According to Ethnologue, approximately 16 percent of the world’s population speaks Chinese as a first or second language. With around 1.31 billion speakers worldwide, Chinese is no doubt the most spoken language. Learning Chinese opens up your future path with a wide range of scholarships, job opportunities, and countless possibilities to explore. However, Chinese is one of the toughest languages to master. That’s why one of the best ways to teach yourself Chinese is to make use of some books to build a solid foundation.
This article will give you a list of the 8 best books to learn Chinese, trusted by millions of Chinese learners all over the world.
Why learning Chinese with books is still important
Though online learning is becoming more popular than ever, we can’t deny the significant advantages of learning with books.
- Books give comprehensive and specialized topics
It is still important to teach yourself Chinese with books because many books are much more comprehensive than online learning platforms. While most websites teach Chinese as a broad topic, books (aside from common textbooks) are often more specialized.
You can find topics at a level of depth not found elsewhere, such as Chinese grammar, cultural influences on the language, or some specific writing styles.
- Books can be more convenient on the go
In some ways, books can be more portable as they don’t require wifi or an internet connection to access. You can always carry a book in your bag and study with them on a plane or the subway, turning your wasted minutes into a productive learning time.
And if you worry that some books are too heavy to carry all the way, here is the good news: Nowadays, books are becoming more popular in electronic format, allowing you to travel with them more easily and access them on the go. You can purchase ebooks and read them on Kindle, iPad, or any other Android device.
- Workbooks present a tangible way of learning
Many books, especially workbooks, provide a more tangible way for learners to interact with (and practice) the language.
As we all know, Chinese writing requires a vast amount of writing practice. Unlike online programs, which usually use keyboard input, Chinese workbooks force learners to write out their answers and write down the radicals and characters on paper. This is a great help to develop your writing skills as you will have more sense of the order of strokes and remember the writing rules.
8 best books to teach yourself Chinese
Now that you know the importance of learning Chinese with books, it’s time to choose the best Chinese book for you. Let us walk you through the top 8 Chinese learning books for specific purposes.
1. Fundamentals of Chinese Characters (Yale University Press)
When you start studying Chinese, the first thing you should do is memorize Chinese characters. It might seem overwhelming at first since there are thousands of Chinese characters (over 50.000 in total).
Fortunately, a perfect book for learning Chinese characters is the “Fundamentals of Chinese Characters” from Yale University Press. This book is most suitable for beginners, however, some experienced learners can take advantage of it too. You can get all the necessary basics and build a solid foundation for further studies from this book. You will also learn to break down each character into more basic elements and develop a better understanding of the morphology of the Chinese language. Additionally, this book is one of the most comprehensive books to teach yourself Chinese, making it a perfect choice for any Chinese learner.
2. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (Modern Grammars)
A fundamental part of any language – and Chinese is no exception – is grammar. Normally, the grammar of a natural language is its set of structural constraints on speakers’ or writers’ composition of clauses, phrases, and words. However, Chinese grammar differs from other languages in that it mainly emphasizes sentence structure. Even if you remember hundreds of Chinese characters, you can only speak and write Chinese if you know how to put them all together in a logical order. For this, you can count on the book “Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide” from Modern Grammars.
As the name implies, this textbook focuses on practical methods of learning. This means you will be learning information first, then applying it to memorize it better. It covers all the important rules and patterns you need to know, and each chapter is broken down into multiple sections to help learners absorb information more effectively.
3. Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary
A dictionary or thesaurus is an absolute must-have when you are learning a new language. Having a reliable dictionary allows you to check a word if you are unsure of the spelling or simply want to learn words to enlarge your vocabulary.
One of the most popular Chinese dictionaries is “Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary.” This book is also considered to be one of the most comprehensive Chinese dictionaries currently available. Like all the Oxford dictionaries, the Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary has accurate translations and spellings. That’s why you can rest assured that what you learn has no mistakes.
4. Times: Newspaper Reading Course of Advanced Chinese
One of the major milestones that all Chinese learners (especially the intermediate and advanced learners) may aim for is the ability to read Chinese newspapers. The reason for this is that Chinese newspaper texts are very different from other forms of written language. Newspaper articles use complicated vocabulary, uncommon formatting, and rare grammar to help condense information. This makes it particularly difficult for learners, requiring a specialized learning book.
The Times newspaper reading course is a possible way to achieve this goal. This is a series of newspaper reading materials in Chinese, specially compiled for foreigners. It can help Chinese learners from the intermediate level improve their ability to read Chinese newspapers rapidly and periodically, thus effectively promoting their general capability in Chinese. This course contains real-world newspaper articles, well-paced lessons, and associated workbooks. Each unit provides a guiding map and keywords, and each lesson contains five newspaper articles and exercises. You can find a wide range of topics in this course, from environmental protection (including climate change, biodiversity, green life), cultural heritage (including museum culture, intangible cultural heritage, world heritage, traditional Chinese medicine), to new life (like workplace, the Internet, bodybuilding, and traveling).
5. HSK Standard Course (Series)
The HSK, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is the standardized Chinese language proficiency test for non-native speakers. This series is specifically designed for students preparing for those exams.
The HSK Standard Course series divides its lessons into levels of fluency, with HSK 1 indicating a beginner and HSK 6 indicating high fluency. Each chapter comes with a CD, including all of the dialogues and vocabulary lists. As the difficulty gradually increases, you will steadily get better at speaking the language. This is also the same system used in formal learning institutions, so you will see similarities with what you learn at school.
See also: Everything About the HSK from A to Z.
6. 500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary
The Chinese idioms, also known as chengyu, are an internalized element used in everyday conversation. However, this is also one of the trickiest parts of learning Chinese. The book “500 Common Chinese Idioms” is one of the most detailed lists of these idioms, making it a must-have for every learner. This book includes the literal definitions of the 500 most used Chinese idioms and their backstories, synonyms, and antonyms.
You may like to read: Chinese Idioms Surprising Best Method To Memorize Chinese Characters.
7. Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School
Many people don’t realize that slang is an important element of a language. Chinese, like other languages, contains a huge slang vocabulary that is often neglected in teaching due to vulgarity or grammatical incorrectness.
Niubi! isn’t just a book for beginners. It’s in fact suitable for intermediate and even advanced learners. That’s because this book brings a large variety of slang vocabulary in a light-hearted tone and is accompanied by humorous illustrations and straightforward explanations in English of each slang word. It also gives detailed information regarding how to use the words and in what situation. From there, you can develop a deeper and more well-rounded understanding of the Chinese language
8. Colloquial Chinese
Last but not least, if you want to teach yourself Chinese vocabulary, you should definitely pick up a copy of “Colloquial Chinese.” This book focuses on helping learners build a vocabulary and phrase bank of the most common and basic words. Most of the words focus on daily conversation rather than planning for a week-long trip. It also includes interesting details about modern Mandarin slang phrases.
The bottom line
Now you know how to teach yourself Chinese with the help of these eight top books. You can also combine it with online learning for the best result. For example, you can use Pandanese as a well-rounded Chinese online learning platform. With specifically categorized lessons, Spaced Repetition Systems, and an unlimited collection of Mandarin flashcards, Pandanese is a fun, easy, and effective way to help you get along with Chinese better.
Learning Chinese can be difficult at first, but if you stay dedicated and choose the right method, you will reach your goal!