The Problem with Most Chinese Language Textbooks

One of my areas of research, and where I have published, is in the field of Chinese language pedagogy; that is, teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Part of that is materials development (i.e. writing and reviewing textbooks). I am invited on a fairly regular basis to review new textbooks. Some of these are recently published books and the reviews are published in professional journals, and others are prepublication reviews. That is, a publisher will contact me and ask for a critical review and a recommendation whether I think they should publish it or not. Suffice it to say, I have seen quite a few Chinese language textbooks in my career, and most have pretty significant problems. Of course this is just my opinion, but most of my opinions are based on solid research in Chinese language pedagogy.

1. Too much focus on characters.

The vast majority of Chinese language textbooks have you learning Chinese characters from the very beginning. So you end up learning pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and characters all at the same time. This is a huge overload of information for new learners, especially since the Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic and totally different from Western languages. All people the world over learn to speak and are completely fluent in their native languages before they learn how to read. You do not need to know how to recognize and write characters to be able to learn how to speak Chinese. But most textbooks present dialogues and sentences in characters which means in order to learn how to speak you first must be able to read. Not a very efficient or effective approach. Research shows that if learners first learn how to speak Chinese and have at least a basic understanding of the sound system, they learn characters faster and have better pronunciation than those that learn characters from the beginning. Presenting a Spanish or French dialogue in Spanish or French does not impede a learners progress, but presenting dialogues in Chinese characters does.

2. Lack of contextualization.

Most textbooks present dialogues or other text with little or no context. There is no discussion about the people speaking, their relationship with each other, where the situation takes place, and so on. Learners must then make assumptions about the language and why it is used. Textbooks would be much better if they contextualized the language so learners know why certain language is used. The easiest example of this is with greetings. If textbooks only present 你好, then learners assume it is used the same as “hi” or “hello” in English. Language has meaning only in context.

3. Too much information.

Most Chinese language textbooks seem to have used European language textbooks as their models. This is evident with long vocabulary lists and dialogues. For English speakers, learning 20 or 30 new Spanish vocabulary items in a lesson is not the same as trying to learn the same number of Chinese words. Remember that there are no cognates in Chinese, and the language is both linguistically unrelated and culturally remote. Information needs to be presented in more manageable units.

4. Culture is treated as an after thought.

You simply cannot separate language and culture. Language has meaning only in a culturally rich context. I’m talking about behavioral culture—how people act, communicate, and interact with one another. Memorizing the dictionary and knowing all about the grammar of Chinese will not insure you will be able to communicate effectively. You need to know how to communicate, what language is okay to use with certain people, and so on. Most textbooks treat culture as a separate thing and focus on things like The Great Wall, chopsticks, Beijing Opera, and Chinese paper lanterns. Contextualizing the language entails providing information about things like, how close you stand to someone, what to do with your hands, what kinds of topics are okay to talk about, how you go about greeting someone, do you shake hands, how you apologize to someone based on your relationship with them, and so on. It not just the language that must be learned, but how to communicate, which includes communicative conventions that all natives know subconsciously.

The perfect textbook does not exist, but they are getting better. Most Chinese teachers have spent more time than they would like modifying and supplementing textbooks that they were either required to use, or selected but were not totally satisfied with. There are not too many beginning level textbooks that I would recommend without reservations. However, there are two textbook series that have recently been published that I think are worth looking into. They are:

Kubler, Cornelius. Basic Spoken Chinese and Basic Written Chinese. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing. 2011.

Ross, Claudia, et. al. The Routledge Course in Modern Mandarin Chinese. London and New York: Routledge. 2010.

Both of these excellent textbooks also include workbooks and online resources. In short, what makes these textbooks stand out from all the others, is that they treat the written language separately from the spoken language, the language is presented in manageable units, the language presented is highly contextualized with attention paid to behavioral culture, and they are attractive and easy to navigate. They are both very pedagogically sound and the authors are both highly respected in the field of Chinese language teaching.  They are not really intended for self study, though a motivated learner could probably use them as such. They are much better as part of a formal course in beginning level Chinese.

In the future, I will do a detailed review of each of these textbooks.

