For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been learning Chinese at University. While progress has indeed been slow, there has been progress. We have great teachers, and much of my progress is due to them. They’re interested in Chinese, and motivated to teach it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they have such an excellent tool: The New Practical Chinese Reader. Textbooks and I are not strangers, I have had the the “pleasure” of reading both good and bad examples. Mostly bad. These are either too dry, or (because of attempts by the author to alieviate said dryness) too lame. I studied Japanese for a year in Highschool, and while I don’t remember any Japanese, I do remember the textbooks, which were awful. They were filled with that over the top cutesy crap, with dialogues about how cute kittens are, or how much the main character loves cake. Teenage apathy aside, I couldn’t concentrate on such drivel.
The Chinese text books manage to attain a balance: they are neither dry nor lame. The characters could be real people, and the dialogues are believable, even in the first few chapters, where the student is learning “你好” level stuff. At least half of of the book is devoted to teaching tones, which I view as single most difficult aspect of learning Chinese for a westerner. In my opinion, pronouncing tones correctly is more difficult than remembering to write characters. In the first semester we spent at least 15 minutes per lesson chanting variations of “bā bá bǎ bà” repeatedly. This was necessary – repetition is the only way to learn tones correctly. The book helps the student (and the teacher) by providing lists of different combinations to practice. This part of learning Chinese is unavoidably tedius, but time spent here is well worth it.
Grammar and other important points are highlighted in every chapter, usually in an interesting way. To give an example, take note 1 on page 26:
Tā shì nǎ guó rén? “What’s her nationality? There are two Chinese characters for the third person singular “tā”: one is “他”, used for a male; the other “她”, refers to a female.
Notes usually relate to a portion of one of the texts given in the lesson, and serve to enlighten the student as to the meaning or purpose of the sentence. For those more advanced readers, notice that this note excludes “它”, the third “tā”, used to refer to things that are not people. As the student has not encountered this character, it is left out of this note, which enables the learner to effectively learn the point without becoming overly confused.
The book does not get boring. Throughout the series the characters’ lives’ change, the book describes the different situations they get themselves into with increasing complexity as the student progresses. A memorable chapter, at least for me, is: “我认识一个漂亮的姑娘” Interesting content is not the only reason readers find the book enjoyable – to quote this site this site: “New Practical Chinese Reader does not follow the linear structure adopted by earlier Chinese teaching materials, instead adopting a cyclical arrangement with constant review of language structure and function together with important cultural information” I think this is an important point to make because it means that throughout any course that utilises this book, the reader is being constantly reminded of what he or she has covered in the past. This is a particularly helpful aspect of this textbook, as it means that I have forgotten much less than I could have otherwise.
As the above wasn’t enough, there also exists a companion workbook, filled with exercises related to the text. During my course, students were set various exercises as homework. The exercises cover reading and listening comprehension, grammar understanding and more. There are many different varieties of exercises, for example: “fill in the blank”, grammatical correctness – true/false, re-arrange a given set of characters to create a sentence, and sentence translation, to name a few. The aural section of this workbook is not as large as the more advanced versions, probably because the learner has such a limited range at this level. It mostly consists of tone-related exercises, which I found very helpful. They serve to reinforce what is learned in class, which is very, very important.
All in all, I consider this text/workbook combination to be as close to perfect as one could hope for. It is used around the world as the Chinese language core text. We use it in New Zealand, and I noticed that the Shanghai University uses it too, in their Chinese for foreign learners course. I would heartily recommend this text for anyone who wishes to take Chinese seriously.
When asked the secret to language acquisition, my University’s Linguistics Professor told me “little and often”. What he meant by this was that if one wishes to master a language, it must become a part of you. The only way this is possible is through constant practice. Language acquisition is not something that can be accomplished by devoting “lumps” of time every few days – new words and grammar are forgotten too quickly. About half an hour a day is enough, though a little longer is beneficial. This doesn’t give one enough time to forget new words or grammar. The key, as the Professor said, is truly: “little and often”.