Two essential books for Mandarin


In a very brief interval between eating holiday cake and having holiday cookies, I managed to tidy up my bookshelves so they can face the New Year. Some books have been banished to the garage. Others, having been in holding patterns in various and sundry places, are finally getting shelf space. As the years go by and this cycle repeats itself, a diminishing number of books remain on the shelves without getting moved or removed.

As for the coming New Year, I know several people who are facing it with a resolve to study Mandarin. Hey, I seem to say that every year this decade. And why not? I’m not aiming for novelty on this point. I’m just aiming for practicality. And, in the CNMI and elsewhere, you’ll agree that Mandarin is one very practical language.

But that doesn’t mean that all the books about Mandarin are particularly practical. For those who are going to be buying some books, maybe for themselves, or maybe as Santa, I figured I’d mention two reference books that I’ve found essential. This pair of veterans has survived every purge of my bookshelf.

One such veteran is the Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 498 pages, $15.95). This is more than just a dictionary; it also incorporates some “explainers” that cover key elements of the language. It’s also worth noting that the font size and layout are easy on the eyes, and that’s no small matter when you’re dealing with Chinese dictionaries.

I don’t know, nor do I care, how many words are in the dictionary. It’s not intended to have a vast inventory of words; there are plenty of other dictionaries that can do that. After all, sometimes a vast inventory is what we need. But I’ve found out the hard way that Chinese seems to have 30 ways of saying the same thing, or almost the same thing. As a result, when I want to say something, picking from a vast array of choices means I wind up using words that are probably the Chinese equivalents of “betroth” and “wherefore,” or, well, something like that. This isn’t street-level fare, and it’s not fare I have any business serving with my Tarzan level of speaking.

None of these awkward terms came from the Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary. So when I’m fishing for a word to use, I have redoubled my resolve to use this dictionary as my first resource. If I can’t find what I need, I’ll list a few possible candidates from other sources, but I’ll ask a native speaker for help before putting any such words on active duty. My days of mining random dictionaries for vocabulary are over; I thought I was being a scholar but I was just being a doofus.

I’m not suggesting that books that build vocabulary aren’t useful. To the contrary, many of them are quite useful. Still, the Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary has proven to be a reliable companion.

I’ll now mention another veteran that has served me well. This is a skinny little book titled Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (Stone Bridge Press, 127 pages, $12.95), written by Qin Xue Herzberg and Larry Herzberg.

This is a simple, plain-language guide to basic grammar. It doesn’t have any academic mumbo-jumbo. It doesn’t have anything that’s not important, either. Everything in the book is practical. It’s an ingenious exercise in distilling a big, foggy subject (Chinese grammar!) into the fewest possible essential tidbits. If you like grammar, you’ll like this book; if you hate grammar, you’ll love this book.

Of course, just like the Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar is not an exhaustive reference. It’s for students to get some momentum going. After that point, there are plenty of heavy, ponderous, and complex references awaiting the ambitious. But Mandarin is a difficult language, so just getting to “that point” takes a measure of ambition to begin with.

Some of my pals are watching more and more Chinese customers coming their way, and they’re also seeing more and more opportunities lost as they grapple with language barriers. On this note, I think that the notion of achieving “fluency” is a false standard to argue about. One thing I noticed in the tourism industry is that having even a meager 300-word ability in a customer’s language can make the critical difference in cementing good relations. I’ve seen this make the difference between getting a job or not getting a job. I’ve seen this make the difference between getting investors and not getting investors. If you’re at the leading edge of an evolving market, little things can make a big difference.

Well, such is yet another take on Mandarin resources. Now if you’ll excuse me, having just finished my holiday cookies, it’s time for me to follow up with some dessert.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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