10 thoughts on “The Problem with Most Chinese Language Textbooks

  1. very interesting, I learn a lot from you, i am chinese teacher, I am struggling about how to make my teaching materials more meaningful and more effectively since our school does not use any certain textbook. happy to hear your advise!

  2. I agree that learning characters with the language is counterproductive. Just learning the pinyin is difficult enough. Our program adds to this information overload by insisting on the traditional rather than the simplified characters.

  3. I definitely agree with, and found interesting, your point that there is too much of an emphasis on characters. While reading and writing is important, a lot of communication is simply being able to speak and contextualize a normal conversation, not one that would be pulled out of a dialogue in a textbook.

  4. I heard that people who learn the Chinese language for the first time often struggle with memorizing characters. I hope there is a better way of memorizing them. For example, memorizing one character with a short story or photo?

  5. I agree with the sentiments in this article, that learning is better when contextualized. When I was learning Spanish I (as you stated in the blog) would simply just learn 20-30 vocabulary words and how to conjugate verbs. In the current Chinese textbook I use, it is more apparent that context helps with my understanding of the language as you state many words by themselves are not strong enough to understand without context and need other words and phrases to have meaning themselves.

    While I don’t fully agree with the sentiments about characters being front loaded, I will agree with the thought that being able to understand sounds first (pinyin) helps with the learning of characters as that is the teaching method used in my class, and I do believe that it is a valuable strategy.

  6. This article has very many interesting takes on the ideal Chinese Textbook. While I agree with many of the ideas presented such as the lack of culture and primary focus being characters, I also believe that many text books translate words to their English meaning to the best of their abilities while Native Speakers of Chinese will interpret such terms differently. This makes it difficult to speak given you understand a term to mean one thing but in actuality it means something completely different to someone who has spoken the language for their entire life.

  7. I do not agree with the author in that one should learn to speak then to write Chinese. In my opinion, written language and spoken language are one inseparable unity.

    It is possible for a German speaker to learn speak Dutch without knowing how to write a single Dutch word. The reason is that all the European languages share the same origin. The concepts in European languages are basically the same.

    But Chinese is a language of different origin. The concepts in Chinese language is formed from different origins. Give an example: the concepts of light and heavy in Chinese is originated from chariots, one horse driven chariot is light, written as 輕, on its left side is a chariot, on its right side it is an underground stream indicating its pronunciation. multiple horses driven chariot is heavy, written as 重 which is a chariot with double wheels on each side. Another example is the rules, in Chinese it is originated from compass for drawing circles and square for drawing rectangles written as 规矩。When you speak the word rules, you can not avoid to say the compass and the square, how can you separate the written and spoken expressions?

    Give this vast difference between the European and Chinese language, one can not remember thousands of Chinese words simple by their pronunciations without knowing their figures.

    Most teaching methods developed from teaching Indo-European languages are not applicable to teaching Chinese. They are different thinking systems. In Chinese we say collar and sleeves (领袖) to mean leader. Bu it is a joke in English.

    Characters are difficult, so all educators and learner do their best try to avoid them. In fact, when you avoid to learn the characters, you are avoiding learning the language. It is only from the written characters, you realize how concepts in Chinese language are formed.

    To tackle the barrier of characters, I have written a new textbook series: Chinese Made Easy. You will be guided to learn 1400 individual character in 180 days, then use these 1400 characters to form several thousands words in another 180 days. With such a vocabulary, learning to speak and to listen become an easy and pleasant task.

    Please search Amazon in this October to order the release of the first volume.


  8. I find this very interesting as someone who is beginning their Chinese language learning journey. The book we use for our class provides some context and understanding and our professors do a good job of correcting our pronunciation, but there are many times when we are confused about why something can be used one way and not another. Luckily our professors are there to explain the differences, but if I was attempting to teach myself the language, I don’t think it would be possible from just a textbook.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this article. I believe that learning the characters is also a bit of an overload of information. As a beginning course I believe context and culture are extremely important and beneficial. It was easier to learn Spanish because of its relation to English and other Latin based languages, but Chinese is fundamentally different. I think the approach to learning Chinese should be different as well.

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