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Ma Jianfa

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Title: Short-term Spoken Chinese, Elementary
Author: Ma Jianfa
Year: 2004

Changing authors from the first two volumes, one might have supposed that some things in Short-term Spoken Chinese ought to have improved. This is indeed the case, but the price paid is much too high, since many things in the Elementary volume are much worse than in in the Threshold volumes. However, on a general note, what I said about the first two volumes mostly holds true for this volume as well, so I will not bother to reiterate all the short-comings of the first two books, but instead focus on a comparison.

Advantages: One thing has improved greatly, and that is the explanation of grammar. The sections now include many and various examples which enable the student to understand the grammar explained in a broader sense than was previously possible. Very good.

Disadvantages: Sadly, the new grammar sections are rife with problems. Most notably, they contain a vast amount of characters the student has no chance of understanding (usually 20-30 new characters for each chapter, almost doubling the total number used in the book). Using a dictionary to look up all the words necessary to understand the examples is incredibly time consuming. Also, many of the characters are extremely rare (one sentence is about make-up equipment to such a detail that I did not know the words in either Swedish or English).

Furthermore, and perhaps even worse, the chapters themselves contain characters that are not present in the glossary. This might have been understandable if it was a stand-alone elementary textbook, but it is not. The authors know exactly which characters they have covered previously, and ought to be able to include all the new ones in the word lists. Fortunately, our teacher provided us with extra word lists for each chapter (sometimes comprising twenty characters that were omitted from the original lists). This is unforgivable.

In order to alleviate this problem for other people, I have composed word lists myself that cover all the texts and the grammar. Those lists, and much more, can be found in my Chinese section. (Edit: These lists are now available from within Anki, the old ZDT-lists are still available from the Chinese section, but won’t be updated).

Oddly, the letter “e” is missing from the appendix. Admittedly, there are not many words beginning with e, but still there are some.

I discussed these various points with my teacher, and he withheld that these books still are among the best available. That might be true, so I advise you again not to make the mistake of taking me for an expert. I have only used these text books, and for all I know, they might indeed be the best around. Still, I do not like them, and find in them too many errors or signs of flawed thinking to give them more than a couple of snails.

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Title: Short-term Spoken Chinese, Threshold
Ma Jianfa
Year: 2004

It is not without hesitation that I write about these books, because even though I have studied them carefully, I have no experience whatsoever of Chinese text books in general. This might indeed be a very good book in comparison with others, so if you are interested in a comparative review, look elsewhere. I intend only to convey my impression of these two first books as a student.

Advantages: The books look and feel rather nice, with friendly print and adept layout and design. It is also fairly easy to understand the concept in the early chapters, even without tuition, so in this regard it would be ideal for those who have limited access to a teacher (this is only true for the first few chapters, as we shall see).

Disadvantages: There are many problems. First and foremost, the English is bad at best, but incomprehensible at worst. Some grammar paragraphs feel like someone with limited knowledge of English has used a dictionary to look up all the words s/he did not know, and the result is a mishmash of fairly advanced English words, which do not work very well together. It is often possible to understand what is intended, but it is seldom straightforward or easy.

Second, the glossary for each chapter is occasionally unhelpful and if it were not for exterior dictionaries, one would be helpless. Stating that a character is “a particle” does not say anything useful, nor do identical descriptions of words which seem to mean the same thing, but in fact do not. The list at the end lacks an English-Chinese section, which makes it next to impossible to find a word you have learnt, unless you know how it is pronounced, which might be the very thing you want to look up.

Third, the exercises are sometimes mysterious and require a whole lot of detective examination before even starting. Although there are good exercises, too many consist of copying segments from a text, rather than practising on the relevant grammar. The key only covers the listening exercises, so there is no help given at all when it comes to grammar.

Conclusively, Short-term Spoken Chinese Threshold volume one and two work fairly well with a teacher, but are not good at all if you want to understand something on your own. This is a bit silly, because I think the books ought to be able to make one understand on their own (if the reader has to rely on the teacher all the time, I do not see much point in having the book in the first place).

Addendum: I forgot one thing which further lowers my impression of these books: a tendency to use characters and words in example sentences from upcoming chapters. This is extremely annoying, since the grammar might be hard enough to understand without having no idea what some of the characters mean (and when you do not know which chapter they will appear in, and you do not know how to pronounce them, there is simply no way to know what they mean, save for consulting an external dictionary).

Update: These lists are now available from within Anki, the old ZDT-lists are still available from the Chinese section, but will not be updated.

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