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Review of  Learning Chinese

Reviewer: J. Thomas McAlister
Book Title: Learning Chinese
Book Author: Patricia A. Duff Tim Anderson Roma Ilnyckyj Ella VanGaya Rachel Tianxuan Wang Wang Yates
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 24.3625

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The book, ‘Learning Chinese: Linguistic, Sociocultural and Narrative Perspectives,’ describes a longitudinal qualitative and quantitative examination of the experiences of learners of “Chinese as a additional language” (CAL). It applies sociolinguistic theory and the use of narrative to interpret how the individuals in the study grew in their abilities and adapted to the language culture. The study also examines a variety of assessments (formal and informal, oral and written) and how these assessments differ.

In Chapter One, the authors describe the growing influence of Chinese culture in today’s world before outlining the purpose of the book. First, there is a discussion of the media perceptions of the Chinese language and policies related to its use and teaching as a global language. Those studying Chinese languages may be heritage language learners or individuals taking their first look at a new language. This is followed by an examination of challenges faced by CAL learners, such as differing character styles and differences in spoken dialects. The chapter then moves to a review of the literature and gaps that the authors have uncovered. Finally, the chapter describes the basis for the book, which is a self/peer-examination of progress in the authors’ own Chinese language acquisition. The book focuses on five student-authors; one is a linguistics professor, Dr. Patricia Duff, and the sixth author is a Chinese language professor, Dr. Rachel Tianxuan Wang.

Chapter Two provides an examination of the oral proficiency of the student-authors. The chapter uses a variety of methods to test proficiency, including the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) and the Test of Chinese as a foreign language (TOCFL), with focus on two interviews that were conducted with the Chinese language professor. Discussions related to standardized tests were provided; however, tests for linguistic variation using a tool based on the Institute of Computing Technology Chinese Lexical Analysis System were used to better illustrate proficiency. Samples were examined for fluency (i.e. speed/accuracy), lexical variety, and grammatical constructions. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were incorporated into examining each individual’s proficiency. The chapter discusses how each individual performed and improved throughout the study.

Chapter Three looks at the student-authors’ written proficiency. The chapter begins with a review of the relevant literature, with extensive focus on the lack of research related to CAL literacy. Evidence from the discussion transcripts is examined with more attention paid to errors, but some discussion focuses on the individual idiosyncrasies that are representative of proficiency, such as preference for using simplified or traditional characters in writing and the need for romanization in some cases.

A sociocultural analysis of narratives is the focus of Chapter Four. Each of the participants developed a set of narratives, which are found in the appendix of the book. The analysis employed a framework in which agency, positioning, and gender were viewed as connections between the individual’s identity and his/her role in the community. Each CAL learner offers a unique perspective within this framework, and conflicts between these aspects of identity and community are brought to the forefront. For example, Roma reveals a “strong, independent, pioneering…outlook” (p. 121), and Tim and Elliot mention the advantages that males have when integrating into the culture.

In Chapter Five, metanarrative analysis and narrative inquiry are discussed. The student-authors wrote their own narratives about their memories and experiences while learning Chinese (previously and during the study), which are included in the appendix. The chapter revolves around the process of developing the narratives from the first draft to the third. The narratives were discussed in two stages, using electronic commenting for the first draft and remote discussions via Skype for the second draft. The chapter also includes a formulation of categories for evaluating comments and feedback, as well as the development of a concept map that revealed shared themes found in the narratives.

The concluding Chapter Six reviews the findings and commentary provided in the previous chapters. After discussing limitations of having a small, homogenous sample and the lack of inclusion of non-English research, the authors mention possible implications as well as suggestions for further research on Chinese as an additional language. More study of assessments of Chinese proficiency and possible future developments in assessments were stressed. The final section of the chapter reflects upon the growing global influence of Chinese and how this influence will be pedagogically integrated through improved curricula that better understands second language acquisition.


Overall, this book is inspiring on a number of levels. As a language instructor, a linguist, and a foreign language student, this text offers a very clear example of how content learned in language and linguistics courses may be adapted to one’s personal interests and goals.

As a language instructor, it is inspiring to see what can be created in collaboration with one’s own students. While this book was not the product of a particular course or project-based learning (PBL) experience, it resembles an example of a PBL. The linguistic and thematic analyses are excellent ways for students with some experience in second language usage to look deeper at their abilities, interests, and motivations. Such a project would fit well into any writing class or study abroad course. For example, students could create and analyze their own (or each others) narratives during the final week of an immersive language study abroad.

As a linguist, particularly a Sinophile, a number of interesting areas for discussion were touched upon. First and foremost, in the area of SLA, the lack of a solid system of evaluation presents a very important focal point for future studies on CAL. How are average students of Chinese progressing semantically, syntactically, and in relation to issues of pronunciation of tones? Moreover, the sociolinguistic factors of gender, race and agency offer great potential for further study. How can female students better integrate themselves into the culture? How are non-Caucasian CAL learners perceived now that China has stepped up initiatives working with Africa? From personal experience living in Beijing, I have seen the impact of these problems in the past, but are they changing?

As a foreign language student and a CAL learner, in particular, I see myself in these students. As someone who learned the language through natural immersion, as opposed to advanced formal instruction, I was surprised how I compared with the students in their areas of linguistic competence. I was also able to empathize with many of their experiences based on my own personal experiences learning Chinese, teaching English, and living in Beijing for several years. Furthermore, this book provides ideas for future language learning, not limited to just Chinese. As with the perspective of the language instructor, the language student can use the techniques in this text to better explore his/her own growth, attitudes, and perceptions about second languages, cultures, and speakers.

One caveat about this text is Chapter Five’s discussion of the narrative process and metanarratives. This chapter focused too much on the authors’ step-by-step process and did not reveal much in the way of discovery from the analysis. Although the final products are found in the appendix, discussion of aspects of theory and application seemed limited, if at all visible. The other chapters provided much clearer analyses of data, with support through both theory and application.

All in all, this book is reminiscent of many classic texts that speak for the first time about common knowledge that a general populace of a particular group understands. For those who are CAL learners or instructors, this text reveals the unspoken world that they experience when being immersed in Chinese culture. For sociolinguists and SLA researchers, this body of work increases the collected knowledge for the subfield of Chinese language acquisition, as well as for avenues of research related to gender studies in SLA. Finally, the reading of this text is very compelling; the writing is not dry, even in the data-driven sections of the book. This book reveals a very human side to what it means to be a second language student reflecting upon one’s own investment in learning to participate in a multilingual world.
J. Thomas McAlister is a graduate student at Ball State University working towards a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics, and a faculty instructor at BSU’s Intensive English Institute. He is fluent in spoken Mandarin, and he has lived and taught EFL in South Korea and China. Currently, his research interests include morphology/syntax and contact linguistics as well as second language acquisition.