Dreaming in Chinese : Mandarin lessons in life, love, and language

by Deborah Fallows

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Walker & Co., 2010.


Deborah Fallows has spent much of her life learning languages and traveling around the world. But nothing prepared her for the surprises of learning Mandarin, China's most common language, or the intensity of living in Shanghai and Beijing. Over time, she realized that her struggles and triumphs in studying the language of her adopted home provided small clues to deciphering the behavior and habits of its people,and its culture's conundrums. As her skill with Mandarin increased, bits of the language--a word, a phrase, an oddity of grammar--became windows into understanding romance, humor, protocol, relationships, and the overflowing humanity of modern China. Fallows learned, for example, that the abrupt, blunt way of speaking that Chinese people sometimes use isn't rudeness, but is, in fact, a way to acknowledge and honor the closeness between two friends. She learned that English speakers' trouble with hearing or saying tones--the variations in inflection that can change a word's meaning--is matched by Chinese speakers' inability not to hear tones, or to even take a guess at understanding what might have been meant when foreigners misuse them. In sharing what she discovered about Mandarin, and how those discoveries helped her understand a culture that had at first seemed impenetrable, Deborah Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese opens up China to Westerners more completely, perhaps, than it has ever been before.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member agnesmack
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language was sent to me by the publisher through the GoodReads First Reads program. I looked into the book a bit before I got started, and learned that it was written by Deborah Fallows, who is a Harvard graduate with a PhD in linguistics - though you'd never know it from reading this.

The book was written in a quasi-diary format, and each chapter focused on a different language concept. Tone, diction, dialects, etc. I am a person who's generally very interested in languages and I certainly learned a few things from this book. The author discusses her experiences in moving to Shanghai and learning the language, and many of the things that came up were quite unusual and made me think.

However, this book lacked the depth that I hoped a linguist could bring to it. Each tidbit was just that; a brief glossing over of a much larger issue. Learning a language is such a rich experience, and it's about more than just communicating with people - it's about understanding their culture as well. Mrs. Fallows does touch on this, but I really fell that with her background she could have provided more insight. As it's written, this book could have been written by anyone who's moved to a foreign country.

I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who wants a deep understanding of the way that language affects culture, or the way it's formed by culture. I also wouldn't recommend it for someone who just wants a light, breezy read - though it is that, it's also a bit dry at points. Overall, I'll give it 3/5 stars but I do believe it has a very specific, small audience.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
As an introduction to the Chinese language, I found it rather weak. It is much more a travelogue plus the author's musings on the language than to be of any use to anyone who might want to know more about the language. The only chapter that interested me was chapter 10, about dialects, although all factual information can be found in much more detail on the Internet.

As a factual introduction, I would still suggest, for example, About Chinese by Richard Newnham, or a book I have recently read, which tells you all about the experience of learning Mandarin, Keeping my Mandarin alive. Lee Kuan Yew's language learning experience by Chua Chee Lay.
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LibraryThing member languagehat
This is a pleasant enough little book, but I'm not sure who it's aimed at. There's hardly any information about the Chinese language -- a phrase or two is mentioned in each chapter -- so it won't help those who want to learn Mandarin, and the descriptions of Chinese people and customs are at the superficial level of the travel supplement of the daily paper. There's not much actual misinformation (although the sentence "Most Chinese can understand [the national language] and speak it, although they ... may conduct many of their everyday affairs in their local dialect" gives me hives, both because of the "may" -- of course people conduct their everyday affairs in their own local language! -- and because of the word "dialect"), but there are mindless decisions like using "first name" for what in Chinese is the last name ("the family name comes first, then middle, then first name"!) -- why not "given name"? But I imagine it will appeal to people who just want some enjoyable travel writing and don't expect too much from it.… (more)
LibraryThing member katkat50
"Dreaming in Chinese" is Deborah Fallows' memoir of living and traveling in China for three years and her struggle to learn to speak and understand Mandarin Chinese. Fallows is no stranger to language-learning, being a professional linguist with a doctorate degree in the field, but Chinese is one of the world's most difficult languages for Westerners to learn.

