Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Textbooks in Taiwan

Several weeks ago Jon Benda from Notes of a former native speaker stopped by to ask about my Research Methods and Writing Course.

I often ask my students (in the Applied Foreign Languages Department) whether they would like to use Chinese textbooks in their courses. Some answer yes, but by and large the answer is no, they would not.

Two reasons are generally given. First, they say that they have come to the university to learn English, and thus, they should be studying in that language. Second comes the blunt reason: Chinese-language textbooks suck.

One book doth not a paradigm make, but my Research Methods text, Research Method (with the fine disregard for the plural form that so many translations done locally have, published by Tsang Hai Book Publishing), a Chinese-language textbook, is no violation of that claim. The Chinese itself is not difficult for me, but the students say that they have trouble understanding what it is saying, probably because the book asks them to think about the world in a completely new way. Although they insist that the Chinese itself is difficult. Probably my Chinese is not good enough to spot that -- it all seems difficult to me!

More importantly, though, the textbook is very poorly put together. Explanations are all in the abstract. The writer will present a definition, but the discussion consists entirely of further refinements of that abstraction. No examples are ever given. Diagrams are generally completely abstract. There are no boxes that break out controversies in the field or that further discuss textbook content. The layout is simpleminded, in four colors, devoid of interesting or insightful graphics.

This preference for abstraction is one that I have seen in many different contexts in local communication. Yesterday I had the misfortunate to attend a talk on EQ given at our university by a local academic. The talk was on child-rearing, given by an older male in his 50s who had no children of his own. Hopeless from the beginning, it quickly descended into a morass of cultural stereotyping void of real insight. It also contained plenty of abstract advice -- "Don't be a perfectionist" -- but no concrete ways to achieve that end. I am not sure why there is such a strong preference for the abstract here.

One explanation often heard for the poor quality of local textbooks is that they are done by committee -- the "author" has his graduate students prepare work on different topics, then puts the material together to make the textbook and publishes under his own name.

BTW, if you as a university teacher are tempted to use a Chinese version of a book with an English version for yourself, my advice is not to. I have found that the Chinese versions, farmed out by the chapter to different translators, sometimes leave out material, change the order of charts and tables so that the text no longer relates, and sometimes even restructure chapters and subheadings. This makes even the simple request to "turn to page 118 and look at Table 19" an adventure in cross-cultural miscommunication. My advice is to use one language, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.


Jonathan Benda said...

When I was teaching RM a few years ago, I tried using the Chinese translation of the MLA Handbook. I didn't do that for long, though, because the students had more trouble with it than with the English version. (I think part of the problem is that with the English version, they expect to be confused, so they're prepared...) Also, the Chinese version was always a few editions behind, so when the English edition was telling you how to cite websites the Chinese one was still telling you to make sure your quill pen had enough ink when you were writing your paper (or something like that...).

I haven't used a Chinese Reseach Method(s) text, though. As your students say, if they're going to be doing their research and writing it up in English, their textbook might as well be in English, too.

In response to your abstraction comment, that's an interesting point. But I've heard some good speeches by local academics where the speakers have told a lot of stories and given lots of examples to support their points, too, so maybe you've just had bad luck...?

Clyde Warden said...

The abstraction in books starts from the format and then just moves on. Take for example the whole issue of an index. Chinese books just don't have them, not that they can't, I have found good Chinese books with indexes, but most do not have any way to quickly find what one is looking for. This fact right away makes the use of books for references very difficult. Every year I take my students to the library, pull out an English book, look into the index for any topic, and like magic find it in the text, there is often not a single student who know such a tool existed.

Many translations simply drop the index from the English version. The reason--cost. The translation machine here and the total lack of any demands on English quality mean a company is out to make as much money in as short a time as possible. The economics of making high quality Chinese textbooks just don't exist.

On the books that are written in Chinese to start with, well I can't tell you how many speeches I've heard where a professor brags about writing three or four books over the vacation. As Michael points out, these publications have little to do with the professor and more to do with requirements to pass a class. Thus, it is quite normal for large segments of "original" works to have been lifted from other sources.