The 6 Best Books to Learn Chinese All on Your Own
We all know that learning Chinese online is getting more and more popular.
But sometimes you really just need to hit the books.
And I want you to have the best resources on hand for those times.
Whether it’s vocab, characters or chengyu that you’re working on, there’s a wide range of great books out there which can be a brilliant complement to your Chinese learning.
- “Fundamentals of Chinese Characters” (Yale University Press)
- “Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide” (Modern Grammars)
- “Times: Newspaper Reading Course of Advanced Chinese”
- “Abridged Chinese Classic Series: The Besieged City”
- “500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary”
- “Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School”
- Why Is It Still Important to Learn Chinese with Books?
“Fundamentals of Chinese Characters” (Yale University Press)
This book is probably the best guide to Chinese characters that’s currently available. While it teaches the meanings of thousands of characters, it also teaches much, much more.
The book aims to break down each character into its constituent elements and then build up a learner’s knowledge of the history and the deeper meanings of these characters over the course of each chapter.
Both Chinese radicals, and also the more difficult-to-teach phonetic elements are covered extensively throughout this book, with accompanying lists and reference tables. To make a learner’s life easier, the book is also broken down into broad topics, so you can easily study or review characters in a certain field.
This book is also especially useful because it gives learners a way to associate characters with real-life objects or ideas, which is extremely important. While later on in the learning process it’s better to use radicals and phonetic elements to memorize characters, such mnemonics are incredibly useful for the first 500 characters or so, and provide an easier way of learning.
“Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide” (Modern Grammars)
The next book on our list is the only reference you will ever need for Chinese grammar. This book covers every single rule, quirk and pattern that you will find over the course of learning Chinese.
This grammar is broken down into easy-to-parse chapters whereby a learner can rapidly find an answer to the constant question, “But why is it written like this?
Adding value to this reference book is its very detailed index, which allows the book to function as a grammar dictionary. Readers can look up certain rules, flip to the page they’re on, and understand how they’re used.
A book like this is important because it teachers grammar to a much deeper level than the average classroom textbook or website. While other books do teach grammar, they usually only teach it to a simplistic level which they consider “appropriate” for the learner. This approach, however, can often be confusing later on, and so a book like “Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar” is essential in situations where a deeper understanding is desired.
“Times: Newspaper Reading Course of Advanced Chinese”
For intermediate and advanced learners, one of the major milestones which they may wish to reach is the ability to read Chinese newspapers. The Times newspaper reading course is the best possible way to achieve this.
Using real-world newspaper articles, well-paced lessons and associated workbooks, this course helps you move beyond just the headlines towards really understanding newspaper articles.
In general, each chapter concerns itself with a single news topic, and invites the learner to read through a number of articles, learn new vocab and then answer questions based on their understanding of the text.
The reason why newspaper reading needs its own learning book is due to the fact that Chinese newspaper texts are very different from other forms of the written language. Articles use complicated vocabulary, uncommon formatting and rare grammar in order to help condense information. This makes it particularly difficult for learners, and something that needs to be taught separately from other kinds of reading.
“Abridged Chinese Classic Series: The Besieged City”
While the other books deal directly with learning, this one is entertaining as well. As a simplified version of the Chinese classic “The Besieged City,” it’s a great entry point for students interested in reading their first Chinese novel.
Despite the fact that the grammar and vocab have been simplified, the overall plot of a young man struggling with an arranged marriage in 1930s China is nonetheless engaging and funny.
Since this is a “reader,” this book also functions as a way to boost vocab and comprehension. Alongside the body text of this book, each chapter is followed by a list of new uncommon vocab, which helps learners grasp more of the text’s meaning. Additional complicated vocab is covered in detailed footnotes accompanying each page of the text, teaching you both new words and making the text easier to read.
In addition, each chapter has its own quiz based on the content of the book, and a learner can easily test themselves to make sure that they really did understand the content. Note, however, that all of the vocab and explanations are in Chinese, so make sure your Chinese is at an intermediate level before working through this book.
“500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary”
Getting to grips with Chinese idioms, also known as chengyu, is one of the trickiest parts of Chinese. This book is one of the most detailed lists of these idioms that you can find, and thus is a must-have for any learner.
It includes not just the literal meanings of the 500 most-used Chinese idioms, but also their back stories, synonyms and antonyms. As well, detailed information is provided on how to use each idiom, and several example sentences are given to show them in use.
While common textbooks do teach some chengyu, they often do not adequately explain their meaning, or why they mean what they do. In addition, even when you have finished a common textbook course, only a small percentage of the commonly used idioms will have been taught, so therefore this book is a critical learning resource.
“Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School”
One part of Chinese that’s very rarely taught either online or in classic textbooks is Chinese slang. Nonetheless, it’s very important to learn and understand the most common slang words.
Like any language, Chinese contains a huge slang vocabulary that’s often overlooked in teaching due to vulgarity, grammatical incorrectness or simply because the author doesn’t know it.
This book is without a doubt the most comprehensive guide to Chinese slang that’s available in print form. It contains straightforward explanations in English of each slang word, and also gives detailed information regarding how, and in what situation the words should be used.
What’s more, the book is written in a very light-hearted tone and is accompanied with many humorous illustrations, so learning from this book can often be a very “laugh out loud” experience.
Why Is It Still Important to Learn Chinese with Books?
Online learning is all the rage at the moment, and for good reason.
For example, the FluentU language learning program helps to structure individual learning by gathering high-quality, bite-sized media clips like movie clips and news segments, and attaching professional translations and subtitles to each of them. It’s an example of how you can improve listening, reading, writing and speaking skills in one location online.
Despite this, there are still some significant advantages to using books, making them an indispensable part of your Chinese learning journey, which we get into below.
Books are much more comprehensive and specialized than most websites
The primary reason why it’s still important to use books for Chinese learning is that many books are still much more comprehensive than online learning websites. While most websites seek to teach Chinese as a broad topic, books (aside from common textbooks) are much more specialized.
Many deal exclusively with a single topic in a level of depth not found elsewhere. Such topics include Chinese grammar, cultural influences on the language or specific styles of reading/writing.
Workbooks especially present a more tangible way of learning
Another reason why books are important for learning is that many–especially workbooks–provide a more tangible way for learners to interact with (and practice) the language.
Written Chinese especially requires a vast amount of writing practice, and unlike online programs which usually make use of keyboard input, Chinese workbooks force a learner to write out their answers and engage with the language on paper.
Books can be used much more easily on the go
A final reason why books are an important supplement to newer methods of learning is that they are much more portable than digital programs. You can study with them on a plane, train, at the beach or on the way to work—no Wi-Fi needed!
For this reason, it’s always great to have one of these books with you constantly, so you can turn your wasted minutes into productive learning time.
On the other end of the spectrum, books are becoming more frequently available in electronic format, which also allows you to travel with them more conveniently and access them on the go—even offline!
Each one of these books has the ability to work as a complement to online or traditional study of Chinese. Working with them, you’ll be able to improve your Chinese faster, and gain a much more detailed understanding of the Chinese language.
So what are you waiting for? Pick up some books and put your learning into high gear!