The 9 Best Books to Learn Chinese (Mandarin) Fast

Kelsey Wetherbee Published on January 12, 2023
Best books to learn Chinese

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One of the most popular ways to learn Mandarin is with a textbook. Books are a traditional way to learn if you want to have clear explanations and practice exercises at hand, and they come in a wide variety to fit all kinds of language needs and budgets. To adapt to modern times, most books offer online audio components that can help you practice listening and understanding. We took a look at the best books available to learn Mandarin Chinese to help you learn this tricky language.

China has a booming economy and speaking the language can help you land a job with an international company. Even if you don’t plan on living or working in China, there are millions of Mandarin speakers around the world, and knowing some of the language can help you communicate with them. Over 1.6 BILLION people speak Mandarin, making it the most spoken language in Asia. It’s the language with the most native speakers and is the second most spoken language in the world, second only to English when non-native speakers are included in the count.

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But learning Mandarin can be daunting. There are over 50,000 written characters! But no need to fear. We’ve put together a list of the best books to help you learn Mandarin. Whatever your goals are, you’re sure to find a book on this list to help you learn Mandarin effectively.

How We Chose and Tested the Best Chinese Books

For any language learning products we’ve tested or researched, we follow a strict testing methodology to make sure our experts make the same considerations. Here are the factors we looked at when testing Chinese textbooks specifically:

  • Structure and Topics: We took into consideration how easy it was to navigate each book’s content and lessons. We also looked for useful extra features like glossaries, answer key sheets, English-Chinese translations, and more.
  • Quality of Content: To verify the quality of each book, we checked the complexity of its content, whether or not they provided detailed explanations for grammar topics, how they treated the cultural aspects of the language, and if they fulfilled their goal effectively.
  • Features Available: We reviewed additional features like audio tracks, mobile apps, flashcards, recordings, and other tools to verify that they were useful resources for Chinese students.
  • Value for Money: We took the three previous factors and compared them to the price of each to determine if they are valuable and convenient resources for Chinese language students.

Our Top Picks for Best Chinese (Mandarin) Books

Below is a table with the best books to learn the Mandarin language. Scroll down to learn more about each one.

Best Overall Mandarin BookComplete Mandarin Chinese
Best for BeginnersChinese for Dummies
Best for GrammarChinese Demystified
Best to Learn Mandarin CharactersFundamentals of Chinese Characters
Best for Mandarin Vocabulary2000 Most Common Chinese Characters
Best for SpeakingBasic Mandarin Chinese - Speaking & Listening Textbook
Best for Travelers15 Minute Mandarin Chinese
Best for Reading MandarinChinese Stories for Language Learners
Best for ChildrenMandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary

Complete Mandarin Chinese

Best Overall Mandarin Book

The Complete Mandarin Chinese book is the best overall book because it has all you need to develop the most important language skills to reach the intermediate level of Chinese. It includes grammar explanations, vocabulary, conversations, tips for learning Chinese characters, and more. The book focuses on teaching you the essential vocabulary and grammar you need to hold natural conversations with confidence, so you can start applying your knowledge from the start. The lessons follow a lineal plan, and you begin by learning basic introduction phrases and continue with the numbers, modal verbs, the participle le, and more.

Learning to speak Chinese with a book might sound tricky, but Complete Mandarin Chinese has audio tracks available through the Teach Yourself app and website to help you develop your listening comprehension and speaking abilities. You can also find cultural notes that give you the historical and social background you need to understand Chinese which, in my opinion, is the best way to immerse in the language. This book offers a lot of value, and I recommend it to Chinese students who want to add only one book to their study routine. Grab your copy of the book here.

Key Benefits

  • Provides a comprehensive introduction to all the language aspects of Chinese Mandarin, including cultural and historical background
  • Practice all language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking
  • The book has audio available online or in the app to help you practice listening, speaking, and pronouncing.

Chinese for Dummies

Best for Beginners

With Chinese for Dummies, you can start with the basics and go through common topics like introductions, asking directions, and ordering food. This is the best book for beginners because it teaches you the vocabulary you need to navigate everyday situations like shopping, exploring the town, and Chinese at school and work. The book covers complicated grammar topics such as the difference between Chinese dialects, characters, and sounds in pronunciation. There are also useful pronunciation tips that explain how to pronounce each sound and how the pronunciation can change the meaning of the word, which is very important when you speak Chinese.

