Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Why you should use more than one Chinese textbook

Why you should use more than one Chinese textbookStudying a foreign language in a classroom situation (which should include most of us, I think) typically depends on a series of textbooks. Even if you aren’t enrolled in a language program, it’s still likely that you will use a textbook for reference. What I’m going to discuss here is the value of using additional textbooks as a resource for more comprehensive learning of vocabulary and grammar.

Textbooks teach you how to find your way around without getting lost

Before even beginning to discuss the various benefits that using additional textbooks entails, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what a textbook can do in the first place.Textbooks are good for a number of reasons.

  • The authors have chosen vocabulary that they think is suitable for students. These lists are valuable, because the authors’ guesses are a lot better than yours and they also avoid overly complicated language that might be a waste of time at your current level. You should focus on learning many words, but make sure the words aren’t so rare that it will be years before you see them again.
  • Textbooks explain the language, which is crucial for some learners (myself included). I cannot simply learn a language efficiently only by listening and reading, I need a slightly more theoretical approach for some elements, including but not limited to grammar. Reading about how words or patterns are used is helpful if the usage is non-obvious.

That being said, there are of course lots of things textbooks can’t teach, but that’s not the subject of this article. Let’s instead look closer at the most important aspect of language learning: vocabulary.

Language learning as mapping a foreign land

Repeating what I explained above in a different way, a textbook can be said to be your guide in an unfamiliar landscape after having parachuted from an aircraft. It indicates a direction and leads you along a path of ever increasing difficulty as the topics gradually becomes more difficult as the starting point vanishes beyond the horizon behind you.

However, you mustn’t fool yourself into thinking that being able to walk a distance in one direction means that you can do the same in another. A new language is a huge landscape and even the easier parts of the terrain are vast. Approaching more difficult challenges doesn’t mean that the easier ones are all mastered. This is where additional textbooks come in, but before I explain how, I shall illustrate with an example (if you want to read more about maps, terrain and vocabulary, check Mapping the terra incognita of vocabulary).

In my own Chinese studies, I’ve primarily used the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (although I did use Short-term Spoken Chinese for my first year). This means that when I landed in alien territory, those books took me around a carefully guided tour, introducing various aspects of Chinese. Perhaps this guide also resulted in a false sense of security, because even though my vocabulary and grammar is now reasonably developed in some areas, I can fail very basic vocabulary tests for areas I simply haven’t visited yet. This is true for English as well, please don’t ask me about words for cooking or cars!

Additional textbooks solidifies your fundamental knowledge of Chinese

So, how might additional textbooks be used here? If you use an additional textbook, it provides a new and different guided tour through the landscape, which should be at least partly familiar by now. The vocabulary is chosen by different authors with slightly different perspectives, leading to another set of words somebody thinks you really should know. No author can include all words they think are necessary in a single textbook (series), they have to select a few and omit others, but if you use more than one textbook, you will get a more complete picture (this applies to grammar, too).

An alternative would be to choose words that you encounter in everyday life, but they are problems:

  • The words might be very far from universal (i.e. used locally or by the person you’re talking to)
  • The words might be uncommon (depending on what you do and whom you talk to, again)
  • The words might be common, but not very useful (e.g. learning how to describe clothes, which is common, but only useful in a very limited setting)

Since you can select textbooks roughly at your current level, you can expand vocabulary and strengthen fundamental grammar in a relaxed manner, without having to worry about encountering too many words belonging in the categories described above.

In addition, different textbooks explain rules, words or phenomena in different ways, so reading more than one will give you a better understanding. If you think a grammar explanation is incomprehensible in one book, perhaps it’s crystal-clear in another! Different authors have different opinions about how to describe Chinese, so using more than one textbook will increase the chances that you find explanations that suit your way of thinking.

What additional textbooks to look for

I would choose textbooks that are at or slightly lower than my current level, but this depends on how much time and effort you’re prepared to spend. Studying those kinds of textbooks, I’ve found that in general, I know about two thirds of the words and most grammar, but the elements I didn’t know were truly interesting and useful. The topics chosen in these extra books did of course differ from my ordinary textbook, so some specialised words were new. For instance, one book might have a chapter on going to the swimming pool, another about playing football. Some of these I could safely ignore, but I always found lots of words I didn’t realise I was lacking before I saw them, or expressions that are genuinely useful although I had never seen them before.

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, I would like to recommend people to use more than one textbook. You don’t necessarily need to study it carefully, but do at least make sure you know the grammar and the relevant words (ignore those that are too specific in areas you have no interest in). It’s an efficient way of strengthening basic language skills and makes sure that you cover as much of the truly fundamental aspects of the language as possible. Which textbooks to use is of course impossible to give general advice about, but I think Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course is an excellent choice (yes, it has both simplified and traditional characters) for beginner and intermediate students.

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese transaltions? Check out my Patreon page!

