My older son just finished his second year of college Chinese and was showing his young siblings his textbook because they, too, are learning Mandarin, but at a slower pace. The little ones could understand come characters here and there, which was rewarding after several years of weekly Mandarin that I’m “strongly encouraging” them to take.
And it got me thinking about my second year of Chinese when I was in college. This is one of the books I used:
Jake’s is obviously much more attractive and appealing than the one I used. From his textbook’s cover, one can tell it’s somewhat contemporary because the photos of Shanghai are somewhat current. But back in 1990-91 when I studied my second year of Mandarin, my book wasn’t even from the previous decade. It was last copyrighted at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In other words, my book was old even in 1990. There were also some other stark differences between the two. For one, Jake’s uses the pinyin style of romanization that is all-prevalent in China and around the world.
But mine didn’t even use pinyin!
It was the Yale romanization system, which is even less popular than Wade-Giles, which is used in literature that takes place before the 1950s. The difference between Yale and pinyin is pretty big. Take the third column, last character. In the Yale system, dzwo is the romanization for “left”, while in pinyin it’s spelled zuo. And the fifth column, second from the bottom, chywan means whole in Yale romanization, but in pinyin it’s quan. First column, second from the bottom, syau is small in Yale and xiao is small in pinyin.
It was confusing to the say the least. Not only that, but I’d started learning simplified characters with pinyin romanization in Baltimore in 1989 for my first year of Chinese class. The second year, in 1990, I switched to traditional characters with Yale romanization because that’s what my classes in Hong Kong used.
Jake’s book seems interactive with colorful photos and illustrations.
While mine only featured reprints of old short stories, plays and articles. And it read right to left, up to down, in the traditional way people read Chinese.
Jake’s lessons were about more contemporary matters, like famous sites in China and typical conversational topics. I’m not complaining about reading Lao She, Hu Shi, and Lu Xun, the latter two of whom are listed by their Wade-Giles romanized names in this book!
Another thing that’s different about Jake’s book is that it includes both simplified and traditional characters. If my books back then had included both, I might have had an easier time switching between the two. But I survived and was all right returning to the US in 1991 and going back to simplified. I continued with simplified for the next few years until I moved back to Hong Kong and have been using traditional characters ever since. This pocket dictionary was my bible when I was learning Chinese and I still have it today. I was trying to show my kids how to use it (it takes a few steps if one uses the Chinese-English part of the dictionary) and they were not amused. It’s so much easier to use an app these days.
Studying Chinese wasn’t easy all those years ago, but I’m glad I had the chance to learn more than one type of romanization and both simplified (used in China) and traditional characters (used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in Chinese communities around the world). Personally, I think traditional characters are more beautiful than simplified ones. But when Jake decided he wanted to study abroad in Shanghai, I advised him to learn simplified characters for the two years he would study Chinese before heading off to Shanghai.
好好學習 (study well in traditional characaters)
好好学习 (study well in simplified characters)