Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar by Claudia Ross

A good reference, but the exercises are too elementary
Before purchasing this book, I had previously used the Schaum’s Outline volumes on French and Spanish grammar, and found them very helpful and informative. In some ways Chinese grammar is easier than the European languages, because you don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs or agreement between subjects, verbs, and adjectives. On the other hand, Chinese grammar does have one very difficult aspect: word order. When compared to English, the Chinese structure their sentences in a way that resembles some of the more convoluted utterances of Yoda from the Star Wars movies. One needs an effective reference on grammar in order to accurately decipher this mysterious syntax.

The Schaum’s Outline series basically serves two functions. The first is to organize all the grammatical rules of a language into a user-friendly outline. The second is to provide a series of exercises one can work through in order to familiarize and master the rules in question. This volume on Chinese grammar admirably accomplishes the first goal but is not entirely successful at achieving the second. The main problem with the book is that the exercises are just too easy. They mostly take the form of fill in the blanks, insert this phrase into an existing sentence, or rearrange this group of words and phrases in the correct order. For the most part, they’re so easy you can do them without thinking, and if you’re not thinking, you’re not learning. To adequately understand and remember these grammatical formulae, one needs more challenging mental exercise than is offered here. One also finds quite a few cases where, after reading the sample sentences provided and doing the exercises in accordance with them, you look in the back of the book and find that the answer is different, with no explanation provided for the irregularity of that particular case.

For those studying written Chinese, you should have at least an intermediate knowledge of Chinese characters before undertaking this book. I had previously worked through the five volumes of the John DeFrancis Chinese Reader series, which gave me a familiarity with 1200 characters. While working through this book I managed to add another 125 characters to my vocabulary, and probably twice as many compounds—things like food items, body parts, articles of clothing, and some commonly used adjectives and verbs.

Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar will make a good reference when reading Chinese texts. The well organized and clearly stated grammatical rules will be helpful in deciphering difficult passages. However, I don’t feel I’ve gained enough understanding of Chinese grammar to reliably and accurately compose my own complex sentences and paragraphs. For that I will have to seek out another grammar workbook with more challenging exercises. This volume is a step in the right direction, but not quite the authoritative source one expects from the Schaum’s Outline series.

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