Chinese Language Resources
Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students
If you’re interested in learning Mandarin (the official language of both Mainland China and Taiwan, and the most widely spoken dialect of Chinese), and especially if you’re traveling to China, you might find these Mandarin resources useful. In addition to proprietary learning materials designed for our tour packages, the resources on this page also include Quizlet vocabulary lists, book and app recommendations, links to resources on other sites, and a list of related blog posts. Please don’t hesitate to contact us by phone or e-mail if you have a question or would like more information about something on this page.
For study plan suggestions based on your amount of available time and level of ambition, see our blog post introducing our website’s language resources and immersion tools.
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Click on an icon below to learn Chinese names and vocabulary associated with that city.
More pages, information, and features will be added in the near future.
|Study the words on the above pages and more on our Quizlet page!
Quizlet offers a variety of useful study features and is compatible with a wide range of apps on popular mobile platforms.
Our Language and Culture Learning Pages above will help you have a truly immersive travel experience by supplying information and vocabulary specific to our tour itineraries. Each attraction and activity has its own introductory information and word list. You can read through these materials in advance, study them on a wide variety of apps, and easily take them with you on a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other mobile device—read below for details. Whether you’re a curious traveler who just wants a taste of Chinese or a serious student seeking to broaden your vocabulary and increase your fluency, we make it easy for you to accomplish your goal.
In the near future, more selected itineraries will each have their own learning resources page, with special language materials available only to tour participants. Make the most of your China trip by booking with us and taking advantage of this unique service!
The Chinese language materials on our website are also featured on our Quizlet page as vocabulary lists in different formats:
- Detailed Lists: These lists, in both Chinese character and pinyin (Chinese words in English letters) versions, contain all of the information about each name or word on the list, so you can learn about them in depth.
- Reversible Lists: These lists, in three different versions, contain a simplified definition for each term. This more flexible format allows you to study the words or test yourself using either the word or the definition as a prompt. With this approach, you can achieve a truly fluent level of familiarity with the material.
Quizlet has a number of useful features and learning modes:
- A simple and clever Chinese-compatible design that eliminates the need for Chinese input software (though you can use traditional input methods as well)
- Built-in audio pronunciations of Chinese words and their definitions
- Options to print, export, copy, and combine word lists—customize the materials and study exactly how and what you want to study
- Various learning and testing modes: Flashcard, Scatter, Space Race, Speller, Learn, and Test
- Auto-generated tests, different each time, with adjustable formats
- Statistics that keep track of your progress and performance
- Compatibility with Facebook to help you study with friends
- A simple but useful app for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad
- Compatible third-party apps in iPhone/iPod, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, Kindle Fire, and Nook formats—click on the appropriate link for information about available apps for that format and how to download our word lists onto them.
In short, Quizlet makes the process of learning convenient, fun, and effective!
The following books and documents are particularly useful for travelers who aren’t necessarily serious students of Chinese but hope to actively engage with the language and the culture while in China:
- The free eTicket Chinese guide by Living Language: A downloadable/printable PDF with practical vocabulary, phrases, and sentences organized by topic.
- Essential Chinese for Travelers (Zhilong Fan): An introduction to the language with a concise dictionary included.
- Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook: A new edition of the Lonely Planet Phrasebook is scheduled for release in November 2012. Also see Lonely Planet’s China Phrasebook page, which sells phrasebooks for various dialects in PDF and book formats.
The resources above are handy guides focusing on practical expressions and vocabulary, with contextual information and supplementary notes to enhance their usefulness; they are not the equivalent of a Mandarin textbook (i.e., with a complete, systematic learning curriculum).
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language (Deborah Fallows): Fallows, a PEW researcher from the U.S. who studied Mandarin for an extended assignment in China, introduces the language and the culture in an engaging way by recounting some of the experiences she had as a student of the language while living in China. Her questions about and struggles with the language, as well as her daily experiences in China, lead her on an investigative journey that gives her (and the reader) insights into Chinese culture and helps her improve her communication skills. While serious students of the language may not benefit a great deal from this book in a linguistic sense, as it deals with fairly basic aspects of the language, it provides a good foundation of understanding for those who are interested in learning the language or are planning a trip to China. Available for Kindle.
