Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

As part of her research for a book about Esther Nelson, my friend Noel stumbled upon a digitized version of a Chinese language textbook used by foreign missionaries working in Sichuan Province in the 1920’s. It’s titled Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China, by Omar L. Kilborn.


Besides the fact that the romanization is obviously not Pinyin, and that some of the pronunciations seem to be based on Sichuan dialect, a glance at the table of contents reveals just how much things have changed:

Lesson 1: Conversation with a Teacher

Lesson 2: Hiring a Cook

Lesson 3: Hiring a Coolie

Lesson 4: Hiring a Woman Servant

Lesson 5: Giving the Cook his Orders

Lesson 6: Sweeping the Floor

Lesson 7: Washing the Floor

Lesson 8: Dusting

Lesson 9: Arranging the Furniture

Lesson 10: Piling Boxes

Lesson 11: Buying a Sedan Chair

Lesson 12: Sedan Chair Riding

Lesson 13: Travelling by Sedan Chair

Lesson 14: On the Road

Lesson 15: Changing Dollars

Lesson 16: Changing Silver

Lesson 17: Cleaning the Lamp

Lesson 18: Washing Dishes

Lesson 19: The Kitchen

Lesson 20: Setting the Table

Lesson 21: Putting the Food on the Table

Lesson 22: Cooking Eggs

Lesson 23: Cooking the Porridge

Lesson 24: Carrying a Letter

Lesson 25: Carrying a Lantern

Lesson 26: Buying Firewood

Lesson 27: Buying Coal

Lesson 28: Washing Clothes

Lesson 29: Ironing

Lesson 30: The Bedroom

Lesson 31: The Bathrooom

And last, but not least….

Lesson 32: Keeping a Cow



Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners






Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

No matter where you are in your Chinese language learning, sometimes it’s good to read books and articles ABOUT the language.

These are some of my favorite resources about the Chinese language.


Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis

This is a good introductory book about the Chinese language with lots of interesting information about the history of the language, particularly the writing system.

Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Charles Li and Sandra Thomson

Twenty years ago, when I found myself teaching Chinese after having studied it for a short time, this book became a lifesaver. It’s super technical, but a great reference for understanding Chinese sentence structure.

It has an entire chapter on 了(le) – a full 60 pages. My first reaction to that chapter was despair. Then I realized the fact that it seemed impossible for me to ‘get’ 了 was actually liberating. No point in trying too hard. Instead I focused on trying to listen to when and how it was used, and try to do the same in my speech. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, by Deborah Fallows

In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Deborah Fallows and her husband (who writes for The Atlantic)  spent two years living in Beijing. He filed stories for The Atlantic, and she studied Chinese. This book is a collection of her stories of being a language learner. If you’re studying Chinese now, or thinking of studying in the future, I highly recommend this book.

How to be a More Successful Language Learner, by Joan Rubin and Irene Thompson

This small, but criminally expensive book has lots of great practical tips and strategies for language learning.

I also recommend this rather long article:

Why is Chinese so Damn Hard?, by David Moser

Of course Moser’s point of view is why it is so hard for a native English speaker to learn.  If you’re banging your head on the desk in frustration as you learn Chinese, this will help you understand why.

Online Resources:

MDGB Online Chinese-English dictionary

Language Learning Bookshelf (SIL)

What are your favorite books, articles, or online resources for learning Chinese?

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