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14 comments

  1. David Feigeson says:

    Hi Olle,

    I’m still stuck studying Practical Audio Visual Chinese. I’m in Book 3, Chapter 5 and I have been for a long time. My goal is to get to the point where I can listen to the audio track for the dialog and understand it 100%. Then I will go on to the next chapter. It’s a really slow process. I find that reading the dialog is more helpful than listening to the dialog over and over again. I guess my memory works more through the eye than the ear. My intention is to get through Book 3, 4, 5 by the time I go back to Taiwan in the Fall of 2011.
    I was wondering what you thought of this approach, to just devote myself to one series of textbook. I also have New Practical Chinese Reader 2, but I find it much less interesting than PAVC. You’re right that you can pick up new vocabulary simply based on the sheer variety in different textbooks. But I would still argue that there is something beneficial about staying true to one textbook and mastering it. My Chinese LE here in Houston told me about a Chinese guy that got a textbook and CD, and forgot about the textbook and just focused on getting the sounds of English from the CD. Apparently he got really good at hearing English and writing down what he heard. I can’t imagine doing that for Chinese. Maybe if Chinese had a script like English, but not for characters.

    Hope everything is going well for you.

    David

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi David,

      I think staying true to one series of textbooks is a good idea, because if it’s a good series (and Practical Audio-Visual Chinese is good), each books creates a foundation for the coming books, meaning that you spend less time learning things twice and run a lower risk of missing something important because you skip books. I think listening is harder for everyone, because it requires you to understand without having to think to much (you can look at a word for ten seconds, but you can’t listen to a word ten times). I think combined listening and reading is a good idea, perhaps trying to listen a couple of times first and then check what you’ve missed? Then listen again. Keep the old chapters with you on your phone and refresh your memory. I tend to listen to the same radio programmes over and over because it gives me a better understanding.

      However, enough of praising repetition for now. I think there lies danger in focusing too much on a very narrow range of teaching materials, such as just one book. I’ve written an article about this, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it can be found here. Spend at least some time doing something completely different. Watch TV, listen to music, read another textbook, read comics, anything. And, most importantly, don’t do it with the same mindset as when you read your ordinary textbook! If you like, view it as two types of studying: detail versus broad, in depth versus superficial. Broad and superficial is necessary to build a sense of how the language works, to improve reading speed and listening ability. It might not feel as if you’re improving, but that’s only because it takes very much time to build up your “language feeling” (語感).

      Keep it up! Let me know how you’re progressing. 🙂

  2. Layinka says:

    I completely agree with your advice Olle.

    I have been working with the same audio course for the past 8 weeks now.
    The last two weeks have been disastrous, my brain just won’t register the dialogues.
    My method was to listen over and over and over again until I could understand. I listened first, then listened and tried to understand, listened again while reading, learnt the vocabulary then listened once more. I don’t know how I lasted 6 weeks doing this. Well I’m so fed up I have not done much learning. For the last 2 weeks I have been trying other ways of getting back on the bandwagon, this includes creating my own lessons, trying other books (this has been a positive experience because I can tell that my Chinese reading and comprehension has improved) and of course watching some Chinese language film or drama daily.

    One major lesson I have learnt is that my former method was bordering on perfectionism. I tried listened to my audio lessons again today and I knew that I would do so only once. Well, the effect was different. I understood the stuff and I had not put any pressure on myself.

    I really felt I was not getting anywhere. I completely agree with ” It might not feel as if you’re improving, but that’s only because it takes very much time to build up your language feeling”. I will stop being so hard on myself and impatient with myself.

    Thank you Olle!!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi! You highlight some important points here. I think diversity is useful for many reasons and not becoming bored is certainly among the most important reasons. Also, finding a balance between learning new things and mastering (perfecting) old ones is also tricky. I thought that I had written an article about the downside of perfectionism, but it turns out I haven’t. I’ll make sure to add that to the queue, thanks! 🙂

      Edit: The article has now been published!

  3. Armin says:

    Good Article Olle!

    I am following your blog for a while now and really appreciate that you put so much effort in your posts!

    Regarding this one – I can’t agree more. I’m forced to use NPCR at my university and consider this textbook as quite a pain in the ass. The dialogues feel somehow artificial, not to mention the videos.
    However, I got myself some books of the PAVC series and “Practical Chinese Reading & Writing”, which helped me a lot to enjoy working with NPCR.

    加油,

    Armin

  4. Good post for people learning Chinese. I think that something that we find very hard when we start learning Chinese is that unlike say Spanish, our Chinese levels in the different disciplines (speaking, reading, writing and listening) can vary vastly. Many of the “comprehensive courses” offered are not necessarily suitable for everyone and don’t necessarily tackle these disciplines in the right order. Ie with a textbook that’s focused on speaking, the characters you learn in that book will not be in order of easiest to write but will be in easiest to say for simple dialogues. Many of the textbooks excel in one area (say speaking) and is less good for the other areas. This is why it’s necessary to get more than one textbook or use more than one learning method (ie textbook for reading and writing and podcasts).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, I agree. In this article I meant that it’s good to use more than one textbook even if we only consider the areas textbooks normally covers (i.e. not podcasts), but it goes without saying that textbooks shouldn’t be our only way of learning. However, it’s great that you point out that different books have different strengths. For instance, in some books, the grammar exercises are either very boring, very bad or both. Another book might have good exercises but lousy explanations and so on.

