Being Excited about Textbooks & Dictionaries (And, a Run-down of the Resources I Use to Study Chinese)

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But, you know something has changed in life when you are excited about new textbooks and dictionaries coming out. Seriously.

I’m excited about the new, updated edition of the Routledge: Comprehensive Chinese Grammar, which just came out in a few months ago – in October. I recently ordered it, just waiting on it to show up in the mail. I’m also super excited about the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters coming out in May this year. These guys raised over $90k on Kickstarter last year. I’ve pre-ordered mine already.

That said, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of everything I use (or have used) to study Mandarin.

What I use now, on an almost daily basis:

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    • Pleco – mobile app. Pleco is probably my number one/ go-to Chinese app. On the surface its a Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary, or really a dictionary portal, where you can add various other supported dictionaries to it (and search multiple dictionaries at once). It has many good free dictionaries, but also several paid add-on dictionaries as well. (Soon to be including the Outlier Dictionary mentioned above, coming in May) It also has a lot of add-ons, some free and some paid, including a pretty comprehensive and customizable flashcard section, an OCR image reader, document and web reader, male and female audio pronunciation, etc. It’s just a great resource for looking up new vocabulary very quickly. I recently made the Taiwan Ministry of Education dictionary my main dictionary on Pleco, which is actually a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. I did this both get away from Chinese-English dictionaries a bit and delve more into Chinese definitions for Chinese words, but also because I trust the Taiwan Ministry of Eduction more on characters, tones, and word choice when it comes to usage in Taiwan than I do some of the other dictionaries which may tend to favor Mainland China usage (There are some noticeable variations here – think British English vs. American English).

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    • ChinesePod – I’ve used ChinesePod before, but I’ve ramped up my ChinesePod usage this time since being back in Taiwan. This is mainly due to a recommendation from my friend Sia – who recommends ChinesePod heavily both on his website and in his book. It’s about $30 a month for full access, but it’s worth it, especially if you can find the time to listen to it everyday. I mainly use the mobile app – which allows you to quickly and easily listen to all of the lessons. Every lesson centers around one short conversation in Mandarin, and then a much longer explanation of the words, grammar, and usage in that conversation. For the first three levels (Newbie, Elementary, and Intermediate) these explanations are mainly in English, with more an more Mandarin being used as you move up in level. By the time you get to Upper Intermediate, the explanations are almost all in Mandarin.

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    • iTalki – iTalki is my favorite resource for easily finding one-on-one language tutors. The site also has a language exchange partner section – but I don’t really use it for that. I use it only for the paid teachers (basically I just don’t feel like teaching English, in exchange for someone teaching me Mandarin – I’d rather just pay money and only speak in Mandarin). All of the lesson from iTalki teachers are done over Skype – so I can wake up and have a Chinese class while I’m still in my pajamas. You just can’t beat that kind of convenience. The biggest downside for me is there aren’t really any full-time Taiwanese teachers on the site, so I have to use Mainland China-based teachers and then double-check all the new vocabulary I learned afterwards with Taiwanese friends to see if that word is actually used in Taiwan, or used in the same way. This could actually be a positive though, as I’m getting a deeper understanding of the language, by getting better glimpse at usage and differences on both sides of the Straight. I also use iTalki for the journal feature – where I can write a journal entry in Mandarin and native speakers can help me by correcting my grammar and word usage.

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  • HelloTalk – HelloTalk is an mobile app for finding language exchange partners. I like it because it seems to have a lot of Taiwanese users, so its a good resource for quickly picking up new and useful vocabulary that is actually in common usage. But, mainly I just like the features around the app – you easily translate words or convert characters to Pinyin, and you can easily correct your language partner’s sentences. Mainly because of this sentence correction feature, my girlfriend (who is a native-Mandarin speaker) and I have actually moved to using HelloTalk as our main messaging app (instead of Facebook Messenger, LINE, or WhatsApp), because I can easily correct her English words/grammar and she can easily correct my Mandarin words/grammar right there in the app and doing so doesn’t impede on the conversation at all.

