Ready To Ditch Your Mandarin Textbooks? Here Are Some Tips
Setting down the textbook and diving into native Chinese content can be a scary step. You no longer have vocabulary lists, grammar explanations, or pinyin. There are no set flashcard decks or workbook exercises. It is now entirely on you. Though difficult, especially at first, consuming real world content is both more interesting and effective. It is a liberating feeling — you can now study exactly what you want. But how do you go about sifting through the seemingly endless Chinese content available online? How do you know which ones to choose? In this article, I will share some of my favorite resources and how I use them to improve my Mandarin proficiency, outside of the textbooks.
Chinese dictionary Chrome extension
Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary
Great tool for learning Chinese. Includes links to Chinese Grammar Wiki. Supports adding words to Skritter.
The first step. This tool makes the transition from your textbook to the Chinese web incredibly less daunting. If my HSK textbooks had a function like this, it would have saved me countless hours. After downloading, simply enable the extension in your Chrome browser. A small text box that includes the pinyin and English translation will now appear next to any character you hover your mouse over. There are a few extensions like this out there, but the Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary is my personal favorite; it has always worked flawlessly.
Mandarin Youtube Channels
I can waste hours going down the Youtube rabbit hole. But if it’s all in Chinese, I’m technically studying, right? Over the past couple years, the great and all-knowing YouTube algorithm has given me an endless stream of Mandarin language videos. As I watched more, my Youtube homepage slowly began to fill solely with Mandarin content. Of course, there is also the Chinese equivalent of YouTube, BiliBili. Personally, I prefer YouTube. Below are some Mandarin language channels that I have found valuable.
This is one of the best educational channels on YouTube, regardless of language. Want to know how to discuss immortality, or aliens, or the biggest number in the universe, in Chinese？Here’s your guy. 李老师 is a trained Physicist and educator who caused a sensation in China through his engaging, clear, and fun explanations of complex scientific topics.
Possibly my favorite Chinese resource of all, 十三邀 offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives and thoughts of some of China’s most influential people. The episodes include in-depth, long-form interviews with economists, actors, historians, scientists, writers, and more. It is expertly filmed and has a very calm and heady vibe. The channel provided in the link above only has a handful of episodes, but if you search for more, you will easily find them. This program has been especially useful in improving my expression of abstract topics and thoughts in Mandarin; the discussions are often philosophical but also spoken in plain, conversational language.
For lighter, comedic, classic vlog style videos, this channel is a goldmine. The Up主, who goes by 老马, is subtly hilarious and has made videos ranging from his experience wandering as a vagrant in the Chinese countryside, to his frugal travels throughout India.
Lindsay has a magnetic personality and is fun to watch; it’s hard not to pay attention to her videos — they are well edited and include lots of graphics. Her Mandarin is also extremely clear, standard, and easy to understand. Being the founder of a startup, she usually talks about trends in the business world. Want to talk about Game Stonk in Chinese? Watch her video below.
Especially useful for learners trying to take their Chinese from intermediate to advanced, Mandarin Corner has been an invaluable resource in my own studies for several years. Though there is lots of content for beginners, Mandarin Corner’s video podcasts and street interviews are labelled as “intermediate Chinese”. In reality, much of the content is on par in difficulty with most native content. What makes it “intermediate”, is that Mandarin Corner painstakingly adds three layers of subtitles (pinyin, characters, and English translations) to every video. This is a midway station between your textbook and native content.
I’ll throw this on when I’m really missing Chinese food. Obviously, this is one of those shows that will make you insanely hungry. Proceed at your own risk.
This channels offers 15–20 minute movie synopses and explainations. Usually, the narrator of the video (who I think is a robot), is retelling the story of the movie, with some explanations and anecdotes sprinkled in. For me, retelling something that happened is still something I struggle with while speaking Chinese; there are just so many details (and verbs/nouns) in the everyday dealings of life. This channel has certainly helped me to get better.
You’ll notice there are no political channels in this list. That is an entire world on its own — a fascinating mixed bag of dissidents and propaganda that warrants its own article. I’ll put together a list in another article. With that said, let’s move on to some journalism.
If business related content isn’t your thing, you can skip this first part. For many learners, being able to communicate in Mandarin in a business setting is a huge incentive and motivation. Studying financial terminology, tech, trade, real estate etc. is also a great way to improve overall Mandarin fluency.
Below are three of the best sites to read Chinese language financial reportage from the mainland. Whether it’s stock analysis, foreign currency, or bitcoin, you can find it on these sites.
财经网 - CAIJING.COM.CN
Lots of publications have Chinese versions. There are thousands of Mandarin news sites available out there. The New York Times is free and has both traditional, simplified, and side-by-side English-Chinese options. However, the writing style isn’t natural. It’s a good place to up your character recognition, but if you’re wanting to improve your formal, written Chinese, I can’t recommend it. Below are my two go-tos, from both sides of the spectrum.
Xin Hua News
BBC News 中文
Basically Chinese Quora
Zhihu is a great place to read content directly from native Chinese speakers in a casual setting. It is much less formal than reading news articles and often reflects the type of language you will hear in real life.
你坐的是长途公共汽车，那破旧的车子，城市里淘汰下来的，在保养的极差的山区公路上，路面到处坑坑洼洼，从早起颠簸了十二个小时，来到这座南方山区的小县城。 你背着旅行袋，手里拎个挎包，站在满是冰棍纸和甘蔗屑子的停车场上环顾。 ...
Thanks to loose copyright laws in the mainland, you can find most books online for free. If you’re having trouble finding one through a google search, try using Bing 国内版. The novel posted above is Soul Mountain by Gao Xing Jian. I highly recommend it.
Wikipedia in Chinese
漢字在古文中只稱「字」，為與 少數民族文字區別而稱「漢字」，指 漢人使用的文字，後者稱法在近代才開始通用。作為漢語族各種漢語語言的書寫文字，汉字是迄今为止连续使用时间最长的主要文字，也是上古时期各大文字体系中唯一传承至今的。相较而言，…
Just like the English version, you can get caught in the endless Wikipedia cycle of jumping from one topic to the next, but now it’s in Chinese. I find it especially useful in beginning to study the most common characters, phrases, and words used to discuss any given topic, whether academic or otherwise.
Am I ready to start consuming native content?
Ideally, you should start as soon as possible. At the beginner level, your options are limited, but you certainly can start interacting with native content; cartoons like Peppa Pig or Chinese dubbed SpongeBob work as a nice counterbalance to the monotony of your textbook. You can also use language exchange apps like HelloTalk or Tandem to converse with real people.
The purpose of this article, however, is to share some resources for learners already at an advanced level who want to get most of their study material from native content. In my experience, this is a long, transitional phase that may take longer than you think (that is, to get the point where you can understand pretty much anything you come across). Personally, I followed the HSK track, and after getting HSK 5 certified, decided to use native content as my primary study material. I still set aside time to learn HSK 6 vocab, but it wasn’t my main concern. At first, I approached each bit of content very systematically; on a first reading or watching, there were loads of words and characters I didn’t recognize. It took me hours to read a single news article, and days after that using Anki flashcards to really memorize all the new characters. HSK may claim that you can read a newspaper at level 5, but if you never read anything outside your textbook, that just won’t hold true. All the resources listed here were tremendously helpful to me, and I hope (if you don’t know them already) they will be for you, too. Thanks for reading.