      1. I completely agree. With Chinese we often get this idea that one textbook can cover everything and this is a very simplistic view, even with the best integrated courses. And that’s the same for grammar, the vast majority of Chinese learning textbooks which don’t focus on grammar don’t teach grammar in a particularly easy to understand way.

        I found that as a Chinese learner using Basic Chinese a Grammmar and Workbook and then Intermediate Chinese by Routledge very useful and helped to teach grammar in a “big” way while also dealing with small things and making me understand why things are a certain way.

  5. Elizabeth Valachovic says:

    Hi Olle, I enjoyed reading your post. I have found that I memorize the dialogues in the textbook and when I hear or see the characters in other settings I can’t remember what they mean. So I started getting audio textbooks from our local library for variety. It forces me to learn the words better. Also our school is geared towards children and they have a library of easy kids books written in characters, pinyin and English translation. I find those books to be helpful since the translation is already there and the grammar is easy enough that I have already studied it. It may sound silly but I find the kid books entertaining and short enough that I’m not overwhelmed with too many unknown words.

  6. Maciej / Mathew / Maqi says:

    Hi Olle, Your metaphor makes me remind about the way how I prepare myself to any tourist trip to a new city/region/country (or even to one that I have visited before, and that I want to explore better now). I am always using at least three different tourist guides (I have always arguments with my wife about it as she thinks that if you even cannot visit thoroughly everything what is in one guide why waste money on buying and time on comparing other guides), and I can find that about 60% of information is about the same tourist spots in all of them (yet the details differ), additional 25% is what you find in more than one, but the remaining 15% appears usually in only one guide, and I try to visit at least one of those single-guide places from every guide – and they usually appear the most interesting ones (at least they are the least crowded, so you can explore them better and remember the most of them. And the act of comparing guides is already a ‘preliminary visit’.

    So I have recently found that idea plausible also for my learning Chinese – and today – paff! I have found your blog on this issue.

    Comparing different manuals for vocabulary, phrases, ways of presenting the same grammatical issue etc. is already an act of learning. And usually when you find yourself something special in another handbook, you will remember it better. I am using for that purpose not only handbooks, which have the characteristics mentioned by Olle, but also other texts (songs, short stories, captions (photos taken from the TV or in a cinema) from the movies with Chinese spoken English subtitles or v.v., or even the “matériel brut aléatoire” (“random raw material”)(*), or “what we usually throw away” (labels, packets/wrappings of the goods you buy, tickets, advertisement /publicity leaflets you are handed in the street, receipts from the shops, forms to be filled in banks or other institutions, menus from restaurants etc. – I have in total 28 categories of such objects). Especially valid is the last vast gropup of texts – which has different characteristics from the handbooks and from the regular newspapers/books – the language (vocabulary, grammar) is not chosen by experts, yet the texts are quite short, usually simple, and the probability of encountering the same/similar expressions in the future is quite high (if you travel much, like I do, the next ticket will probably be similar to the the first one, so if you collect 5 (best would be from different bus companies), you can easily compare them and make a “private lesson” on them.

    On the contrary, what I have heard yesterday from my Chinese teacher at NTNU, the teachers there are FORMALLY FORBIDDEN to use extra handbooks, even as a supplement or ANY OTHER extra material, other than Audio-Visual (I have just started book III), which has so many drawbacks (from the point of view of language didactics; especially from the point of view of a not-American, not native-English-speaker; and, what more, according to her the new edition contains more errors than the previous one!)

    (*) “Matériel brut aléatoire” is my expression after the title of a wonderful book for French teachers, by Jean-Luis Malandain,”Document brut aléatoire – Le papier (supports écrits)” (i.e. ‘Random raw documents – paper – written support’) produced by BELC (Bureau d’études pour les langues et les cultures of Rue d’Assas, Paris) in 1986 – which I bought there and used with success the ideas expressed therein while teaching English (you cannot find any copy of the book on the Internet; I have found that there were 2 other editions, 1983 and 2000 (the last one published by CIEP / Centre internationale d’études pédagogiques in Sevres, where the BELC was moved; but I am not sure if this is really THIS one, as Jean-Louis Malandain has also prepared / published / co-authored two other books under the same title, one having the subtitle: ‘Les supports animés (cinéma, vidéo, télévision)’ (‘Animated support: cinema, video, tv’) (1982) and the other ‘Support oral: la transcription de documents sonores authentiques’ (‘Oral support – transcription of the real audio documents’) (1977, 1989). (I have all three of them somewhere deep in my cave, back in Poland, hélas).

    1. A good summary description (en français) of some of the ideas of the book of J-l. Malandain can be found at: http://zouaveitinerant.eklablog.com/lecture-c1098382

  7. Dhananjay says:

    Hi Olle!!
    Awesome blog, by the way.
    Have any views on Elementary Chinese Readers?
    Thanks

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi!

      I wrote a review of Mandarin Companion here. That’s the best recommendation I have!

      /Olle

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