There are all kinds of oddities about Chinese (oddities to non-native speakers, of course) that make it uniquely difficult to learn for those not raised with it from birth or from a very early age -- starting with the fact that the Chinese language is actually many different languages and dialects. Mandarin is China's official language, but there are also Cantonese, Shanghainese, Wu, and scores of others. Most are as different from each other as German is from English. Chinese also has a very small stock of syllables -- about 400, as opposed to 4,000 in English -- from which all Chinese words are built. The result, as you might guess, is literally countless homonyms -- words built from syllables that sound alike but have different meanings. Since the number of syllables Chinese has to work with is so small, each syllable can have dozens of different meanings. Chinese also uses tones to convey meaning, so that the same syllable spoken with a falling tone, or a rising tone, or a falling-then-rising tone, can mean very different things. The result, not surprisingly, is endless opportunities for confusion and misunderstanding, even after years of studying the language.

Fallows knew from the get-go that mastering the tones, grammar, and syllabic structure of Mandarin would not be easy. What she did not realize when she started out, and only began to understand over many months and years of living in Shanghai and Beijing, was the intensity of the connection between the Chinese language and the Chinese people. What she discovered was that the quirks and peculiarities of Chinese grammar, word usage, and tonal pronunciation were windows into the Chinese soul.

Fallows' informal, conversational writing style and her sense of humor make this book an enormous pleasure to read. As her understanding of Mandarin grows and deepens, so does her appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and just for the sheer wondrous complexity of what it means to be Chinese.
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LibraryThing member pw0327
This is an interesting book from my perspective because I am a native speaker of mandarin Chinese, so the approach that Deborah Fallows takes: approaching the Chinese culture through the initial attempts to learn the Chinese language was a very good one. After a while though the inadequacies of the English language to deal with the nuance heavy Chinese became very pronounced. The sounding guides that Fallows put in the book was of no help, I resorted to reading the Chinese characters to understand her intention.

The other part of the book, understanding the Chinese people and the culture was actually quite charming. Fallows and her husband refrained from the usual condescending approach of many westerners, they actually sought to learn from the people without too many preconceived notion. The stories she told were informative and in many ways quite representative of daily life in China. The book is pretty much devoid of controversy, just some nice story telling.
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LibraryThing member erin1
Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows follows the author as she tries to learn and understand a language, culture and people. Her experiences are both frustrating, confusing and fascinating. The book is less about her personal experiences and more about the history of the language and how it defines the Chinese people. Sometimes the grammar lessons could be a little dry and confusing but ultimately, it is a fascinating look at this ancient language. It was a little hard to follow her train of thought sometimes as she jumped from subject to subject as she eventually came back around to her original point. I occasionally had to go back and read the lead-in paragraphs to remind myself where the chapter was heading. It is hard to relate to the author since the book was so literal and I susequently never really connected with her or her experience. According to her author's bio, she has worked in research and has a PhD in linguistics and this clinical approach to writing shows. Her process of breaking down an incredibly complex language was interesting and easy to understand. Interspersed within the grammar lessons are stories about the culture and history of the Chinese people.… (more)
LibraryThing member bakersfieldbarbara
Learning a language is difficult, and Chinese is one of the most difficult. When Deborah and her husband moved to China, she attempted to learn the language and to fit in with her environment. She makes the journey funny, sympathetic and demystifying and exposes the hidden joys of the Chinese people. This is not a novel to read just to be reading a book but for someone who likes and even loves languages the book will take you on an adventure you would not have gone on without Deborah's excellent guidance. I did not come away knowing the language, but did come away with a better understanding of the language and the people. I highly recommend this book .… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
I enjoyed this book immensely. Having been an expat in Shanghai, I readily identified with many of the author's insights into the Chinese language (or, to be exact, the Mandarin version of it), such as the lack of verb tense, the use of double verbs, compound words, and so on. Not being as gifted at picking up languages as Fallows is, however, I also had a few "Aha!" moments while reading this book, such as realizing that while an English speaker might hear little difference between the same sound spoken in the four different tones of Mandarin, to a Chinese listener, your use of the wrong tone is just as confusing as if you used a totally unrelated word in an English conversation. Thus explaining why I can say something in Chinese that makes sense to me, but draws blank stares from a native speaker. Fallows' other observations on Chinese culture, Chinese character, and life in the big cities (such as the ever-dangerous motorbikes) are also right on target, as is her insight into the differences between various Chinese "dialects"--which are in fact different languages. The only jarring note for me was when she said that Beijing had nary a building with a 4th, 14th, or 24th floor (4 being the most unlucky number in Chinese because it has the same sound as the Chinese word for "die".) In Shanghai, at least, I remember a lot of floors ending in 4. But this is a very small quibble. This is a very engaging, well-written book. The chapter on the earthquake in Sichuan and the efforts of the rescuers will move you at least near to tears (there was someone else in the room with me at the time and I had to hold them back....)

