Talk Mandarin today

Talk Mandarin today. By Hong Xiao. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2003. Pp. 338. ISBN 9629961121. $19.50.

Reviewed by Feng-hsi Liu, University of Arizona

Talk Mandarin today is a beginning Chinese textbook designed for adult beginning learners, especially for people who plan to conduct business or travel in China. The book consists of a brief introduction to Mandarin, thirty lessons, appendices, and a Chinese-English glossary.

The lessons are organized around an American businessman (Mr. Green) who goes to China for the first time and takes on a manager position in an IT company in Beijing. Topics covered include real-life situations such as opening a bank account, making hotel and train reservations, dealing with computer viruses, inquiring about shipments, mailing packages, changing money, bargaining, being a guest of a Chinese family, and emergency situations. The thirty lessons are organized into three parts, and the last lesson of each part (Lessons 10, 20, and 30) is a review, containing a reading passage that summarizes the experience of Mr. Green on the basis of the previous nine lessons.

Aside from the three review lessons, the rest of the lessons are organized in a rather traditional format and include the following components: dialogue, new words, grammar, notes (explanation of terms or expressions), key sentence construction, exercise, and supplementary vocabulary. The dialogue is presented first in characters, followed by Pinyin and the English translation. Between ten and twenty-five new words are introduced in each lesson. The number is higher if the number of characters, rather than words, is counted. For example, Lesson 1 introduces twenty-four words, which include thirty-five characters. Grammar explanations are few and simple; in some lessons the grammar component is absent. Key sentence construction presents the new sentence structures, and each one is built up step by step from one word to two words, three words, and so on. One example is used to illustrate each structure. The exercise consists of four or five parts, including filling in the blanks, substitution, translation from Chinese to English, dialogue reading, and answering questions. For the translations and questions, the answers are provided in the appendices.

A few characteristics of this book stand out. First, unlike most college-level Chinese textbooks, which focus on student life, the book has its setting in a business and work environment. The content is therefore especially appropriate for businesspeople. Second, the book also differs from most current textbooks in providing very few grammar explanations or exercises. This may reflect the author’s intent to keep things simple for the beginning learner. Third, the book incorporates some words that are newly introduced into Chinese, for example, yimeir ‘e-mail’ and ku ‘cool’. To learn how to use ku, however, the learner would need more examples, as ku is not necessarily used in exactly the same contexts where cool is used in English. With respect to the Chinese writing, characters are often an obstacle for learners. In this book, the Chinese characters are always accompanied by Pinyin. This certainly makes it easier for the learner to read, but it also makes it more difficult to become independent of the Romanization. Another characteristic that makes it easier to read is that all of the Chinese sentences are printed with spaces that serve as word boundaries. This is a practice that is not found in normal Chinese writing or any Chinese textbooks that I have seen. At the beginning level, however, this feature facilitates reading comprehension and makes the task of reading characters less daunting.

The appendices include phrases and structures covered in the lessons; they also include a list of sentence-final particles, measure words, time words, place words, and currency words. Such lists are useful to learners.