Topic chains in Chinese: A discourse analysis and applications in language teaching. By Wendan Li. Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2005. Pp. 227. ISBN 3895863718. $105.
Reviewed by Joshua Ross, SIL International
In this work, Li addresses the notion of the ‘topic chain’, a uniquely Chinese construct that figures prominently in the organization of discourse in the language. Utilizing the contrast with English, L illuminates and isolates the significant characteristics of topic chains, and aims to provide significant input into the teaching of Chinese to English mother-tongue speakers.
The volume is broadly split into two parts. The first, consisting of five chapters, is a linguistic analysis of the discourse organization of Chinese and the forms and function of topic chains. The second, which includes two chapters, considers the relevance to the teaching of Chinese as a second language.
After a brief introductory chapter, which gives a clear motivation and justification for topic chains to be understood and taught, Ch. 2, ‘Discourse analysis’, provides an introduction to discourse analysis and its key notions, such as topic, developed in later chapters. It, like many of the other chapters, gives many good references for background and historical reading and clear examples.
Ch. 3 introduces the concept of Chinese as a discourse-oriented language, which means it does not fit into the Indo-European grammatical models that are essentially sentence-based. Li then discusses the merits of Chinese as topic-prominent, compared to English as subject-prominent. The point is made that these terms belong to different levels of grammatical organization. The chapter concludes with discussion of the Chinese notion of ‘sentence’, and zero noun phrases.
The next three chapters discuss topic chains in increasing levels of detail. Ch. 4 gives a basic description of topic chains and explores the possibility of having multisentence, multiparagraph, and discontinuous topic chains, among others. Ch. 5 identifies ten patterns of topic-chain linkage, referred to as typical topic, cataphoric topic, patient-theme topic, patient-patient topic, theme-patient topic, preposed patient topic, presented topic, montage topics, overt double topics, and covert double topics. The chapter concludes with some statistical analysis of the usage patterns and some example combinations of topic-chain patterns. Ch. 6 delves deeper into some aspects of topic chains, with a particular focus on contrasting with English, to show that the idea of topic chains is significantly different from concepts found in English.
Part 2 concerns the (lack of) teaching of topic chains to students of Chinese as a second language. The crux of this part is how to help the language student who has all the grammar and vocabulary but whose writing just does not flow. The first chapter deals with the question, ultimately answered in the negative, of whether the universal topic-comment stage in language acquisition is the same as using topic chains. It also discusses why it is so difficult to produce topic chains unless they are explicitly taught. The second chapter then gives an outline of how to teach topic chains, as well as illustrations for each of the different topic-chain patterns. The book then concludes with a summary and further areas to explore.
This book will be of interest both to the linguist seeking a deeper understanding of the discourse nature of Chinese, and to teachers wanting to help their students speak Chinese like a native.