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Review: Mastering Chinese - The Complete Course for Beginners


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Review of: Mastering Chinese - The Complete Course for Beginners, by Catherine Hua Xiang. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2010. Boxed set of 366-page book with 2 CDs. RRP £34.99.

(I borrowed this course from my local library about a year ago. Unfortunately I didn't have time to go back through the book and list every last point of interest, but as it's Christmas I thought I'd share this slightly incomplete review even so!).

Like most Palgrave Macmillan books, this one is very well-produced, with durable covers and binding, bright white paper, and crisp fonts throughout. The hand-drawn contextualizing illustrations for exercises aren't too bad/are reasonably professional-looking and nicely done, and the (black and white) photos kept to just the minimum necessary to provide a bit of visual variety and interest (i.e. there isn't too much mere padding). Chinese characters are printed in a very clear approximately 20-point bold font, with Pinyin supplied both syllable by syllable immediately above each somewhat spaced-apart character in examples or text (making it very easy to map sound to symbol), and then as fuller word by actual word when to the right of the characters in the 'New words and phrases' lists in each unit. (So the characters 你们 for example have nĭ and then men supplied "singly" and directly above each of them respectively when they first appear, whereas slightly later the conjoined Pinyin word nĭmen is what's given in the vocab list. The student is directed to use the latter, conjoined transcriptions when actually writing Pinyin).

The course introduces simplified characters only, with handwritten stroke-order breakdowns (in an elegant ballpoint hand by the author's father, reminiscent of e.g. P.C. T'ung's handwriting) limited to just select key characters (some 160 in total) from the text, i.e. between a dozen and two-dozen per unit on average, though the 31-odd strokes used in writing Chinese are briefly presented in Units 1 and 2, some mention made of graphic structure in unit 3 (e.g. characters can be left-right, top-bottom, or outer-inner arrangements of items), the general rules of stroke order provided in unit 4, and some of the more common radicals (24 in total) given in the final units 9-12. Unfortunately there seems to be little or no mention made of the phonetic components of Chinese characters ('The speaking and writing systems are separate in Mandarin Chinese' - pg vi; 'looking at a series of Chinese characters gives you no idea of how to pronounce them' - pg1), though a perceptive student will hopefully start to notice such things from e.g. the "mother scolds hemp-eating horse" or whatever tongue-twister on page 140; nor is any guidance provided on dictionary look-up skills and the like. This course will therefore be of somewhat limited value to those wishing to develop broader handwriting skills and literacy; such people are directed in a 'Final thoughts' section to progress onto 'more systematic' courses such as NPCR. One can on the other hand obviously opt to disregard the characters entirely and learn certainly the spoken basics via just the Pinyin. We'll look at the aural and oral skills that the course develops shortly, but again, the book directs the student on to resources such as the second level of Kan Qian's Colloquial Chinese (Routledge), and online sites such as Chinesepod.com.

The course begins with a short introduction to the sounds of Mandarin that, with the exception of 'ong as in look + ng', is okay as far as it goes, but there really ought to be some detail provided regarding the structure of Mandarin syllables, given the exercise in each unit from unit 2 onwards that involves marking up correct tones on toneless Pinyin. (When in doubt one can of course look up the syllables in question, either in the unit's vocabulary list or if need be from the wordlist - which it should be noted is a solely C-E wordlist, meaning no E-C wordlist is provided! - at the rear of the volume, to see which vowel letter the tone mark should go over, but doing so won't necessarily lead to sure understanding of the principles involved, principles which in this case would take only minutes to explain. Such information can in the last resort be found on the internet, but it's a shame that "self-study" courses nowadays seem to be less of a first resort. Opinions will differ however regarding the necessity of knowing certain facts sooner rather than later, and like it or not the markets for "more popular" versus "more linguistics-oriented" books have become or are now kept quite distinct. Personally, I would buy something like Ramsey's The Languages of China to supplement this course let alone those more detailed! Maybe the average student will simply give up and just write a tone number at the end of each syllable LOL). Modification of tones is covered, but no mention made of the potentially useful technical~(re)search term 'tone sandhi'. Tone changes for 不 bù and 一 yī are made throughout the book, just as they are in a number of other courses.