It would have been a great thing to have read a book like this one years ago when I was first moving to China, and I highly recommend it to anyone planning to spend more than a few days there.
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LibraryThing member Ellesee
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Deborah is married to James Fallows, whom I've heard a number of times on NPR. Regardless of the connection, Dreaming in Chinese deserves acclaim in its own right.

Each chapter highlights a feature, idiom, idiosyncrasy or eccentricity within the Chinese language and how that surfaces within the greater culture. Like Japanese, Chinese is a very visual language, and one that overwhelms as much as it reveals. Having spent four years in Japan learning Japanese, I can relate to Ms. Fallows' frustrations, successes and failures.

I noticed interesting similarities between her language and cultural experiences and my own--although the spoken languages differ significantly (linguistically unalike), each uses the Chinese characters (kanji) as their predominate form of writing. Unlike Fallows, however, I found learning all aspects of Japanese a pleasant and relatively satisfying challenge--perhaps because of the lack of tonal differentials in Japanese that she clearly, and somewhat painfully, highlights in several parts of the book.

Fallows writes both an informative and entertaining narrative that reads quickly without lacking depth or intrigue. It is a book I plan to share with my writing group as an inspiration for writing about our own experiences about Asia.
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LibraryThing member Harvee
I didn't expect to be chuckling and laughing out loud reading this book on language and linguistics. Deborah Fallows writes about the three years she spent in China, diligently learning more about Mandarin and other Chinese languages and about the culture - linguistic and otherwise. Misunderstandings because of pronunciation problems put her in amusing situations, such as when she asked for takeout in Chinese at a restaurant but mistakenly told the waiter she wanted a big hug. A brief overview of the history of Chinese language, oral and written, past and present, given in an easy and down to earth way for the general reader.… (more)
LibraryThing member JaneSteen
Dreaming in Chinese is a book about learning about Chinese language and culture, written by a British author-linguist who had the good fortune to live in China for a few years. If you're already studying Chinese or thinking of studying it, it's a great read.

And yet you really don't have to be a language buff to enjoy reading this little (188-page) book. If you like to take mental vacations to exotic places; if you want or need to learn more about Chinese culture, perhaps to make it easier to work with Chinese colleagues; or if you simply like well written nonfiction, Dreaming in Chinese will entertain and educate you. It focuses on Mandarin, the main language of China (what we usually mean when we say "Chinese") but touches on the bewildering variety of languages, cultures and dialects in the country.

The language, culture and personal experience topics are arranged into short chapters that each loosely deal with one aspect of Chinese life and language, and are associated with a Chinese word or phrase. The writing is excellent; the style is relaxed and chatty, accompanied by illustrations, Chinese characters and photographs. Pinyin (the romanized version of Chinese, which is much more accessible to English speakers than the characters) is used throughout, and there is a pronunciation guide at the end so if you've never encountered Mandarin before, you won't be overwhelmed.

The whole book was an easy, entertaining read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My one warning is that if you're not already studying Chinese, you will probably want to by the time you reach the end of Dreaming in Chinese.
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LibraryThing member atiara
This book was a lot of fun. I didn't know much about Chinese going into the book. I like that the book teaches about China's culture through its language. I found it good light entertainment, the kind of book to leave in the bathroom. What I got out of this book was that I will never try to learn Chinese if I don't have to!… (more)
LibraryThing member acornell
Chinese may be the most difficult language for a Westerner to learn, Deborah Fallows writes in a clever book of essays about how Chinese culture is reflected through its language. Fallows loves languages and linguistics, and when she and her husband are sent to live in China for three years, she uses her time there to study Mandarin.

The way she deals with this subject is not only fascinating, but it really does allow us great insights into China and her people. She writes about what seems to westerners to be Chinese rudeness but is really thier way of being polite. She spends generous time with the subject of the difficultly of understanding the tones of Chinese language, and how her inability to articulate tones would often lead her into humorous situations. She discusses gendered pronouns and how Chinese have difficulty with that concept. She writes of the multitude of Chinese languages and how they are all tied together by the characters: people who cannot understand each other's language across China can read the same characters. She has another essay on the development and complexity of Chinese characters.

