Now that I’ve finished up my studies at the MTC (the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University), I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and some of the many textbooks I’ve used to a greater or lesser extent over the past 15 months, and make a few comments on each. I’ve always been a proponent of using multiple textbooks at a time to supplement what you’re doing in class, so maybe this will be a useful resource for those trying to figure out what books they’d like to use.
I’m sticking with books that teach modern Chinese, since I’ve dealt with literary Chinese elsewhere on this blog. But let me say, if you want to learn literary Chinese to a high level, I’d recommend these books, in roughly this order:
An Introduction to Literary Chinese by Michael Fuller
A First Course in Literary Chinese by Harold Shadick (used as a reader, not a textbook)
Literary Chinese for Advanced Beginners by ICLP (optional, but very good)
《文言文40篇大探索》 or another similar high school 國文 reader
At this point you should be ready for whatever you want to move on to. Pick up 古文觀止 and whatever else you may be interested in. If you really want to develop your skills further though, you can’t go wrong with 王力’s 《古代漢語》 series. Another similar one I’ve found recently is called 《古代漢語教程》, and is written by 周光慶 et al, but focuses primarily on early (Han and earlier) texts, whereas 王力 covers a broader range. There are also about a thousand books out there called 大學國文選 or something similar, if you’re just wanting a more difficult reader than the high school one, rather than a more rigorous textbook.
OK, on to the article.
Practical Audio-Visual Chinese series
There are five books in this series. I’ve used the first four, and skipped the last one in favor of Mini Radio Plays, which I highly recommend. Book V looks pretty solid though, so if it’s appealing to you, I’d recommend it too.
This series is the old standby, the tried and true series that pretty much every language center in Taiwan uses as the core curriculum in the first few levels. If your school uses something else, I’d suggest getting these books anyway. Are they outstanding? Not by any stretch of the imagination. They’ve been around forever, and I’m under the impression that the only kind of update they ever get is to replace words like “typewriter” with “computer,” but they’re the best thing around for beginners if you’re learning in Taiwan, or learning Mandarin with traditional characters somewhere else.
That brings me to another point. Many of my fellow students at MTC seem to be under the impression that PAVC is “it.” It’s all there is. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you’ve finished Book V, you may have finally gotten yourself out of beginner territory, and perhaps even comfortably into intermediate. But maybe not. It depends on how well you’ve learned, and can use, the material. But if you truly want to be comfortable in Chinese, and able to actually participate as a useful member of society here, you still have a long way to go after these books.
Far East Everyday series
I’ve only used Book IIB of this series (the order is I, IIA, IIB, III), so that’s all I can really comment on. I know Books IIA and III follow the same format, but I don’t know about Book I.
The book I used was quite helpful at the time. It alternates between dialogues and written communication, which I found useful, given that the PAVC series is essentially all dialogues. There was vocabulary presented in this book that I didn’t learn from PAVC until further along, so the two complemented each other very well. If you’re using PAVC at your school, I’d strongly recommend the Far East series as a supplement. I studied Far East IIB around the same time I was studying PAVC Book III in class, along with Taiwan Today.
今日台灣 Taiwan Today
This was one of the most useful books I’ve studied. It’s supposedly about the same level as PAVC Book IV, but it’s focused on the written language rather than the spoken. Since my reading has always been better than any other skill, I studied this alongside PAVC III and Far East IIB.
Each lesson presents a short (1 page) article on different aspects of Taiwanese society. They become increasingly more 書面 as the book goes along, which is great if you ever want to read anything written in Chinese not intended for foreign learners. I would recommend putting in some serious time with this book. Learn the material well, and you’ll be glad you did later.
迷你廣播劇 Mini Radio Plays
I studied this book after completing only the first four chapters of PAVC IV, because I did well enough on the final exam that term to skip the remaining 10 chapters, plus Far East III. That was a really difficult jump to make, the first several weeks of the term were fairly brutal, and I remained near the bottom of the class in terms of spoken fluency for the rest of the term, but in retrospect I have no regrets for not doing things in the usual order.
