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.
can now click on the book titles below to visit the Amazon.com page describing
them (where available), and buy online.
Hao, An Introduction to Chinese, Shumang Fredlein & Paul Fredlein
(ChinaSoft), Levels 1 to 5.
These textbooks are available with an impressive array of complimentary
resources (student workbooks, teachers handbooks, computer software, resource
kit and audio cassettes). The books are very clear and well-presented with
an extremely varied and interesting content. Lessons use cartoon conversations,
explain grammar points and provide useful background information to present
topics. Some lessons also contain rhymes, songs or stories. The background
information, in particular, is in a very readable style and greatly enhances
the usefulness of these books. Versions are available with either simplified
or full-form characters (in addition to pinyin) which are very clearly
printed and for which the stroke order is explained. Chinese-English and
English-Chinese indexing is provided in each book. This series has been
developed for use in schools, where it is currently very popular, but its
presentation seems to be also useful for individual and group learners.
The books are in an 11*8.5 inch paperback format and have around 120 pages.
Book 1 (full-form) ISBN: 0-646-25096-5, book 1 ISBN: 0-646-06656-0 , book
2 ISBN: 0-646-13326-8 , book 3 ISBN: 0-646-22328-3
Beginning Chinese Reader, John DeFrancis (Yale University Press), Parts
1 & 2.
I only use the reader from this set of books which comprises Beginning
Chinese, Intermediate Chinese, Advanced Chinese, the associated character
texts and readers.
I use the reader because it has a very wide variety of examples for
each lesson. Sustained use of this book virtually guarantees that you understand
and remember the use of each new word learnt. As a reader, it contains
no grammar points or explanations and thus must be used in conjunction
with another book. A major drawback with this book is its use of full-form
characters, I do not know if a simplified version is available. The examples
are very general and wide ranging; you won't get bored. The book has about
980 pages (between two parts) for my 10*7 inch hardback. Characters are
large and well written. ISBN: 0-300-00058-8
Intermediate Chinese Reader, John DeFrancis (Yale University Press),
Parts 1 & 2.
Like the more simple volumes above, this reader provides invaluable
learning material for a number of characters, presented in order of frequency
of use. Examples are realistic, subject matter is widespread and interesting
and the reader will still not get bored.
Again, this volume has the feel of a well thought-out teaching course,
and gives the impression that utilising the book to its full potential
will result in well rounded, impressive Chinese communication ability.
My paperback book has 690 pages (part 1 only, part two adds another 700
or so pages), and measures about 10*7 inches. Characters are large and
well written, but still only full-form. ISBN: 0-300-00065-0 (Note:
my bookseller informs me that this book is out of print, part 2 has been
out of print for many years, and BCR above will be discontinued in 1998.
cost was UKP22).
Chinese Through Pictures, Sinolingua, Beijing
This book contains a lot of lessons each based around an introductory
picture. The lessons and pictures relate well to everyday life in China
(at least from the visitors point of view). A list of new words is given
after each lesson, as are some simple exercises. The book contains no grammar
explanations, tips on pronounciation or other information: it simply contains
a number of interesting examples for the student of Chinese. If it is used
with this in mind it will come in handy. My 10*7 inch paperback book has
192 pages. Characters are a little on the small side, but well printed.
ISBN 0-8351-1918-1 (around UKP4.00)
Chinese, P.C.T'ung and D.E.Pollard (Routledge)
This was my first Mandarin book, and I believe the best for a beginner.
It contains very good grammar points and examples, and introduces the language
gently. One detraction is that each lesson contain presentations, sketches
and dialogues that in some cases can be annoyingly similar (although they
are generally quite interesting). The index is clear and comprehensive.
Note that the book contains no characters. My book has 322 pages and is
a 7.25*5 inch paperback. Text is clearly written. ISBN 0-415-01860-9 (about
Character Text for Colloquial Chinese (see above)
This accompaniment to the previous book repeats the lesson examples
in simplified or ful-form characters (note the Amazon link above is to the full-form version).
Characters, although hand written, are very clear and legible. A chart
of stroke order is also given each lesson for new characters. I recommend
this book to people interested in learning to write Chinese. My book has
198 pages and is an 11*8 inch paperback. ISBN 0-950-8572-1-1 (UKP11.90)
Chinese 301 (Beijing Language Institute Press)
This is a Chinese book contining both pin-yin and simplified characters.
There are some grammar points but these are translated from Chinese: the
different point of view actually means that the book is not so easy to
understand. There are probably not enough examples in the book, although
it is a good book for learning both pin-yin and characters. The index is
very good, and printing is legible throughout. The book has 450 pages for
an 8*5.5 inch paperback. ISBN 7-5619-0095-3 (UKP6.95)
Yourself Chinese, Elisabeth Scurfield (Hodder & Stoughton)
This is a good general book which initially introduces pin-yin before
moving on to characters later (although facilities exist for learning characters
throughout if required). The grammar points are excellent and the whole
book is well written. Unfortunately, many people complain that the introduction
to Chinese is not at all gentle; the book becomes difficult quite quickly.
There are not enough examples for my taste but the exercises are good with
some also having answers. The book is well printed and interesting to use,
and the indices are excellent. This is a very good all-round book to buy,
although for the points mentioned above, I would not recommend it as a
stand-alone course; you must use other sources or have a tutor to get the
most from it. The book has 354 pages in an 8*5 inch paperback. ISBN 0-340-51959-2
Chinese Readers (Sinolingua, Beijing)
Printed on poor quality paper, this book is initially unimpressive,
however it does contain rich and varied examples of Chinese usage, and
(unusually for a Chinese-published book) relatively comprehensive grammar
explanations. Characters (simplified) are well written and large bodies
of text often have tonal pronounciation guides above them - aiding in dictation
fluency. My 8*5 inch paperback has 377 pages. ISBN 0-8351-2501-7 (UKP7.50).
Times Advanced English-Chinese pinyin dictionary (Federal Publications)
This book is clearly printed and easy to use, although it suffers from
listing typical Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese words-these are sometimes
different from the terms used in China (and, in a small number of cases,
the use of the substitute word can cause offense). ISBN 981-01-3909-8 (RM22.25
- about UKP3.50)
A Modern Chinese-English Dictionary (United Publishing House)
After a lot of careful searching I found this reasonably large print
dictionary with very clear characters. Entries are ordered alphabetically
by pinyin transcription, although a stroke-order chart is given. Note that
this chart suffers from being ordered by total number of strokes and is
not subdivided into radical. One small problem is that pinyin is given
only for the main word referenced, whereas all subreferences (i.e. two-character
meanings beginning with the character listed) have just characters and
English meaning given. ISBN 983-820-115-4 (around RM25 - about UKP4)
A Little Chinese-English Dictionary
This tiny 2.5*4 inch 588 page dictionary is Chinese printed, with extremely
thin paper. It is very handy and packs a lot into a small size, but the
characters are very hard to read and are printed poorly. For phrases the
pinyin is written only for the first character, but the one serious problem
is that the characters are ordered alphabetically in pinyin, and the stoke
index is unusually ordered by total number of strokes (including the radical).
ISBN 7-5015-5179-0 (very cheap .... RMB5 - about UKP0.40)
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
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
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.
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;
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.
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
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.
the Iron Rooster; Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
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