Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows is the wife of Atlantic Magazine columnist James Fallows, and this pair, most notably for our readers, lived in China (Shanghai and Beijing) for three years. They traveled to many places in the country and interviewed many leaders, expatriates, and regular Chinese citizens, while also keeping house, shopping for groceries, and doing everything else normal people do.

Deborah’s PhD is in linguistics, so she was naturally inclined to pay attention to not just what people were saying, but how they were saying it. As she struggled to learn Mandarin (not enough preparation time in the States before moving to China; had to dive into the deep end of the pool when she got there) her observational skills were sharpened even more just to function in society at a basic level.

As she eventually got her head around the language she noticed how the language itself was affecting how people interacted with each other. By immersing herself in a different society, learn Mandarin, and talk with all kinds of people, she was able to test the question, “do our thoughts drive our words, or do our words drive how we think?”

After about a year of living in China, she started drafting essays to explain what she’d learned, using a particular word or phrase to illustrate a broader concept about Chinese society. This book is a compilation of those essays, 14 chapters in all, plus a question-and-answer section and pronunciation guide at the end.

Don’t mistake this for an instructional textbook; it’s much more a meditation on how everyday people get along in China, and how a Western stranger can start to make sense of all their different voices. Having said that, the book is an excellent complement to any language-learning you may want to do. She has chapters that explain tones, pronouns, and homonyms more clearly than almost any other source I’ve read, and the guide at the back of the book helps you clearly say nearly 200 common words and expressions. And the information and references are extremely current (hardcover was published in 2010; the paperback edition which just came out has updated web links for further reading.)

Each chapter is a quick read of 10-12 pages, and her writing style is relaxed and conversational. Spending time with this book is like having a cup of coffee with a good friend who’s just returned from Asia with a bag of little gifts just for you.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.

Sara Jordan Publishing: Bilingual Songs: English - Mandarin Chinese Vol. 1

Sara Jordan Publishing is a Canadian educational materials company that has produced over 60 audio and book titles for early childhood; math, language, and social studies; and bilingual instruction. Their products are distributed through educational supply stores and catalogs, as well as directly from the publisher (both in CD form and digital download.)

Sara has dozens of titles available for teaching Spanish and French; this is her first entry into the Mandarin market. I had the opportunity to talk with her in 2009 at an educational tradeshow and purchased this CD from her (at a discount; regular price $17.95) to use informally with my daughter at home so that we can maintain some constant Mandarin exposure. For the past six weeks she’s had this disc playing at bedtime (so I’ve been listening to it quite a bit as well.)

There are 12 songs on the CD, plus instrumental versions of all 12. A songbook is included which shows lyrics in English, Pinyin, and Chinese logograms. Each of the songs are half-English-half-Mandarin; alternating either paragraph by paragraph, or line by line. The lyrics were written by a native Mandarin speaker and sung by native speakers as well. (And the English lyrics and singing are done with a mid-continent American accent - not a Canadian accent.) The songs introduce lots of basic vocabulary and phrases; titles include “The Alphabet,” “Counting to 10,” “Food,” and “Family.”

The music itself is not Chinese and does not use Chinese instrumentation; rather these are Western rhythms performed with instruments often used on children’s music (xylophones, drums, guitars, piano, etc.) and arranged in various peppy, energetic styles - feeling more like music of the Caribbean at times. Sometimes the music tracks overwhelm the vocals, but when you listen to the album frequently - as young kids want to do - you’ll pick up what’s being sung after a couple times through.

What does my daughter think? I have caught her humming some of the tunes during the day, and she is occasionally using Chinese number words. She does enjoy the music and wants to keep the CD on nightly rotation.

As a learning tool, running this CD as background music isn’t going to magically teach your child basic Mandarin vocabulary. This is really meant to be used with the songbook so that you or your child’s teacher can introduce specific words and phrases and reinforce them with the music. Likewise, your child isn’t going to learn anything specific about China or Chinese culture from this album - it’s a culture-neutral product used just to introduce and reinforce vocabulary.

I do recommend this disc; compared to CDs of “Chinese Children’s Music” produced in Asia, the arrangement of vocals and instruments, supporting information, and pleasantness of the music makes it much more suitable for beginning the teaching of Mandarin. The absence of military anthems and obscure poetic forms makes it much easier for kids in Western homes and classrooms to concentrate on learning the Mandarin words.


Posted September 3, 2011