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The Chinese Classroom

by Yuhui Fu
Reviewed by Sarah White

I’ve always been interested in learning Chinese. At high school in Australia we were given two choices when it came to learning a language; French or German. Neither of which I was interested in learning and neither of which seemed at all useful considering Australia’s great distance from both countries.
So when I moved to Taiwan to teach English for 2 years, I jumped at the chance to learn this challenging, fascinating and now the most spoken language in the world.

However I was disappointed to find that many of the methods for learning this challenging language left me and many other Mandarin speaker wannabes unable to get past the initial stage of mastering the tones. The ‘I say – you say’ repeat/drill method employed by many of the Chinese language schools in Taiwan left many foreigners and many English language teachers totally exasperated. Laoshi Chen, my first Chinese teacher was a lovely lady. However, with little more knowledge of being a language teacher than being a native speaker, I often felt that as nice as Laoshi Chen was, she was more interested in getting out of the house and practising her English rather than developing our Mandarin language skills in an interesting and communicative way.

Yuhei Fu’s beginner course in Mandarin classroom states that it takes a ‘fresh look at learning Chinese’. Entitled ‘The Chinese Classroom’ the book claims to have a clear focus on speaking skills and can be used for classroom use or as a self-study book. At this time I was interested in seeing how it could be used as a self-study book to review what I had learnt on the many (unsuccessful) beginner courses I had already taken in Mandarin Chinese.

The book begins with a concise two-page rundown on the pronunciation of Chinese. I was pleased to find that this two page introduction to the use of Pinyin (the standard way – roman alphabet style, to write Chinese) didn’t feel as daunting as many face-to-face courses I had experienced before. Many of the courses spent at least the first 6 weeks of the course practising the pronunciation of the sounds of the Pinyin alphabet and the even more challenging four tones. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language which means that one word can have up to four different meanings, depending on how you say it. An example of such is the sound ji. This simple sound/word actually has four different meanings dependant on which tone you use:
Ji – first tone : chicken
Ji – second tone: extremely
Ji – third tone: how many
Ji – fourth tone: to send

Hmmmmmm!

This is the point at which most Chinese learners drop out, too overwhelmed and feeling that they may never be understood if they don’t get these tones right. However Yuhei Fu has come up with a simple but effective way to mastering these tones, and for the first time I felt I could understand the differences in the pronunciation of these tones. Yuhei Fu points out that in effect spoken English has tones as well, however they only express the emotion of the speaker, but don’t have an actual impact on the meaning. She uses examples of English intonation, to show how these can be correlated each of the four tones. And it really works!

The book is divided up into 17 chapters. Within each chapter you will find a focus on dialogues between the two main ‘characters’ of the book, two students in the Chinese Classroom, Janet and Tony. They engage in simple everyday, survival conversations which are accompanied by modern pictures. Each conversation has the literal translation of the Chinese, which at first seems annoying but it is useful in showing how the Chinese sentences are structured and gives you a clear idea of word order. In each lesson you will also find little language notes in the text in the form of short comments and explanations. This book doesn’t adopt a heavy grammatical approach. However, it doesn’t leave it up to you to guess the grammatical forms either. At a beginner level this is perfect. As a newcomer to this language it is so easy to get ‘bogged down’ in the pronunciation, that if the author was also to hit you with large amounts of grammatical explanation I think it would leave most learners running for the hills.

The book also utilised a number of other techniques to assist the Chinese learner with grasping this challenging langauge. Each lesson includes text bubbles that summarise the main structures used in a particular section as well as some useful phrases that at the very least you can take away with you and feel quite pleased that you’ve learnt something new at the end of that lesson. New word lists are also incorporated at the end of each lesson, reviewing the main new words. In each lesson you will also find exercises to allow you to develop what you have learnt in that particular lesson as well as challenge yourself to form Chinese sentences. Answers are given at the back of the book, where you’ll also find comprehensive vocab lists, English to Chinese and Chinese to English; handy for completing the exercises. The book is accompanied by a CD which follows all of the dialogues of each lesson. The only criticism I can make refers to the CD. For the beginner, I feel this CD doesn’t give the learner enough time to repeat the Chinese sentences out aloud.

Overall I think Yuhei Fu has done an excellent job in providing a useful book for any new leaner to the world’s most spoken language. It really does force you to speak, review and build upon language learnt in a slow and steady way. Like many language learners in the past I have felt rushed and anxious to get ahead and get better at my Chinese. This book made me realise that there was so much more to learn at the beginner stage and that if I was ever to be really successful at it, I needed to master this level first. But really it isn’t very Chinese to rush things, is it? So slowly, step by step I plan to keep at it, and perhaps with the help of this book I may just one day, get past the beginner stage! Just like the ancient Chinese Proverb says; ‘ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

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