Other resources I use occasionally, or have used before:

Video-based material:

FluentU

  • FluentU – I’ve always been a big fan of FluentU and the concept behind it. They use Youtube videos in the native language to teach you the language – this starts with commercials mainly at the lower levels, some segments from shows aimed at children like Sesame Streets, and then moves up to music videos and later into News programs and TED talks. Great idea. And, great resource. I used to really use it heavily – and still remember a lot a words and phrases because of it. I don’t use it so much anymore, mainly just because I do a lot of my Chinese studying on the go now (on my mobile) – they have a mobile app and it works well – but, honestly, because their platform is based around streaming YouTube videos, it’s really just a battery killer for me. This is also because I have a really old phone. I plan to upgrade to a newer phone soon and when I do so, I hope to be able take another look at the FluentU app and use it more. The other downside to FluentU for me is that they built their platform using simplified characters first, and then somehow converted to traditional for the users who would rather use traditional characters. Because of this, there a lot of errors in the traditional character set. They are good about responding and fixing these errors when you point them out, and I’ve personally helped them fix dozens of them already, but it still is a downside knowing that the traditional character set is not to be trusted and any new word learned must be double-checked using other resources.

 

Spaced-repition Flashcard programs and apps:

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    • Anki – Anki is the popular open-source space repetition flashcard program. I used it initially when I first got to Taiwan. SRS has its uses in language learning – but I’ll get to that more in another post. Anki is great for what it is, but personally I prefer Pleco’s built-in SRS flashcard system more, just because of the easy integration with searching the Pleco dictionary.

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    • Skritter – Skritter is another popular spaced-repition app that I’ve used on and off again over the past couple of years. It focuses on writing Chinese characters particularly, but also has modes for testing for character recognition, definition, and tones as well. I like it, because it really just feels like a game when you use it – they’ve really kind of gamified the writing character experience. It’s also nice because it has a lot of useful vocabulary decks already available – including decks for all of the ChinesePod lessons if you have ChinesePod account. I don’t use it currently, because I’m both pushing myself to get away from SRS and flashcard systems and also because its fairly steep at $14.99 a month, especially if you are not focused on learning to write characters at the moment.

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  • Memrise – Memrise was really my first love when it came to spaced-repition programs. I used it very heavily when I studied Japanese a few years ago. I like it because it combines a game-experience with spaced-repition with mnemonics – and the idea behind it is really heavily on the mnemonics, such that you can use mnemonics created by other users to help you remember things. I used it heavily when I studied Japanese – but with Chinese I really only used it to learn Bopomofo, as I never really liked any of the Chinese vocabulary lists that are already on the platform.

 

Textbooks/Books

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    • Practical Audio Visual Chinese series This is a five-part textbook series for learning Mandarin used heavily in Taiwan. I went through the first two books in the series with a Chinese tutor a couple of years ago. It was a good foundation. After that, I tried to go through book 3 on my own, but quickly got bored of slogging through a textbook on my own and didn’t get very far. I would recommend the first two books for the basics – they do a great job at introducing basic important vocabulary and grammar. But, after that, I’m not neccassirly sure going through all 5 books is worth the time and investment of slogging through a textbook series.

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  • Remembering the Traditional Hanzi – This is a method of learning Chinese characters, originally introduced by James Heisig for learning Japanese actually, and the Remembering the Kanji books are very popular amongst Japanese students. I of course, first heard about the books when I studied Japanese. The Mandarin version is a two-part series, with book one meant to introduce the most common 1,500 characters and book 2 meant to get you up to 3,000. I made it through book 1 and the first couple of chapters of book 2 a couple of years ago (while using Skitter to supplement). It’s a decent system for what it is – but is has its limitations. For one, the focus is around mapping the characters to an English keyword to understand their meaning. Personally though, as I know more about Chinese and how the language works, I’m actually against this approach. Yes, it may be useful for creating mnemonics and some memorization, but it actually overlooks sound components totally and misses out on a lot of the logic already built-in to the Chinese language by forcing these sometimes rather obscure English keywords onto them. Personally, if you’re looking to get into learning Characters – I’d recommend holding out until May for the Outlier dictionary mentioned above. I think that will ultimately prove to be the much better system.

 

Learning Tones

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  • The Mimic Method: The Flow of Mandarin – tones are best learned through hearing and mimicking native speakers. Idahosa’s Mimic Method course covers all of the ones and all of the sounds in Mandarin and gives a great solid introduction to the flow of the Mandarin language. Coupled with one-on-one feedback and always focusing on the sounds and tones giving you the most trouble: one of the best things I probably ever did for my Mandarin was starting with this course first when I got to Taiwan back in 2013.

 

Conclusion

That’s pretty much all of the resources I use or have used for learning Chinese. I’m still looking for a good resource for reading native material (i.e.: not a textbook), and I’m currently experimenting with reading books by English authors translated into Chinese, and reading both the Chinese book and the English book at the same time. Let me know if you know of anything good for reading Chinese material – preferably something mobile based. If I don’t find anything I like, I may just be forced to create a new app myself.

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