounds at Amazon.co.uk.

The audio is available from Seton Hall University. It's indispensable.

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anonymoose

Given the easy access to alternatives, I think that would go a long way to explaining the lack of popularity of the series you talk about. I mean, if few people know about the DeFrancis series, they are unlikely to go out of their way to research it, especially given it's age and restricted availability.

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ChristopherB

I don't know, all I did to find out about the series was simply bang "Chinese reader" into Amazon. Beginning Chinese Reader was the first result, and from there the reviews sold me. Surely if one's serious about learning Chinese, they'd make some effort to investigate various methods?

Nevertheless, I daresay you have a point. The fact that bookstores sell more modern - and therefore seemingly better - resources, it's quite likely that a learner would go for those, rather than a set of big, huge, clunky-looking, black-and-white books that are only available in university libraries or online stores. Then again substance of content has always been more appealing to me than colours and pictures, but maybe I'm in a minority?

(Not to imply that substance and colours/pictures are automatically mutually exclusive, but it is depressingly often the case)

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anonymoose

I definitely prefer substance over colours and pictures. My point is simply that being relatively unavailable, and visually unappealing, why would anyone choose DeFrancis books over more modern books which they may see first-hand in a bookshop? If the DeFrancis series is that good, maybe the publisher should consider publishing an updated version.

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sleepy eyes

One question: How co-dependent of the textbooks in the series are they? Apparently there's a textbook keyed to each level of the reader series.

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889

I'm also a great fan of the DeFrancis series, and of Eleanor Harz Jorden's corresponding series on Japanese.

Yes, the dialogs seem a bit dated, the books aren't easy to find, and they're expensive when you do find them. And teachers pick textbooks, and teachers these days don't like to look at traditional characters. That partially explains their disfavored status.

But there's another reason. There's a method behind the DeFrancis and Jorden books, and to use them effectively, a teacher has to study, understand and use the method. It's a method that places a lot of emphasis on drills: hard, boring repetitive drills. And boring repetitive drills -- a thousand variations on a pattern sentence -- don't appeal to today's students or teachers, who prefer a softer approach. In short, the method's effective because it's intensive and a lot of work, and most teachers and most students just don't want to work quite that hard.

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roddy

Another reason is quite possibly that there's just a lot more to read nowadays. Back when they were published, what were your options - the university library and not much else. Now you just pop online and you've got a million and one things to read.

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Gharial

The Mandarin course I took had once used some of the DeFrancis books as its set texts, but they'd apparently become too expensive (especially to import into the UK - and remember that this was pre-internet and Amazon etc). The guy running the course was actually quite apologetic about having had to switch to the old PCR vols I & II, but PCR did have its advantages other than price, namely the "endearing" characters, pictures, dialogues and plots, which could all be shall we say "commented upon" and thus help liven up the classes. Then, the real "value" of a lot of education is that although it may not quite show you what you'd really prefer to be doing, it can certainly show you what you'd prefer not to be doing! :)

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Meng Lelan

The DeFrancis series filled a need for its day and time. However this series has not been able to evolve with changing times that demand up to date content and interactive teaching methods. Textbooks have to be constantly edited and updated about every five or ten years. As an example the Chinese school where I teach, over the course of 15 years we have changed textbooks two or three times because previous editions were not appropriate for a changing student population and new teaching methods.

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skylee
Textbooks have to be constantly edited and updated about every five or ten years. As an example the Chinese school where I teach, over the course of 15 years we have changed textbooks two or three times

The kids you teach (and their parents) are lucky. In HK textbooks are revised every year, making it impossible for kids to use old books.

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jbradfor

@Meng Lelan, do you feel the new teaching methods actually added value, or were they just the "buzz de jour"?

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Meng Lelan

skylee, we started with textbooks literally imported from the mainland - the 语文 series - and that was because at the time most of the school's children were born in the mainland then came to the US. But after some time, a vast majority were born in the US and this series was inappropriate because it had content that was not consistent with life as a Chinese heritage in the US, daily needs, staying in contact with relatives, etc. So we switched to a series published in Jinan. After seven years, this series became inappropriate because it depended heavily on storytelling instead of real life situations. It also assumes a great deal of prior exposure to Chinese at home. Not a very realistic teaching approach because fewer and fewer parents are able to maintain a Chinese speaking atmosphere in the home these days. So now we are starting to use the Great Wall Chinese series published by the Confucius Institute. It does not assume constant and prior exposure to Chinese.

jbradfor, as for teaching methods - the older textbooks relied heavily on teaching methods empasizing rote memorization, drills, and reading aloud. Newer textbooks require access to the Internet and technology which helps increase instructional time in the classroom instead of spending so much time in class drilling the students. I think the new ways are here to stay. In other words, not a fad.

I do see the value in the DeFrancis readers but I cannot think of any high school or college instructor recommending this series because the students we have nowadays are very tech-oriented, they are very pick-up-and-go. Meaning you need to be ready to provide them with the language which they can "pick up" and go to a certain situation and be ready and able to use that language for that situation. They also have a need to interact with peers in their age group and the DeFrancis is not going to fill that need.

