LINGUIST List 12.1633

Wed Jun 20 2001

Review: Gao, Mandarin Chinese

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


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  • lauren hall-lew, Review of Gao, Mandarin Chinese: an introduction

    Message 1: Review of Gao, Mandarin Chinese: an introduction

    Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2001 13:14:44 -0600
    From: lauren hall-lew <lahemail.arizona.edu>
    Subject: Review of Gao, Mandarin Chinese: an introduction


    Gao, Mobo C.F. (2000) Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction. Oxford University Press. 226 pp. + xiv.

    Reviewed by Lauren Hall-Lew, The University of Arizona

    Beginning study of Mandarin Chinese as a monolingual English speaker can be incredibly daunting. Most first- year instruction starts from the first day with both character literacy and speaking, and does so with only a minimal and non-theoretical foundation in sounds, syntax, and other differing aspects between English and Chinese. This book successfully simplifies, clarifies, and bridges the gap of understanding for learners at various levels of Mandarin study and assumes extremely basic levels of linguistic background. To quote from the preface, "This book ... aims to provide an overview of the Chinese language from the perspective of the undergraduate English-speaking learner of Mandarin Chinese ... (it) is not intended to be a textbook for any particular year of study of any particular course but aims to complement other textbooks used in the classroom." Gao aims further to bring multiple disciplines together in one succinct and accessible volume (a good introduction is provided in the preface). The book contains chapters on "Language and Setting", "Language and Politics", "Sounds and Tones", "Writing", "Vocabulary", "Grammar", and "Discourse," as well as an appendix of the sound system inventory and an appendix on basic grammatical terminology (this should be read first if the reader is unfamiliar with the terms presented). Each chapter is divided into well-organized subtopics, so that under the table of contents one can find a section on "Society", "Reduplication", or "Word order of passive sentences." Thus, the book can be used as a reference book as well as being read straight from start to finish - Gao addresses this in depth, noting that the book as a whole can be used for a general orientation to the language and later referred to for greater detail. Because of this feature, it is a companion book for years of language study. Foreign relations with China are at present delicate and precarious. This book comes at an excellent time when citizens of English-speaking nations, notably the United States, must understand the cultural setting of Mandarin- speaking areas in order to communicate accurately and effectively. Chapter One, "Language and Setting," provides information on geography, history (including discussion on communism), and society (including discussion on class, gender, and discrimination) which presents an overall picture of the language setting and are each discussed with their linguistic implications. Sections on group identity, urban vs. rural communities, "The Language", and historical linguistics address the issue of dialects: what a dialect is (one of the most common misconceptions of the lay person, in my opinion), how it effects group solidarity in China, and what the political influences are. It clarifies, for example, the fact that speakers of differing Chinese dialects use the same writing system. These sections also discuss minority groups, and genetic and non-genetic relations with other languages. The chapter is provides an honest, relevant, and broad-thinking introduction to Chinese culture. Chapter 2, "Language and Politics", discusses the government's attitude toward their language, both spoken and written. Gao illustrates how political change brought about periods of language reform, including efforts of unification, the plain speech movement, and attempts to replace the character script with a Roman-style writing system. The chapter goes into detail about how characters were simplified, the history of different phonetic systems tried, and the reason for keeping character writing. The communist influence on language is discussed in brief. This is an important chapter for the Mandarin learner to understand the Chinese pride and significance placed on language. Chapter 3, "Sounds and Tones", aims to "highlight some of the similarities and differences between sound patterns in Mandarin and English" (p.53). It begins with a comparison of Pinyin to IPA (although which IPA Gao refers to is vague) to introduce basic phonetics for a reader with no prior knowledge of the subject. Well-chosen English words are used to approximate the Mandarin sounds. The chapter includes good basic introductions to syllables, tones (and a section on the neutral tone), stress, and rhythm. There is further helpful information on loan words, and "syllables, words, and tones" which is well directed to the English L1 speaker. The chapter is concise, informative, and clearly understandable. Chapter 4, "Writing", is a