For those of you attending or thinking of attending Shida’s Mandarin Training Center, here is a rundown of a few of the textbooks they use there.

I am not an education expert, so I can’t offer an analysis of how effective I think each book’s structure is from a pedagogical viewpoint. I also only used the Chinese Readings series and the newspaper reading series (which I might review later on) in my classes. The other two books (Practical Audio Video Chinese and Far East Everyday Chinese) were bought for my own edification, since I wanted to see what vocabulary other classes were learning. In other words, this entry is meant as a reference tool, not as a bona fide review.

Beginning Chinese Readings

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Yes, I know there is a typo. It is not on later editions of the book, which I suppose means that this edition is now worth a bazillion NT dollars, right?

Each chapter (topics include A Happy Family, Renting an Apartment, Extending a Visa and Seeing a Doctor) of Chinese Readings starts off with a short essay and a supplement. In Beginning Chinese Readings, the supplement for each chapter was a handwritten copy of the text, with different handwriting for each chapter. I thought this was very helpful, as reading Chinese handwriting is often difficult for foreigners. It definitely makes me more sympathetic towards all those poor teachers I had in grade school who had to decipher my cursive. In Intermediate Chinese Readings, the supplement is in simplified Chinese.

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My friend Planty was holding the book open for me.

The vocabulary lists in the Chinese Readings series is straightforward — the words are listed with both 注音符號 (Zhù yīn fú hào, a Mandarin phonetic alphabet) symbols and pinyin and a sample sentence. For multi-character words, each separate character is defined by itself and used in another vocabulary word. I think this is useful — not only do you learn extra vocabulary, you also get an idea of what context the word is appropriate in, and what kind of connotation it has.

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Each chapter also has several grammar lessons, with exercises integrated into each lesson. To be honest, I didn’t think that the grammar explanations in this series were very clear. They were often quite confusing, and the onus was usually on my teacher to help us decipher what they meant.

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Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 1

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The series’ book covers have recently changed — they use the same painting, but are bolder, fresher, more colorful and sexier. Kind of like the new season of Gossip Girl, I hope.

Ron used this series while he was studying Chinese, and really disliked it. He thought that the subject matter was so simplistic it was condescending, especially since the book is meant to be used by adult students. I agree that the chapter subjects, which include I Like to Watch Movies, How Much is This Pen, This is Our Newly Purchased Television and I Can’t Run That Far, hardly make for scintillating conversation material, but at the same time I think the book is very well laid out for students who have had very little prior exposure to Mandarin. Beginning Chinese Readings fit my requirements because I grew up with parents who speak Mandarin, and as a result I already had a fairly well-developed vocabulary — I just didn’t know what the words looked like. And while I butcher the language with alarming frequency, I also understand what spoken Mandarin is supposed to sound like. Practical Audio-Visual Chinese is written with the assumption that the student is starting with a clean slate in both spoken and written Mandarin.

The book begins with a comprehensive selection of language drills, which I assume you are supposed to go over in the class with your teacher, as well as during your time in the listening lab. The good thing about using this book is that you are trained to be familiar with both zhuyin fuhao and pinyin. Since zhuyin fuhao was specifically tailored to work with the consonant and vowel sounds in Mandarin, I’ve heard (and agree) that it is more helpful as a pronunciation tool than pinyin, which uses the Roman alphabet.

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Visual illustrations of the tones in spoken Mandarin, language drills and a zhuyin fuhao to pinyin chart.

Each chapter in Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 1 starts with a dialogue in Chinese, English, zhuyin fuhao and pinyin.

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The format of the vocabulary list is similar to the Chinese Readings series, but once again it places a greater emphasis on proper pronunciation. As you can see, the sentences are once again spelled out in both zhuyin fuhao and pinyin.

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The grammar lessons are also integrated with exercises. I think the explanations here are a lot more clear than in Chinese Readings.

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Far East Everyday Chinese 3

The two books I used, Beginning Chinese Readings and Intermediate Chinese Readings, served my purpose well enough. If I hadn’t decided to take a newspapers readings class, however, I would have tried to take a class with a teacher who uses the Far East Everyday Chinese series.

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Out of the books I have seen so far, I think that Far East Everyday Chinese 3 is the best organized (keep in mind that I have only seen the inside of Book 3 and have no idea what is in Books 1 and 2). Each chapter begins with a list of key study points, which outlines the main points of the chapter reading and lays out the vocabulary and grammar you are expected to know after finishing the chapter. This makes studying and using the book as a reference later on a lot easier.

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In Book 3, each chapter has two parts, and each part has its own vocabulary. The first part consists of a dialogue and is followed by a list of words and a vocabulary drill, which basically contains sample sentences, as well as grammar lessons and exercises. The second part starts with an essay instead of a dialogue and is laid out the same way, with vocabulary and grammar sections. I think this format is especially helpful because it helps you understand and become familiar with the differences between spoken and literary Mandarin.

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You are still reading this review? Woohoo!

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Last but not least, the chapter subjects in Far East Everyday Chinese 3 will give you a solid foundation for grown up conversation after you get sick of talking about your happy family, pen prices and how far you can run. Chapter titles include The Asian Economic Crisis, Elections and Democracy, Discussing the Evolution of Chinese Literature and Chinese Philosophers.

I know it is not fair to compare intermediate and advanced books from different series, but Intermediate Chinese Readings had chapters on healthy eating, the importance of driving safely even if you like to race cars, and how to avoid credit card debt. To be honest, I got annoyed with the preachy tone after a while, and I know I am not the only student who felt that way. The vocabulary was still pretty sophisticated and I did learn a lot from the series, but I wish the chapter text had been less sanctimonious.

Anyway, that is my two yuan (or judging from the length of this entry, my 1000 yuan). I hope it is helpful. If you have any comments about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, please let me know.