- Encounters: Chinese Language and Culture by Cynthia Ning and John S. Montanaro
Encounters: Chinese Language and Culture (hereafter, Encounters) is a two-volume set of textbooks presenting a comprehensive course program that is designed for English speakers who are beginning learners of the Chinese language. Book 1 starts with an introductory unit on the basics of Mandarin Chinese, including tones, pronunciation, pinyin, numbers, and the Chinese logographic writing system. Each volume consists of ten units, covering the most popular topics for beginning learners. Comprising two student textbooks, annotated instructor’s edition, workbooks, screenplays, and computer-assisted learning materials, Encounters is designed around media that is available on the publisher’s website, including a twenty-episode story line, audio podcasts, cultural videos, animations, and rap songs. The textbooks have various and multifaceted contents; this review will primarily focus on their outstanding features and the potential pedagogical benefits that distinguish Encounters from other Chinese textbooks.
First-time adopters might find Encounters quite unusual in its presentation of teaching materials, which departs from conventional textbook patterns. Multimedia is not ancillary to the textbook; instead, it plays a significant and integrated role in the content design. In contrast to typical textbooks, lesson texts and vocabulary are not presented in the beginning of each lesson. Instead, targeted contents, information, and skill-building exercises are well organized and infused into components (each named “encounter” to indicate learning segments or tasks in each unit) to foster learners’ linguistic and cultural knowledge through interesting and engaging activities. To depict this structure more specifically, an episode is provided for each lesson. The targeted content of each episode is carefully segmented into several video clips that are implemented in class instruction or for [End Page 158] out-of-class assignments. This method contextualizes the video series as a whole and at the same time offers teachers the pedagogical tool to make use of the video segments, breaking the material into a volume manageable for teaching and learning. At the end of each unit is a complete recap section that includes a summary of grammar points, a vocabulary list, and a checklist of the unit objectives.
Nowadays, learners are likely to encounter not just monolinguals but also multilinguals, as the story lines and characters are set up in the series of Encounters episodes, which show the language use in a complex global context. It is similar to a TV drama. The language use is natural without resorting to artificial simplification among interlocutors. This might be considered conflicting with comprehensible input and, when used in teaching, might result in cognitive overload on the part of learners. However, the lesson design counters this argument with the approach where tasks are modified and/or simplified, not the language. The tasks are specially designed, verified, and/or specified, but the language and text remain as they should to complement the needs of the plot. The design of the material overcomes the difficulties of implementing authentic discourses in teaching beginning-level Chinese, through the instructional integration of audiovisual media. In other words, the language and text are not compromised to fit in the beginning-level teaching and learning; rather, the activities in each lesson focus on particular parts that are relevant and comprehensible to the learners. For example, one of the learning objectives in the first unit is to greet Chinese people appropriately. The opening scene in episode 1 (for unit 1) is in an elementary school, where two of the main characters (a Chinese and an American teacher of English as a second language) get to know each other for the first time. The American teacher also meets the principal and lots of students in the school, in which the greeting scenarios are presented in natural discourse settings. Although the conversations involve some advanced expressions, they are also equipped with essential basic elements that can be observed in daily life. The exercises of the unit lesson concentrate on the segments relevant...