This book is really great. At MTC, it’s considered the same level as PAVC V, but I would say it’s maybe a bit lower. It’s focused on speech, whereas PAVC V is more about essays and introducing 書面語 (which makes it unique in the PAVC series). The plays are generally melodramatic, which made for a lot of fun in class, but there’s also a lot of really useful vocabulary. If I could go back again, I would have still taken this class (the book really is great), but I would have supplemented it with PAVC V rather than halfheartedly going through Talks On Chinese Culture like I ended up doing.
Talks On Chinese Culture
I really wanted to like this book. It has a lot going for it, like the vocabulary and sentence patterns it teachers. Or the fact that each chapter has so much material (two dialogues and a lecture). Or the topics it covers (especially useful if you plan on going into the humanities). But I couldn’t get past the content. It’s like a fossilized propaganda pamphlet from the KMT of the 1950’s, which is when much of the material was written (it was first published in 1960). It was such incredibly blatant propaganda that I just couldn’t finish the book, no matter what its strong points are.
That being said, if you can look past the whole “Free China” deal, it really is a good book. If you’ll ever sit in on a university lecture in Chinese, particularly one in the humanities, this book will go a long way toward preparing you for it. The vocabulary it presents is great, the topics it covers are interesting, etc. If you’re like me, you’ll get sick of the 兒化 thrown in there (if you haven’t noticed, 兒化 is very nearly never used in Taiwan), and some of the sentences get pretty artificial, but all in all it’s worth studying if it fits what you need and you can ignore the damn propaganda.
Here’s the thing: unless you’re an ICLP student it will be hard to find this book (and I believe their current version has undergone extensive updates), unless someone comes across it in a used bookstore and gives it to you, which is what happened in my situation.
20 Lectures on Chinese Culture
This book suffers from pretty much the same ailments the previous one does. That’s not surprising, since (from what I understand) the two textbooks are based upon the same source material. I wrote about it here, and still recommend it, though I didn’t finish it myself. It’s also very heavy on propaganda, but makes up for it by having tons of example sentences and phrases in each chapter.
中國語文補充讀物 Supplementary Chinese Reader series
I can’t say enough about this series of readers. The only problem with that is that I haven’t actually used them very much myself. I have so much else going on that I just haven’t had time. This is a series of seven books:
They present famous stories, fables, folk tales, etc. that any Chinese speaker would be familiar with. There are 20 stories in each book, so you’re looking at 140 stories (though I believe there’s a small amount of overlap). They are designed to take you from knowing ~1000 characters to knowing around 3000, so they’re quite comprehensive as far as that goes. There’s a ton of great vocabulary in here that I don’t know yet, and I really hope I have time to go through these at some point. Highly recommended as a supplement for whatever else you’re doing, though you might want to wait until after PAVC III or IV before you start on these guys.
Thought and Society
This one’s an oldie but a goodie. If you want to be able to read anything serious in Chinese, this is a great book to help you get to that point. There are others, of course, but this one has been in use at some of the best programs for the past few decades. Therein lies its problem though. It’s dated, like many of these books. The content is fairly boring, but that’s easily remedied if you have an educated native speaker to discuss it with, because then you can get a fresh perspective on things. The viewpoints presented tend to be dated, and even ethnocentric at times, and your mind will be boggled at the “logic” of the arguments made. The book’s real strong point is in the vocabulary it presents. It’s extremely practical once you get outside of just daily life situations. This stuff pops up all the time when I’m reading in my field, or even in newspapers and magazines like 《遠見》. Some people like to make fun of all the 成語 in the book. One particular “favorite” is 鳳毛麟角, which I’ve been told over and over is “never used.” But then the week after we covered it in class, I saw it in a book I was reading on historical phonology.
I self-studied this book over the summer, and took it in class this fall. I’ll probably continue to review it off and on for quite a while. It has a lot of vocabulary (something like 1500 words over 10 chapters), much of it more academic or formal in nature, so it will take some time to really be comfortable with all the material. I highly recommend studying this book once you’re ready for it. Really outstanding, and well worth the effort and frustration with the authors.
