This page is a work in progress. Please feel free to suggest resources that have worked for you in the comments.
I first started studying Mandarin towards the end of 2013 because I thought it was time to learn a “useful” language after having studying Croatian. I initially struggled with the language because I had really wanted to learn Japanese but decided to put it off in favor of Mandarin, but my heart wasn’t in it. As I began to progress in the language, however, and learn about China’s history and culture, a greater appreciation for Mandarin grew within me and I grew to love the language.
While I don’t recommend learning a language for “practical” reasons, especially when you really want to learn something different, I do suggest considering Mandarin Chinese as your next language. The writing system may be difficult, but it’s extremely gratifying to learn and understand a language so different from one’s own.
So, I’ve assembled this guide to share some of the books and language learning materials I have used and found to be effective when learning Mandarin Chinese.
The Chinese Language
Mandarin Chinese is spoken by close to if not more than 1 billion people around the world. It has been the lingua franca of China since the 14th century and it is also the official language of Taiwan and Singapore.
The language is known by several names, namely Pǔtōnghuà (普通话/普通話, literally “common speech”) which is used in the People’s Republic of China, Guóyǔ (國語, literally “national language”) which is used in Taiwan, and Huáyǔ (华语/華語, literally “Chinese language”) used in Singapore and Malaysia. If you are interested in learning more about the different ways to refer to the Chinese language, this article from Yoyo Chinese does a really great job of breaking it down.
An interesting fact about China is that while Mandarin is the dominant language, it is not the only language of the country and not everyone speaks it. In an estimate conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2013, they noted that only about 70% of the population of China speaks Standard Chinese, and not all are fluent (Wikipedia). While this is the case, Mandarin is still the dominant language and is most widely understood throughout the country.
So why would you want to learn Mandarin? In addition to the fact that Mandarin has the most native speakers in the world, it’s increasingly becoming a language of business. Not to mention the rich history and culture that the language stems from. You can read a more in-depth article with tons of reasons to study Mandarin over at FluentU.
Aside from that, that’s entirely up to you. I believe don’t that choosing languages for “practical” reasons is as effective for learning as choosing a language because you want to learn it. I suggest the same for you. For me, Mandarin was a language I felt I should learn and it wasn’t until I decided I loved it and wanted to learn it that the learning became easy.
Hear the Chinese Language
So, let’s look at a few resources you can use to help learn Mandarin.
How to Decide Which Mandarin Language Resources to Pick
Language learning texts and resources can get real expensive real quick. So rather than going at it randomly or by trial and error (which you’ll probably have to do some of anyway), I’d like to make a suggestion first.
The ability to use and understand a language is based upon four basic abilities: reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. Depending on what your goals are, all four may not be necessary.
Let’s say, for example, you hope to take a trip to Beijing or even Taipei in six months. What language skills will you need? Basic communication and comprehension and basic reading (street signs, etc. and you can likely even get away with learning pinyin rather than Simplified or Traditional Chinese). You probably won’t ever have to write in the language. So, in this case, you might focus on developing your speaking and listening skills. If this sounds like you, I suggest checking out the audio or audio/text resources and the online resources below.
On the other hand, maybe your goal is to read Mandarin literature. In that case, learning to speak and understand the spoken language aren’t necessary and you can dedicate your energy to text. If this describes you, I suggest checking out the text and online resources below.
Ideally, you should probably develop some skill in each area, but the areas you focus on need to align with your goals regarding the language and how you plan to use it. I highly suggest picking resources based on this alone. Don’t get distracted with the temptation of shiny, new books (like me) and only buy materials you think you’ll actually use. You’ll save yourself a headache and a lot of money. Money that you can put aside for a trip to China or Taiwan!
A Few Things To Consider Before Taking on Any Language
- What is your motivation behind learning Mandarin? Take a moment to write down your language learning goals. It increases the odds of you achieving them. You can also join us as part of our Maximize Your Month goal setting linkup!
- How many hours a day are you willing to study a language? Set realistic expectations for your progress.
- How do you plan on studying Chinese? Are the methods that work for you available?
- You should setup up the Simplified or Traditional Character language keyboard (depending on which system you choose to learn) on both your computer and your phone. It will help you with spelling and make chat easier on Skype/HelloTalk/etc.
- Be accountable. I keep my blog to help me be more accountable and use AskMeEvery to keep track of my daily study.
Do not ignore tones!
Tones. In my personal opinion, tones are the most difficult aspect of the Mandarin language. If you decide to learn Chinese, focus on tones from the very beginning! If you don’t, you’ll have a really hard coming back to them later, developing the habit, and no one will understand you. Plus, the subtle difference between tones can save you from horribly embarrassing yourself with a preventable language blunder.
Here’s a really helpful video to get you started:
Mandarin Audio Resources
- Pimsleur Mandarin // try out a free lesson
- Librivox // get audiobooks read to you in your target language for free!
- Speechling // Record audio in Chinese and have it corrected by a native speaker. Read the review. Sign up using code FFDEBF and get 10% off for life.