Chinese for Dummies also includes a mini dictionary to help with translations and bonus audio tracks online to help you practice listening and pronunciation. There are many differences between Chinese and English, but Chinese for Dummies offers everything you need to begin your studies and start developing your vocabulary, grammar, listening, and speaking. I recommend this book to complete beginners who want to learn conversational Chinese quickly and effectively. Find out if this is the right book for you here.

Key Benefits

  • Explains vital grammar topics with clear and concise explanations to help you understand the basics of the language
  • The book includes exercises and audio you can use to review what you study and perfect your skills
  • Listen to bonus audio tracks online to hear the different sounds for Chinese pronunciation and practice speaking

Chinese Demystified is the best book to study Chinese grammar because it has straightforward and clear explanations that take you through basic to advanced topics. The content is laid out in a way that is easy to understand and follow and progressively builds on what you previously learned. The book uses Pinyin, traditional, and simplified characters to help you study no matter how far you’ve advanced in learning the Chinese writing system. If you’re struggling to understand Chinese grammar, this book breaks down the language from basics like vowels and consonants to the many types of verbs and how to apply the different participles.

Because there is no CD or online audio, it’s better to use this book alongside other audiovisual materials like a language app or once you have a basic understanding of Chinese. The book has helpful examples that show how to tackle pronunciation, but it’s always better to practice with an audio component to make sure you understand the sounds. However, if you already know some Chinese and want to focus on working on your grammar skills, Chinese Demystified can teach you why, when, and how to apply grammatical rules with ease. Check out the book here.

Key Benefits

  • Provides detailed grammar explanations for beginner to advanced-level topics
  • Take tests to check your understanding and progress
  • The book uses Chinese characters in simplified and traditional formats to help you study regardless of your level

Fundamentals of Chinese Characters

Best to Learn Mandarin Characters

Fundamentals of Chinese Characters is the best choice to learn the Mandarin alphabet because it teaches you meaning, stroke order, and how to apply each character in context. In this book, you learn the Chinese characters by frequency order and practice writing them with interactive practice exercises. First, you’re introduced to a Chinese expression, and then you study the characters included in that phrase. This is an easy way for complete beginners to become familiar with and start building a foundation on the language.

The book includes a rhyme for each character (which helps with memorization) and pronunciation tips to help you speak. It’s not meant to be a stand-alone book to learn the language in its entirety, but it is a comprehensive guide that teaches simplified Chinese characters. While some might argue that the characters used in the basic Mandarin phrases are not the easiest to learn, I think this book can teach you the language you’re most likely to use in daily life. If you want to become fluent in Chinese or prep for the HSK, you need to be able to recognize and write the characters, and this book is a good way to start. Find out if you like the book here.

Key Benefits

  • The book introduces the characters to essential phrases used in greetings and general conversation, which allows you to understand basic Chinese
  • Uses rhymes to help you remember each character
  • You can complete interactive exercises to practice or reinforce your knowledge

2000 Most Common Chinese Words in Context

Best for Mandarin Vocabulary

2000 Most Common Chinese Words in Context is the best book to learn Mandarin vocabulary because, as its title says, it introduces you to the 2,000 most used words in the language. The words are listed in frequency order, so you can learn the most useful vocabulary first instead of focusing on uncommon language. Each word includes translations and examples in both Chinese and English to help you understand its meaning and how to apply them. All words also come with their phonetic spelling written in the Roman alphabet, which can give you clues for the pronunciation even if you aren’t familiar with all the Chinese characters.

In my opinion, the approach that the book uses to increase your vocabulary is the most efficient if you want to become conversational. Many books teach formal language only, which is useful but won’t allow you to communicate with Chinese native speakers with the same ease. With this book, you can study and start developing your language skills to hold conversations on a basic level. Additionally, there are also tips and tricks to help you study Mandarin more effectively. You can check out the book here.

Key Benefits

  • The book introduces you to the 2,000 most common words in Chinese in frequency order to help you understand the language on a basic level
  • There are example sentences in Mandarin and English as well as the pronunciation for each phrase written in the Roman alphabet so you can practice speaking regardless of your level of Chinese
  • It includes tips and tricks to help you learn Mandarin with ease

Basic Mandarin Chinese – Speaking & Listening Textbook is specifically designed for English speakers who want to learn Chinese and focus on the common issues they might encounter. To do this, the book uses Pinyin to tackle two skills that are often difficult to learn with a book: speaking and pronunciation. This is the best book to learn how to speak in Chinese because it teaches you pronunciation through the official Chinese romanization system, which allows you to study the language without having to rely on English. Sometimes using English to learn languages that are significantly different, like Chinese, can cause learners to not be able to understand the language in its spoken form, so I think the approach of this book is truly effective for its purpose. Note that this means the lessons won’t center on Chinese characters, which is more common in reading and writing.

