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Review of  Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction

Reviewer: Lauren Hall-Lew
Book Title: Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction
Book Author: Mobo C. F. Gao
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 12.1633

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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
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
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.