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VINE VOICEon September 2, 2010
Ms. Fallows does an admirable job breaking down and explaining what learning Chinese is all about - and does this in a very engaging fashion. Her skill as a linguist gives her the skill to provide insight covering not only the language aspect of learning Chinese, but more importantly into the cultural aspect of learning Chinese, which I think is even more valuable and much rarer. For example she discusses the ramifications of using a single spoken word "Ta", but different characters to mean he, she, it and the history of the word. Her chapter on direction, orientation and maps is especially interesting because of the difference between how the Chinese arrange maps and the Western world arranges maps.

I could continue talking about the specifics, but her book overall provides valuable insight and is a great foundation for anyone trying to learn Chinese, understand Chinese culture or is planning a visit to China. I wish Ms. Fallows book had been written five years ago when I started learning Chinese - it would have vastly shortened my learning curve. Get this book today - you'll be glad did.
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on October 8, 2010
I quite enjoyed this book. Like the author, I am a linguist who has studied Chinese, though I've only had the opportunity to make one short visit to China. This book was a chance to vicariously visit China with someone whose perspective I very much admire.

However, the type-setting in the Kindle edition was VERY disappointing. About half of the Chinese characters show up as little boxes. Another 25% are weirdly big and pixelated. It's as if they weren't aware that the book had non-Roman characters in it, or didn't proof-read. I expect better from the Kindle experience.
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on September 7, 2010
Dreaming in Chinese is a the story of how learning the Chinese language gives one a glimpse in the the Chinese way of life. It is written in a very straightforward style but is not without charm. Fallows can back the rather whimsical look at one of the world's hardest languages for western language learners with the poignant knowledge of a trained linguist. Her stories, which might seem to be light on content, are actually quick revealing and she chose each chapter's focus well as taken together, they do a decent job illustrating several key points of the Chinese mindset.

While language learners and linguists will enjoy the book, it might seem to others that the book is somewhat shallow. The author's life abroad, while a definite challenge, can come off sounding rather privileged. Learning a language is not easy and Fallows doesn't portray it as such, but she constantly references their travels and multiple homes which can make the trials of learning Mandarin seem like a luxury rather than a necessity.

As another reviewer mentioned, her presentation of Chinese varies and the lack of consistency can be disruptive to the flow of the text as well as the whole of book. If possible, the Chinese should be presented with the character, pinyin, and translation.

The book is very readable, mostly enjoyable, and well thought out.
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on January 5, 2012
The book is moderately funny and informative. It should be useful to first-time travelers to China who do not know much about the Chinese language and culture. The tone of the writing is somewhat neutral, not very passionate or too negative. Actually I think it is a good thing. Then you know the author is telling her real experiences in China, which might be pleasant or unpleasant. Eventually, China becomes more real and less abstract.

On the other hand, if you have studied Chinese formally for a few months, you probably wouldn't learn much by reading this book. Many of the "surprises" that the author encountered are quite beginner-level knowledge, such as the order from big units to smaller units, the importance of tones, the lack of inflection, family name first, and the writing system. You would not have the same "surprises" as the author did if you took a formal course in college.

All in all, it is a good book that you should pick up and read before going to China or on your way to China. If you only have a vague interest in studying Mandarin, this book should be a good starting point.

Finally, pardon my nitpicking tendencies here.

The author mentions that the street signs in Xinjiang are written in four languages: Chinese, English, Arabic and Russian. It is actually wrong. Most street signs in Xinjiang are written in both Chinese and Uyghur only, as required by the relevant laws there. The Uyghur language uses a version of the Arabic script. So just as many languages use the Latin alphabet, they are not all "written in Latin". In some tourist destinations, you can see English signs. I guess that's normal. As for Russian, it might be for tourists only.

The author also tells a story about ordering takeout from a Taco Bell in Shanghai. According to her account, the waiters couldn't understand her because her tones were not correct. I highly doubt that. The word she used was "dabao", which is a verb. So she tried to say "Do you have 'take out'?" in Chinese (note here the "take out" is actually a verb, and the sentence is wrong in English and in Chinese as well). So this might be the real reason why she was not understood immediately. If she had said "Can I have these to go" (or "Neng bu neng dabao?"), I am pretty sure she would have had much less trouble in getting herself understood. So here it is because of the inaccuracy of the use of the language rather than of the peculiar properties of the language per se. Although misunderstandings due to inaccurate use of tones do occur in Chinese, the particular example the author uses is not the best one to illustrate the point.

The author also talks about the sentence-final particles and the use of reduplicated verb forms to convey politeness and tentativeness. I can see her training in linguistics here. What she says is mostly correct. But in one place, she glosses "xiuxiu" as "take a break", and "xiuxiu kankan" as "try to fix it". Actually "xiuxiu" can only mean "try to fix" but not "take a break". You would have to say either "xiexie (with a different tone from the word for thank you)" or "xiuxi xiuxi" to mean "take a break". Also she mentions the useful phrase "Can I try it on?". She says she used "shishi ma". It is not exactly correct. A more correct form would be "Wo neng shishi ma?". But "shishi ma" by itself would probably rather mean "Would you like to try it on?" if it is to be understood grammatically.

