3 Books to Kick-start Your Mandarin Learning

“New year, new me!”

We’re already about a week into the new year, have you started fulfilling your resolutions? Don’t worry yet, there are still 51 weeks left. Why, with all that time, I dare say you can learn a new language. 我建议你马上开始学普通话吧(I suggest you start studying Mandarin, straight away)! I promise it isn’t too hard.

Chinese is one of the world’s oldest languages, with a history spanning several thousand years. What we now call Mandarin roughly traces back to the Jin dynasty (just before the Mongols). The Chinese government proliferated Standard Mandarin (which is largely based on northern dialects) in the early 1900s, making it the official language of the People’s Republic of China. In order to improve literacy, the government decided to simplify the writing system, resulting in what is commonly referred to as “simplified Chinese” (简体字).

comparison of traditional and simplified characters

Traditional Chinese characters contain many more strokes (lines) than simplified Chinese characters.

In mainland China, simplified characters are almost everywhere: in media, in education, and in transportation. Occasionally, buildings and monuments will be adorned with traditional Chinese to signify age or importance. In Taiwan, traditional Chinese characters are the norm, even though the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese is mutually intelligible with Mandarin. In Hong Kong, however, one is just as likely to run into traditional characters as simplified, though traditional characters have the edge.  Cantonese, which is entirely unintelligible to the Mandarin speaker, is more common in Hong Kong than Mandarin, but Mandarin is gaining popularity. Fortunately, the main difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is pronunciation. If you speak one language but not the other, you can still communicate fairly well through written Chinese (though English is also common in Hong Kong, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem).

Because I’ve spent the last three and a half years studying Chinese in mainland China, all of my book recommendations place an emphasis on simplified Mandarin Chinese, but even if you want to take on the challenge of learning traditional Chinese characters, these books will be incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, I do not have any recommendations for Cantonese.

Before I get to the recommendations, I have a tip for you: spend time focusing on pronunciation (拼音/pinyin) in the beginning. Though learning tones might be a challenge for people who’ve never been exposed to a tonal language before, focusing on pronunciation in the beginning will make your Chinese a lot better in the long run. It’s easier to learn it right the first time than to learn it again. Through practice, you’ll naturally memorize the tones on each character and they’ll become second nature to you. Eventually you should get to the point where you can listen to yourself and think, “hrm… that doesn’t sound quite right,” and try again.

  1. Integrated Chinese Textbook Series, by Cheng and Tsui

integrated chinese textbook cover

This series includes four levels (L1P1, L1P2, L2P1, L2P2), and each level is the equivalent of about one semester of university Mandarin. Each level includes a textbook, a character workbook (to practice writing!), and an exercise workbook. Audio is available for the dialogue. There’s a lot of charcater memorization in these books, but new characters are always revisited in subsequent chapters, thereby solidifying your knowledge. For those that want to learn traditional characters, this series is an especially good resource because The first two levels have separate textbooks written entirely in traditional, and the final two levels are written in both traditional and simplified (side by side, making it easy to learn to read both).

2. Learning Chinese Characters, by Matthews and Matthews


For some people, stories with visuals are the best memory aids. If you’re that kind of learner, I cannot recommend this book enough. Learning Chinese Characters breaks down 800 common characters and attaches a story based on the components that make up the character (which is helpful for writing). The cool thing is, each of those stories illustrates the meaning and pronunciation of the characters. Because the stories are just a few sentences each, they’re easy to remember. It’s best to go through this book as you’re beginning to learn characters so you can learn the stories as you go, rather than trying to remember them later. I mostly just use the book as a reference at this point. I read an old version of the book, but the link I’m providing should be the updated version.

3. Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar by Herzberg and Herzberg 


While a little drab for a more advanced Mandarin learner, this handy guide lays bare the most fundamental structures in Chinese grammar. You won’t sound like a scholar after reading this book, but it’ll certainly help you along in conversation and basic reading. The thing to note about Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar is that is doesn’t actually teach the grammar. Rather, it categorizes the structures for easy reference and provides examples. If you’re perpetually confused about how to express adverbs or where to place “了” (the completion article), this is your go-to guide.

These books won’t make you a Mandarin-speaking pro overnight, but there is sufficient information between their covers to at least make you conversant. Set goals for yourself. Tell yourself you can’t buy a new book until you’ve finished 3 lessons of Integrated Chinese. Do whatever it takes, but no matter what you do, go at your own pace. Take the time to go over unclear lessons again, and ask questions! I can try to help, but Quora is also an excellent resource for getting questions answered. 加油 everyone (good luck)!

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