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This is a collection of the resources I’ve come across, helpful or not, while trying to improve my Chinese.
- HSK - Find your current level
- Pleco - Dictionary
- Graded Readers
- The Chairman’s Bao
- Du Chinese
The 汉语水平考试, or Chinese Proficiency Test, is a great way of assessing your level as a Chinese speaker. While I’ve never taken the test and thus can’t speak for it, knowing roughly your HSK level will dramatically help in figuring out what resources are most useful.
|HSK 1||HSK 2||HSK 3||HSK 4||HSK 5||HSK 6|
The first thing you should do is install Pleco, if you haven’t already. It is hands down the best Chinese dictionary out there, with plenty of example sentences, words a given character is in, audio for pronounciation, and more.
While the most critical features are free, a few cost money. Here are the add-ons I’ve paid for:
- Graded Chinese Reader 500 - a collection of stories, mostly badly out of date about communist farmers, with a vocabulary of 500 characters. The stories were pretty boring, and 500 characters was a bit too easy for me, but This is what got me hooked on graded readers
- Graded Chinese Reader 1000 - similar to the above graded reader, but with double the vocabulary. I lost interest about halfway through because the stories were so bad, but I don’t regret buying this at all.
- Outlier Essentials Character etymology dictionary - Chinese etymology is one of the reasons I became and remain interested in learning Chinese. It’s fascinating.
- Basic Bundle - I wound up springing for the basic bundle because I wanted to use flashcards but didn’t want to install another app. The bundle includes quite a bit, and I’d recommend it after you’ve concluded that Pleco is the right dictionary for you. In addition to flashcards, this includes stroke order diagrams, optical character recognizer, a full screen non-system handwriting input method, more dictionaries, etc. This also includes a document reader, so you can send full webpages, PDFs, and more to the app.
Other than living in China and being married to a native Mandarin speaker, graded readers have helped me the most with improving my Chinese. Reading short stories with the right vocabulary size keeps me interested, such that I can essentially “practice” my Chinese for an hour a day without it feeling like work, while still learning new words, but not so much that it slows me down.
Discovering this graded readers in general, and Mandarin Companion specifically, very quickly changed my Chinese studies from being work, and feeling bad about my lack of progress, to learning very quickly, being entertained, and not constantly fretting about the state of American politics. A huge advantage of learning this way is that you can better evaluate what, that you don’t know, is important to learn, and what is just to move on with the story.
I read somewhere that the ideal level for graded readers is one or two unknown words per fifty. More than that, and it starts to feel too much like work simply to get through the book; less than that, and you’re not really improving.
It took me a while of reading books that were too easy or too hard to figure out that I’m somewhere between a high HSK 3 and low HSK 4. If you’re higher or lower than that, your mileage may vary on the books listed below. I highly recommend investing some time in figuring out what level you’re at and looking for graded readers accordingly.
Also, don’t be fooled – these books aren’t even close to the length of a normal novel. This is frankly quite disappointing, especially because I’ve been getting really into each book, only to find out that – oops! It’s over already.
Note: be careful to manke sure you’re buying either simplified or traditional Chinese readers. For some reason this little detail is hard to find when making a purchase on either iBooks or Amazon.
Graded readers are perfect for e-books. I read them on my iPhone, which means I can read little bits here or there rather than distracting myself with Twitter.
I prefer using iBook, because reading this in an e-reader means for very easy character lookup (and quickly flipping to the glossary), and because Amazon’s Kindle app breaks a bunch of default iOS system level functions, like being able to quickly load a dictinary to “look up” a word. While iBook allows me to configure my system dictionaries for lookup, the Kindle app assumes I want to use Google Translate (I don’t), or Wikipedia (not helpful for translating), or their dictionary (which doesn’t always include Pinyin).
I love Mandarin Companion. HSK3-4 translates to a high level 2 for Mandarin Companion. I never bothered to read anything from level 1, but I did read all of their level 2:
- Journey to the Center of the Earth - I’ve never read the Jules Verne classic, but this was very exciting. Unlike the original, this takes place in Sichuan, where the narrator (罗小静) and her uncle hire 老许 to help them journey to the center of the Earth, before ending up near Taiwan.
- Great Expectations - This is a two parter (the second part here), and was loads of fun to read. Because it’s two parts, I was able to get much more invested in the characters and the story line. Unlike most English speakers I know, I’d never read this in High School, so it was pretty exciting for me when there were little plot twists. It was also hilarious when I’d talk to people about the story because I knew Pip as 吴小毛 and I just had to look up Estella’s real name, because I knew her as 冰冰.
My only complaint about Mandarin Companion is that there’s not enough of it! I’m eagerly awaiting their next level 2 or – gasp! – their first level 3 book.
Unlike Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze doesn’t translate existing works (most by famous authors), but instead writes their own stories. This means that the stories are unfamiliar, but also, um, not stellar. I’ve still very much enjoyed the books I’ve read, and plan on finishing the rest of their level 2 (HSK 3), then moving onto level 3 (HSK 3-4). These stories are also quite a bit shorter than Mandarin Companion, so be prepared to spend a bit more money at $5 or so a pop.
- An Old Painting - A junk collector comes across a valuable old painting, and drama ensues!
- If I Didn’t Have You - A young thief steals something he shouldn’t have, and meets a babe in the process
In addition to having a hilariously punny name, The Chairman’s Bao has some good, graded articles. Most of the articles at my level are kind of boring, and the higher level articles with very interesting titles are a bit of a tease. All the more reason to keep getting better!
My biggest real complain about The Chairman’s Bao is that accessing the content, which is hosted in the UK, from America is slow.
The Chairman’s Bao is a bit pricey at $80/yr (with slightly more expensive monthly plans or cheaper longer term plans), but it’s thus far been worth it for shorter readings. My initial hope when I signed up was that this would replace my other news apps (eg Twitter or RSS), but this is often so delayed or so irrelevant that it didn’t do that.
Before you sign up, I’d suggest reading some of their free articles. They aren’t that interesting, but that’s not really the point.
Du Chinese is an app with short “lessons” at various levels. The app itself is great - very easy to look up words at a glance, or you can tap a sentence and a hand-crafted translation appears at the top of the screen. You can also toggle pinyin or HSK level so it appears below each word. I never use this, but you can also listen to audio as you read to practice your pronounciation.
Similar to The Chairman’s Bao, Du Chinese is free for a few articles, with new free ones periodically. Their subscription is pretty expensive too – $90 per year, or a bit more if you get monthly or half a year. I don’t currently have a subscription to this, but will likely get one when my Chairman’s Bao subscription expires.
Like Du Chinese, the Beelinguapp is pretty great. The top half of the screen is Chinese, and the bottom half is English, so you can read along for meaning. The app really wants you to listen to the audio, though, so you can’t tap on a character to look it up or add it to a to-study list; instead, tapping on a character starts playing audio at the beginning of the sentence.
I’m not crazy about audiobooks, so this doesn’t quite work for me. But there are a bunch of great stories at various levels available for free, with others costing a reasonable amount.
Duolingo did not work for me. At all. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the patience needed to find my level, but I’m not sure the learning style really works for Chinese, which requires learning the pronounciation (or Pinyin) as well as the character and meaning. I could see how this might be useful for regularly practicing very beginner level Chinese, such that you can learn a foundational vocabulary and get comfortable recognizing characters, but after a week with Duolingo I stopped using it entirely.
I’ve also heard from friends that this works very well for them, so your mileage may vary.
I’ve taken lots of suggestions from All Language Resources, which has many more than I’ve listed here.