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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. While learning APPs are gaining popularity, Chinese learning books are still being sought after. 

IMHO, good learning APPs can replace teachers in many ways, but good books are definitely must haves. 

In this article, let’s take a look at some major categories of Chinese learning books.

(Spoiler: I’m going to talk about my own books at the end.)

different kind of Chinese learning books

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. (To learn more about “tian zi ge” and “mi zi ge), read here: Write good Chinese)

This kind of books are prevalent. Some students, when they first start learning how to read and write Chinese, are attracted by the layout. Their assumption usually is that, once they learn all the individual Chinese characters, they will be able to read Chinese stories or newspapers. 

Unfortunately, it never works out this way.

It takes time for students to realise that, recognising hundreds of Chinese characters does not automatically lead to Chinese reading and writing skills. Even after you’ve learned 2000 characters, you still can not read Chinese stories or newspapers. (Read more details here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem)

That being said, flash card style also has its built-in flaws that flash cards are useful only when you’ve learned a couple of thousands of characters. (A detailed explanation is here: The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese) 

These books are the most useless ones.

Chinese phrase books

These books use pinyin to teach simple sentences which people can use in certain circumstances. Quite often, these 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. 

However, if having a bit more fun while travelling is the sole purpose of learning some phrases, these phrase books are teaching too much. 

Pages and pages of sentences and expressions give people a false impression that these phrase books can help them communicate with Chinese people smoothly. This is really far from the reality. 

Repeating sentences from a book is not communicating when students don’t understand the responses they get.

I see more and more people use Google Translate or some translation APPs. Perhaps one day, these Chinese phrase books will be phased out completely.

Conversations only books

These books are like textbooks, but they only have one kind of text format: conversations. 

Such books often divide conversations based on different scenarios, such as greetings, having a meal or visiting friends. Sentences are usually simple and short. Both pinyin and Chinese characters are included with English translations provided. Grammar points are explained. 

The expected learning outcome is that students are able to use these conversations as models for their own conversations in similar scenarios.

The catch is that everybody, both students and people whom they talk to, must follow the same scripts. Students speak according to person A, while others speak according to person B. 

However, this is never the case. 

In real life, people don’t speak according to scripts. If person B did not speak their lines, students alone can not continue this conversation. 

With that said, these books still have good value, which is to provide simple texts that help students gain the basic understanding of Chinese, the first layer in this Chinese Learning Pyramid. (Read more about the pyramid here: Use Chinese Learning Pyramid to make learning more effective)

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. 

For beginner students, Chinese-English (or Chinese-other languages) dictionaries are good to have. As they progress, Chinese-Chinese dictionaries are highly recommended.

But I have reservations about grammar books. I think it is absurd to explain Chinese grammar using English grammar concept. More explanation is here: It is a mistake to learn Chinese using English grammatical concepts.

Chinese textbooks

To a certain extent, all the books mentioned above are meant to teach students some Chinese. They are driven by the market. Although many of them have unrealistic claims, they try to be engaging and informative. 

Therefore, it is curious to see that textbooks used in teacher-led classrooms try so hard to be tedious. I’ve got to say that many have achieved that goal. The endless new words, endless grammar points, and brain damaging repetition exercises, all are tedious. Nothing is more tedious than tedious Chinese textbooks. 

Students are learning them because they are chosen by their Chinese teachers, or because they are standard preparation books for HSK exams. (In case you don’t know what HSK is, read here: 7 things you should know about the new HSK test)

When students start from zero, it's almost doesn't matter what book they use. But once they get to a higher level, that’s when they notice how ineffective, boring and irrelevant the HSK books are. Besides rigid layout of each chapter, these textbooks are filled with professional jargons, terms familiar only to professional linguists. For example, “ is an adverb serving as an adverbial modifier”. 

Another problem that many Chinese textbooks have is that they teach Chinese without the Chinese context. For example, they teach students how to say “hamburger”, but not “jiao zi”, how to say “vanilla soy latte”, but not “molihua cha”, and how to say “the fifth avenue”, but not “chang cheng”. It seems that they simply import everything from other language courses.

My own books

When I was working on my own textbooks, the Mandarin Express series and the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I try to steer clear from flaws that I see in other books. 

First of all, they are not HSK preparation books. 

Secondly, they are given the necessary Chinese context, and at the same time, having an international flavour.

Thirdly, no Chinese characters are taught in isolation from others. How to use a character in words and sentences is an important feature.

Fourthly, grammar is taught around patterns, not rules. 

Finally, the content is relevant and engaging to adult learners and it comes with a variety of text formats. 

If you have some ideas for me to further improve these textbooks, I’d love to hear from you.