Chinese Learners Needed (free practice!)

AllSet Learning is doing some teacher testing, and we could use the help of a few learners. So if you’re looking for about an hour of free Chinese practice talking to several different teachers, it’s your lucky day. Our office is in the Jing’an area.

1-on-1 Teacher Interaction

Activity Details:

  • Activity dates are Monday, Nov. 23rd, 3pm …OR… Thursday, Nov. 26th, 7pm
  • Location is at the AllSet Learning office in Shanghai (map here)
  • Sorry, no Skype! This has to be in person
  • Your level should be in the A2-B1 range, which means elementary to intermediate (OK with most basic communication, but perfect by no means.)
  • You have to be OK with us recording the session for private analysis (we will never make the recording public)
  • We will provide materials and give you a litle time to prep (it’s not going to be just the same boring taxi driver conversations you’re used to)
  • Email me, and we’ll coordinate beforehand, so I can choose material you actually want to discuss

It should be a fun way to get some free practice in. Please email me if you’re interested!

Chinese Picture Books as Learning Material

I remember the first time I had the great idea to use Chinese children’s books as study material. I had been in China for about a year, and having exhausted my old textbook, I was starved for more interesting material. I came upon a book store, and, realizing how cheap books in China were, had the revelation that I should start learning from Chinese children’s books. It was so perfect, and so obvious… why hadn’t I done this earlier?!

Then reality came crashing in. There was a very good reason why I everyone wasn’t already doing it already: Chinese children’s books are meant for native speaker Chinese kids, and as such, they generally don’t make good material for foreign language learners. But why??

Before I talk about my conclusions as to why, let me just share a few examples from my local book store. This is no scientific survey, but I did my best to select from a number of different publishers and different types of children’s books. The pages I photographed are more or less random. I’m adding a few comments about the suitability of these stories for a high A2 (elementary) or low B1 (intermediate) learner.

Fairy Tales



  • Note the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character… both annoying for a learner of Chinese.
  • The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
  • Notable difficult words: 果然、蹲、急忙、吩咐、目露凶光、黄灿灿、铜钱、打火匣、看守、披

Chengyu Stories



  • Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
  • The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
  • Notable difficult words: 南辕北辙、中原、楚国、却、驾车、满不在乎、盘缠、摇摇头、糊涂、方向

Morality Tales



  • Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
  • The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
  • Notable difficult words: 恰巧、沼泽、女妖、魔鬼、祖母、参观、酒厂、老妖婆、地狱、一尊、石像、整天、烂泥、妖怪、谈论
  • The density of hard words in this book is really high, based on this page




  • Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
  • The tone is less formal here, and the words used feel more oriented to kids, but a lot of the words are the type that native speaker kids could understand in the context of a story but would not use themselves; these are the words that would really trip up a lot of foreign language learners.
  • You can see that on this page the character is being taught, and yet there are much, much more difficult characters on this page. This highlights the fact that the book is meant to be read to the child; the child is not meant to read it.
  • Notable difficult words: 懒、踢、脚、穿、接住、并、蹦、跳、突然、轰隆、一道、裂痕、瞬间、掉

I Go to Kindergarten



  • This is my favorite of the bunch; I actually bought this book for my daughter as psychological prep before she started kindergarten.
  • The characters are not too hard, but no pinyin! Finally…
  • The tone is informal, and this is the kind of language that Chinese parents would expect their children to fully comprehend, in context.
  • Somewhat difficult words: 嗨、全班、春游、别提、运动鞋、背着、排好队伍

Marvel Superheroes



  • No pinyin here, and this one is definitely higher difficulty level.
  • Difficulty-wise, a high B1 (approaching upper intermediate) learner could probably tackle this, if sufficiently motivated.
  • Notable difficult words: 技术、拯救、反派、威胁、社会、消灭、责任、邪恶、存在、身影、而、则、视……为……、心腹之患、试图、保护、善良、顺利、或者、完成


Most Chinese children’s books are too hard for Chinese learners. It’ll be a frustrating slog to read many books (especially those chosen at random), and all the pinyin is likely to be less helpful than you think. There are some good ones suitable for foreign learners out there, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Randomly choosing children’s books for reading practice is not recommended.

But WHY???

I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time already, and my conclusion is that when the average Chinese parent reads a book to her child, the goal is more education-oriented than pleasure-oriented. I know a lot of American parents that work very hard to instill a love of reading in their children, so enjoyment is extremely important. Chinese parents, however, are under a mountain of pressure to get their kids into the best schools in an environment of intense competition. Of course they hope their children like to read, but it’s kind of beside the point. The real goal is to help their children pick up characters and vocabulary as quickly as possible.

