by Marjolijn KAISER

Title: Legends & Tales from Ancient China 儿童故事 (2nd edition)
Author/Editor: Pamela Yeh & David G. Beard, with Wang Jihui and Zhou Daibao. Illustrations by John Huang.
ISBN: 0-473-09329-4
Year: 2011
Publisher: Printed by Sun Group Co. LTD/New Zealand Chinese Language Association
Price: $25-27.50 (New Zealand)
Type: Book + CD
Audience: Beginning to intermediate students of Chinese (Mandarin), students of English, and speakers of Cantonese

The textbook Legends & Tales from Ancient China (the Chinese subtitle literally means “Children’s Stories,” an adequate description of the content), consists of 25 short stories in simplified characters, pinyin, and English. The stories gradually increase in difficulty, and each lesson has a short vocabulary list, ranging from five to fifteen items. The words and expressions that are included in these glossaries are clearly marked and underlined in the text. The pinyin text is placed directly under the character version, and an English translation is provided on the opposite page. In addition to the textbook, Legends & Tales from Ancient China comes with a CD that includes audio versions of each story in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. As Mary Gray explains on the China Society webpage (see the link above), the idea behind this method is that people first get familiar with the sounds of a foreign language (whether that is Chinese or English). Only after having listened to the audio several times, should you pick up the book and read along with the CD. If you open the CD on your computer, you will also have access to a file that contains the 25 stories in traditional characters. There is no comprehensive vocabulary list or index in the book.

Legends & Tales is a bilingual reader, rather than a comprehensive teaching method in the traditional sense of the word. It has no grammar points, no sentence patterns, and no exercises. The thought behind this method – to first expose students to the aural aspects of a language and letting them become familiar with the sounds, even without knowing (exactly) what the words mean – is very interesting. As Mary Gray explains in the introduction, the method is based on the results of recent scholarship that argues how important “knowledge of the sounds of a language is before any attempt is made to study the language.” While the method tries not to overwhelm students, it seems to me that without any prior knowledge of Chinese, the material might be somewhat intimidating. It certainly gives students with a basic knowledge of Chinese a change to practice their language skills (both listening and reading), and it introduces interesting cultural information at the same time. The stories are compelling for children of all ages, and the combination of audio material and written text is very helpful.
Besides helping students of Chinese, the method can also be used for Chinese speakers who study English. To support learning through comparison, the translations of the Chinese and English texts are quite literal, and as a result the English sometimes comes off a little unnatural. The quality of the audio CD is generally very good (except for some of the stories in English). All three versions are read very clearly by pleasant sounding (female) voices.
The introduction presents Legends & Tales as specifically appropriate for the many heritage learners in New Zealand, but the book can definitely be used in classrooms all over the world as an addition to regular teaching methods, an introduction to Chinese culture, or a way for heritage learners to reconnect with their Chinese roots.

For an introduction about the method by Mary Gray, and to fill out an order form, click here.