I marvel at the brilliant discoveries one can make about a culture when examining the intricacies of language. I feel like this primer would have served me well just before I went to China this past spring. My husband, who is a language maven, is next in line to read this. Anyone who is interested in language and how it is revelatory would love this collection.
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LibraryThing member loafhunter13
Dreaming in Chinese is a the story of how learning the Chinese language gives one a glimpse in the the Chinese way of life. It is written in a very straightforward style but is not without charm. Fallows can back the rather whimsical look at one of the world's hardest languages for western language learners with the poignant knowledge of a trained linguist. Her stories, which might seem to be light on content, are actually quick revealing and she chose each chapter's focus well as taken together, they do a decent job illustrating several key points of the Chinese mindset.

While language learners and linguists will enjoy the book, it might seem to others that the book is somewhat shallow. The author's life abroad, while a definite challenge, can come off sounding rather privileged. Learning a language is not easy and Fallows doesn't portray it as such, but she constantly references their travels and multiple homes which can make the trials of learning Mandarin seem like a luxury rather than a necessity.

As another reviewer mentioned, her presentation of Chinese varies and the lack of consistency can be disruptive to the flow of the text as well as the whole of book. If possible, the Chinese should be presented with the character, pinyin, and translation.

The book is very readable, mostly enjoyable, and well thought out.
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LibraryThing member nobooksnolife
By coincidence, I received this book while I was tutoring a couple in basic/survival Chinese before they relocated to Beijing for a new job. Right away, I recommended it to them and they purchased it (immediately after its release to the public) to read on iPad. Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows (spouse of James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly) is a light, readable semi-diary of her encounters with the difficulties and pleasures of learning Chinese and living in Shanghai and Beijing. Her explanations are clear and concise, making such a vast subject as the Chinese language accessible and fathomable to beginning students. For deeper insight, John deFrancis's The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy is a must for serious students.… (more)
LibraryThing member julko
This book was less a memoir than a series of inter-related essays. Regardless, I enjoyed it and found it a really interesting read. I would have preferred if the book had a little more about the author's time in China (in the tradition of familiar essays - more of the "familiar" in addition to the scholarly). But I thought it was an interesting way of learning about the Chinese culture.… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
Fallows accompanied her journalist husband to China. She tried to learn Chinese during her time there, but found this task to be much more daunting than she’d expected. She also learned many strange things about the Chinese language which she shares with us in this little book.
LibraryThing member Carolee888
I enjoyed thoroughly "Dreaming in Chinese" by Deborah Fallows. I was excited about reading it because she is linguist. She had already mastered several languages and is working on Chinese. Personally, I have taken and year and half of Chinese in community college, another year in a class for Chinese American children and also tried learning the stroke sequence of many characters on my own.

My purpose in reading this book was to see how a professional linguist experiences with learning Mandarin compared with my own and to pick up more understanding of the Mandarin language and characters. Both desires were well satisfied.

Her struggles with the language were very encouraging to me! I had thought that I was just very slow in learning a language before. She reassured me that it is one of the most difficult languages an English speaking person could learn. She said that she and her husband made the perfect team. Her husband was the star with learning characters and she shone in speaking the language. My own struggle was making sure that I even use the tones. I could say the words but I wasn’t sure that my tones were correct. There characters are fascinating to me as most of them stand for a picture originally and some have a story to tell. Deborah Fallows did enrich her book with quite few stories about the characters.

Her writing is clear and crisp and I loved her observations. One of them, I had mentioned to my husband who is a native Mandarin speaker and he said that it took him twenty years to figure it out. I will leave it to you to learn about by reading her book.

She explained several things that I had wondered about while living with my husband. Why does he add sounds to some words when he speaks in English? I had asked him of course but he didn’t know.

The most basic thing that I learned from this book is that there are cultural reasons for different behaviors and learning the language of the country can make you aware of the differences. It can help you understand a culture. That alone makes it worthwhile to learn a different language than your own.

The author, Deborah Fallows did an exceptional job of trying to understand the language and that is what I most enjoyed about the book. Now I know why tones are absolutely necessary to Mandarin.

When I was in a community college, I was surrounded by a sea of Cantonese speaking students. It was very difficult for me to keep up with them since they already knew all the characters in the second year book. But at the end of the first semester of the class, they all dropped Mandarin and decided to take Japanese. Why? Now, I know. A reasonable answer to this question is in her book.

