Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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