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In praise of the Defrancis textbooks and readers


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Yes. I love the defrancis series, and definitely believe there is still not a better textbook series for Chinese out there.


Outdated vocab aside (warning: unhealthy doses of 原子能...), and of course the age old 'traditional/simplified' choice (its not a choice, do both...), the only thing I can think of that makes these books unpalatable to people today is its unabashed approach to language learning as a process requiring time, commitment, repetition. NPCR is great for coaxing people into learning Chinese from an age where attention spans are measured in seconds, but it ultimately falls short in getting you anywhere beyond HSK 4 level Chinese. And yes, it is 'textbook' mandarin.


Not only are the defrancis books great, but the audio that is freely available to download is a massive resource for all sorts of audio-based revision exercises. 


As for pinyin, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Defrancis was in support of pinyin replacing characters as a better system for improving literacy in China. This I disagree with, because, and simply because, I think characters are so much fun to work with, they look nicer than pinyin, are more interesting, tell more stories, are much more fun to write. They might require more attention at the beginning than an alphabet, but the rewards are massive years down the road. I'd love to know what Defrancis thought in his later years, after writing influential books on the writing system for his entire career.

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On the pinyin-only side (although I doubt anyone is seriously proposing it?):


I've been blazing through a memrise deck recently trying to complete the 600 words for HSK 4.  Half of it has both hanzi and pinyin presented in separate sections.


I have to say that for words which look/sound identical in pinyin (ie. same spelling, same tone) but which have different hanzi, this is really confusing. 

And generally, not being able to see Hanzi with a semantic component as well as a phonetic one is something I really missed.  I find this really helps with recall.


Do schoolkids in China learn pinyin before hanzi?


I come from a generation who learned to read and write English using the Initial Teaching Alphabet in primary (elementary) school, which meant a modified version of the Roman alphabet, always written on the blackboard in yellow chalk, before being introduced to standard Roman in white chalk.  Nowhere near as different as pinyin and hanzi, but still weird, looking back on it.




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My two cents: Defrancis is excellent, only down side is that it uses full form characters. This is not a problem in its self but does make it difficult to use if your plans include mainland china. 


I started to use them but excluded the pinyin only volume from my studies except for reference. I think its much easier to use characters. As has been said the sheer number of homophones makes it confusing, whereas the character is clear. I know there are also characters that are written the same with a different sound but context can help with this and I have not come across as many of these as the former.


I am fortunate to have inherited the complete set of these and so feel I should use them, I do like them but am torn between this and NPCR which I have used for most of my Chinese studies. 


Does anyone think I could use them both together? Or would this be ridiculous? I am tempted to use Defrancis one week and NPCR the next. I have the full form version of NPCR which I could use for continuity.


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I think for any language it's good to use several resources. Some always point out things others don't.


As for DeFrancis, it's not just a question of the texts themselves. To get full benefit of the DeFrancis method, you need a teacher who's committed to using it. That means quick-paced drills. That's a lot of work not just for the student, but for the teacher as well. Has anyone found a teacher today willing to teach in that 1960s-style?


Finally, those studying other languages who like the DeFrancis approach will like Jorden's Japanese and the various FSI textbooks. All very 1960s.


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