I recommend this book to people who want to learn Mandarin, those want add to their knowledge of Chinese culture but most of all to those who like me who are in the process of learning Mandarin.

I received a copy of this book from GoodReads but that did not influence my opinions in my review at all.
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LibraryThing member alchymyst
If you love learning languages and think that the best way to learn about people and culture is through language, you will love this little book. It's basically a language learner's diary. The chapters cover topics like dialects, tones, different Chinese words and expressions. Despite the fact that the author is a linguist, this is not a book that focuses specifically on linguistics. It simply attempts to show how culture is reflected in language and vice versa.

I think if you are learning Chinese and finding it quite difficult, this book will be quite encouraging. The author herself says that it is quite challenging for her, particularly the visual part of it, i.e. writing and reading. Despite this, she obviously enjoys learning the language.

It's a very quick read, and I found it quite entertaining. I thought the chapter endings were rather abrupt and at times sort of awkward, like the type of endings you find in school essays, but overall a very enjoyable read, particularly if you are interested in language learning or thinking about learning Mandarin.
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LibraryThing member HapaxLegomenon
I really loved a lot of the examples and snippets I learned from this book! The 92-shi story that other reviewers have mentioned, the wordplay examples, the doubled verbs, the orphans' names, &c. The book delivered on its promise with those, and overall I found it to be a light, enjoyable read.

Still, I rolled my eyes to learn that the author has trouble with the way Mandarin associates the word for up with prior in time, and the word for down with later in time. She wrote about having trouble remembering "this (to us) arbitrary system. Out teacher seemed surprised that we had so much trouble, baffled that we didn't find it normal that place and time were melded into a single word, which was the way her world worked."

As a native American English speaker, I'm baffled as well! Has the author never pushed back a meeting or moved up an appointment, told a friend that her destination is 5 minutes away, or had a deadline coming up?

That one quibble aside, this really was a charming collection of anecdotes and linguistic quirks, and I'd cheerfully recommend it as such.
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LibraryThing member Shadowrose96
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language is a nonfiction work that gives a brief yet comprehensive look at Deborah Fallows life while in China and the way that the language of tongue, body and soul influenced her and others.

The way the the book flows reminds me somewhat of a book that one might read in a college course on Chinese(Mandarin) or the Chinese Lifestyle. It's very informational but at the same time it's simple, smooth flowing, and easy to understand. Fallows incorporated in pictures, charts, maps, footnotes,a nifty little Mandarin pronunciation guide and helpful internet links which help the reader to understand the way things work and how they might connect to lifestyles. I enjoyed reading about someone else's look into a language that isn't originally their own as well as the helpful and enjoyable stories she included as well. I really liked the characters at the beginning of each chapter that kind of summed it all up, to me that kind of made it easier to jump into the next chapter. To me this was a fun and short read.

There were some small editing mistakes but nothing that distracted from the story. I won this through the First Reads program on GoodReads.
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LibraryThing member varielle
Lovers of language and cultural immersion will find this an enjoyable read. Those linguists with a real facility for acquiring new languages are to be envied above all others. The cultural mis-steps and misunderstandings on the way as Fallows meanders her way into Chinese life are a real pleasure. When you begin not just to speak a language not your own, but to think and dream in it, then you have arrived. When the day came that she bawled out a cabbie in Chinese for cheating her, then she knew she had made it and you will too.… (more)
LibraryThing member jacoombs
An inside look at China and an illustration of the ways language influences the way we think influences the way we communicate.
LibraryThing member snash
The author uses the learning of the Chinese language and its nuances as her primary entry into understanding Chinese society. I found it quite enlightening and that it added to my picture gleaned from other sources. It also helped me understand in a general sort of way how the Mandarin spoken and written language works. It's well written and is easily read.… (more)
LibraryThing member abclaret
Part linguistic anecdote, part travel writing, Deborah Fallows documents a few insights into the Chinese, their culture and their fascinating language. I am now better for knowing why he/she causes immense problems for the Chinese, who the Laobaixing are, some tried and tested learning techniques for the asailing Chinese learner, the evolution of Hanzi (Chinese characters) and some of the well-worn characteristics of the people. For a brief read it was well worth delving into but was underwhelmed by some of the sociological insights. There are masses of literature about the changing makeup of China, and it would have done well to draw from that.… (more)



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