The format of each unit is broadly as follows:

1) a 'Getting the pronunciation right' section which has various exercises, such as a) going through various syllables in all four tones, b) circling the syllable that you hear (usually quite easy), c) circling the tone that you hear (slightly harder), d) drawing tone marks onto toneless syllables (potential difficulties discussed in previous paragraph), e) supplying both Pinyin and tone for blank gap-fills (ditto), and f) in later units, concentrating on specific combinations of tones (e.g. compounds beginning with first tone in unit 9, then with second tone in unit 10, and so on). Practice in discriminating between minimal pairs (sounds in the language that are a bit too similar to each other) is insufficient and not explicit enough, but as already mentioned, overt phonetics is avoided in this course. To be fair however, the pronunciation practice, while therefore somewhat "mindless", and spread out throughout the book rather than being more succinctly concentrated towards the beginning, is overall more than that provided in most courses.*


2) presentation of functional key expressions which are then contextualized in generally quite short dialogues or monologues interspersed with vocabulary lists, practice exercises, and language notes (essentially grammar explanations). Each unit then concludes with a section on how to write select (the most frequent or apposite) characters from the preceding expressions and texts, but as with most static printed media, it will sometimes be hard for the learner to know quite which direction certain strokes begin with and proceed in. (An obvious solution would be to place small arrows above, or small superscript numbers at, the starting point of each stroke, the latter as for example in Hadamitzky & Spahn's Kanji & Kana). Dotted throughout the book are little cultural tips and explanations that help impart a bit of sociolinguistic know-how, niceties, politeness, cultural do's and don'ts etc.

The functional expressions are idiomatic and useful enough in themselves, but are not always weaved into convincing dialogic form (not always even short and reasonably snappy exchanges, as for example in Jorden's Japanese: The Spoken Language). So there's at least a few monologues or monologic-sounding dialogues that may strike the reader as ultimately merely serving the purpose of having students grind out, and not always too cohesively, the various somewhat decontextualized expressions they have just "learnt". For example, in Unit 4, two university students are apparently so instantly taken with each other that they immediately and dutifully reel off their room and phone numbers, and then start enumerating how many professors and students there are in their respective institutes, and how many brothers and sisters they have; then, the same guy (Tom) has the following monologue: 我叫汤姆。我学习中文。我是英国人。我的家在英国,我们是六个人,我爸爸妈妈, 一个姐姐, 两个弟弟和我。我的电话号码是....and so on and so forth. It would probably be fair then to say that something like T'ung & Pollard's Colloquial Chinese still has the slight edge (=typical British irony and understatement!) in terms of realism, authenticity, dialogic interweaving, colloquialness, vitality, snappiness, pedagogical wit, nous, and imagination, you name it. The contextualization does however pick up a bit in later units, and there is overall a good selection and logical progression of topics and phrases. For example, in unit 10 we have a longer context (anecdote) that begins: 我上次在中国旅行的时候,住在北京饭店。那天,我去了银行,刚回饭店,就发现我的包不见了。And by 12, 了...了, 在...呢 and more constructions. The quality of the audio on the accompanying CDs is fine (though sometimes the voices sound a little muddy or strange e.g. in 你做什么工作, the first zuo sounded more like zhuo to my ear), and the amount of it more than average given all the practice material. Every four units there is a review section, which is a useful feature to have.

Going through the units, some specific points good and bad that caught my eye in the earlier were:

Unit 1, pg 12, Language Notes: After discussing the placing of 好 after terms of address (老师好! etc), the author continues thus: 'When 好 is used after a time phrase, it means the same as in English - that you hope the period of time goes well for the person you are addressing. But unlike English, the subject - the time of day - comes at the beginning of the sentence.' It might've been better had the author simply underlined the structural parallels between the Chinese vocatives + 好 and the Chinese time expressions + 好 and their similar function (that is, greetings, salutations), given that say 早上好 in English is 'Good morning', which is hardly a sentence but rather a mere interjection (Morning! <=> Zǎo a! would be even moreso), and a perceptive student will surely see from simply observing the matching expressions side by side on the page that the equivalents of 'good' and 'morning' are "the other way around" in the other language, so little or no explanation real let alone imaginary is really needed here.

Unit 1, pg 20, Learning Chinese Characters: The student is asked to try identifying if certain basic strokes appear in a given range of characters. A nice exercise, and should be easy enough.

Unit 2, pp 27-28, Language Notes: Good basic explanations of 吗,是,很,and 呢. Generally all the Language Notes are good, except when they get too (faux-)"linguisticy" (see previous point before last, and the following).

Unit 3, pp 49-50, Language Notes: 'Use of the location indicator 在: Unlike English, there aren't any prepositions in Chinese (words such as 'in', 'at', 'under').' This contradicts certainly the labelling of 从 and 到 in unit 9 as prepositions.

Unit 4, pg 67, numbers practice: I like the ambitiousness of translating numbers as large as 8,376,214 (837,6,214), but beginners might find them daunting.

Unit 4, pp 78-80, Learning Chinese Characters: Nice clear rules of general stroke order.

Units 1-4 Review, item 5: This family relationships mystery could prove challenging! (One has to complete a family tree containing 9 places given just 7 clues).