New Radio Plays
This is a classic book from ICLP. It presents 12 radio plays, which I believe are supposed to be authentic, pulled from an old radio station in Taiwan. This sounds great in theory. Real dialogues written and performed for and by native speakers. Maybe it would be great, if this were 1984 (first edition). But the truth is, it no longer accurately reflects the way people talk here, the state of society, or anything. It’s just too dated. That’s really too bad, because if the plays were updated it would be an excellent course.
There’s something you can do though. Watch a lot of TV shows. As long as you have the show and the subtitles, you’ve essentially got what this book gives you, plus visuals and minus definitions. Do some dictionary work in the process, and some heavy work with the MP3 file you rip from the video, and I’m convinced you’d be hard-pressed to find a more powerful method for improving your speech and listening. At some point I’ll do a thorough post on exactly what I’m doing with this, but it’s really good stuff.
Learning Chinese with Newspaper (I-III)
These books are pretty standard fare at the MTC, and I believe at other schools too. They’re actually quite good, even though most of the articles are from 1999 (the most recent one I’ve noticed is 2006). If you think about it though, that’s probably more recent than a lot of other newspaper textbooks on the market. Not to mention they’re real articles, unlike some of the other books I’ve seen that contain made-up news stories. Authentic material is always better once you’re at the point that you can utilize it relatively comfortably.
If you’re at the MTC and have the option, I’d recommend checking out the “Recent News: Oral Training” class occasionally offered by 蕭惠茹. I say check it out, because Hsiao 老師 is one of those teachers that most people either love or can’t stand. I’m personally very glad I took the class, because we read recent news articles (as in, published within the previous 3 days), and in much higher volume than in the Newspaper I class at the same level. At this point, the other newspaper books have become fairly redundant, though I do dip in occasionally.
News and Views
This book is very good. It presents audio recordings of news broadcasts (though unfortunately read by teachers rather than by real anchors), along with vocabulary lists and some exercises. The catch is that there’s no transcript, and you can’t get the audio unless you’re an ICLP student. I don’t even know why this book is on the market. If you can get access to the recordings, it’s a good book. But again, I’d imagine that watching real broadcasts, especially if you could find a transcript, would be much better.
And that’s the thing. Authentic native material, if you’re able to use it without too much hassle, will always be superior. That’s exactly why I’m not taking any more classes at the MTC. I’ve gone as far as I can go in a classroom setting without it hampering my progress. I think perhaps I should have even quit a semester ago, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.
At this point there are still textbooks that are worth using, if they fit your needs. These are things like collections of short stories or essays on various topics with vocabulary glosses. Vivian Ling in particular has put out some very good ones, and the Supplemental Chinese Readers series I mentioned above also has a volume of each type. If your interests are more literary in nature, the collections of short stories might be worth looking into. I personally prefer to find my own material rather than read a collection someone else has picked out for its literary and language-learning value.
The textbook I’m using right now, and which will likely be the last textbook for foreigners that I use (I’ll continue with 文言文 textbooks for native speakers), is:
《從精讀到泛讀》 The Independent Reader
This is a collection of 52 essays, many written by famous authors (such as 張系國 or 新井一二三, who is Japanese), unchanged from their original published forms, with vocabulary glosses, grammar explanations, etc. They’re divided into 12 categories: 文化、社會、國際、經濟、政治、台灣、中國大陸、兩岸、港澳、各地華人、教育、科技環保. The goal is to get you to the point that you can read a wide range of “serious” topics without relying too much on the dictionary. So the glosses intentionally get less and less helpful as the book goes on, to encourage you to use your knowledge of characters and word formation to make an educated guess of what the word means in context. There are some 5000 vocabulary words total, but of course you’ll already know some of them, and many of them at least won’t be completely unfamiliar.
Well, that wraps it up. That’s pretty much every textbook for modern Chinese that I’ve used in way form or another (to varying degrees of completion) over the past year and three months. I’ve not found any to be outright bad, but then again if the book presents the language in a reasonably clear way, I’m happy. Some people I know want nice color photographs in the books, plenty of white space on each page, etc., and I just couldn’t care less about such things. As always, look before you buy, but hopefully this article will help you in your search.