Well, there are many similar minor errors here and there. I think it would be much better if she had asked someone who knows Chinese well to proof-read it (it doesn't have to be a native speaker. There are many competent non-native speakers of Chinese around her, I assume.) But again, these are minor errors that any beginner would make. I would still highly recommend the book to anyone who has some vague interest in visiting China or just staring to learn the language.
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on August 12, 2010
The Chinese can not be ignored due their sheer numbers, economic muscle & unfamiliar customs. Too much of the world one may say, the sheer scale of China : 1.3 billion people over almost 10 million square kilometres, whose languages, customs, beliefs and politics are so vastly different from most of western society's - makes China seem an impenetrable monolith. Using her own struggles & triumphs with the study of Mandarin as a guide, Harvard linguist Deborah Fallows manages to describe the workings of the language & the country in a way that is intelligible to the non-expert; and her anecdotes & stories illustrate how Westerners do have to think in a fundamentally different way to survive in China. Based on her experiences of three years living & traveling in China, "Dreaming In Chinese : And Discovering What Makes A Billion People Tick" is a book to appeal to anyone with an interest in China, be they first time tourists, seasoned business people or even the idly curious. This book is accessible, relevatory & entertaining, it is an able guide to discovering this extraordinary nation for oneself. A recommended reading if you like to learn Mandarin, learn Chinese culture or/and visit China.
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on March 3, 2011
I agree with the other 3 star ratings that the book is a lighthearted read, with little substance. I also found at least one mistake: the book says that Xiamen means "below the gate", but in fact, the "xia" in Xiamen is not the same as the "xia" that means "below". It's just a minor issue, but as a previous reviewer mentioned, it would have been obvious as a mistake if all Chinese words were accompanied by the character as well as the pinyin. In fact, the author admits that her husband is the one good at characters - I would have thought he would have caught that one...

If you want a really good read by an author that has truly lived the life of "lao bai xing" (the common people), check out anything by Peter Hessler, such as River Town or Oracle Bones.
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on September 13, 2010
I actually enjoyed reading this book. Its short and easy to get through. But you get what you pay for. The book feels like a non-cohesive hodgepodge of stories. I found a few of Deborah Fallows statements repeat, almost word for word, throughout her book. The book feels more like you're having a conversation with the author at a dinner party about her recent trip to China, rather than reading a well though-out planned book. This book is merely her musings on the topic, with no study to back anything up, or even interviews with experts in the field. I suspect that the rave reviews written on the back cover were from her, or her husband's friends, as they are both in the academic world and have access to these people. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and its lighthearted read. Just don't expect anything really substantive and be prepared for repetition, even though the book is so short. Also, there is no organized flow to the book. Just a random collection of short musings on topics, often time making little connection to the language. This entire book should have been condensed into a few pages as an introduction to a Lonely Planet book on China, rather than its own book on language.
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on September 10, 2010
This book is an anecdotal, autobiographical look at modern China and Chinese culture based on the author's experiences while living in Shanghai and Beijing. The author draws upon her experiences with learning and using the Chinese Mandarin language to explore a variety of ideas and themes about Chinese culture, Chinese society, and Chinese perspectives about life.

This book does not present any systematic survey or study of Chinese culture or Chinese Mandarin. However, the author does make some perceptive and insightful observations about Chinese culture and Chinese Mandarin. This book is more suitable for casual reading than for scholarly study.

Anyone interested in a systematic, scholarly look at how Chinese culture influences and affects Chinese forms of speech and communications should consider reading Ge Gao & Stella Ting-Toomey, Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (Communicating Effectively in Multicultural Contexts) (SAGE Publications, 1998).
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on September 4, 2010
This little book packs a wallop in terms of zeroing in on the intersection of language and culture. I just called my daughter-in-law, recently returned from two years in Shanghai, to promise her own hot-off-the-press copy within the week. How I wish we'd read it before we went to visit them in Shanghai, but Fallows herself arrived just about the same time. Her descriptions clearly capture and explain some of the daily experiences that befuddle expats, and she does so as a warm and willing learner with an academic's sensibilities. This is a wonderful book for travelers, expats, exchange students, and the college language student who's realized that Chinese will be well worth the effort.

In the last few years at our house, we've laid down a path through personal narratives of China that vividly capture westerners' China experiences, among them Susan Jane Gilman's at-once riveting and infuriating odyssey of clueless college grads in the 1980s (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Peter Hessler's 1990s Peace Corps journal River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), Nicole Mones sumptious feast The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel, and Hessler's newest Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. In Dreaming in Chinese, Fallows' delivers a lovely framework for them all.

What a treat!
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on April 15, 2011
I picked up this book because it was thin and it looked interesting. Being born a Chinese but never lived in China, I learned Chinese at a young age and had never thought about difficulty in learning it.

So reading Ms Fallows's book gave me a more understanding and appreciation for my language. She's written with such ease and flow that it seems like you were having a conversation with a friend who just came home from overseas and was telling you all the fun things she discovered.

I don't think she ever intended the book to be a guide for anything. I didn't expect it to be academic. She just tried to recall her experience and relate them to the language she learned. Some of her stories made me smile in recognition and for her insight.

After finished the book, I wish it were longer.
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