Finally, the C-E wordlist (again, note that no E-C wordlist is provided) doesn't link to units nor indeed to pages, and has omissions e.g. 吧 ba (though this item does appear in the book).

There is a webpage for the book where one can find transcripts of the audio exercises, additional audio for the 'New words and phrases' from each unit, audio for the appendical chart of Pinyin sound combinations, and a list of further online resources:

In summary, I liked this course, but I'm not sure it would be my first or a stand-alone choice. I'd be more inclined to get something like Scurfield's Complete Mandarin Chinese/formerly Teach Yourself Chinese still (speaking in terms of the UK market/UK publishing at least), which costs less yet spends a bit more time explaining things, and therefore feels a more comprehensive resource overall (the only drawback being that Scurfield's audio seems a little slow in comparison, certainly at the start). Or I'd go the whole hog, invest a bit more and get the original T'ung & Pollard Colloquial Chinese set (coursebook, audio, character text), and thus a much larger amount of material, and the real deal quicker language-wise (the datedness of some of the T&P vocab notwithstanding) and "incidentally" linguistics-wise; then, it should go without saying that T'ung & Pollard's audio is the swiftest and most authentic of these three courses. But I'd definitely get Mastering Chinese in preference to the first level of the Kan Qian version of Colloquial Chinese.

Ultimately however, most learners will be able to make the necessary leap from the somewhat limited, controlled practice that Mastering Chinese provides (for example, each sentence from the Tom monologue above is conceivably an answer to a related question, and the monologue as a whole is actually a fair approximation of what a beginner might cobble together when improvising a stumbling "self-introduction"), and at least it won't take them too long (i.e. more time than some of them may be able to spare) to get there. That is, Mastering Chinese is a brisk and breezy course that should lay reasonable-enough starting foundations for those who opt for it.


More book reviews here:



*One thing that should be "briefly" B-) noted here though is the author's use of an apostrophe to mark words ending with 儿: for example, 这儿 is given in this course as zhè'r rather than simply zhèr, and 玩儿 as wán'r rather than simply wánr, and so on. It's hard to see quite what the logic (thinking, awareness, research, even momentary checking?) was behind this (one could just as well ask why the consonantal final endings -n and -ng don't also have an apostrophe preceding them too! 好玩儿 Hǎo wá'n'r!), as the 儿 there is a non-syllabic suffix (i.e. pronunciation-wise it merges into the syllable preceding it), and the use of the apostrophe in Pinyin proper should rather be simply to help delineate where in polysyllabic words any non-head (i.e. second, third etc) syllables actually beginning with a clearly-pronounced a, e or o commence. Common examples used to illustrate these syllable breaks are xiān 先 versus Xī'ān 西安, and dǎngǎn 胆敢 versus dàng'àn 档案, but given the context it would be more useful now to show how the other, lexically- and alphabetically-fuller and second-tone reading (ér, 'child') of 儿 necessitates the apostrophe: consider compounds like 儿歌,儿科,儿女,儿孙,儿童,儿戏,儿子, and then 男儿,女儿,小儿, and note especially how the last three are written in Pinyin (i.e. the now required apostrophe). And to help make things clear beyond doubt, the ABC ECCE Dictionary at its entry for 儿 read as r alone (i.e. -r) gives the grammar label 'suffix', while at 儿 ér the label is 'bound form' (i.e. necessarily part of at least a bisyllabic compound). Short version for tl:dr readers: suffix r/-r is non-syllabic and therefore merges with the preceding syllable with no intervening apostrophe. Unfortunately I can't recall how well or even quite if the course actually explains the pronunciation of the retroflex suffix (I have a feeling one will ultimately need to refer to the likes of the aforementioned Ramsey for any detail at all), but whatever audio on the CDs is hopefully sufficient guidance. Anyway, admittedly minor errors like these, though in a sense learning opportunities for students (and at least double-checking ones for reviewers LOL), are probably best avoided: courses ideally should a) not only get their facts straighter, but relatedly b) also point out a few extras for the purposes of comparison, like the ér compounds listed just now. (I'd like to one day see a truly thorough course that bridges the gap between grammary explanation on the one hand and at least intermediate-level dictionary/lexicon/plentiful exemplars on the other). So many missed opportunities IMHO, but again, a constant refrain is "It's only a basic course!" (as if the mistakes are then almost justified, and should be left to more "advanced" or indeed remedial courses to rectify?). It's true that too much detail can bog things down, but equally, the course writer's job is to inform and certainly not misinform, and if more illustrative and ultimately necessary facts can be marshalled and presented, then I think they should be, and sooner rather than later.

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