Resources for learning Mandarin?

My niece has recently started learning Mandarin, and it appears that she is not dyslexic in the script - unlike Roman script, of which I have written previously. And she seems to be enjoying it. This, of course, is most welcome news. so, with Christmas approaching, I am thinking about a suitable Christmas present. Your suggestions would be most welcome.

I use the Pleco dictionary app all the time. The most useful stuff comes free but there is a premium version with some bells and whistles. There is a paid app called Skritter which is supposed to be good for learning characters, but I haven’t used it.

Here’s someone’s list of beginner Chinese resources; maybe that will help.

Thanks. Since posting my OP, I’ve been thinking along the lines of an illustrated basic dictionary. I would rather get her something physical than an app.

How old is she? There’s a series of bilingual children’s books like this; the stories are printed in English, simplified Mandarin, and pinyin. They’re also pretty cheap, at about $10 apiece.

She’s 12.

I applaud your niece for learning Mandarin. It’s not only fascinating language with an incredible history, but will be highly useful as China continues to grow as an economic world force.

In addition to beginning primers, I’d add these two great books as references she can use for years:


The first book contains individual characters and the second book combines those characters into useful sentences.

I took a couple of Adult Education reading/writing Chinese courses years ago and these books were recommended (I actually had them before attending the classes). Sadly, I didn’t take anything away from the classes except the very basic rudiments and can only guess at the written text from the handful of characters I know. These were my go to reference before Google Translate. Yes, I know machine translation has a long way to go, but it’s enough to get a close approximation of the sentence.

When I started learning Japanese, I got a book, Read Japanese Today, by Len Welsh.

It goes over how the basic kanji were developed. So, how a picture of a sun because the character for sun (日) and how a picture of a tree became the character for tree (木).

Then what was really useful is that is hows how the character of a sun behind a tree (東)became the character for “east” as that is when you would see the sun behind the tree.

It covers 400 characters.

It’s not completely historically accurate, but for getting the idea of the characters it was very useful. I credit the book for helping me get over the learning curve on kanji.

Of course, the book is for Japanese. I don’t know if there is anything like it in Chinese. I haven’t seen anything in the small bookstore here in Taiwan.

There are two major disadvantages. First, since its for Japanese, then the readings wouldn’t be meaningful. However, it’s easy enough to find the readings in an other dictionary.

The second is the it covers the traditional characters and not the simplified ones. So they give the traditional version of gate (門) rather than a simplified one.

If you could find something like that for Chinese, it could be very useful.

I think that’s the reason Quartz’s niece does better with it than Western alphabets. Every character (alone or combined with other characters (radicals) represents a single idea or thing. In Uncle Cecil’s article about reading traditional Chinese characters (hanzi), it didn’t matter where you started to read a sentence in hanzi, the reader could quickly discern where the true beginning was because the combination of characters either made or didn’t make a complete sentence.

A bit of trivia, that may not be correct. But I’ve heard that Cantonese is closer to the ancient Chinese used in the classical Chinese works, especially poems. What I do know for certain because it used to drive me crazy when trying to match the spoken Cantonese in movies to the Hanzi in the subtitles, is that while every word in Mandarin can be directly written in Hanzi, there are many words in Cantonese that are strictly colloquial and have no written equivalent.

If anyone is interested about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, here’s a great Youtube video Ben and Carmen (from Learn Chinese Now) compare how spoken and written Mandarin and Cantonese differ. My favorite part states at 06:42 says leng neiuh means pretty girl in Cantonese and Ben starts to tie himself up by saying the the Mandarin equivalent is la mei (hot little sister/young girl)!:smiley:

BTW, Ben says it quietly, but the real Mandarin phrase for pretty girl/woman is mei niu with mei a completely different character meaning beautiful/pretty. Tones are important!

This sounds of extremely limited utility, since 90+% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, and even the small amount of pictograms are not exactly photo-realistic after thousands of years of evolution.

This is not to say that the etymology of characters is not interesting or important to study as a beginner, or the different styles of script. But learning written Chinese happens exactly like any other language, namely reading and writing lots and lots of lines and flash cards.

Anyway, Learn to Write Chinese Characters (in English) by Bjorksten is worth mentioning.

ETA the Wenlin electronic dictionary is recommended

I’ve found the book Learning Chinese Characters very useful for learning basic vocabulary. It uses a unique approach where it associates each word with a little memorable story. The plot, characters and keywords in the story supply mnemonics for the character’s meaning, shape and pronunciation (including tone). It might be quite appropriate for a 12 year old with dyslexia.

Given the trouble she has with reading Roman script, I’m looking for something with fewer Roman script words.

Fluentu has some really good app for learning IMO. Check these resources and reviews here

I also first read that book in studying Japanese, ‘Read Japanese Today’. The book’s idea of pictographic representation as was mentioned isn’t 100% accurate, and it’s a bit stretched, since what you say about Chinese characters is just as true of kanji…a word which literally means of course, ‘Chinese character’. Traditional, simplified and modern Japanese forms of Chinese characters are really just different fonts not different underlying characters (with some exceptions of kanji actually unique to Japan, and give or take the different size and composition of what are considered ‘common’ characters in Chinese v. Japanese or Korean, something like 800 are very common in all three). But as a young person first studying, the simplified form of PRC characters probably does erode the thesis of that book further, as was also mentioned. It’s a fun book, at least.

How far has she gotten with learning Chinese? The most valuable things I learned in my two brief excursions into trying to learn it were stroke order/number of strokes, radicals (how different characters are formed by combining other characters) and how to look up characters by stroke count and radicals. These basics can be easily explained verbally.

I think flash cards, either separate or in book form with an accompanying audio track is a good way to go. We all learned individual English words before moving on to recognizing and forming sentences. Even the ancient scholars learned the Chinese Classics by rote, continually reciting and copying the written text.

Be careful when transliterating Japanese Kanji and Chinese Hanzi. Some characters can take on completely different meanings. One Christmas I wrote 好 好 好, Hou (good) in Cantonese / Hao in Mandarin as a joke on my stocking. My friend read it as separate characters in Kanji and joked that I was being dirty because it means girls, usually young girls in Japanese.

I can’t remember which two animals it is (I’m pretty sure the is bear), but when written Hanzi it just means <animal> <animal>, but in Kanji it could be read as baka/idiot.

I found it! 馬 horse and 鹿 deer in Hanzi just means horse and deer. However, reading it as Kanji, it means baka (idiot). It supposedly originates from the the phrase “Point at a horse and call it a deer”.

She has just started this term, so 6 weeks or so.

Mixing up Chinese and Japanese is not a big
risk for someone learning the language, any more than mixing up English and Turkish because there are Roman characters involved. Maybe if someone were studying both languages at the same time? But that is not the case here.

[btw once upon a time educated Japanese were expected to have at least a passing familiarity with Classical Chinese /Kanbun. Is that no longer the case?]

Since she’s in a formal program, I’d ask her parents or the instructor or book recommendations. I’m sure they have a set curriculum and just getting any additional books (that aren’t recommended) may confuse her more or get her into incorrect habits.