Resources for Learning Chinese

Posted on February 15, 2016 (last updated Aug 2, 2016)

An exhaustive list of all the resources that I use and have created for studying Chinese.

语法 // Grammar

I have yet to find a grammar reference that answers all my questions. I alternate between using the following resources:

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide is a formal grammar reference, which gives a very thorough overview of Chinese grammar with lots of example sentences and applications. There is also a corresponding workbook with exercises (and an answer key). I love this book for its detailed and clear explanations, though when I use it to try to understand the books I am reading I don’t always find what I’m looking for and still find myself browsing the web for answers.

Be sure to get the second edition (especially on Kindle; the first edition is pretty much unusable on Kindle).
Chinese: An Essential Grammar, Second Edition often gives different kinds of examples and alternative explanations to MMCG; I find that these two nicely complement each other.
The Chinese Grammar Wiki is an excellent resource for looking up grammar questions (especially along side a formal reference grammar such as Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar). It is hosted by AllSet Learning, which is a company founded by John Pasden, who was also a co-host on many of the ChinesePod podcasts for many years. John’s own website sinosplice.com is also worth checking out and contains lots of useful information for students of Chinese.
Understanding the Chinese Language: A Comprehensive Linguistic Introduction provides an in-depth discussion of various grammar points with tons and tons of examples. I had high hopes for this book, as it seemed to offer a slightly more structured approach to grammar (in particular, sentence structure diagrams). I didn’t find it quite as good as I had hoped however, but definitely worth a read.
Practice Makes Perfect: Basic Chinese provides lots and lots of simple grammar exercises (and provides an answer key). I’d say this is suitable when you are approximately at HSK1 level, but good practice no matter what level you are of course. I enjoyed this book.

听力 // Listening

ChinesePod offers thousands of dialogues at 6 levels, from beginners to advanced. Each dialogue starts with an introduction, then the dialogue itself, and then an explanation. At the lower levels the introduction and explanations are in English, at the intermediate level they are half English/half Chinese, and at the advanced level everything is in Chinese. Highly recommended.

People who wish to study for the HSK exams may be interested in my selection of list of ChinesePod dialogues for HSK levels 1, 2 and 3 and the list of ChinesePod dialogues for HSK level 4.

FluentU takes real videos from YouTube and other sources and annotates them with subtitles, vocabulary, grammar points, etc. I have not tried this yet but it definitely looks like it’s worth checking out.

Pinyin Trainer by trainchinese - Molatra pronounces words and then makes you guess the correct pinyin; for instance, it might pronounce kāi chē and give you a choice between kāi/gāi and shē/zhē/chē; or it might pronounce fēi and give you a choice between féi/fěi/fēi/fèi. Very good for learning which tones or which initials you might have difficulties distinguishing, and for practicing things like the low third tone.

汉子 // Learning Characters

The key to learning characters successfully is to recognize their components. The Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters promises to be an absolutely great resource in this respect. When these guys talk about “components”, they don’t necessarily mean radicals; for instance, watch The Benefits of Learning Characters with Outlier. It’s not available just yet (scheduled to be released on May 2016; I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign) but I highly recommend keeping an eye on this one.
Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese is a good resource when you are just starting out to learn characters. It tries to give you visual clues that help with learning the character. It’s not anywhere near as principled as the Outlier dictionary, and it won’t get you as far, but I learned quite a few characters with this book and found it to be fun. See also my detailed review on amazon.co.uk.

写字 // (Hand)writing

Recognizing characters in 行书 (semi-cursive script) is difficult (never mind 草书 cursive script!). This is not just important for calligraphy, but also for recognizing Chinese handwriting. I therefore spent a bit of effort constructing lists that compare the regular and semi-cursive version of all the characters in the lower HSK levels: HSK level 1, HSK level 2 and HSK level 3.
Chinese Cursive Script: An Introduction to Handwriting in Chinese is another resource that is helpful with studying (semi) cursive script and Chinese handwriting. My lists above give just one way each character can be written in (semi) cursive script; this books goes into far more detail and tries to show how the various character components are often handwritten.

When you are in China there are plenty of books that help with practicing handwriting, but these are hard to get outside of China. Moreover, they are not typically organized by HSK level. Therefore I used Hanzi Grids to create some of my own.

Character practice sheets in 楷书 (regular script): HSK1, HSK2, HSK3.
Character practice sheets in 行书 (semi-cursive): HSK1, HSK2, HSK3.

