Recently my wife and Casey started taking Chinese lessons at a nearby university. While they are excited by how quickly they are starting to pick up on the basics of the language, they’re also finding it difficult to keep up with all of the new characters. It’s the exact same problem I had when I started.
After two years of Chinese classes in college, I went to study at Beijing Language and Culture University for a summer. My listening and speaking skills were great, but I was practically illiterate. I ended up in the “heritage learner” class, which meant I was the only person there who wasn’t ethnically Chinese. The class consisted of reciting sentences one by one while the teacher made corrections, which it was incredibly boring, but the textbook we used was what saved the class from being a complete waste of time.
The author of the series, Zhang Pengpeng, has a unique approach to teaching Chinese that made it much easier for me to learn. He argues that teaching students how to speak and write at the same time is ineffective, because the characters provide no assistance in the pronunciation (compared to a language like Spanish or Korean). This idea of teaching the character with every new vocabulary word proves to be a stumbling block for many learners, since the oral part of the class usually drives vocabulary. Zhang says that by teaching them separately, both can be taught in a more systematic approach.
The typical approach to Chinese learning forces new students to learn a sound, a meaning, and a character for each new word. Zhang’s approach allows you to first tie a sound with a meaning using pinyin (the phonetic transcription for Mandarin), and then later connect a meaning with a character (which you already know the phonetics for). Using this method, I was able to learn 750 characters in 6 weeks, which gave me enough to read nearly 1,300 words (some words are combinations of more than one character).
If you are learning Chinese you may also want to read my posts on the topic: It’s Easy to learn Chinese – Really, Why 10,000 characters is easier than it seems, and Compound words, more of a puzzle than a problem.
His textbooks can easily be found on Amazon.com (about $10 a piece) or in foreign language bookshops throughout China (this is the cheaper option).
If you’re an absolute beginner, you should start with his first book, Intensive Spoken Chinese. The book focuses on very practical, short dialogues with many fill in the blank type activities, and concise grammar points. Instead of trying to teach you only characters, it uses pinyin throughout, which makes Chinese practice less intimidating. When my wife and I first arrived in China, this was the book I hunted down. After working through the lessons in the book she had enough basic Chinese to survive daily life (shopping, taking a cab, sight-seeing, etc.).
The second book in the series, called The Most Common Chinese Radicals, focuses on systematically introducing Chinese characters. This allows students to better comprehend how characters are formed, and gives them the foundations needed to guess the meaning of new characters. This is a skill that many Chinese learners struggle to grasp when using traditional textbooks that don’t separate writing from speaking. This book helped me to stop seeing characters as a mess of strokes, and start seeing each part as a smaller unit that imparted either meaning or pronunciation.
The final book, Rapid Literacy in Chinese, is the final one in the series. The idea being that the student already has basic speaking abilities and some understanding of how characters are created; now they simply attach that knowledge to the correct character. Each chapter introduces 30 characters, along with their meaning, pronunciation and a list of compound words they form with other characters you already know from the book. It also provides a dialogue and paragraph that allow you to review all thirty characters. The idea is that by the time you finish this book, your level will be high enough to start reading simple news articles.
While each book can function on its own, the series allows you to develop the skills for continuing to learn on your own. If you are just starting Chinese or need a refresher, I hope you will check out this series.
For a sample from The Most Common Chinese Radicals and Rapid Literacy in Chinese Click Here