Get Talking Chinese (DK Publishing): For somewhat more ambitious beginners learning on their own, this book introduces the language in a colorful, easy-to-digest format; it also includes a CD to help with pronunciation. Younger learners in particular may find this book appealing. Though not a full course of study, Get Talking Chinese provides a good foundation for extended learning, with a basic explanation of various aspects of the language and plenty of cultural context. It includes a useful section on taking a trip to China, with relevant topics and vocabulary.
Hanyu Pinyin (often referred to simply as pinyin) is a system for spelling the sounds of Chinese characters in the Latin alphabet. It is the official system used in Mainland China and by most foreign students of the language. Mandarin has a very limited range of sound combinations, and in fact every syllable (i.e., every sound associated with one character) used in the entire language can be seen on the tables linked below. These resources will help you learn pinyin and Mandarin pronunciation:
- The Pinyin Mini-Guide (and its associated pages) on the BBC’s Chinese page
- Interactive pinyin table with audio pronunciations on Quick Mandarin
- A downloadable and printable PDF version of the pinyin table above
- A detailed introduction to pinyin and correct Mandarin pronunciation on Sinosplice
- Comprehensive information about pinyin on Wikipedia’s Pinyin page
There are numerous mobile apps available for learning pinyin. In general, however, these apps don’t really explain the pinyin system; they assume that you have already learned the basic rules. (They don’t explain, for example, that “c” in pinyin represents a “ts” sound; you have to infer such things from the pronunciations of the syllables.) Here are a few of the more popular apps in different formats:
- Pinyin Chart HD is a simple guide to pinyin and Mandarin pronunciation presented as an interactive table showing all sound combinations in the language. Many students may find this visual format helpful.
Pocket Pinyin is a similar app for Android that also includes the Zhuyin Fuhao (注音符号) system, popularly known as “bopomofo.”
- Pinyin Teacher, by Thimar International, is a handy reference tool with a useful “practice” feature to help you study pinyin. It is available in numerous versions: Pinyin Teacher Lite (free; compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad), Pinyin Teacher ($4.99; compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad), Pinyin Teacher for iPad Lite (free), Pinyin Teacher for iPad ($9.99)
- Pinyin Trainer, by trainchinese/Molatra, is another pinyin learning app with more features. The free version is very limited; a $2.99 in-app upgrade gives you the full version. (Also available for Android.)
These websites, books, apps, and programs will help you learn how to read and write Chinese characters and make the time-consuming process of memorization much easier:
ArchChinese: Designed for beginning students, this website has a number of very useful features for learning how to write Chinese characters (including animated stroke order charts), among other resources.
Learning Chinese Characters, Vol. 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters (Alison Matthews, Laurence Matthews): Most helpful for beginners but also a good reference tool for more advanced learners, this book uses a cartoon-based mnemonic approach to aid in memorization. It presents the characters in a logical order that also makes them easier to memorize, and it also contains useful information about each character.
Learning Chinese the Easy Way: Read and Understand the Symbols of Chinese Culture (Sam Song) presents the structure and meaning of basic characters in a helpful, interesting way. The book also provides downloadable audio files to accompany the text.
Reading and Writing Chinese: A Comprehensive Guide to the Chinese Writing System (William McNaughton) presents the 2,000 most commonly used characters in a logical order based on simple character elements, so that you learn all the constituent parts of characters (such as “radicals”) before learning the complex characters composed of them. This learning plan is effective for students taking a long-term, in-depth approach. The pronunciation, meaning, and stroke order for each character are given, along with simplified versions for characters that have them and some compound words that use the character. The book also provides some helpful information for memorizing and understanding the etymology of various characters. Available in traditional character and simplified character versions.
The apps below use a more dynamic, interactive format to help you learn how to write Chinese characters:
- Chinese Writer by Molatra/trainchinese (for iPhone/iPad) is a fun game-based app for practicing and memorizing Chinese characters. iLearn Chinese Characters takes a more systematic approach; it has a free Lite version and a full version for $4.99.
- Monkey Write is a popular Android app that teaches you how to write Chinese characters. The basic version is free; additional character sets can be purchased separately.
- A number of Chinese dictionaries available in Apple and Android formats have features such as stroke order charts and character animations to help you learn to write characters; see the dictionary section below.
