Learning Chinese

[Books]   [Software and other tools]   [BookLinks]   [OtherLinks]  

People often ask me for suggestions about how to learn Chinese. Everyone's different, of course, but I thought I'd share some of my experiences / recommendations. I mostly learned Chinese on my own. I did once take one semester of second-year Chinese at Harvard, but once you learn a language on your own for a while, it's hard to fit well into any classes. E.g. when I took the class, I was great at reading and writing, but horrible and speaking and listening comprehension.

General things applicable to other languages too

One thing I can recommend is, once you've started learning, try to think in Chinese as much as you can. When you're riding the bus, or walking down the street, just continually think about "how would I say this in Chinese, how would I say that in Chinese?" Initially, it will be with simple words or phrases, but later you should be thinking about bigger phrases and sentences. Now when I'm in China, I don't think in English and then translate to Chinese -- for the most part, I just think in Chinese, and speak it directly. It makes a huge difference.

For several years after I started learning, I was often afraid of trying to speak Chinese with others because of fear of making mistakes. Finally at some point I got past that fear. And while traveling in China, I'd try to hang around with people who spoke no English, so I'd have no choice but to use Chinese. And I decided that if I say something stupid and other people laugh, so be it. My Chinese started improving more quickly after that.

For Chinese in particular

Unlike Western languages, learning Chinese has the added effort of learning Chinese characters, assuming you choose to include that in your studies. See information in the "Books" section below for some resources to help with that. But after you get started, it may be a good idea to ask any of your Chinese friends to look at the way you're writing the characters, and offer any suggestions for improvement.

You'll also want to learn how to use a Chinese dictionary to look up written characters you don't know. There are a few different ways you can do this. I don't know of written guides to explain it, so it's best to ask your friends about this too. It takes some practice to get the hang of some of the methods. And now and then, I even stump my Chinese friends when I ask them how I would look up a particularly tricky character, which is always fun to do. :-)


So, how did I learn on my own? I have looked at a lot of Chinese textbooks and related reference books over the years; here are the ones I thought were most worth mentioning.

Software and other tools

I have a Palm Tungsten E2 PDA, and bought the PlecoDict Chinese/English dictionary software for it from Pleco Software. In fact, the first dictionary they released for PDAs was an electronic version of the small red Oxford dictionary which I'd been using in hardcopy for years; I bought that software from Pleco for my old Handspring Visor PDA in 2002. They've since expanded their offerings. Their PlecoDict is really an excellent electronic dictionary for foreigners learning Chinese, much better than ones you can find in China (see the next paragraph). I've got "PlecoDict Complete", since I wanted to have as much info as I could pack into my PDA. I'm not affiliated with Pleco, just a very satisfied customer. Update, January 2010: Pleco has released a version of their software and Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone and iPod Touch (I have the latter). It is fantastic. They continue working to license very good dictionaries, have many options (some free), and tell you which of the available dictionaries have which strengths and weaknesses. I've been using Pleco's software since summer 2002. They've done a great job developing products really aimed towards those learning Chinese, and they clearly care about their customers. It's honestly one of the best companies I've dealt with, as far as helping their customers upgrade the software to newer platforms for little-to-no expense. And I am still not affiliated with them, other than as a customer (first using their products on a Handspring Visor, then a Palm Tungsten E2, and most recently an iPod Touch).

I've also had a couple of electronic Chinese/English dictionaries which I bought in China over the years. Their advantage is they (can) have much bigger vocabularies. Their disadvantage is that they lack features which would be really useful for foreigners, because they are designed for Chinese people (e.g. I have yet to find one which makes it easy to see the pinyin when looking up the Chinese translation of an English word, although sometimes you can get to the pinyin with a bit of effort). The one I have now is the model TS350 from "wen2 qu1 xing1", i.e. Golden Global View Co, Ltd. but you'll probably prefer to go to their English-language page. But I don't know if you'll find much useful information there (many Chinese companies only have a small subset of their pages in English).

Book Links

Here are links to many of the books mentioned above. Most of these are Amazon links.

Other Links

Here are some links to various other things I've found:

Hiebeler's home page
Dave Hiebeler <hiebeler@math.zzz.edu> (change 'zzz' to 'umaine' to send e-mail -- sorry, but spam harvesters are out there)
Last modified: Tue Jan 2 13:25:49 2007