If the goal is acquiring characters and vocabulary, it makes sense that the language introduced in these Chinese children’s books is going to be more advanced than one would expect. The children are native speakers, already fluent in Mandarin, and the story provides a clear context. Therefore, why not drop a few extra difficult words and characters on every page? It’s for the kids’ own good!

But wait… there’s HOPE!

There is hope for learners that really want something to read. (Little disclaimer: the following is going to be partly self-promotional, because this is one of the major problems in the Chinese learning industry that I’ve devoted my career to solving.) If there is enough interest among my readership, I’ll consider compiling a list of Chinese books by Chinese publishers suitable for learners (kind of like the kindergarten book above). For now, I’ll focus on several resources that are available to those outside of China.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park is a print bilingual picture book by AllSet Learning, adapted from its original app form. The language is practical and informal, perfect for A2 adult learners as well as children. It’s now available on Amazon.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

The Chairman’s Bao is a website that takes news stories and simplifies them into simpler, shorter articles. See my longer review here. This is great for intermediate learners that want to start working toward reading actual news. Includes audio.

The Chairman's Bao: home page

The Chairman's Bao: so many girlfriends

Mandarin Companion creates graded readers (short novels without pinyin or translation) meant for learners of a high elementary or low intermediate level. We’ve got five Level 1 books out, and feedback is great. Our next two Level 2 books are coming out any day now. Books are currently available on the international Amazon website, but not the Chinese one.

Mandarin Companion: Level 1 Titles

Chinese Breeze is the original Chinese graded reader brand. It has cheaper books and more titles out, at levels ranging from high elementary to intermediate. If you’re going for quantity, look here. Books are currently available on both the international Amazon website, and the Chinese one.

If you have any other reading material to add, please leave a comment and share!

Extreme Code-switching with Chinese CEOs

Image from page 101 of "Switchboards for power, light and railway service, direct and alternating current, high and low tension" (1906)

David Moser recently attended a professional conference and shared this observation about code switching. I’ve edited the content just a little bit to anonymize it, but preserved the original text when possible:

I attended an all-day series of talks today. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English. One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with [quite a few big-name CEOs]. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese. It is simply impossible for them. Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two. I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying. Here are some examples:

  1. 我们公司最近 celebrated 我们的 16th birthday.
  2. 小刘,我 wonder 你能不能预测这个 market trend 如何?
  3. 你要上课,必须得上那些可以 get involved 的东西。
  4. 你最好还是 enjoy 这个过程。
  5. 这么做,我真是出于 passion 才行。但这个 passion 的 definition 是啥?
  6. 这个 particular 中国 market 是非常 fragmented, 但那 bubble 后来 busted 之后,我们可以 reconsider 我们的 options.
  7. 他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators.
  8. 我觉得中国人比美国人有更多的 desire.
  9. 张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations.
  10. 我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not.
  11. 没有,我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth…
  12. And this delightful misunderstanding:
    A: 这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient.
    B: The juice of the Orient? 东方的橙汁??

And on and on. These poor elite CEOs literally can no longer speak like normal people. This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I’ve never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.

I like #6 the best. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Moser!

Chinese Place Names in the Hyperion Cantos

It’s been a few weeks since I finished Dan Simmons’ sci-fi classic quadrilogy, the Hyperion Cantos. It was a great story, full of grand sweeping ideas, and one thing that got my attention was the repeated use of Chinese names (especially in Book 4).

Anyone studying Chinese might be a little thrown off by the use of the (mostly) Wade-Giles transcription instead of pinyin, but the names are all right out of Chinese history and geography (with a few errors).

Here’s a list of all the major ones I caught, with notes following (please leave a comment if I’ve missed anything):

Hyperion Pinyin Characters Notes
Tsingtao-Hsishuang Panna Qīngdǎo-Xīshuāngbǎnnà 青岛西双版纳 [Notes]
T’ien Shan Tiān Shān 天山 [Notes]
Hsuan-k’ung Ssu Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺 [Notes]
Hua Shan Huà Shān 华山 [Notes]
Heng Shan Héng Shān 衡山 / 恒山 [Notes]
T’ai Shan Tài Shān 泰山 [Notes]
Sung Shan Sōng Shān 嵩山 [Notes]
O-mei Shan Éméi Shān 峨眉山 [Notes]
Chiu-hua Shan Jiǔhuà Shān 九华山 [Notes]
Wu-t’ai Shan Wǔtái Shān 五台山 [Notes]
P’u-t’o Shan Pǔtuó Shān 普陀山 [Notes]

Tsingtao-Hsishuang Panna

It seems odd to bring together the city of Qingdao (青岛) and the southern region of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) into a name for a planet. In fact, the only way they make sense in my mind is drinking a Tsingdao (beer) in Xishuangbanna (a touristy region of Yunnan Province). Maybe that’s Simmons’ little secret for this planet?


