Mandarin Courses

Information about courses of study in various formats for students of Mandarin

Although all of the resources on this site can be helpful to those learning the language, of course the best way to pursue the long-term goal of fluency is through an integrated course. Below are some recommendations regarding traditional classroom courses, book-based courses, and multimedia courses. For further details about the products and sites below, refer to these webpages:

  • This post and discussion on Sinosplice about the best Chinese textbooks and other learning materials, which has a wealth of insightful recommendations from students of Chinese. Sinosplice has also listed all of its reviews of Chinese educational texts (including dictionaries, books on slang, etc.) on this page.
  • The New York Times article "Ten Paths to a More Fluent Vacation" (July 24, 2012): The reader comments are also helpful.

Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student's Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors is an excellent resource for independent study or supplement to the courses below; it presents practical lessons regarding critical issues of syntax (sentence structure and word order), diction (specific word choice), grammatical particles, and parts of speech. It also highlights common errors, explaining the different conceptual tendencies of native speakers and foreign students of Chinese so that you can speak as much like a native as possible.

College Courses

High school students who want to apply to a university with a good Chinese language program should consider Trinity University in San Antonio, a small private school with a top-notch Chinese department headed by Classical Chinese scholar Dr. Stephen Field, who has been developing the program over more than 20 years. In addition to a full range of Modern Chinese courses, the program offers a range of interesting classes to supplement students' understanding of the language, including courses on Classical Chinese, Chinese civilization, Chinese philosophy, contemporary Chinese literature, and Chinese art history. Students can major in both the Chinese language and Chinese Studies. The department is well connected to various study abroad programs, and Trinity's multidisciplinary Project for East Asian Studies at Trinity (EAST) has developed its own faculty-led summer program at the prestigious Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

Here is a video introduction to EAST's Shanghai summer program:

Audio Courses

Chinese (Mandarin), Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand Mandarin Chinese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation): This well-reviewed audiobook (CD) conversational Mandarin course of 16 half-hour lessons is based on the Pimsleur Method. Many students of Chinese specifically recommend this course for those trying to achieve a basic level of competence in spoken Chinese. Like some of the other courses below, this one does not include lessons about the writing system. (There is also a much more expensive 30-lesson version available.)

Online Courses

The courses below are listed roughly in order of quality and probable usefulness, but of course such judgments are subjective, and each course has its own strengths and weaknesses. Before you decide, read the descriptions and see which one seems most appropriate for your needs as a learner. Many of them have audio, software, mobile app, and printed components in addition to the website resources.

ChinesePod differs from the other courses on this list in that it is designed specifically for learners of Chinese; the others are part of a comprehensive series of language products and thus don't have the same focus. It is intended primarily for independent learners with busy schedules and is based on a series of podcasts, with a range of supplementary materials such as flashcards, web-based lessons, mobile apps, an online community, and teacher-led online learning sessions. Unlike some of the other courses below, it does include the Chinese writing system in its curriculum.

Rocket Chinese is getting rave reviews for its multimedia courses, which include interactive audio lessons, video lessons, games, vocabulary building materials, progress tracking, and an online community to answer your questions. Reviews say that it is particularly well suited to those who are looking to quickly achieve a basic level of speaking ability. You can sign up for a free Chinese course here.

Fluenz Version F2: Mandarin 1+2+3 with supplemental Audio CDs and Podcasts: A well-reviewed (but expensive) 3-disc, 75-lesson CD-ROM set with two audio CDs and supplemental podcasts. Since this course uses pinyin only without Chinese characters, it is appropriate for those who are only interested in learning to speak the language or who want to use this course as a supplement to other materials. The developers of this course describe it as a teacher-oriented approach, with each lesson led by a tutor. They emphasize that in contrast to other learning systems that focus on mimicking patterns, their course involves explanations of grammar and sentence structure to build clear, conscious understanding. For both PC and Mac operating systems, though Mac users should check to make sure it is compatible with recent versions of OS X.

The well-known Rosetta Stone, which pioneered a unique approach to foreign language learning based on association of words and phrases with images, offers generally well-regarded, comprehensive courses that are more appropriate for students who envision a longer course of study than for tourists preparing for a trip. Unfortunately, the Rosetta Stone system lacks a number of features that are important in achieving a broad and deep level of understanding: lessons on written Chinese (Chinese characters), cultural context, and translations of words and phrases (its pedagogical approach eschews the use of English).

Living Language offers a comprehensive approach that includes books, audio CDs, apps, online courses, "e-tutor" services, and online forums; it also offers some free content to those just getting started.

With more than 11 million members, Live Mocha is described as the largest online language community in the world. It uses a collaborative approach to learning, helping people find a language partner with whom to practice and learn and making use of member contributions and feedback. Some of its content (which includes courses, activities, live lessons, and private tutoirng) is free; some is available through a subscription-based model.

The US government's Foreign Service Institute has made a wealth of Mandarin course material available online, including textbooks, workbooks, and audio lessons. Though these materials do not teach Chinese characters and lack the presentational refinement and flair of more commercial materials, they have been used with great success by many members of the State Department...and they're FREE!

Book-Based Courses

For old-school students, these series of textbooks offer a more traditional learning experience. For a more comprehensive list, refer to this list of Chinese textbooks used in American universities mentioned in the Sinosplice discussion linked above, as well as its list of reviews of Chinese textbooks.

Beginner's Chinese with 2 Audio CDs (Yong Ho) is highly regarded by serious students of the language as a good starting point. Written by the head of the Chinese program at the United Nations, this new edition published in 2010 improves on some of the weaknesses of the original edition. One of the audio CDs follows the lessons; the other is specifically for practicing pronunciation of syllables.

Integrated Chinese: A series of textbooks used by many secondary schools and universities in the United States. Though some more discriminating students don't find it very satisfactory (see the Sinosplice discussion linked above), it has received generally good reviews on Amazon, and the judgment of so many Chinese teachers and professors should not be dismissed. The series has accompanying character workbooks in both simplified and traditional + simplified formats.

New Practical Chinese Reader: An updated, more modern version of an old series of textbooks that was used by many American universities in the 80s and 90s, this revised series is still quite widely used. Produced by Beijing Language and Culture University, it also includes an audio component in .mp3 format and a series of workbooks. Unfortunately, some students have commented that the revised series, though it doesn't suffer from the inclusion of extremely dated content, lacks the thorough explanations that were a strength of the original texts.

Mobile App-Based Courses

For simplicity, low cost, and convenience, it's worth taking a look at Chinese educational apps like the ones below.

Chinese (Mandarin) Course – Speak and Learn Pro ($9.99), by 321Speak, and ¡Start Chinese! (Absolute Beginner Mandarin Course) ($4.99), by Mirai Language Systems/Mirai LLP, are both highly rated and inexpensive iPhone/iPad apps.