Our 10 best books for learning Chinese

Continuing the book collecting obsession into my Chinese studies, I have amassed around 20 books and courses in Chinese over the past 3 years. Of the ones I’ve purchased, borrowed, or been recommended by friends studying in China and Taiwan, here are what I can say are quality and useful to others.

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide

If you buy only one book for Chinese, get this one. Easily the best book I have found for everything. It is split into two parts, Part A for the structure of Chinese and explaining all the grammatical features, and Part B for situational Chinese like how to describe things etc. Explanations are solid, provides tons of example sentences and everything is in Simplified and Traditional characters.

Pimsleur Chinese

Strictly speaking, it’s an audio program, but Pimsleur is a great method for learning Chinese conversation. It’s also one of the best tools out there for getting an authentic sounding accent. You can try out Pimsleur for free by signing up for a 30 day Audible trial. Download the Chinese taster course here.

Practical Audio-visual Chinese (Traditional)

My friend in Taiwan swears by this series and he used this at his language school when he studied in Taiwan. He was on book 3 and was at a very impressive level of Chinese. Comes with CDs and has workbooks if you want them. Only Traditional characters and starts with teaching you Zhuyin, but also has all the sentences in Pinyin as well. I am on book 3 now also and have to say it is my favorite course book.

Colloquial Chinese: The Complete Course for Beginners

This was actually the first book I used for Chinese that a friend recommended when I was starting out. A solid beginner course that is lesson based and comes with CDs. Spent a good bit of time with the pronunciation using this one. Another good option if you are looking for a starter course. Also has an intermediate book as well in the series.

New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook 1

If you want more of a course-type book this series is a good introduction. I did the first book in their series using Simplified Characters. Concise and nicely organized. Would recommend it as your first introduction to Chinese and Chinese characters. Especially good if you like the dialog lesson format. Comes with CDs.

Conversational Chinese 301

Bought this one when I was in China. It goes at a faster pace than the above course, but would still say it is good for beginners. Either one of these are a good introduction course. No CD though, so take that into consideration.

The Michel Thomas Method: Speak Mandarin Chinese For Beginners

For working on speaking this is probably the best starter course. Harold Goodman does a good job of introducing the tones with concept of colors as an aid for remembering them. I love the Michel Thomas method and have used this series for other languages as well (French, Russian and German!).

Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters

I don’t actually own this book but I’m a big fan of the method and used it to learn all the Kanji in Japanese with the original “Remembering the Kanji” book by the same author (see my Japanese book reviews). Comes in Simplified or Traditional versions.

Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters

Since I did Japanese before Chinese, I had already done my time learning 2000 characters, so I don’t actually own this one either. My friends at a language school love it though, and the method sounds very similar to the “Remembering the Hanzi” mnemonic system. So I would just pick either one and stick with it.

Chinese Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide

A good overview of the Chinese language. I personally would buy the Modern Chinese Grammar over this one if I could only choose one, but that one can be intimidating since it is rather thick and does read a bit like a textbook with alot of explanations using grammatical terms. If that puts you off and you want a gentler overview of Chinse, but still with solid content, I would recommend this one.

27 thoughts on “Our 10 best books for learning Chinese

  1. What I need is some simple books that I can read in Chinese, to improve my vocabulary and character recognition. That’s how I became a great English student – I read constantly as a kid. I know traditional characters (and can easily read bopomofo), so books from Taiwan would be good. But I need to learn simplified characters, so books from the mainland would be good too.

    Any ideas for good Chinese readers?

    Thanks.

    Vic

    1. Hi Vic,

      I’m not a huge fan of readers (which is why I made Perapera!) but I’ve heard good things about the John DeFrancis readers. I also have various kids books in traditional and simplified characters, but to be honest I do most of my reading online.

    2. Check out the Chinese Breeze readers. Each book is actually its own story. The stories are fun, and they do a really good job of repeating things in a way that seems pretty natural. They’ve finished 2 “levels” of readers so far (300-word and 500-word), and are planning on going up to 8 levels.

    1. Good question! We actually both use Chinese for our full-time jobs as it’s becoming more and more necessary for business here. That aside, being language geeks we were always interested in learning Chinese anyway.

  2. Peraperakun is the main reason I keep putting up with Firefox. For other Chinese resources though, there is now almost an embarrassment of riches on the Internet. For anyone interested, here is a collection of language links that I’ve accumulated, including a large section on Chinese: http://thormay.net/LanguageStudy/languages.html .

