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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.