Although smartphone and tablet apps have the advantage of convenience, more traditional software is still very useful for more intensive study:
Multimedia Learning Suite Chinese Characters Memory Lifter: Presented in a convenient “plug and play” USB stick format, this program uses multimedia flashcards organized by subject to help you memorize 3,000 Chinese words. Its useful features include a variety of learning modes, the ability to track your learning progress, statistical feedback on your performance, the ability to edit and expand vocabulary sets with your own data, and the ability to print flashcards. The package also includes a study guide, introductory videos, MP3 audiobooks for playback on portable listening devices, and a “Learn to Learn” booklet to help you get the most out of the system.
Although all of the resources on this page can be helpful to those learning the language, of course the best way to pursue the long-term goal of fluency is through an integrated course. Below are some recommendations regarding traditional classroom courses, book-based courses, and multimedia courses. For further details about the products and sites below, refer to these webpages:
- This post and discussion on Sinosplice about the best Chinese textbooks and other learning materials, which has a wealth of insightful recommendations from students of Chinese. Sinosplice has also listed all of its reviews of Chinese educational texts (including dictionaries, books on slang, etc.) on this page.
- The New York Times article “Ten Paths to a More Fluent Vacation” (July 24, 2012): The reader comments are also helpful.
Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors is an excellent resource for independent study or supplement to the courses below; it presents practical lessons regarding critical issues of syntax (sentence structure and word order), diction (specific word choice), grammatical particles, and parts of speech. It also highlights common errors, explaining the different conceptual tendencies of native speakers and foreign students of Chinese so that you can speak as much like a native as possible.
High school students who want to apply to a university with a good Chinese language program should consider Trinity University in San Antonio, a small private school with a top-notch Chinese department headed by Classical Chinese scholar Dr. Stephen Field, who has been developing the program over more than 20 years. In addition to a full range of Modern Chinese courses, the program offers a range of interesting classes to supplement students’ understanding of the language, including courses on Classical Chinese, Chinese civilization, Chinese philosophy, contemporary Chinese literature, and Chinese art history. Students can major in both the Chinese language and Chinese Studies. The department is well connected to various study abroad programs, and Trinity’s multidisciplinary Project for East Asian Studies at Trinity (EAST) has developed its own faculty-led summer program at the prestigious Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, which CIT is proud to be assisting with.
Here is a video introduction to EAST’s Shanghai summer program:
Chinese (Mandarin), Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand Mandarin Chinese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation): This well-reviewed audiobook (CD) conversational Mandarin course of 16 half-hour lessons is based on the Pimsleur Method. Many students of Chinese specifically recommend this course for those trying to achieve a basic level of competence in spoken Chinese. Like some of the other courses below, this one does not include lessons about the writing system. (There is also a much more expensive 30-lesson version available.)
The courses below are listed roughly in order of quality and probable usefulness, but of course such judgments are subjective, and each course has its own strengths and weaknesses. Before you decide, read the descriptions and see which one seems most appropriate for your needs as a learner. Many of them have audio, software, mobile app, and printed components in addition to the website resources.
ChinesePod differs from the other courses on this list in that it is designed specifically for learners of Chinese; the others are part of a comprehensive series of language products and thus don’t have the same focus. It is intended primarily for independent learners with busy schedules and is based on a series of podcasts, with a range of supplementary materials such as flashcards, web-based lessons, mobile apps, an online community, and teacher-led online learning sessions. Unlike some of the other courses below, it does include the Chinese writing system in its curriculum.
Rocket Chinese is getting rave reviews for its multimedia courses, which include interactive audio lessons, video lessons, games, vocabulary building materials, progress tracking, and an online community to answer your questions. Reviews say that it is particularly well suited to those who are looking to quickly achieve a basic level of speaking ability. You can sign up for a free Chinese course here.
Fluenz Version F2: Mandarin 1+2+3 with supplemental Audio CDs and Podcasts: A well-reviewed (but expensive) 3-disc, 75-lesson CD-ROM set with two audio CDs and supplemental podcasts. Since this course uses pinyin only without Chinese characters, it is appropriate for those who are only interested in learning to speak the language or who want to use this course as a supplement to other materials. The developers of this course describe it as a teacher-oriented approach, with each lesson led by a tutor. They emphasize that in contrast to other learning systems that focus on mimicking patterns, their course involves explanations of grammar and sentence structure to build clear, conscious understanding. For both PC and Mac operating systems, though Mac users should check to make sure it is compatible with recent versions of OS X.