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James Stange

When I started learning Chinese, 10 years ago, the book stores in the U.S. were stocked with DeFrancis's books. His Beginning Readers were extremely useful and I learned much from them. I had to special order a used copy of Beginning Reader Vol 2 as the series was no longer in publication. I would have continued on to the Intermediate Reader but special ordering used copies became too expensive to justify. If they had remained in publication I would have continued on with them.

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ChristopherB

Some interesting comments here!

Another reason is quite possibly that there's just a lot more to read nowadays. Back when they were published' date=' what were your options - the university library and not much else. Now you just pop online and you've got a million and one things to read.[/quote']

Well, as far as being able to hop on the Internet and access tons more than you could in the early days goes, it's certainly true. But what I'm finding in my studies so far - and I'm by no means proficient yet in the language, so this is really only a guess - is that structure and method in the early stages for learning characters are extremely valuable. It seems to me almost indispensably so. Sure, the Internet provides you with more stuff, but can one acquire reading fluency just by jumping on the Internet and haphazardly studying whatever you find? Perhaps, but I simply could not learn Chinese that way. The reason I find his Readers valuable to this day, despite the increase in available media and resources is the structure inherent in the method. Like I said in my original post, it makes learning to read Chinese easy. Such a statement probably sounds utterly oxymoronic to most people, but by using a good method and studying diligently, the results are coming quite swiftly. That's what I'm finding.

If the DeFrancis series is that good' date=' maybe the publisher should consider publishing an updated version.[/quote']

I believe Yale Press were intending on releasing such an update in memory of Dr. DeFrancis. It may in fact already be out. The content is supposed to be updated in simplified characters and I think it comes on CD-ROM or something. Not sure how faithful it is to the original if it is in fact based on the original readers.

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Meng Lelan
I believe Yale Press were intending on releasing such an update in memory of Dr. DeFrancis. It may in fact already be out. The content is supposed to be updated in simplified characters and I think it comes on CD-ROM or something. Not sure how faithful it is to the original if it is in fact based on the original readers.

You might be referring to Encounters, which Yale University Press is test piloting right now and is slated to be released this summer. The first page dedicates the text in memory of DeFrancis.

I'm one of the teachers test piloting it for a class. The text has both simplified and traditional characters side by side.

I own the entire set of the DeFrancis readers and I can tell you Encounters is nothing at all like the original.

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bkasten

This is an excellent topic, and I am generally in agreement with the original poster--specking as someone that has every book Prof. DeFrancis had published, and who used his texts to learn the Chinese language.

I have always wondered why it became conventional and reflexive to dismiss these texts since the mid-80s. My thought has been that there are those in the academic community that don't/didn't find Dr. DeFrancis' ideas on Chinese writing reform appealing. In addition, I think there has a significant business interest in the last 20 years in convincing teachers and students that the latest and greatest textbooks (i.e., their textbooks) will provide salvation.

While I found texts like PCR and Integrated Chinese have/had their various merits, I always suspected lot of students found these resources wholly unappealing and an enticement to learn other languages. ;-)

It is very interesting that the series went mostly out of print in the 90s, and then started to come back in as print-on-demand in the U.K. a number of years ago, and now pretty much fully back in print (softcover only) in the last few years.

I think Yale University press would do well to publish electronic copies of the readers.

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WangYuHong

I love those books!

It's nice that they're back in print... When I got them many years ago, I paid quite a bit more for used versions.

I think for people serious about learning to read Chinese, these books are amazing. Traditional Chinese is still very important; although Mainland China switched to using Simplified, but Taiwan and Hong Kong are still by and large using Traditional. Plus, learning Traditional first and switching to Simplified later on is a whole lot easier to do than the other way around.

The DeFrancis Chinese Reader books are self-contained, which is amazing. There are support books, and study guides, and whatnot to help your learning, but they aren't necessary. I went through every lesson in every book, and using just the Readers by themselves was able to read all the material. This is very useful for people who don't have the time for more dedicated options. Back when I was learning, I was living by myself in Texas, so I had no Chinese language partners and no Chinese classes I could take. Simply put, learning to converse (Speak and Listen) wasn't possible. Through these books though, at least I could still make some progress.

I think it takes a certain approach to learning for students to find use in these books though. Some people learn better through interaction, or by hearing someone explain it. I personally learn better by reading. There's a lot of times where I won't fully understand what the person is saying until I see it written down. (I can't remember Chinese names until I see them written down).

I think instead of trying to find the best "average" teaching method and then having everybody use that, people should figure out what teaching style best suits them, and then find resources geared towards that. I read about a lot of people who would sit down with flashcards and drill them until they were burned into their brains. While on some level learning a foreign language is about rote memorization, I found that there's other ways to achieve the same goal. The only thing sitting down with flashcards ever did for me was help me cure my insomnia.

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