The book has a written pronunciation guide but includes audio of native speakers correctly pronouncing the words and phrases so you can imitate them. Because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, speaking with the right pronunciation is extremely important to avoid making embarrassing mistakes. With this book, you can complete a variety of pronunciation exercises, study topics by occasion, and learn Chinese you might hear in a classroom. I recommend this book to all language learners who want to develop their pronunciation on their own. Basic Mandarin Chinese also explains grammar and cultural meaning, so this is a valuable and comprehensive resource to fit into your study routine. See what you think about the book here.

Key Benefits

  • The book uses Pinyin to help you correctly pronounce and speak Chinese from the start
  • It includes audio and video recordings so you can listen and imitate the way native speakers speak
  • The lessons were specifically designed for English speakers learning Chinese, so they take language differences into consideration

15-Minute Mandarin Chinese

Best for Travelers

15-Minute Mandarin Chinese is best for travelers or people who need it for business because it can teach you the most important aspects of the language in a short amount of time. The idea is that by studying every day, you can complete the course in 12 weeks. The book is divided into 12 themed chapters that consist of five 15-minute lessons that cover basic topics like introductions, eating and drinking, making arrangements, and traveling to help you study all you need to know to communicate at a basic level.

Each daily lesson has a warm-up activity to help you recall what you’ve already learned, useful phrases, and cultural tips about China. To me, the level of detail this book offers guarantees that you will be able to successfully communicate with native speakers because it tackles basics like saying hello in different ways, hand gestures, and the correct way to address people. The book also has a strategically placed flap that allows you to cover the answers to test how much you remember, as well as an app you can use to listen to pronunciation audios. I recommend this book to everyone who is in a hurry and needs to prep for an upcoming trip. Learn more about 15-Minute Mandarin Chinese here.

Key Benefits

  • Learn essential Chinese in a short period of time and prepare for your upcoming trip
  • Read cultural tips and useful phrases to deepen your understanding of Chinese
  • The lessons are brief but offer a lot of detail so you can easily learn how to interact with Chinese speakers with different levels of formality

Chinese Stories for Language Learners

Best for Reading Mandarin

Chinese Stories for Language Learners is the best for reading Mandarin because you practice reading texts written completely in Chinese and learn sayings and proverbs. China is very famous for its wise proverbs, which can teach you a lot about Chinese history and culture. Chinese Stories for Language Learners has 22 stories that tell the origin of classic Chinese proverbs such as “Painting the Eyes on the Dragon” and “Waiting for Rabbits by a Tree Stump.” Each story has the original Chinese version side-by-side with the English translation to help you understand.

The book also includes cultural notes, vocabulary lists, and discussion questions for the stories so you can review what you learned and test your reading comprehension. Overall, I think this is an effective way to practice reading while learning more about the culture. Many books overlook the strong connection between the Chinese language and its sayings, so it’s nice to see that Chinese Stories for Language Learners took the time to explain them in a clear and concise manner. Of course, this is probably not the best option for beginners who are still studying the basics of the language, more advanced learners will find it to be an easy way to start reading Chinese. Grab your copy of Chinese Stories for Language Learners here.

Key Benefits

  • Read 22 stories that tell the origin of famous Chinese proverbs to understand the way of thinking, history, and folklore of China
  • Each Chinese story comes with a side-by-side English translation to help you understand the content
  • The audio recordings supplement your study and reading experience

The Mandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary has over 10,000 illustrated words with translations into English. The book is arranged by themes that cover everyday situations like animals, family members, plants, and more. It’s a great book for children to start learning the language, but it’s a useful resource for anyone who’s learning Mandarin and wants to increase their vocabulary.

The book uses simplified Chinese characters as well as the Pinyin pronunciation so you can learn how to say each word along with its meaning. You can also download an app to hear the correct pronunciation of the words. While the book is essentially a dictionary, I think it’s an easy way for children and complete beginners to start exploring the language without pressure. It covers a broad scope of vocabulary, so there’s much to learn. Find out if you like the book here.

