Learning Chinese

You can learn Chinese through lessons and self-study. I know, I did!

I have been studying Mandarin, or standard Chinese for many years now. Some of the resources that I have used are listed below with comments. Since first publishing this page in 1994 I have tried to keep this page up to date. Some of the comments I have received and answers to the many questions that have been asked of me can be found in my FAQ. NEW - You can now click on the book titles below to visit the Amazon.com page describing them (where available), and buy online.


other resources


I learnt Chinese at the Brasshouse language institute (an educational institute funded by Birmingham City Council) in Birmingham from November 1994 until December 1997. They teach Mandarin and Cantonese (and very many other languages, to a good standard) at several levels, some of which lead to examinations. Most course meets one evening for one and a half hours each week, although weekend lessons and language weekends are sometimes available. Cost is approximately UKP20 per term. For more information telephone (+44/0)121 643 0114 or fax (+44/0)121 633 4782

From February 1998 until May 1998, I learnt Chinese at Parkside Community College in Cambridge. The lessons (there are 3 levels) are varied and interesting, and there is an emphasis on business Chinese. The cost is approxmiately UKP30 per term (I could be wrong here). For more information telephone (+44/0)1223 355233.

If you enjoy examinations, the London Chamber of Commerce hold regular exams for Chinese, with emphasis on communication for business purposes. The London examinations board (and possibly other boards) have a Chinese GCSE examination.  In addition, the Beijing Languages Institute hold examinations twice yearly in verious locations throughout the world, mostly capital cities. Advertisements for the latter can be found occasionally in the Ren Min Re Bao (The Peoples' Daily Newspaper), overseas edition.

In the quest for scarce foreign currency, many universities in China have opened their doors to foreign students for short or medium term language courses.  Since the motivation for this is money, their is no guarantee of quality.  Experiences vary wildly from excellent to appalling, and costs vary in a similar fashion.  Be prepared to learn the Chinese way, which may take some getting used to!  To find such a course, choose the city you are interested in and then surf the websites of the universities there.  Look around because there is good choice.

computer resources

There are now a great many computer resources available in Chinese, ranging from viewers to word processors and even a program for an Apple computer that will teach you correct pronounciation. These are all available in the public domain from bulletin boards and from ftp sites on the internet.  Commercial courses, programs, and interactive learning websites also exist.  I don't actually review any of these since I believe a good book (above) plus dictionary are much better ways to learn.  However, the value of being able to read, write and communicate in Chinese when you are online can not be underestimated.

If you wish to read Chinese that has been produced elsewhere, it is important to use a viewer that is capable of displaying text in the format used. There are a number of standards for Chinese text such as GB, Big 5, HZ etc.  See my FAQ for more details.

hints and tips

practice:  I recommend that anyone learning Chinese should attempt to use his or her fledgling language as much as possible. Ideally they should 'converse' with a Chinese speaker as often as possible, although during the early stages of learning, the conversation will be extremely stilted!  It is also useful to read aloud as much as possible, to help your vocal system to get used to forming the sounds and sequences of sounds. Chinese is often a set of complete phrases uttered in reply to a stimulus (such as good morning); the Chinese themselves do not question the phrases that they utter, and if a student can automatically speak the correct phrase fluently at the correct time, this will enormously help the naturalness of their conversation.

enjoy:  Watching Chinese films is useful: not only are they usually interesting but they afford a glimpse of Chinese culture and the norms of everyday life. Many people believe it is impossible to learn a language without reference to culture, and any help in this respect is invaluable.

read:  Finally, reading books about China will encourage the learner to learn faster and provide useful background information that ties in culturally with the language that they are learning.  Later (much later....) you can even switch to reading these in Chinese!  However for the meantime, here is a very small selection of some books, in English, that I recommend;

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang, HarperCollins, 1991: a remarkably interesting and absorbing book presenting the modern history of China in an extremely readable form.

Alone on the Great Wall; William Lindesay: recounts the authors journey as the first person to run along the great wall. He had no official permission to do this and fell foul of the authorities on a number of occasions. Part diary, part history and part commentary, this book is interesting and informative.

Harrap Guides Bleus; China, pub. Harrap, 1984: a good guide book having the first 200 or so pages devoted to an introduction to China.

The Ugly Chinaman; Bo Yang, Allen and Unwin, 1992: an analysis of the Chinese culture and civilisation. Not entirely negative, as the title would suggest!

Life and Death in Shanghai; Nien Cheng, Grafton, 1986.

The White Tiger; Robert Nathan, Collins, 1987: a fairly perceptive and accurate novel set in modern China.

Riding the Iron Rooster; Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Go Gently through Peking; A Westerner's Life in China; Lois Fisher, Souvenir Press, 1979 (ISBN 0-285-62366-4).

In conclusion, learning Chinese can be hard going at times, you may even feel that you are going nowhere, but the continued study is worth it. It is one of (if not the) worlds major languages, one of the oldest, and most interesting. The feeling of succes at actually being able to communicate, although simply at first, with native Chinese is worth the effort. Above all, IT CAN BE DONE; don't expect quick results, but you will get there eventually! Good luck.

First written: 1994/12/19
Last revised: 2005/01/07
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