The title of this article might look odd, don’t textbooks at least partly exist to help you learn to read Chinese? Indeed, but it also seems popular to bash textbooks and favour more natural and wild ways of learning. In this article, I’m going to explain why I think textbooks are good for learning to read Chinese, although there are several caveats and a few specific ways you should use them.
It’s also the case that this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about extensive reading (it’s not too late to join, it’s only been running for a few days) and I have received some questions about what beginners should read. I did offer some suggestions in the article linked to above, and one of them is indeed “textbooks”. However, I don’t just mean that you should keep using your textbook, I mean that textbooks are good sources of reading material in general that you can use much more than you do at the moment. Before we look into that, though, why are textbooks good?
Texts meant for native speakers are harder than you might think
The obvious reason textbooks are useful for learning to read Chinese is that they are designed for foreign adults. This is very different from writing a book for a native speaker, even if it’s a child. They already know how to speak Chinese when they start learning to read properly!
Therefore, books for children seldom work well as reading material for adult second language learners, at least not beginners or lower intermediate learners. They focus on entirely the wrong things, and take things for granted that are actually very difficult for us.
Furthermore, it seems like the goal of these books is to teach the children new words, rather than telling an entertaining and/or edifying story, so even if the size of the printed characters indicates that a book ought to be easy, it can contain many characters and words you really don’t need to know.
Dealing with the diversity problem
If you read books in electronic format and use a pop-up dictionary (see last week’s article for more about this: The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading), you can still read these texts, but it’s essential that you don’t try to learn everything you see. Remember, for every unnecessary word you learn, you could have learnt a useful word that would have improved your Chinese much more. Use the rule of three: only learn something the third time it appears.
The main problem with authentic reading material of any kind is diversity. If you design a textbook for second language learners, you try to avoid using more new words than necessary, so it’s a very bad idea to introduce three near synonyms in the same chapter. That happens all the time in texts written for native speakers, because diversity is one of the signs of language mastery. Re-using the same words again and again just shows that the author has a limited vocabulary. As second language learners, however, that’s exactly what we want!
Incidentally, this is why non-fiction, even if it’s fairly advanced, is still easier to read than novels. When you read a novel in Chinese, the author often makes a point of not using the same words over and over. In academic writing, if you change the terminology in every sentence, you won’t get your paper published.
The benefits of reading textbooks
Textbooks introduce words at slow pace and make a deliberate effort to re-use words in later chapters to make sure you still remember them. One chapter builds upon the next. Apart from this, each new step is described and explained, and although the explanations are far from perfect, it’s still better than nothing. Most of the questions you might want to ask about the text, such as what certain words mean, how they are used in the text and how the grammar works, have already been answered.
In addition, textbooks focus on things that are relevant to your situation. Of course, the match isn’t perfect, so middle-aged Korean learners will have to read about American college students, and you might learn more about baseball than you want to, but this is still pretty good. It’s at least possible that these topics will be good to know about. It’s also better than the typical story for children, which have little to do with your situation. I’m not saying that the average textbook is terribly interesting to read, I’m just saying that the alternatives aren’t much better.
Use more than one textbook for reading practice
I have argued before that you should use more than one textbook. The reasoning is simple: since each author limits diversity in a different way, by using several different textbooks, you gain most of the benefits while avoiding the main drawback, the lack of diversity. You also double or triple the reading material you have for your specific level, which is awesome. You don’t have to learn or read everything in these books, of course, but the extra reading practice is great.
If I get the chance, I would like to try to teach a full-time student using three different textbooks and going through chapter one in all three, then chapter two in all three and so on. It would of course take longer to get to an “advanced” level, but the foundation would be much more solid and I think the end-result would be better. Some language centres and schools rush students through textbooks and I really hate that. The amount of Chinese you know is not measured by how many chapters you have finished in any given textbook series.
Some problems with using textbooks for reading practice
Even though I think that textbooks are excellent for beginners and intermediate learners, there are problems as well:
- The language is somewhat unnatural – This is a result of the lack of diversity mentioned above. Natural, spoken Chinese is very diverse and the textbook author sacrifices this to make the text easier. Still, the language isn’t a big problem and most complaints seem exaggerated to me. I can recall many occasions where one native speaker looked at my textbook and said “we never say that” only to hear someone use that exact phrase a few days later.
- The illusion of advanced learning – This is something I mentioned above. Many textbook series advance too quickly, meaning that they start using fairly difficult language in book three or four, teaching the students lots of idioms and formal ways of expression. This gives the illusion that the student has reached an advanced level. However, the lack of diversity mentioned above means that there are huge holes in the student’s knowledge of very basic Chinese. Use more than one textbook.
- Limited range of topics – I mentioned above that it’s good that textbooks focus on topics relevant for your situation, but this is also a drawback once you get to an intermediate level. Thus, while it’s okay to keep to textbooks (and graded readers, see below) as a beginner, the range of topics is just too limited for intermediate learners. Of course, this varies from series to series, there are many different kinds of textbooks and some have very diverse content. Just don’t stay in textbook land too long. If you feel that you have, you might want to read this: Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese.
Add graded readers to the mix
Even though I’m fond of textbooks, there are other sources of reading material available. Grader readers are excellent, because just like textbooks, they are targeted at language learners at a specific level (measured by how many characters you know). This might still be too hard for complete beginners, but once you know a few hundred characters, you should have a look at Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze. They are meant to give you more volume and the content is usually more interesting that the average textbook’s.
Which textbooks to use
I don’t think it’s super important which books you use for reading practice. It’s not going to be your main source of learning anyway, so anything you can pick up cheaply or find in other ways should be fine. If you have no clue at all, here are some of the major textbooks series used around the world:
What books do you use? Have you found any other reading materials I haven’t mentioned here? Please leave a comment!