Key Benefits

  • The book has 10,000 illustrated words to help you study in a fun and easy way
  • The words are written in Chinese characters and Pinyin so you can learn their meaning and pronunciation
  • The book gives you access to a free app you can use to hear the correct pronunciation of Chinese words

Other Chinese Learning Books We Researched

We reviewed many Chinese learning books in order to build this list. Here are some that weren’t included:

  • Learn Mandarin Chinese Workbook for Beginners: This is a 2-in-1 book that teaches you to write the different Chinese characters, introduces pinyin pronunciation, and includes the cultural background you need to understand Mandarin. While it can be a thorough way to start writing Chinese, it doesn’t provide any grammatical explanations or examples for sentence structure, so it’s not the best tool for beginners.
  • Learn Chinese: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning Chinese for Beginners: This book promises to be everything that you need to understand Chinese grammar and vocabulary, and start developing your conversational skills. However, even though it includes an extensive phrasebook, short stories, and an audiobook, some of its content is too advanced for beginners to understand clearly and it lacks the visual elements it needs to be an engaging study tool.
  • Reading and Writing Chinese: This book teaches you 1,725 of the most frequently used Chinese characters, the correct stroke order for each, and their simplified and traditional forms. The book provides plenty of explanations of use, derivations, examples, and space for you to practice drawing each character, but it won’t teach you how to form sentences so it can only be used as a supplement to other study methods.
  • Chinese Short Stories for Beginners: The book includes 20 entertaining stories for Chinese learners to start reading in the language. It’s designed to help increase your Chinese vocabulary and understanding of the language, but some of its content can be too advanced for beginners to get through with ease.

Why You Should Use Books To Learn Chinese

Books are one of the best ways to learn Chinese. They can be useful for self-study or used with a tutor. They provide detailed explanations of important language topics, example sentences, practice activities, and more. And when compared to taking private lessons or an in-person course, books are an inexpensive and affordable way to learn. They’re also convenient because you can take a book anywhere.

How To Use Books To Learn Chinese

A Chinese book is most helpful when used in addition to other language resources. Books provide excellent explanations and can be a great way to learn vocabulary, but there are other, more effective, ways to practice necessary skills like speaking and listening. For this, it’s beneficial to include a language app or online course in your study routine to cover all skills.

It’s also a good idea to create a study plan so you can stay on track and achieve your language goals. Studying at least a few times every week is important to remembering and building upon what you already learned. You can set daily reminders on your phone or find a study buddy to help keep you accountable.

Best Books To Learn Chinese – Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article has helped guide you to a book that can boost your Chinese to the next level. Learning Mandarin is a fun and rewarding experience, but it takes hard work and dedication. But if you stick with it and continue to study on a regular basis, you’ll be speaking and understanding before you know it!

Is there another book that you enjoy using? Feel free to leave it in the comments section!

Best Books To Learn Chinese: FAQ

What is the best Chinese book for beginners?

The best book for Chinese beginners is Chinese for Dummies because it covers all important language topics without being overwhelming. The book starts from the basics and doesn’t assume you already have a base level of Chinese. This book can help you learn grammar, vocabulary, culture, speaking, and more.

What is the best source to learn Chinese?

There are many good sources to learn Chinese, but most importantly you want to make sure that you’re using a reputable one. Language apps like Rocket Chinese, ChineseClass101, and Mondly are effective at helping you learn Mandarin. You can also use a self-study book like Complete Mandarin Chinese or Chinese for Dummies to gain an overall understanding of the language.

Can I learn Chinese in 2 years?

Realistically, it will take you longer than 2 years to become proficient in Chinese. It’s considered a difficult language by the US Department of State because it is significantly different from English. But there are many factors that determine how long it will take you to learn Chinese. Some key factors are how much you already know, what level you want to reach, and if you already speak a language that’s similar to Chinese.

To see how long it will take you to learn Chinese, check out this fluency calculator.

How can I learn Chinese by myself?

There are many ways to learn Chinese by yourself. One of the most popular ways is to use a language app like Pimsleur or Mondly. There are also many books available that can be used as self-study guides. They include detailed explanations of important grammar points, vocabulary, and notes about how the language is used. Chinese Demystified is a great book to start learning Chinese by yourself.

Kelsey Wetherbee

Kelsey is the Content Manager and Editor of Langoly. She is a TEFL-certified English teacher with more than eight years of classroom experience in three different countries. She’s an avid language learner with an advanced level of Spanish and is currently studying French. Whenever possible, she loves to travel and enjoys meeting people from all over the world. Connect with Kelsey on LinkedIn.

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