The well-known Rosetta Stone, which pioneered a unique approach to foreign language learning based on association of words and phrases with images, offers generally well-regarded, comprehensive courses that are more appropriate for students who envision a longer course of study than for tourists preparing for a trip. Unfortunately, the Rosetta Stone system lacks a number of features that are important in achieving a broad and deep level of understanding: lessons on written Chinese (Chinese characters), cultural context, and translations of words and phrases (its pedagogical approach eschews the use of English).
Living Language offers a comprehensive approach that includes books, audio CDs, apps, online courses, “e-tutor” services, and online forums; it also offers some free content to those just getting started.
With more than 11 million members, Live Mocha is described as the largest online language community in the world. It uses a collaborative approach to learning, helping people find a language partner with whom to practice and learn and making use of member contributions and feedback. Some of its content (which includes courses, activities, live lessons, and private tutoirng) is free; some is available through a subscription-based model.
The US government’s Foreign Service Institute has made a wealth of Mandarin course material available online, including textbooks, workbooks, and audio lessons. Though these materials do not teach Chinese characters and lack the presentational refinement and flair of more commercial materials, they have been used with great success by many members of the State Department…and they’re FREE!
For old-school students, these series of textbooks offer a more traditional learning experience. For a more comprehensive list, refer to this list of Chinese textbooks used in American universities mentioned in the Sinosplice discussion linked above, as well as its list of reviews of Chinese textbooks.
Beginner’s Chinese with 2 Audio CDs (Yong Ho) is highly regarded by serious students of the language as a good starting point. Written by the head of the Chinese program at the United Nations, this new edition published in 2010 improves on some of the weaknesses of the original edition. One of the audio CDs follows the lessons; the other is specifically for practicing pronunciation of syllables.
Integrated Chinese: A series of textbooks used by many secondary schools and universities in the United States. Though some more discriminating students don’t find it very satisfactory (see the Sinosplice discussion linked above), it has received generally good reviews on Amazon, and the judgment of so many Chinese teachers and professors should not be dismissed. The series has accompanying character workbooks in both simplified and traditional + simplified formats.
New Practical Chinese Reader: An updated, more modern version of an old series of textbooks that was used by many American universities in the 80s and 90s, this revised series is still quite widely used. Produced by Beijing Language and Culture University, it also includes an audio component in .mp3 format and a series of workbooks. Unfortunately, some students have commented that the revised series, though it doesn’t suffer from the inclusion of extremely dated content, lacks the thorough explanations that were a strength of the original texts.
Mobile App-Based Courses
For simplicity, low cost, and convenience, it’s worth taking a look at Chinese educational apps like the ones below.
Chinese (Mandarin) Course – Speak and Learn Pro ($9.99), by 321Speak, and ¡Start Chinese! (Absolute Beginner Mandarin Course) ($4.99), by Mirai Language Systems/Mirai LLP, are both highly rated and inexpensive iPhone/iPad apps.
For free, convenient online reference, here are a few sites to consult:
- ArchChinese Chinese-English Dictionary: Bidirectional dictionary with a wealth of information
- Chinese-Tools.com: Bidirectional Chinese-English dictionary
- Zhongwen.com: Chinese dictionary presented in a visual format based on characters’ structure and etymology
- Google Translate: Limited but dynamic, with helpful suggestions for translating individual words or expressions as well as longer phrases
Mobile App Dictionaries
There are a number of very useful Chinese/English bidirectional dictionaries available for smartphones and tablets:
- Probably the best of these dictionaries is Pleco Chinese Dictionary, a comprehensive, free multifunction dictionary with a variety of very useful paid add-ons such as a flashcard study system. Available for iPhone/iPad and Android.
- Qingwen Chinese Dictionary ($4.99), by Karan Misra, is a popular dictionary with an audio pronunciation feature included in the base price.
- HippoDICT Lite, by RoboHippo LLC, is another useful free dictionary with a limited flashcard function; HippoDICT Plus ($9.99) is a paid version with more features.
- Hanping Chinese Classic is a popular and free dictionary for Android that is rich in features, with a number of paid add-ons.
