The story is all too common. You’re psyched about deciphering written Chinese but don’t know where to start.
Does reading Mandarin Chinese seem like an impossible feat?
Don’t beat yourself up—the Chinese language is a challenge even for Chinese people.
All you need are some excellent Chinese learning resources to help you get off the ground.
Once you get familiar with the ins and outs of reading Chinese characters, you’ll see your reading skill level skyrocket!
In this day and age, we language learners have all kinds of resources at our fingertips. Authentic, Chinese language news can be summoned at the tap of a touchscreen. Passionate language-lovers produce Chinese YouTube videos for learners every day. It’s all too easy to track down the awesome Chinese music that got us hooked on the language in the first place. We get so wrapped up in these fun, technological approaches that we tend to forget the most essential of all language learning materials: books.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to dive headfirst into reading Chinese novels. The book suggestions provided here are geared towards newcomers to the Chinese language, and are specially designed to help you gain familiarity with Chinese writing. In them, you’ll discover tried and true methods for learning how to read in Chinese, as well as a wide variety of approaches.
The goal, ultimately, isn’t to learn how to read, but to learn how to learn.
The Value of Chinese Books for Beginners
- Become familiar with the characters. Mandarin Chinese is one of the most beautiful languages in the world because of its unique set of characters. But it’s also for this reason that a beginner will find it a challenge to grasp everything. Some characters have more strokes than the rest. That’s why it’s best that you familiarize yourself with as many characters as you can. Start reading! There’s no better way to learn all the characters out there. Even by just browsing through the pages, you’ll become aware of more and more characters.
- Learn the basics of pronunciation. One of the trickiest parts of learning Chinese is the different approach you’ll take to reading. Unlike other languages that use a phonetic alphabet, Chinese is comprised entirely of logographs. It’ll take some time getting used to this. The good news is that basic Chinese books will usually have corresponding pinyin for characters. You’ll learn how to pronounce each character using the English alphabet.
- Start to gain a deeper appreciation of the characters. With books, you’ll notice how each character is written. You’ll learn to appreciate the wisdom behind the writing. Every character is pretty much derived from a visual of the real thing. You’ll quickly realize that how 口 (kŏu) is written is very similar to an open mouth and that 人 (rén) is similar to a walking stick person. It’s very fascinating and you’ll learn that there’s always a reason why the characters are written the way they are.
- Set your own pace for learning. In contrast to having a tutor or enrolling in a program, books provide you an avenue for learning at your desired pace and level. Some of us find it difficult to learn a new language while others are still unsure if they’re serious about this. So books are a great way to get started. You don’t have to abide by a strict schedule or feel pressured. You can take it slow if need be, or speed things up if you’re craving a challenge.
Beginner Obstacles to Reading Chinese
True, it’ll be hard at first. You’ll find that the characters are totally alien to you. You may get bored just trying to read a page on top of trying to understand what the text is all about.
You’re not alone. I’ve been there. My friends have been there. All of China has been there.
After a few tries, you’ll certainly start to get used to it all. Once you understood your first Chinese word, you’ll want to learn more. It’s like opening Pandora’s box (minus the evil consequences).
Do you know what the greatest difficulty really is? It’s when you believe you won’t be able to learn anything without even trying. If you approach your learning with a pessimistic attitude then all your hard work will go right down the drain. There’s no amount of advice that can overcome such deeply-rooted negativity.
Tips for Using Chinese Learning Books
Now that we’ve put those fears aside, here are a few tips you have to keep in mind:
- Follow the kids. There’s no better way than to go back to the basics. Learn from the kids. When you’re new to the Chinese language, don’t try to grab classic literature or other intermediate to advanced books. You’ll just make things harder for yourself. You’ll become discouraged by your inability to read well. Start by reading children’s books, readers, comic strips and Chinese learning books. These will help you gain the confidence you need to excel.
- Learn the ABC’s of Chinese. Before you learn Chinese characters, get to know the alphabet first. Learn the sounds and the intonations through pinyin and zhuyin. You’ll be able to learn the characters better once you familiarize yourself with these.
- Start with the greetings and everyday words. This will help motivate you to learn more. Once you see its practicality and the fact that you can now inject Chinese characters into your daily life, you’ll want to keep learning and keep practicing.
- Learn the characters with the simplest strokes. Learning Chinese can be overwhelming at first. You’ll get lost in trying to differentiate one character from the rest. That’s why it’s best to start with the basic characters. You’ll soon find out that these basic words will form part of the other words. The basics are the building blocks for the whole language. This means it’ll be easier for you to grasp the other, more complicated words if you’re aware of the basics.
- Learn 5 words a day. Take it slow until you get it. Learning is never done overnight. You’ll remember the words better when you learn a few words a day. You’ll get to understand them more.
If you don’t feel ready to start reading actual books, you can ease into it with FluentU’s subtitled videos, which come with transcripts and key vocabulary words to help you along.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
FluentU's quizzes turn every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning, then suggests content and examples based on what you've already learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
Read Mandarin Chinese: 5 Great Books for Beginners
There are a lot of Chinese books out there so before you get lost in them, here are 5 of our favorite Chinese books.
These are essentially for beginners. You’ll learn a few words, the pronunciation and the strokes. Basically, they all exist to give you a sneak preview of what the great big beautiful Chinese language has to offer. These books will provide you some much-needed stepping stones towards your goal of mastering the language. If you’re already an intermediate or advanced learner, it could be well worth your time to take a step back and reinforce the fundamentals.
1. “初级中文| Chinese Language for Beginners“
What’s a children’s book without colors and photos? This one has both. What I love about this is that it allows you to learn each character slowly. It demonstrates each vocabulary word’s usage with a sample sentence. There’s even a short story to help you fully comprehend the different ways in which that vocabulary can be used.
Overall, this book provides a step-by-step process that will enable any learner to grasp the lessons. You’ll learn all about intonation and pronunciation along the way.
2. “轻松学汉语(少儿版) | Chinese Made Easy for Kids“
This comes in a set. There’s even an accompanying workbook to help you remember and test your knowledge. This won’t bore you at all. The lessons focus on daily greetings, numbers, countries, colors, transportation, animals and body parts. Everything is accompanied by pinyin. There are photos everywhere with stories and rhyming words.
The best part is that it teaches you how to write in Chinese. What should be the first stroke? What comes next? Now you’ll know.
3. “Chinese Slanguage: Knee How Ma“
This masterpiece by Mike Ellis defies the pinyin rules of Chinese. It uses the English alphabet to spell out each Chinese character. It’s really fun and entertaining, perfect for beginners to familiarize themselves with Chinese sounds and intonations. You’ll learn about basic Chinese phrases used in travelling, including directions, ordering food, hotels and airports.
4. “My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy“
It follows the journey of Mimi, an eight-year-old, as she explores the rich culture of the Chinese language through writing. It teaches you the basic strokes and the characters that can be formed by combining these strokes. You’ll see how, when a certain stroke is attached to another, it can become an action word or can connote something related to humans or cars. It’s really fascinating.
Most of you find Chinese characters hard to read and write, but try this book and you’ll realize that they’re not all that difficult. If you want to dig deeper into your Chinese learning, this book will lay the perfect foundation for you.
5. “Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day“
One of my best tips for you is to start with the basic greetings and everyday words. With this book, you can do just that. It contains simple words and phrases to help you get acquainted with the language. Read a few words a day. There are useful dialogues in here that can help you appreciate the characters more.
So, there you have it. Just remember our tips, keep a positive learning attitude and start reading these basic Chinese learning books. You’ll get those characters down in no time! Good luck!
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