Audio Resources for Advanced Chinese

17 Nov 2006

I’d like to call attention to some work being done at ChinesePod, not because I work for ChinesePod, but because I think we’re doing good work for a specific learner demographic that is all too often neglected. Still, it seems like ChinesePod Advanced (高级版本) is not well known. For as much work as we’re putting into it, it deserves a little more attention.

ChinesePod Advanced was conceived and launched around the time I started working at ChinesePod. I wasn’t involved with the decision to create it, but I whole-heartedly agree with the idea. The concept was to create a version of ChinesePod all in Chinese so that advanced learners of all nationalities will have equal access. Korean, Japanese, Canadians, French… it doesn’t matter what the language background; if their Chinese is at the appropriate level, they can all use it.

This brings me to the question of what “advanced” means, exactly. It doesn’t mean the same as “HSK Advanced,” that’s for sure. For our purposes, “advanced” means capable of understanding all Chinese input at a natural speed, and of learning Chinese in Chinese. It’s not about chengyu or literary achievement; it’s about understanding. The main goal of ChinesePod Advanced is to bring the user from the level of “competent communication” to the level of being able to understand natural, high-level input. The Advanced Media podcasts are especially valuable in that regard; the hosts take a news story and discuss the difficult aspects of it in the podcast.

As academic director at ChinesePod, I’ve been guiding the topics and difficulty levels of the advanced podcasts. I try to choose current topics that will interest foreigners, and stay away from the trite ones (or at least the same boring angles). For example, rather than do a podcast on just “Mid-Autumn Moon Festival,” we did one on the commercialization of Chinese holidays. We take suggestions as well; Alaric has been especially helpful in that regard.

Another big issue for advanced lessons is chengyu. The typical Chinese approach to “advanced” lessons is to pack as many chengyu into them as possible. I am totally against this approach, as I don’t think it’s especially helpful to the learner. In fact, I think it’s a classic feature of bad Chinese pedagogy. I’m not against the teaching of chengyu, as I agree that they need to be studied, but I am in favor of the limiting of chengyu. So we typically don’t cover more than two (sometimes three) chengyu per podcast.

Basically, I think we have a good thing going, and if you’re at the “advanced” level I describe, I hope you’ll give it a try. The podcasts are free. For business reasons ChinesePod has recently cut down the number of advanced podcasts from three to two per week, but the more people that use ChinesePod Advanced, the more likely that number is to go back up in the near future.

Just to give a feel for some of the topics we cover, here is a short list (with translation):

汉语中的外来词 (Foreign Loanwords in Mandarin)
理想男人 (The Ideal Man)
人口老龄化 (The Aging Population)
外商的中国之路 (Foreign Companies’ Road to China)
在中国过万圣节 (Celebrating Halloween in China)
中国十大最俗名字 (The Ten Commonest Names in China)
打击走私 (Tackling Smuggling)
崇洋媚外 (Worship of the West)
中西方简历的不同 (The Differences between Chinese and Western Resumes)
八十年代经典卡通 (Cartoons from the 80s)
传媒大战 (Media Wars)
太阳系只剩8大行星 (Just 8 Planets in the Solar System Now)
节日的商业化 (The Commercialization of Holidays)
论坛VS博客 (Forums vs. Blogs)
中国的股票市场 (The Chinese Stock Market)

There are way more

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I looked at the advanced Chinese pods a while back, but at that time I couldn’t find any pages with traditional characters. I would rather use a Chinese page than an English one, but as you know, I’m in an all-traditional character environment. Is there a traditional version?

    Also, how much time do you recommend spending on individual pods? You probably have feedback from quite a few users. I’ve mostly just been listening once through and maybe replaying a word or two that I miss on the way through.

  2. flipyrface Says: November 17, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    i generally dig the topics of the advanced level. the format is sensible: discussion/questions, dialogue, discussion, dialogue. yet, i always feel like the dialogues are overly contrived. i guess that is forgiveable because the conversation still feels somewhat natural, and by extension, relevant to real life.

    one thing that i’d personally like to see more of is more conversations with specialized vocabulary about music and art. there’s an abundance of generalities (economics, cultural differences, etc) but i never feel like they delve deep enough into the artistic particulars.

  3. I agree with flipyrface about the dialogues feeling overly contrived in the advanced lessons. I would much rather see the hosts talking non-stop about the topic.

  4. I knew about the existence of the advanced site all in Chinese at ChinesePod.com, but, having not looked at it very carefully, didn’t know about the advanced podcasts. I assumed that you guys had stopped the advanced podcasts completely in favor of the upper intermediate ones. Why did I think this? Well, I rarely go to ChinesePod.com, but I do subscribe to the podcasts via iTunes. The advanced podcasts used to show up in the feed at http://www.chinesepod.com/podcast/, but there hadn’t been any for months. Now I know where they are.

