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Review - Chinese For Dummies

Are You A Dummy?

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Review - Chinese For Dummies

The For Dummies series of instructional books seems to be popular, judging by the number of new titles that are cranked out every year. To bad they didn't choose a different name - nobody likes to be a dummy.

What is a dummy, anyway? I'd say it was someone who knows nothing about a particular subject. If that is so, then Chinese For Dummies is mis-titled. This is not a book for absolute beginners.

Chinese For People Who Know A Bit

A better title would be, Chinese For People Who Already Know Some. even though the introduction claims otherwise. The author writes:

"Some of the foolish assumptions I made about you while writing Chinese For Dummies are: You don't know any Chinese, except for maybe a couple of words you picked up from a good kung-fu movie or the word "tofu," which you picked up while grocery shopping...."

But truth be told, if you don't know any Mandarin Chinese, this isn't the book for you. And even if you know a bit, this is not a great book for cementing your knowledge of the language.


As you may know, Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. It uses four tones to differentiate the meaning of homonyms, and without the proper use of tones, you will not be understood.

There is a section at the beginning of Chinese For Dummies that explains the tones, and how to produce them. The vocabulary even has standard Pinyin with tones marks. The problem is, Chinese For Dummies uses a pronunciation guide for Pinyin, and this guide does not specify tones.

There are a few problems with this whole setup. Number one: Why are we interpreting the sounds of Pinyin? Granted, some of the sounds are not the same pronunciation as in English, but Pinyin is the number one Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese, and well-worth learning for anyone serious about learning the language. The "interpreted Pinyin" system used in Chinese For Dummies only confuses the issue and probably inhibits the reader from using the Pinyin spellings.

Problem number two is that the interpreted Pinyin does not specify tones, and there is no point to learning vocabulary without learning the tones at the same time. Without the proper tones, your spoken Mandarin will be incomprehensible.

Where Is The Chinese?

Another problem with Chinese For Dummies is that there are no Chinese characters in this book. For a book about Chinese, there should be some Chinese in it. Chinese is not a spoken language, it is the written language, which is used by several mutually incomprehensible Sinitic languages. Chinese For Dummies teaches Mandarin, which is important to know, since there are other Sinitic languages that a true dummy may intend to learn - Cantonese, for example, for someone headed to Hong Kong.

To be fair, there is a section in the beginning of the book which discusses the various languages of China, as well as a brief explanation of Chinese characters, but no actual Chinese characters that I could find.

Chinese Culture

There area where Chinese For Dummies is useful are the sections about Chinese culture. There are plenty of tips about how to behave appropriately with Chinese friends, and what to expect when you visit China.

The chapter titled Ten Things Never to Do in China is valuable reading for anyone planning a trip to China. It will help you understand the wide differences in etiquette between China and Western countries, and smooth relationships with your Chinese acquaintances.

If you are truly interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, there are many books better than this one. At best, Chinese For Dummies could be used supplementary material, but even at that, it is lacking so much, and there are so many other better alternatives, that I have to recommend avoiding this book.

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