Some resources for learning Mandarin
by Kees van Deemter


I'm listing some things that are helping me in my attempts to learn Mandarin, hoping that they will benefit others as well. I'm grateful to my teachers and classmates at the Confucius Institute in Aberdeen for suggesting some of these items to me.

A general app for learning the language. I've discovered an excellent free app called ChineseSkill. The app, which works on different types of phone, is playful without being childish. No knowledge of Mandarin is presupposed: every topic is introduced using a sequence of game-like tasks, with each task building on previous ones. Typically, the first task in a sequence teaches you a few new words, which are then tested (from English to Chinese and the other way round) as part of a few sentences. Some sequences focus on a practical issue (e.g., public transport), others focus on an issue in Chinese grammar (e.g., negation) There are some occasional flaws in the app's understanding of English, but these are rare and superficial enough that they don't really matter. The artwork is classy. Many of the app's features -- I've mentioned only half of them -- are configurable, for example depending on whether you want to work with Pinyin, with Chinese characters, or a combination.

Two-way dictionary. I'm finding Yabla a really useful (free) dictionary. Type in a word, and Yabla will decide whether it's Chinese or English (or both) and give you a list of translations. If you're entering a word in Pinyin, you can add a number optionally if you only want to see translations for that tone (e.g., "ma4" for "ma" with a falling tone). Paste a Chinese character into the page, and Yabla will translate it; enter a sequence of characters, and Yabla will handle them all at the same time, trying to group characters that belong together. Translations in Chinese are given in both Pinyin and Chinese characters, just click to be told the stroke order. -- Of course the list of possible translations of any Chinese word tends to be baffling at first (i.e., during your first 20 years of studying the language).

Grammar. Our lecturer recently recommended Grammar Boost to me, which looks really useful, composed of bite-sized sections each devoted to a particular grammatical issue (e.g. measure words), containing explanation and instructive examples. Additionally, I found A Grammar of Mandarin, by Jeroen Wiedenhof (John Benjamins 2015). This book might not suit everyone -- it's not meant to teach you to read or speak -- but it's great if you want to learn about the structure of modern Mandarin in a way that does not presuppose much knowledge of the language (e.g., most example sentences use simple vocabulary). Written for linguists as much as language learners, the book is based on Pinyin, avoiding Chinese characters where possible, except one chapter devoted entirely to them. It's easy to find relevant information (e.g., what does the particle "le" mean?).

MDBG net. The web pages of MDBG are a powerful free source of information about Mandarin. For example, it lets you draw a Chinese character which it will recognise if you've drawn it well enough. Once the character has been recognised, the page links to a wealth of information about the character, such as its sound, it stroke order, its components, and a list of characters that have the original character as a component. You can copy and paste the character into a document if you want. MDBG Net contains a dictionary as well, and much more of which I have no inkling yet.

Understanding Chinese characters. Our Mandarin teacher recently recommended ShaoLan's ChinEasy pages to us as a way to get started with Chinese characters. ShaoLan's explanations are playful, using colourful drawings to help you "see" what each character depicts; her focus is on creating a lively image that helps the learner. A book about the origins of many of the characters (as inferred from oracle bones and ancient bronzes) is Cecilia Lindqvist's delightful China: The Empire of the Written Symbol (Harvill Press 1992), which emphasises culture and history as much as language.

Practicing Chinese characters. One of my colleagues found this useful grid, with space for adding other information. See also this page for practice material with a choice of grids. See this page for lists of characters for each HSK level; the sheets contained in this page contain indices by Pinyin, by English translation, and by character.

Other courseware. A very comprehensive web page -- essentially a complete language course -- is Arch Chinese. Also useful are the pages of Chinese Learner see for example the charts on this page, which contain sound files for all Chinese syllables. Great if, like me, you're sometimes confused about how to pronounce a Pinyin vowel like "a" in a given context. Here is one of the four charts.

Chinese poetry. In class we read the famous -- and famously "simple" -- poem Quiet Night Thoughts, by the Tang poet Li Bai (Li Po); it can also be found on this page (search for the title), including a beautiful soundtrack of someone reading the poem. We also read a few lines (7 and 8) of the poem Bring in the Wine, by the same poet.

Online Forum. I recently came across this online forum for Chinese language and culture. Here's an example of an item that I found amusing and instructive (mostly reiterating what also had been said in class): ma hu.

A small disclaimer: I'm a beginning language learner, so my opinions are not cast in stone. Moreover, I do not know who's reponsible for some of these resources, and what their agenda might be, other than to teach the language.

I expect to be modifying and expanding this page from time to time. Let me know if you have any useful additions or corrections; I hope to have time to act on your advice. I'd be very interested in hard evidence, concerning any method for learning Chinese, that it works well compared to other methods. Send email to k.vdeemter atnospam abdn dot ac dot uk.

This page was last updated on 11 May 2016.

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