Friday, July 13, 2012

Beginning Chinese Reader (Parts I and II) by John DeFrancis

This is the way to learn Chinese.
This series of textbooks by John DeFrancis is an excellent way to learn Chinese characters. I’ve looked around for other textbooks, but have never found another with such a structured, systematic approach. You learn ten characters in each lesson, and about 40 combinations (words and phrases) composed of those characters. Their usage is illustrated in sample sentences; then you are given dialogues and narratives to read. Every sixth lesson is a review lesson, in which you don’t learn any new characters or combinations. In Volume I and Volume II combined there are 48 lessons, for a total of 400 characters.

One of the great things about this system is that it doesn’t require a lot of memorization. You learn the characters from reading them in actual sentences and paragraphs. When you’re working on chapter 12, for example, the characters you learned in chapter 11 may be difficult to remember, but by the time you get to chapter 16 you’ve read them so many times that they are second nature to you.

As for the actual text, the book is intended for college students majoring in Chinese, so a lot of the stuff you’re reading relates to academia: attending classes, taking exams, teaching, reading and writing books. As you go on in the series and learn more characters, the topics get broader and you start to learn about Chinese culture, geography, politics, and everyday life. It can seem a little counterintuitive at times; before you know the words for colors or food items, you already know the words for 20 different academic disciplines. Since these books were published in the 1960s, some of the narratives are a little outdated. There’s a lot of talk about “I remember before the People’s Republic . . .” and “That old man was an official in the Qing Dynasty . . .” (if the book were written today, that old man would be dead), but you do learn a little about Chinese history and, more importantly, you do learn how to read and write Chinese characters.

This series concentrates mostly on the traditional characters. At the end of Beginning Chinese Reader Volume II there is an extended lesson on simplified (or modern) characters. So you spend about 90% of your time on traditional, and 10% on simplified. Because you spend less time reading the simplifed characters, they require more memorization. Between the two versions about two-thirds of the characters are the same, so you just have to learn the simplified equivalents of the other one-third.

One important thing to note is that in the back of Beginning Reader Volume II, besides the aforementioned lesson on modern characters, there is a glossary/index of all 400 characters and their combinations, plus charts listing the characters by lesson, by radical, and by number of strokes. There’s also some diagrams on stroke order (how to actually draw the characters). If you just buy Volume I you won’t have access to all that helpful material, yet it’s still possible to complete Volume I without it.

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