good introduction to be read prior to learning characters. The chapter supplies a historical background, information on how to use an English-Chinese dictionary, and a nice discussion on Calligraphy and its cultural significance. It is written at the level of a reader who has never written a character before, providing nice tables and visuals to compliment the text and establishing a good foundation for the importance of stroke order and writing precision. The last section discusses character writing in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Like the others, this chapter is clear and informative. In Chapter 5, "Vocabulary", Gao offers a simple definition for "a word" and an understandable introduction to "parts of speech." This chapter includes sections on reduplication, affixes, homophones, informal vs. formal terms, function words, meaning, reference, translation, names, and writing addresses and dates. This is perhaps the single most useful chapter for a student who has already started studying Chinese and has a basic vocabulary established. This chapter is excellent at highlighting differences and similarities between English and Chinese. Particularly successful is the section on meaning, which well states the difficulties in cross-lingual communication: "Learning a foreign language involves acquiring cultural assumptions and becoming familiar with another culture and human existence. In order to learn a foreign language really well one has to be prepared to be engaged with the culture embodied in that language" (p. 124). This chapter offers both concrete descriptions of morphology and vital attention to intercultural concerns. Chapter 6, "Grammar", is notably the most extensive chapter. The introduction is well done, by clearly stating and refuting old assumptions. The chapter includes several sections: structural rules, word order, phrasal structures, lack of inflection, grammatical particles, measure words, quantifiers and sentence patterns (simple, complex, etc.). As in other chapters, this section is good at raising and explaining issues that may not be addressed in the classroom. Beginning students often have question about particles and measure words, and these sections might prove particularly helpful at that level. Prior exposure to Mandarin is useful for most of this chapter. This section is also appropriate for advanced learners of Mandarin, to serve as a sort of checklist for mastery of the elements that are crucial to fluency. Some of the subsections, such as that on compliments, are easier read with some linguistic background. Overall, the chapter is extremely clear and helpful. (I personally found the explanation of 'bu' vs. 'mei', both "not", to be very useful.) The final chapter addresses "Discourse." This, of course, is the chapter that ties all the others together for 'real-world' application (for example, which politeness terms to use with your host family). The chapter addresses the social applications of accents and dialects, gender issues, formal vs. informal style, written vs. spoken language, conversational fillers, phraseology (useful for low-study travelers), word order, and character writing. It is here that Gao refutes common stereotypes about China and highlights basic cultural practices. The hierarchy of authority is based on a complicated tradition of political doctrine and Confucian ideals, and Gao's explanation for addressee honorifics is well done. Brief sections on wishes of good luck, expressions of modesty, and conversational greetings are informative. Gao's style caters to being clear and intelligible. He often restates a sentence with "In other words..." which provides a nice clarification. The presentation is well organized by first presenting a concept as it applies to English and then showing how it applies to Mandarin. The words chosen in example sentences well match the vocabulary level of first-year students. Gao also occasionally repeats information in different chapters, which is good for both reinforcement and if the book is used for reference only and not read cover to cover. Each Chapter ends with a set of review questions, bibliography, and endnotes. Some of the questions are broad and theoretical, and some are specific and refer specifically to the text. Some of the questions refer to strictly linguistic concepts (not specifically Mandarin ones). I would encourage instructors and readers at a college level to make use of the questions that require more critical thinking, as some of the fact-finding questions are quite simple. In closing I'll admit that I am the audience Gao intended this book for; I am an undergraduate student and I just completed Chinese 101 last Spring. As far as academic 'textbooks' go, this book was a delight to read as well as being incredibly useful; I've already cited it in a term paper and I'm often rereading certain sections and scribbling notes in the margins. This fall I am studying abroad in China, and I'm taking this book (lightweight, too) along with me!

    Lauren Hall-Lew is a student of Linguistics and Psychology at the University of Arizona, currently working as a research assistant in Sociolinguistics.