Some comments on Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang and Yao Ming

eric.pelzl's picture

I am pleased that Cheng & Tsui continues to work on publishing graded readers for Chinese, and I especially welcome the content of these two readers--a very welcome change of pace from the typical crop of traditional stories. I think students by and large will find the stories of Yao Ming and Lang Lang to be interesting and motivating. However, I must note two factors which make these readers virtually unusable in my courses--and perhaps many others.

1) PINYIN ANNOTATION. I love Pinyin. It's useful to me as both teacher and learner of Chinese. I am very happy to see these readers make careful use of word-level, rather than syllable-level, spacing. However, I remain unconvinced of the choice to annotate the text line by line with Pinyin, particularly ABOVE the characters. I can read Chinese novels, so characters do not intimidate me as they might a novice level learner--however, as soon as I began to 'read' these books, I found myself reading Pinyin, not characters. I wanted to grab a piece of paper to cover the Pinyin, but found this was not possible since the Pinyin is ABOVE the characters. Thus, my impression is that these readers are PINYIN readers, rather than Chinese readers. That's fine if this is what teachers and students are seeking--it is not what I was seeking. I remain unconvinced that its constant presence as an annotation for characters will really assist me or my students in reading and retaining Chinese characters. It may, perhaps, help learners increase conversational vocabulary--which is certainly not a bad goal--just a different one. 

2) DIFFICULTY LEVEL. Though it may be the case that the texts are limited in character use, they are certainly not limited in WORD use. My (college) classroom, more than most, emphasizes spoken skills over reading skills--but I still cannot imagine any of my students reading these books successfully until their third or fourth year, and then, only with heavy dictionary use. The writing style makes use of numerous written forms that beginning and intermediate students are unlikely to be familiar with (examples: yǔ, yǐjí, cǐshí, qíjiān, to name only a handful). Additionally, the vocabulary used is far beyond what is known by the normal advanced beginner or intermediate student that the books claim to be made for (a sample from the first page: dàibiǎo, yōuyǎ, wěiduàn, gāocháo, táozuì, chúcǐzhīqwài). The choices seem motivated by a desire to provide natural Chinese language--but I think the author has gone lost perspective on what most low-level students are capable of--regardless of whether their spoken Chinese abilities outpaces their written Chinese abilities. 

Perhaps my views are different than the majority of teachers--but if so, it's probably in how much I LIKE and use Pinyin in my classroom and how few characters I require students to master relative to the spoken vocabulary they learn. I would like to be able to endorse these books, but with the difficulty and use of Pinyin annotation, especially above the lines, they do not meet the needs of my students for graded readers that are 1) comprehensible and 2) help them read Chinese (as opposed to Pinyin).