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. Chinese learning books are still being sought after. 

In many ways Chinese learning APPs are replacing teachers, and good books are definitely must haves. 

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

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. 

This kind of books are prevalent. Some students, when they first start learning how to read and write Chinese, are attracted by the layout. They want to learn all the characters as soon as possible and start reading Chinese stories immediately. 

Unfortunately, it never works out this way.  

It takes time for students to realise that, recognising hundreds of Chinese characters does not automatically develop Chinese reading and writing skills. Not even learning 2000 characters helps much (Read more here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem). Also, flash card style has its built-in shortcomings (Read more here: The problems of using flash cards to learn Chinese). 

The only way to develop reading and writing skills is to build up a sizeable vocabulary.

In my opinion, these books is the most useless ones.

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. 

However, if this is the main purpose of learning some phrases, these phrase books are teaching too much. 

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 smoothly. This is really far from the reality. 

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

I think these Chinese phrase books might be handy when Google Translate is not accessible. 

Conversations only books

These books are like textbooks, but they only teach conversations. 

Normally conversations are divided into different scenarios, such as greetings, having a meal or visiting friends. Sentences are usually simple and short. Pinyin and Chinese characters both are included. English translations are also provided. Grammar is discussed. 

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

If everybody followed the same scripts, that would be perfect. Students are person A, while Chinese people are person B. 

However, 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. 

With that said, I think these books still have good value, which is to help students gain the basic understanding of Chinese, the first layer in this Chinese Learning Pyramid.

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 well as the grammar books that use other languages to explain Chinese grammar.

As they progress, Chinese-Chinese dictionaries are highly recommended, as well as Chinese grammar books that use Chinese to do the explanations.

Chinese textbooks

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

Of all the Chinese learning books, only textbooks that are used in teacher-led classrooms try very hard to be tedious. Many have achieved that successfully. 

I have seen plenty such tedious Chinese textbooks. 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 Chinese teachers, or because they are standard preparation books for HSK test.

I try to stay away from this format. When the goal of a book is not geared towards passing an exam, the whole tune can changed!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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