T’ien Shan

Tian Shan (天山) is actually a system of mountains, so it makes sense to use as a name for a mountainous planet. It’s also got a nice picturesque name, meaning “mountains of heaven.” Those of us the live in Shanghai might recognize it from the street name: 天山路.

天山山脉西段航拍 / West Tian Shan mountains

Hsuan-k’ung Su

Normally referred to as the “Hanging Temple” in English, this fantastical Buddhist structure is a real thing, located in China’s Shanxi Province.

Hanging Temple 2011

Hua Shan

Hua Shan (华山) is one of China’s “Five Great Mountains,” so it’s an obvious candidate for inclusion. Interestingly, at one point in Rise of Endymion the mountain is referred to as “Flower Mountain” (花山), but this is almost certainly a mistake based on similar romanization, considering that there are no obvious candidates from the list of possible 花山s in China, and pretty much all the other mountains listed can be found on this list of the “Sacred Mountains of China.” (There’s another Shanghai street name here too.)

hua shan

Heng Shan

I’m not sure whether Heng Shan refers to 衡山 or 恒山; both are in the list of “Give Great Mountains,” and the pinyin (including tone) is identical. I’m assuming Simmons wisely used one “Heng Shan” for both.

T’ai Shan

Tai Shan (泰山) is another of China’s “Five Great Mountains.”

Pano: 象鼻峰青雲洞 (象鼻峰青云洞 “Elephant Trunk Peak Green Cloud Cave”)  /  山東省泰安市泰山 (山东省泰安市泰山 Mount Tai, Tai'an City, Shandong Province) / 中國旅遊 中国旅游 China Tourism / SML.20121011.7D.09602-09605.Pano

Sung Shan

Song Shan (嵩山) is another of China’s “Give Great Mountains.”

O-mei Shan, Chiu-hua Shan, Wu-t’ai Shan, P’u-t’o Shan

The mountains Emei Shan (峨眉山), Jiahua Shan (九华山), Wutai Shan (五台山), and Putuo Shan (普陀山) are China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, so they’re also easy choices. The “flower” translation mistake happens again with 九华山 at one point, and as I final question, does anyone else see “Chiu-hua” an think, “chihuahua”?

Ay Chihuahua

It’s cool to see a Western author drawing on Chinese names in his world-building, and before you cry “Pander Express!” keep in mind that these novels came out in the 90’s.

Feel free to leave a comment if I missed something or you have something to add.

Related Links:

Starbucks Hates Chinese Learners

I’d say that the Chinese name of Starbucks’ new flat white coffee is adequate proof that Starbucks hates Chinese learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is 馥芮白:


Yeah, don’t feel bad if you don’t know those first two characters. They’re not at all common. And that fist character… wow.

A little more info about the two hard one characters:

  • 馥 (fù) fragrant. (The right half is the you might know from 复旦大学.)
  • 芮 (ruì) small / surname. (I am familiar with this one mainly because of the “Réel” mall (芮欧百货) near my office.)


So in this case, even if you’re trying hard to use Chinese as much as possible, I’d say don’t feel bad if you took one look at this Chinese name and opted to use English.

Who’s using HelloChinese?

My friend and former co-worker from ChinesePod, Vera, is working at a new app-focused startup in Beijing. The app is called HelloChinese, and it is heavily inspired by Duolingo. The first Chinese learning app to do its own version of Duolingo for Chinese was ChineseSkill, and now that app has got competition. (Meanwhile, Duolingo is taking its sweet time coming out with a Chinese course.)

I’m preparing to start re-examining all the best apps out there for learning Chinese and do an update to my 2011 post on apps for Chinese study. I’d also like to do a post directly comparing HelloChinese and ChineseSkill, but I thought I’d ask my readers what they thought first. Also, if you’re willing to share your own experience with the two apps as input for the upcoming blog post, please do get in touch!