- TuneIn // Mandarin language radio (also try their Taiwan stations)
Mandarin Audio & Text Resources
- Glossika // Glossika is a fantastic text and audio resource that has quite a few Chinese materials available for both Taiwanese Mandarin and Mainland China Mandarin.
- ChineseClass101 // Also an online resource, but it provides you with both audio recordings, text transcriptions and more.
Mandarin Text Resources
- Why Chinese is Easy from Benny Lewis // This is a great book that takes some of the aspects of the Spanish language that may scare learners away and explains them in a clear way that eliminates any fear of the language.
- Master Mandarin // This is a fantastic book from John Fotheringham and it includes a ton of fantastic ways to study Mandarin.
- Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters // A great book with illustrations that help you memorize Chinese Characters.
- Mandarin Companion Graded Readers // This is a really great way to get started with reading in Chinese (something surprisingly difficult in my experience).
- Game of Thrones in Mandarin (Advanced) // I bought the third book in this series while in Taiwan. It’s certainly more advanced than Harry Potter, but reading the books you love in another language is good motivation.
- Harry Potter in Mandarin // Or you can try using the language filter on Amazon // Mandarin Chinese books on Amazon
- My list of Mandarin Music Vocab Words
- HSK Test Preparation
- Hanzi Wall Chart // in addition to their wall chart, Hanzi has a great resource page on their site as well including HSK vocab printouts.
- Pleco // a great app and dictionary
- Skritter // A great tool to help with your writing
- Chinese Grammar Resources // These Chinese Grammar lessons are broken into different levels. They clearly and simply explain different aspects of Chinese Grammar and are the best, most comprehensible grammar lessons I’ve found thus far.
- Lang-8 // Get your writing in your target language corrected by native speakers.
Online Resources for Mandarin
- The Add1Challenge // The last few years, I’ve done the Add1Challenge for every new language I’ve studied. I’ve also participated for several of my other languages. It’s a 90-day challenge that helps you get to a 15-minute conversation in your new language as a part of a community.
- A Simplified Guide to Chinese Measure Words
- FluentU // Read our review here.
- iTalki // A great site where you can find language tutors or language exchange partners.
- Speak in a Week // Another great resource from Benny Lewis that gets you speaking your target language quickly.
- Drops // Interactive, visual language learning with tons of fantastic, well-curated vocabulary lists.
- Clozemaster // A fun game where you use cloze, or fill-in-the-blank, to learn new vocabulary.
- Hanbridge Mandarin // An online language school with a large selection of courses that can be designed to fit your Chinese learning needs.
- YoYo Chinese // This is a great resource with a small collection of free lessons with the option of upgrading to paid accounts that give you access to hundreds of lessons.
- Character Pop // A fun website that breaks characters down so that you can get a full understanding of them. They also have HSK specific sets to study.
- Ninchanese // A game-based Chinese language learning tool that I absolutely love. You can read my review here.
- Memrise // My favorite flashcard app.
- Children’s Library
- Nciku // an online dictionary with Chinese words and conversations of the day
- Growing Up Chinese // a series of videos with helpful skits, dialogues and vocabulary
- Watch Chinese TV
- Tatoeba // sentences translated from any language in Mandarin
- MIT Open Courseware // Mandarin (most of this course uses traditional characters)
- Learn with Oliver (formerly Antosch & Lin) // A flashcard based system with audio and a variety of exercises to help you learn your target language.
Chinese Language Learning Blogs
- Hacking Chinese // take part in their challenges to improve your Chinese!
Mandarin Language Music
One of the best ways to learn a language is to listen to music in the language. It not only helps with improving one’s accent, but it also can increase overall comprehension. Plus it’s fun to translate the lyrics of your favorite songs. Here are a few artists I enjoy.
- Foreign Language Music Blog // a great blog with music in various foreign languages with lyrics and their translations
- My Mandarin Music Mixtape (psst… Khalil Fong is the ish)
Learning about the culture that is tied to the language you’re learning is so important – the more you love the culture, the more you’ll love the language and vice versa. Discovering a new culture also enriches your life, particularly if it’s one quite different than your own. I highly recommend it if you haven’t started already!
Here are a few books on the history of China and it’s culture. You can also check out television shows or movies. I don’t suggest cartoons or films for kids because a lot of the language is often invented and you won’t get as much from it as you might from a drama geared towards an older audience. But if cartoons are your thing, go for it!
- The Yoyo Chinese Blog
- Chinese Culture // CCTV has a great series of short videos on various aspects of Chinese culture
- Culture Smart! // A great series with introductions to various cultures around the world. For Chinese, you can get started with China or Singapore.
- How to Ring in the Chinese New Year // A post about Chinese New Year with a recipe for Spring Rolls and a list of vocab words.
- Celebrating Christmas in China // Vocabulary and a little bit of history on how Christmas is celebrated in China.
A Quick Note
If you’ve been learning Mandarin, I’d love to hear about your experience and some of the language learning tools you’ve found helpful. Please leave me a note in the comments! The same goes for if you have any questions. I will be more than happy to respond and I look forward to hearing from you!