Ariel Marie's Reviews > Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, And Language

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows
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May 06, 2012

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bookshelves: books-about-asia
Read from May 06 to 16, 2012

Deborah Fallows graduates from Harvard with a PhD in linguistics, which gives her the credentials to write a novel on language. What her PhD does not mean is her talent or skill in writing a good novel. Dreaming in Chinese follows Fallows sporadic mishaps while living in both Shanghai and Beijing. Since Chinese is not her native language, she uses her misadventures to enlighten readers on what may seem quirky for Western speakers.

The first half of Fallows novel is wonderful. Her mishaps provide an enlightening look into the grammar/language of Mandarin, but also a cultural understanding to see where everything is coming from. While her narrative remains in first person throughout, she provides interviews from travelers learning to speak Chinese and locals. With her knowledge of language and their input. It certainly was a useful read as Fallows went in depth about little language quirks. For example, one of the more fascinating chapters focused on the lack of pronouns. At least, to an English speaker, it is hard to wrap our minds around the "lack" of pronouns used in Chinese. In addition, there are no tenses. All of which are useful to know and understand especially when studying the language or preparing to study for the language.

Fallows main flaw in her work is the inability to focus on one topic. She is writing a book about language and culture. Therefore, she should focus on language and culture. While she provides her credentials and personal journey there are chapters that are drawn out as she rambles about her experiences such as sneaking chocolate into the Olympic games. This is one example of where she fell out of focus for the overall meaning of her novel. It is different compared to other journeys such as her going to Taco Bell and not being able to order due to tone differences in words. The last half of the novel focuses too much on how uncomfortable she felt in her visit in China.

Her lack of focus build Dreaming in Chinese into more of a cautionary tale. She pulled away from the grammar lessons into her discomfort, which stole away from her knowledge. It leaves the reader wondering what she learned and how honest of a person she was. The start was filled with humor and fun as she dissected the language only to end with a contrasting voice and how uneasy she felt. Living in another country is challenging and of course uncomfortable, but her words took away from the confidence of her earlier lessons.

Still, I would recommend this novel to anybody interested in the connections between language and culture. The first half is worth a read. I found moments where I could not put the novel down because I was excited for the next chapter's lesson.

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Reading Progress

05/07/2012 page 47
23.0% "A fairly interesting book so far about language and Chinese culture. Although, I'm more afraid of learning Mandarin now."
05/08/2012 page 77
37.0% "Almost (but not really) finished. From page one, I've felt more enlightened about Mandarin. At the same time, I feel a little confused due to how distracted Fallows writing style is on occasion.

Looking forward to eventually learning how to speak Mandarin sometime soon."
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