- The Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary is a highly rated dictionary designed specifically for beginning students; it is not as comprehensive as the other dictionaries on this list.
- The Far East Chinese-English Dictionary is probably the most comprehensive Chinese-English dictionary available. Unfortunately, the English-Chinese version of this dictionary is difficult to purchase in the United States, though it is for sale on the Taiwan-based company’s website here.
- The ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary is a thorough, highly regarded dictionary.
- Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary, by Rick Harbaugh, is a very useful reference and study tool. Though it does not adhere strictly to traditional character genealogies, its unique format highlights the structural connections among various characters. The text of this dictionary is also freely available on Zhongwen.com.
Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Vocabulary (Yanping Xie and Duan-Duan Li): For intermediate-level students, this book contains a well-designed course of 200 exercises to help students understand and memorize practical vocabulary, including topics like computer terminology that are neglected in many other Mandarin sources.
The Pleco Chinese Dictionary (iPhone/iPad and Android) has helpful paid add-ons like a flashcard system, which includes HSK vocabulary lists with characters (both simplified and traditional) and pinyin. HSK stands for Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (汉语水平考试), a widely used test of Chinese proficiency.
Wikipedia’s HSK page also has a number of useful links.
Chinese Breeze (汉语风) is a well-reviewed and widely used series of 60 “graded readers” for students at 8 different levels of proficiency, ranging from the beginning 300-word vocabulary level to 4500 words. Carefully designed to introduce practical new vocabulary at a reasonable pace, they offer great practice material to help you review and consolidate what you’ve learned so far while adding new words to your vocabulary. The physical format comes with an MP3 CD (not a regular CD) to accompany the text; as of October 2012, the much cheaper Kindle format (with no accompanying audio) apparently doesn’t work on Amazon’s own Kindle e-readers but does work in the Kindle app on Android and Apple devices. The first book in the series is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors (Qin Xue Herzberg and Larry Herzberg) is, as the title suggests, a helpful guide to basic Chinese grammar patterns and mistakes commonly made by English-speaking students of Mandarin, such as those due to overly literal translations of common expressions.
Chinese Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide (by Claudia Ross, coauthor of Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar below) includes guides for pronouncing Mandarin and writing Chinese characters, information about important grammar topics, and accompanying exercises.
Niubi: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (Eveline Chao): One fascinating effect of China’s continuing growth and modernization on its popular culture is the explosion in slang expressions that has occurred in recent years, in large part because of the use of the Internet by ever-larger numbers of Chinese citizens. As in the United States, wildly creative, funny, and vulgar new slang can become popular overnight as a result of mass exposure online. Many now-common colloquialisms are given a clear and thorough explanation in this book. For anyone who wants to really speak like a native and have fun with the dynamic, living language that is contemporary Mandarin, this book is a great resource. Available for iBooks.
Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (Claudia Ross and Jing-heng Sheng Ma): For the serious student of Mandarin, this 432-page guide presents detailed, comprehensive information about contemporary grammar and usage. To make the book as useful and relevant as possible, its authors favor the practical over the obscure.
The Graded Chinese Reader series by Shi Ji (beginning with Graded Chinese Reader 1) starts out at a more advanced level than the Chinese Breeze series above. It’s also different in format, as each volume is a larger compilation of stories by famous writers. Like the Chinese Breeze series, each of these books comes with an MP3 CD presenting an audio version of the text for each story. Consider using a different seller than Amazon (see the “More Buying Choices” link on the Amazon page), whose prices for these volumes are currently much higher, but be aware that some options require shipping directly from China.
Capturing Chinese: Short Stories from Lu Xun’s Nahan (collected and edited by Kevin John Nadolny), described as “a guide to help students of Chinese read Chinese literature, learn Chinese history, and study Chinese characters,” presents a number of famous short stories by Lu Xun, one of the most important and influential writers in modern Chinese literature. The text of each story is accompanied by vocabulary notes, historical and cultural commentary, summaries, and pinyin for the entire text—everything an intermediate or advanced student needs to process this challenging material. MP3′s of native speakers reading the stories are also provided.
- April 16, 2012: Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 1
- June 18, 2012: Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 2: Flirting, Dating, Romance, Marriage, and Heartbreak
- October 10, 2012: Chinese Language and Culture Learning Resources: Tools for Mandarin Immersion