If you want to practice with these in Pleco, I’ve created a Pleco flashcard file. Set this up as I describe in my blog post about Pleco, but in the “New Words” profile, set the “Card Selection/System” to “Fixed” so that it matches the order of the practice sheets (you might also want to set “Show” to “Pron+Defn+Audio”).
And finally, just an empty practice sheet with the traditional star guides to help with character balance: Empty character practice sheet.

书法 // Calligraphy/Writing

Calligraphy paper pre-printed with outline of characters (for calligraphy beginners) is hard to get outside of China. I’ve therefore created a document with the basic calligraphy strokes that you can print out to practice with. Do not however use regular printer paper; it sucks for calligraphy (the ink goes every which way). I have experimented with different kinds of paper, and found matte photo paper (that is, paper meant to print photographs on) the best. Don’t get paper that is too heavy; my own laserprinter can only barely handle 235 g/m2 paper; you’ll probably want to get lighter paper than that.
The 书法 (shū fă, calligraphy) section of 词典网 is an fantastic resource for learning about calligraphy. Put in any word, pick a calligraphy style (行书 (xíng shū) running or semi cursive script, 楷书 (kăi shū) regular script, 草书 (căo shū) cursive script, 隶书 (lì shū) clerical script or 篆书 (zhuàn shū) seal script) and it will give you samples of that character in that script.

词典 // Dictionaries

Pleco Chinese Dictionary (Chinese-English / English-Chinese) - Pleco Software is probably the best Chinese dictionary app for the iPhone. It is expensive ($90 for the full bundle) but highly recommended. Apart from high quality dictionaries, it also includes stroke order animations, and one feature that is rather nice: “live” character recognition: it recognizes anything that you point your camera at, and it offers excellent facilities for vocabulary practice too; see my blog post Studying Chinese with Pleco. You can even use it to practice recognizing semi-cursive and cursive scripts, as it comes with high quality cursive fonts. This is an absolute must have app.
Picture Dictionary of Chinese Measure Words tries by means of pictures to give an intuition for the classes of things that measure words apply to.
500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary. Discuss common idioms (chengyu), and provides example uses.
Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School teaches Chinese slang, flirting, curse words, etc. It’s written tongue firmly in cheek, but if you are easily offended, then perhaps give this book a miss. Actually, let me rephrase. If you can be offended at all (by short, uh, phrases) give this book a miss. However, the author has a great sense of humor and I often find myself chuckling to myself reading this book.

口语 // Speaking

No substitute for a teacher here!

PROnounce - Chinese pronunciation tutorial for English speakers. - OnDemandWorld is more of an audio book than an app, but is a great and detailed explanation of how to improve your Chinese pronuncation, explaining where to place your tong, how to aspirate, etc. etc. Highly recommended.

历史 // Language History

The Languages of China gives a lot of background on how Mandarin evolved and how it relates to the other languages in China. Especially the first half of this book (which is about Mandarin specifically) is quite interesting, and provides some useful insights. The second half of the book gets a bit tedious in places, getting into great detail about the many other languages spoken in China.

阅读 // Reading

300 words

Mandarin Companion Level 1
Characters only, no audio

I can recommend this series when starting to read Chinese (I’d say about HSK3 level or so).

Chinese Breeze Level 1
Characters only, includes audio

The language in this series is slightly more colloquial and the sentence structure a little more difficult than in the Mandarin Companion series.

450 words

Mandarin Companion Level 2
Characters only, no audio

500 words

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words
Characters and pinyin, includes audio

This book contains 15 short stories. This gives a slightly different reading experience; for instance, “story specific” vocabulary does not occur frequently enough to really learn it (that’s not necessary a disadvantage). Also contains a bit more “written only” Chinese (便, 如, 于, etc.).

Chinese Breeze Level 2
Characters only, includes audio

750 words

Chinese Breeze Level 3
Characters only, includes audio

1000 words

Graded Chinese Reader 3
Characters and pinyin, includes audio

I think this book should be superseded by “Graded Chinese Reader: 1000 words”, but I have not yet found that version. This version is still refers to the old HSK structure (HSK Level A). Not sure it matters much.

天天中文 Turquoise Level
Characters and pinyin, includes audio

1500 words

Graded Chinese Reader 1500 Words
Characters and pinyin, includes audio

2000 words

天天中文 Violet Level
Characters only, includes audio

博客 // Blogs

http://carlgene.com/blog/ is an absolutely excellent blog about a whole range of topics of interest to Chinese learnings, beginners and advanced alike.
http://eastasiastudent.net/ is a similar blog, with lots of interesting posts. Not quite as thorough and detailed as carlgene.com, but still quite useful (although right now I’m skipping all of the “translation” posts).