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It’s always difficult to know what study aids you really need when learning a new language. Can you just go online, find some sites and start scribbling down a few words? Maybe find some videos on YouTube named ‘Learn Basic Chinese in 5 minutes!’ or buy a glossy copy of ‘Chinese for Dummies’ in your local book emporium. All of these things are great, but sometimes it’s easy to get lost or fall off the wagon when you aren’t using the right tools!
In no particular order, here’s a list of some of the essential tools we feel you need to help you study Chinese like a master!
Take a look at our Written Chinese KIT below which features many of the items in our list and several additions! Please note that our KIT contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of our links, we will receive a small fee (at no extra charge to you) that will go towards maintaining the site!
1. A Chinese Dictionary
Whether it’s an online dictionary, a mobile app for on-the-go or a good old fashioned paperback dictionary is essential for your Chinese studies! There are plenty of online and app options out there to choose from, many of which include additional features, such as stroke animations and audio. Although I use my dictionary app and the online dictionary constantly, I keep a paper dictionary handy, to cross-reference or even just to challenge myself!
You can learn a little more about using a Chinese Dictionary here.
TIP: If you want to learn Chinese properly, stay away from online translators, they will only confuse you, especially if you are a newbie to the language. Chinese sentence order and grammar differ from English and a direct translation from an app will only slow you down in the long run!
2. Educational MP3s
Audio files are a great way to learn a language on the go, especially when most of us are trying to study whilst also balancing family life and career. If you want to learn Chinese, now is not the time to feel embarrassed about repeating sentences on the bus, metro or walking down the street! There are some brill resources out there, but one of our favourites is ChinesePod. You can also listen to your audio files whilst you sleep, which is apparently a great way to improve pronunciation and fluency! Try it out for yourselves but make sure your tape doesn’t get stuck:
3. Hanzi Writing Books (田字格写字本)
As you probably know, Chinese characters have made up of stroke patterns. These can be quite difficult to master especially if you’re a beginner. This is why students in China use these funky looking writing books which have guidelines, known as 田字格 (tián zì gé). The guidelines help you to not only keep the character in the box but also provides the cross in the middle intended to help you balance your characters as well!
Although nowadays, many people are using online software and apps to practice writing characters, I personally get a whole lot of satisfaction looking back at my characters and seeing how much I’ve improved!
4. Fabric Writing Pad & Brush
Whilst I was just shouting about how great 田字格 are for writing characters, another great pair is a Chinese water pad and brush! These writing pads are basically the Chinese notebooks in a fabric form. It’s fun to practice your characters and make some non-messy mess with water at the same time. Also, its a nice reminder of those paint-with-water books you may have had as a kid.
I think this is one of the most important tools for learning Chinese. Not only does it give you a direction in which to study, but also a sense of accomplishment once you finish a unit. A book can’t really replace a teacher, but it can get you on the right learning path if taking a class with a teacher isn’t an option.
If you’re interested in picking up your first Chinese textbook, I highly recommend the Chinese with Mike series, especially if you’re completely new to Chinese. Alternatively, we also have a list of some of our favourite books, a mix of textbooks, books on calligraphy and writing Chinese characters, used and reviewed by The Written Chinese Team, and ambassadors of our Facebook group.
You can check out our Chinese book shop.
6. A Chinese teacher/ friend
So, as I mentioned above, having a Chinese ‘teacher’ can be really important when trying to study a language. Although many people will do well without one, you will no doubt have many questions about the language, such as: ‘When do I use 会， 可以 and 能?‘ ‘How do I say ‘Please stop staring at me’?’ And ‘Why did that taxi driver tell me he was from Funan…?’ All of these things can probably only be answered by someone who is either Chinese or has a good (really good) understanding of the Chinese language and culture. Of course, the other option is to find yourself a Chinese gal/guy and learn from them. Some of the most fluent speaking foreigners I know learned from their girlfriends.
One of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. Our friends at CLI (Chinese Language Institute) offers intensive ‘study abroad’ programmes in Guilin, China. Readers of WrittenChinese.Com can get a special discount for CLI’s ‘study abroad’ and ‘immersion’ programmes by using the code CLIandWC when applying for a course.
7. Chinese Music, TV Shows and Movies
One of the best and more interesting ways to study Chinese is by using Chinese movies, tv shows and music. You can access all of these things on Youku, Viki (also hosts a lot of Korean tv shows) and Kugou (you can download a desktop player to stream music). You can also find many tv shows and music videos on YouTube. Using media to learn with is not just good for your listening skills, but also for reading. Many shows on the Chinese streaming services have Chinese subtitles on the videos.
If you’ve been studying Chinese for a while and want to take it to the next level, take a look at our friends at Mandarin HQ who offer a video platform that guarantees to improve your listening skills as well as spoken Chinese to sound more native. You can try a demo of The Real Spoken Chinese Vault here and take advantage of their special price for WrittenChinese.Com readers!
8. Chinese Character Poster
This is a bit of a novelty but can make learning Characters more fun and enjoyable. Use it as your computer’s background image, or even as a printed poster (please note, our posters are digital posters, only)! There are more and more wall charts out there, including our very own Written Chinese Poster which features 521 of the most commonly seen characters. You can also download the Chinese Characters Set 1 (or set 2 depending on which poster you get) in the Written Chinese Dictionary app so you can use them to study together!
We also have digital poster bundles, featuring all 4 of our character and bigram posters in both simplified and traditional characters.
9. Voice Recorder
This one might sound old school, but tones and pronunciation can be a difficult part of learning Chinese. Recording your voice whilst speaking Chinese, and listening back to it might help correct problems that are hard to fix later on. Use your phone or tablet to record yourself speaking and play it back to hear what you think. Yes, I know, it’s awful listening to yourself, but it’s a great way to improve your spoken Chinese! if you’re having problems with your tones, don’t forget to use our Tone Trainer tool.
This might be a really obvious one, but I really love writing my characters on my own pocket-sized cards. Of course, I still study my flashcards daily, in the Written Chinese Dictionary, but for me, there’s an additional element of satisfaction when studying using physical tools as well as digital.
I use small cards that are joined with a metal ring. I’ve used them ever since I started studying Chinese, and I always go back to them!
If you’re in China, you can easily get hold of these same flashcards, but with the 田字格 to help you write characters.
11. Find a Chinese Hobby or Interest
One of the ways in which you can keep yourself motivated is to find something about Chinese culture that interests you – and go with it! You might remember Nora’s calligraphy class? Nora said it really helped her with her Chinese because she had more of a connection with the language. You could learn to play Chinese Chess, Mahjong or even learn about different Chinese tea.
12. Setting goals and sticking to them!
Goals can really help you feel motivated when learning Chinese gets you down or you feel like your studies have come to a stand still. Many people aim towards an HSK exam, but this isn’t for everyone. Setting personal goals means you’re probably more likely to succeed than trying to follow someone else’s schedule. I have a notepad where I write down 4 new words a day. During the day I look at the words and try and make sentences with them. In the evening I test myself and highlight the ones I know. If learning 4 words, or even just 1 new character is your goal, then go for it and succeed!
If you’re interested in learning Chinese, you can check out our Written Chinese Dictionary! You can learn more about our Chinese Learning Toolkit here!