    One very interesting recent discovery was Gradint (http://people.pwf.cam.ac.uk/ssb22/gradint/) which helps you to construct your own Pimsleur-type audio courses with spaced repitition.

  3. Hi, I wonder if you could recommend me any book for advanced students of the Chinese language. I am struggling with the transition from completely informal Chinese to formal Chinese (both writing and listening) I wonder if you could give me any references.

    ML

  4. I started getting interested in putonghua in 2003 from the Hanzi located in the margins of a book by Ezra Pound, his ‘Classic Anthology’ of Confucius pub by Faber; pre web here I went to the library and started with pen and paper. Hanzi fascinate me… have done ever since aged five (circa 1963) my uncle John give me some pages from a Chinese / Cantonese newsapaper, stuck in my mind all those years.

    This last week I have discovered online pop-up cidian and its a revelation, an extremely valuable learning aid. My opinion as to the best book would be the Cambridge ‘Chinese Starter Dictionary’ an incredibly useful and informative book….. my personal favourite.

    xiexie

  5. I want a book that can teach me how to read speak and write in Chinese… It must contain an audio CD do I can listen to the pronunciation… You help would be greatly appreciated…

  6. Hi, I’m an IB Mandarin student who is struggling to study for Mandarin in about 1 year.
    Here is a sample of IB Mandarin test
    http://sis-10-11ib.wikispaces.com/file/detail/Mandarin%20B%20SL%20paper%202.pdf
    (please click the file download button)
    Would the book “Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide” be helpful for studying for this kind of exam? And do you know any other kind of books that would be helpful for me to study for this kind of exam?

    1. Hi. I couldn’t see the test you linked to.

      Yes that book is very good. That said, I think that, in general, it is better to study for the language itself rather than for any particular exam. If you study Chinese with good resources your exam scores should go up. Focus on building vocabulary and getting enough input through reading and listening and you will be OK.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

  7. Great resource and really nice job with the plugins, thank you!

    I am starting to learn Chinese, and I bought as you suggested Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar.

    For the textbook, I read Integrated Chinese from Cheng & Tsui publisher to be one of the best courses. Do you know it? Could you provide me an advice whether it would be better to buy this one or the ones you suggested? This one provides a comprehensive set of textbooks, workbooks, audio, and other tools.

    Thank you!

  8. Hello. I’m hoping to tap into the depth of knowledge I see here.

    I operate a small language school in Japan and am trying to source some Chinese language teaching materials. I wonder if you are able to help me. I’m searching for text books that teach Chinese technical / engineering vocabulary. Or even bilingual dictionaries would suffice. Can you possibly recommend anything to me? Or suggest where I could find text books like that?

    All help is very much appreciated.

    Regards,

    James

  9. Dear Admin,
    I’m the Marketing Manager for Tuttle Publishing Language. I saw your review for Tuttle’s “Learning Chinese Characters” and was wondering if you might consider one of our newer books, “Chinese for Beginners” for your list. It is now the #1 Chinese self-study book in the US. If you would like to receive a copy for review, I can arrange to have one sent. You can get a hold of me at mpage@tuttlepublishing.com.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  10. Hello,
    I’m actually trying to find some Mandarin Chinese children’s books with Traditional Characters (with or without CD) for my two sons. Any help and information would be great! Thank you!

  11. Actually i want to learn chinese language and i want to speak chinese.for me which book is better.basically i go guanzhou every after two month for my business purpose.can you help me to find best learning book for me.

  12. It’s very effortless to find out any matter on web as compared to textbooks, as I found this post
    at this site.

  13. Hey, this is fantastic work! The plugin for chrome is very useful. I was just wondering why Assimil does not make th cut? I’m a beginner and am weighing up buying practical audio visual Chinese or Assimil (first!), and would lve to know you preference.

    Check out ‘Chinese In Steps’, it’s the textbook for the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies

    Thank you!
    Edward

  14. Hi, I’m very old man and I have no time to devote learning languages thoroughly. But I want to read Buddhist texts written in Chinese. I think, they are written in traditional Chinese. Therefore, please tell me, how I can learn traditional Chinese only to read these Buddhist texts. Any good book, please.
    With regards.
    Bertram

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