If you haven’t heard of or tried the HelloChinese app yet, obviously it’s not too late. It’s free, and available for both iOS and Android.

HelloChinese app for learning Chinese

Tone Corrections from a 3-year-old


When my daughter was still learning to talk, she used to occasionally make tone mistakes, and this amused everybody. Now she’s almost 4, attending a Chinese pre-school, and her tones are pretty perfect.

The other day I was taking to her about a picture that featured a Chinese lantern (pictured at right). I was speaking in English, but for some reason I also brought up the Chinese word: 灯笼 (dēnglong). I pronounced it “dēnglóng.” Although those are the correct tones for those characters, I slipped up, because for this word, the second character should be read as a neutral tone: “dēnglong.”

She immediately pounced on my mistake. This is the first time she’s corrected me in a tone error, and she was delighted. (I’m sure I have many more years of this to look forward to…)

So then she was all, “ha ha, you said ‘dēnlóng’ instead of ‘dēnlong’…” and I noticed a mistake on her part. Instead of saying “dēng,” she was actually saying “dēn” (final -n instead of final -ng). I pointed this out, and she was, of course, incredulous that she, too, could be wrong. Looks like we’ll need to spend some time training that “thick Shanghai accent” out of her!

My daughter has also commented to me on how people from different countries pronounce English in different ways… I’m looking forward to having more linguistic conversations with my bilingual kid!

The Case for Zhuyin

Zhuyin (also called “bopomofo”) is a system for writing Chinese phonetically, instead of using, say, pinyin. It’s pretty much exclusively used in Taiwan, but it’s quite popular among a minority of Chinese learners. The first time I saw it, I thought it looked like “bizarro kana,” as some of the symbols are similar to those used in Japanese. Some symbols also look like Chinese character components. It looks like this:





Mark of recently released a program called Zhuyin King (注音大王), which is still in its early stages, but aims to provide all the support one needs to fully master zhuyin.

When Mark made a post on Reddit, he was challenged with the question: why in the world would you learn zhuyin instead of pinyin? (A fair question.)

The best answer Mark gave was this one:

When reading books annotated with pinyin, it’s very easy for the familiar Latin alphabet to draw your eye, even when you don’t need it. With zhuyin, westerners often tend to stay focused on the characters until they hit one they truly need help with… and then they look at the zhuyin beside it.

This is a big problem with a lot of Chinese learning materials: pinyin is featured too prominently, making it virtually impossible to ignore even if you really do want to focus on the characters before “cheating.” Zhuyin allegedly solves this problem.

Still, if you’re studying (or planning to study) Chinese in mainland China, no one uses anything but pinyin. So you have to wonder: who should be interested in zhuyin?

My answer:

  1. Anyone planning to study or work in Taiwan (not mainland China) should learn zhuyin
  2. Anyone that already knows some Chinese but plans to move to Taiwan for more than a month or two should learn zhuyin

It’s not that no one uses pinyin in Taiwan (more and more people do), or that you can’t get by without it (you certainly can); it’s that only if you learn zhuyin can you have the “no cheating” advantage listed above. (Mark estimates that the number of learners of Chinese is “about 15% for foreign students and most of them are either learning in [Taiwan] or 2nd generation [Chinese].”

If you’re just interested in browsing the zhuyin symbols, check out AllSet Learning’s pinyin chart. Click on “Show more Settings” and you can choose to display zhuyin for every pinyin syllable:

Pinyin + Zhuyin

Related Links:

A Graffiti Theory on Love

I feel like this message is not something you’d see in American graffiti:



It reads:


Àiqíng zuìzhōng mùdì shì hūnyīn

The ultimate goal of love is marriage

Hmmmm, not hard to guess the story behind that one.

The same graffiti “artist” seems to have left this as well:


幸好 is a word meaning “fortunately”, but the final character ( on ?) appears to not exist? The character comes close.

Fishing for Cancer Sticks, Chinese-style

I think we’re all familiar with the “claw crane” arcade game, whereby players are suckered into spending lots of coins trying to pluck a stuffed animal or plastic-encapsulated toy out of an enclosed box using a (very hard to control) mechanical crane.

What I’m not familiar with is seeing boxes of cigarettes as prizes (with a fairy Hello Kitty on the machine, no less). I saw this in a backstreet in Shanghai the other day:



The two main domestic cigarette brands in the box are 利群 (Liqun) and 红双喜 (Double Happiness). It’s a bottled green tea box and a instant noodle (红烧牛肉面) box propping up the fun prizes.

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