In my humble opinion, the most helpful book I have yet run across for learning Chinese is Chinese Demystified. One of the biggest problems with Chinese is that it has a lot of characters that change in meaning and even in pronunciation depending upon how you use them in a sentence. Of course, you can communicate OK in Chinese without using a lot of these characters. But, you’re always going to sound like a stupid foreigner, or a 洋鬼子 （yangguizi – foreign devil).
When I started Particularly Good Chinese, it was with the idea in mind that I’d help people really master the little particles of speech that make all the difference in Chinese (and also, to some degree, with Japanese and Korean). Chinese Demystified, in its 21 chapters, does a pretty good job of covering these essential and tricky characters.
If there is a down side to the book, it’s that the examples are few. Also, it’s often assumed that you know the meanings to several characters that have not been previously introduced. The upside is that all examples are given in simplified (简体jianti) and traditional (繁体 fanti) script. This gives you the ability to compare the two and be somewhat ready for Taiwan, if your travels happen to take you there (or, like me, you love to watch Taiwanese TV shows). However, the writing is mostly in the Beijing style, so you will still have some work to learn Taiwanese, which uses the same characters but has slightly different idioms.
Many Chinese courses try to teach you everything orally, not paying any attention to the characters, or, at best, using pinyin for pronunciation help. While pinyin can be very helpful, certain sounds are not quite as they appear to the Westerner, especially an American. We have all heard Chinese people struggle with L and R, for instance. The sound for the pinyin R is quite different from almost any R we use. To the uninitiated ear, it sounds more like an L or J. It takes quite a bit of practice to distinguish the Chinese L from R, and also Zh from J and Q from CH. And then there are the NG and N finals, or endings, which are often too subtle for western ears to tell the difference.
I like to learn how to read the Chinese characters (and Japanese for the same reason) because I am able to group words with similar sounds or meanings that are based on common 部首 (bushou), the little script parts that make up larger characters. Often, knowing the bushou can help one guess at pronunciation or meaning of new words, which helps a lot with comprehension when reading new material. While Chinese Demystified doesn’t spend any time teaching the bushou, at least it provides the script for all sentences. It really does help one to begin to get a feel for the characters and a deeper understanding of very strange sounding foreign language.
I plan to start making more text and audio learning tools based around Chinese Demystified. I also plan on concentrating more lessons on nailing the bushou.
As far as learning vocabulary, look for iPod, iPad and Android apps that work with vocabulary. Flashcard apps really help. My favorite one, before my iPod was stolen was Sticky Study. It contained all the vocabularies of the HSK (Chinese Level Tests) and was very customizable. Also, it made sure to target the characters you needed work on until you had them nailed. . For dictionary apps, I like Pleco.