A View From the Trenches: I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Colorado and have used the Integrated Chinese textbook series for the past two years. I have taught both first and second year Chinese using this text. Therefore I was quite interested in the review of this series by Mien-hua Chiang in the May 1998 issue. However, after reading this review it was apparent the reviewer had no actual experience of using this text in the classroom. I think such an evaluation, by someone in the trenches so to speak, would be valuable to the authors in revising the next edition, and it is in that spirit I do so here.
The authors state that their intention in writing this book is to provide instructional materials which reflect a communication-oriented approach. This is indeed an admirable goal — as we all know Chinese pedagogy has a tragic dearth of textbooks using a systematic, proficiency-based style. Considering the emphasis given to this methodology in recent years, the lack of such work is all the more surprising. Does the Integrated Chinese series live up to this ambition? I regret that I must answer in the negative. I explain my reasons for this conclusion below, and invite readers to compare this text with the Yookoso series for Japanese by Yasu-hiko Tohsaku, which with a few faults notwithstanding, remains the best text incorporating the communicative approach I have yet used.
Format of Integrated Chinese
Despite the authors’ claims to the contrary, Integrated Chinese remains very much in the old tradition of grammar based, pattern drill, translation, and to a lesser extent, audio-lingual style of texts. The only things that could be considered ‘communicative’ about the text are the chapter topics. This is indeed its strong point. However, the main textbook has nothing communicative in it, save for the dialogues. What invariably follows the dialogues are pages of vocabulary lists, grammar explanations and pattern drills. Nowhere is the student given the opportunity to creatively and practically use the language. The workbook is not much better. The listening sections are OK, but the reading portions employ true and false exercises, which are a poor way to measure reading comprehension. There are almost no speaking activities for pair work. The authors state they wish to equally emphasize all four areas of language learning, but a careful examination of the workbook reveals it to consist of primarily reading, writing and translation activities. The few speaking activities that are included do not build on each other. Rather, the student is cast into a situation and is expected to be able to produce the correct language.
This important first step is covered in the ‘Introduction’. As Mien hua Chiang has pointed out, the text is weak in its emphasis on the significance of tones. However, I believe she overlooks an even more vital and ludicrous shortcoming of this book: its introduction of Chinese sounds. Integrated Chinese is a text intended for freshmen students, who on average are eighteen years of age. Yet the explanation of Chinese sounds seems intended more for Noam Chomsky. For example, the introduction describes the Chinese sound zh as an ‘unaspirated voiceless blade-palatal affricate.’ D is a ‘tongue tip alveolar unaspirated plosive’. I could go on. I can assure the authors that their intended audience has absolutely no idea, or interest, in what these terms mean. It creates an immediate barrier to students in their production of Chinese sounds. This section needs an immediate, radical re-write. Do NOT use technical linguistic terms for an audience who are not linguists.
2) Grammar and Vocabulary
Part One of the First Year text contains eleven chapters. At my institution, we cover this book in the first semester. That translates to about a chapter a week. Only by moving so quickly can we complete parts one and two in an academic year. Each lesson has, on average, five to eight grammar points. Vocabulary, not including the supplementary sections, can contain anywhere from 35-70 items. The students struggle with internalizing such large amounts of vocabulary and grammar in five days of class time. My experience has been that they sufficiently grasp the grammar and vocabulary to succeed on the exam, but their retention rate is not optimal. This is where Integrated Chinese should take cues from Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese. The course would be much more effective if the more than twenty chapters of the first year course were condensed into around ten to twelve. Slow down the introduction of new grammar and vocabulary, and spend more time with what is introduced. Create legitimate communicative activities which allow students to consistently use the target language with each other in a guided, expressive manner, gradually increasing in complexity, such as those found in the Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese series.
3) General Appearance of the Text
Mien-hua Chiang briefly mentioned this point in her review, but I think it deserves more attention. A well-designed, attractive text making the most of contemporary graphics is a vital component to a communicative language text, and is also a major factor in the enjoyment of the course by students and the retention of them to the next level. Unfortunately, Integrated Chinese comes up short in this area as well. The most glaring fault is the appalling font for traditional Chinese characters chosen by the authors. Characters with a large number of strokes are in many cases simply illegible. This frustrates the students at home where no teacher is available, and wastes valuable time in in-class activities using the dialogues when they can’t read the characters. This problem is especially prevalent in the second year text. With the many fine fonts currently available for Chinese word processing this is an inexcusable flaw.\r\n\r\nI disagree with Mien-hua Chiang as to the quality of illustrations used in the book, and have yet to meet a student or colleague who likes them. The drawings are little better than stick figures, are generally unattractive and add limited communicative value to the course. The authors and publisher should invest much more time and money in this area, utilizing photographs, especially for the cultural information (which the text handles quite well), as well as authentic photos to accompany the chapter topics. Engaging charts, tables and graphs should accompany communicative activities which involve interviews and pair work among the students. Finally, the text should be hardcover. The Cheng & Tsui Company seems not to have put much stock in the production of Integrated Chinese, and frankly it shows.
4) Lack of Support for the Course by the Authors
In their introduction to the text, the authors state Integrated Chinese has been in development since 1994. They mention plans to include the utilization of the most current interactive technology, videos, a web site (the URL is printed in the text), and a resource/activity base for teachers. I have often visited the website over the past year and a half, and have found nothing which has assisted me in the presentation of Integrated Chinese. There is still no resource center for teaching activities specifically designed for the course, unless we allow for the addition of a few games which have been culled from the earlier Let’s Play Games In Chinese. These games, while sometimes useful and a fun diversion, do not really match the text and at best can be considered no more than supplementary material. I still am not aware of any videotapes accompanying the course. On a positive note, the audiotapes for the course have now become much more affordable. In previous years, the cost was so prohibitive that few students could buy them.
In sum, I think the authors of this text had the good intentions to produce a communicative text, but somewhere along the line lost track of their vision. This is evident in the course’s main strength — the chapter topics, which are genuinely communicative in nature. However, the presentation of the material and format of the course remains a throw-back to a previous era. In our first year course here at Colorado we simply do not use the text other than for general course direction. We do use the workbook and character book for homework assignments, but we design all lessons and activities ourselves. We hardly ever use the main text in class because it is void of communicative content. I would like to hear from other institutions which use Integrated Chinese. I also hope the authors will take a long, hard look at over-hauling this series, which has good potential, into a truly communicative material along the lines of those being produced now in so many other languages.
Review originally published in 1999 at University of Colorado at Boulder as Integrated Chinese: Another View for Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association.