The Many Chinese language learning books

When people want to teach themselves some Chinese, the first thing for them to do is probably to look for some learning materials. Learning APPs are very popular, while books are still being sought after. 

In this article, let’s take a look at some major categories of Chinese learning books. Not all the books are good.

  • Flash card type of books

This type of books generally teach a large number of characters, around 250-500 at the least. On each page, only one Chinese character is introduced. Pinyin, basic meanings, and stroke order are taught. There are a few blank “tian zi ge” or “mi zi ge” available for people to copy the character. Ancient scripts of the character, a picture or few combinations are sometimes presented. 

This kind of books are quite popular. Some of my students, when they first started learning how to read and write Chinese, bought this type of books, because they thought the pace of Chinese Reading and Writing series was too slow. They wanted to learn all the characters taught in the entire series and a lot more in one or two months and started reading Chinese stories immediately. Unfortunately, it never worked out this way. Eventually they had to discard this type of books and focused on the essential reading and writing exercises provided in the Chinese Reading and Writing series. 

It takes time for students to realise that, recognising hundreds of Chinese characters does not automatically develop Chinese reading and writing skills. The only way to develop reading and writing skills, and the only way to enjoy reading Chinese novels, is to build up a sizeable vocabulary and to practice reading and writing Chinese texts. 

  • Chinese phrase books

These books use pinyin to teach simple sentences which people can use in certain circumstances. Quite often, some phrase books are included in travel guidebooks. 

For non-Chinese speakers, it’s a good idea to learn a few sentences before their trip to China. With only a tiny bit of knowledge, they can have a lot more fun when connecting with Chinese people and dealing with emergencies. If this is the main purpose of learning some phrases, these phrase books are really teaching too much Chinese. 

There are always pages and pages of sentences and expressions which give people a false impression that these phrase books can help them communicate with Chinese people. This is really far from the reality. Only repeating sentences from a book is not communicating.  

  • Conversation only books

These books contain only conversations which could happen in different scenarios, such as greetings, having a meal or visiting friends. Texts are usually simple and short, including pinyin, Chinese character and English translations/explanations. Students are expected to be able to use these conversations as models for their own conversations with Chinese people. 

If everybody followed the same scripts, that would be perfect. Students are person A, while Chinese people are person B. Let’s have a simple conversation together! Yet this is never the case. In real life, people don’t speak according to scripts. If person B did not cooperate, this conversation could not continue. 

  • Reference books

These books include grammar books and dictionaries. These are useful books and should be kept handy. 

Anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should have them. 

  • Chinese textbooks

To a certain extent, all the books mentioned above are engaging. Many flash card books connect characters with pictures and explain their origins, phrase books promise to be very practical, conversation books are like a series of mini plays, and reference books give clear answers. 

Of all the Chinese learning books, only textbooks try very hard to be tedious. Many achieved that successfully. The endless lists of new words, never ending grammar points, and brain damaging repetition exercises, all are tedious. Nothing is more tedious than tedious Chinese textbooks. 

Tedious Chinese textbooks! This is the number one reason that I wrote my own textbooks. 

My books have flaws, for sure. At least they are not tedious.


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