What do an Apple, Flowers, and a Can of Soda Have in Common?

Li You is calling Wang Peng and all she is saying, apparently, is "flowers apple soda."

Li You is calling Wang Peng and all she is saying, apparently, is "flowers apple soda."

Here’s a riddle for you: what do flowers, an apple, a can of soda, and a chapter titled “Birthday Party” have in common?

Answer: I’m not exactly sure, but my Chinese textbook seems to have the answer.  Apparently, Wang Peng and Li You are going to Gao Xiaoyin’s birthday party and they are giving her fruit, flowers, and soda.  That’s the gist of the dialogue, anyway.

Why do language textbooks always have the weirdest dialogues?  I’ve been wondering this for years.  I mean, It’s really fun and easy for students with high maturity levels like me to make fun of the textbook characters and dialogue.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help students to learn the vocabulary, and even if they do learn the vocabulary, it doesn’t always matter–how likely are you to go to China and tell someone “Oh hey, happy birthday, here are some flowers and apples and soda”?  As Jennie en France says,

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

I understand that a lot of times, they put together the dialogues based around the vocabulary unit, but maybe it would be nice if just once there existed a popular language textbook that featured discussions that didn’t sound so set-up.  I’m going to China for a month next January–how am I to make sure that my Chinese books prepare me for actual Chinese conversation?  I can greet people, introduce myself and others, and talk about a bizarre variety of subjects (birthdays, directions, and food are the last three units we’ve done in class, for example), but I know I’ll be at a loss when someone asks me what my parents do for a living or what my friends back home are like or what my school is like.

The solution?  I’m not sure.  Ask my teachers for supplementary vocabulary lists?  Research Mandarin slang on the internet?  Look up common phrase book phrases on Wikibooks?  Sure, I could probably do some of these, but why can’t I just learn this stuff in class?  I should be learning how to hold real conversations in class.

I like the Chinese textbooks we use a lot–they provide good explanations of the grammar structures covered in lessons and have a storyline to the dialogues that’s actually pretty amusing–but I wish they taught me more conversational Mandarin and less…well, less textbook dialog.

How do you deal with this, if you’re taking a foreign language class?  Do you just ignore it and move on, or do you actively seek out knowledge about “real-life” language as opposed to just the “textbook language”?


About D. E. Cushing

I'm just trying to make my way in the world of writing.
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