  5. Could some of the advanced/fluent Mandarin readers of this blog review the actual Mandarin used? Thanks in advance.

  6. Off topic a bit, in regard to “The Ten Commonest Names in China”

    “Commonest”: is that American English? Any special reason why it is used instead of “most common”?

    Thanks.

  7. Mark,

    ChinesePod looks to the future, and the future is simplified.

    It’s hard to say how much time you should spend on each podcast… it depends on your Chinese level and your study goals.

  8. Curious, what do you mean by “review the actual Mandarin used”? It’s native speakers only, with a Southern Chinese accent. Most topics are quite modern, and the vocab is too.

    “Commoner” and “commonest” are both correct, but “common” is one of those words that can also take “more” and “most.” If you Google “commonest” the top two hits are for AskOxford.com, which uses the words naturally.

    I used “commonest” rather than “most common” because in my mind there’s a subtle link between “commonest” and the noun “commoner,” and it seems to me that the Chinese word 俗 goes well with the noun “commoner.”

  9. Hey, I’ve known about the advanced podcasts for quite some time, but think I should stick to the intermediate level for a while longer.

    Mark’s question made me think of something. As a language learner I’ve had to develop my own study method. These methods have changed and improved over the years through trial and error. Sometimes I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel. I know I’m not the first to be doing this.. My best teacher in University didn’t just teach knowledge, he taught me how to learn. I think a good language program should do the same.

  10. Xiong Dahai Says: November 19, 2006 at 4:41 am

    These podcasts are of great utility even to beginners; since they are entirely in Chinese they’re a neat thing to play in the background while you are doing other things, to help increase your phonological immersion. Here in the United States, Chinese-speaking radio stations and the like are rare, and although one could also put on a movie and hide the viewer, these are actual conversation without distractions like music and stuff. So mad props to ChinesePod for making this podcast available.

    (On a related note: does anyone know of the existence of Chinese books-on-tape, or some equivalent?)

  11. I have to admit I haven’t listened to the advanced Chinesepod that often, but it appears the topics you’re doing are quite relevant: kudos for that. How sensitive do you have to be as far as comparative politics/political economics?

    I know for a fact that the big buzz now is India vs. China, so a conversation on that would be quite useful: specifically, addressing the double standard and lovefest going on with those like Thomas ‘Flat Earth’ Friedman for India.

    And of course, for those of us ‘stuck’ in Taiwan, cross-straits issues are always welcome, even non-political ones.

  12. Prince Roy,

    I have to admit, we haven’t been actively covering many poitical topics, but we also haven’t gotten much demand for them. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, however.

    Way back in the beginning we did a podcast about IT outsourcing to India and China called 中国IT外包服务. We could probably do more on India sometime soon.

    We’re definitely going to have to do some kind of podcast on Taiwan soon; we can’t just pretend like it doesn’t exist!

  13. At AIT we see so many Taiwanese come in for visas who are living, working raising families, going to school in the PRC, etc, and they’ve been living there for years. Maybe the lesson could focus on the Taiwan expat experience in Shanghai.

  14. ChinesePod looks to the future, and the future is simplified.

    Ouch. Without commenting on what that means for my current home (Taiwan), I can guess that my next suggestion of having more podcasts about history, philosophy and the other humanities won’t really fly either.

  15. The Taiwanese in PRC expat experience? You mean, KTV bars, second wives, and really expensive Scotch mixed with green tea? That would make for an awesome podcast!

  16. Mark,

    We do podcasts of those type, but to be honest, there’s already a glut of materials covering the humanities topics, and many students tend to find another lesson on Journey to the West a bit boring.

    This isn’t to say that we won’t do those topics. We’ve already done 人性本善 (a philosophy topic), and some of our lessons such as 中国孔子基金会:发布孔子标准像不是商业行为 link ancient Chinese culture to modern society.

    Our audience is quite enthusiastic about modern topics related to business and news. Probably most of them have already studied a lot of the topics you suggest from other sources. It’s understandable that they’re tired of the materials that emphasize the “5,000 years of Chinese civilization.”

  17. UPPER – I found the zh site an interesting experiment, although I thought the premise was quite flawed. My personal opinion was that at the level it targeted, that market is already elsewhere. They are reading blogs, searching Baidu, watching movies.

    When the jp version of Cpod existed there were plenty of lower-level Japanese students at that level — few of them transitioned over to the zh site. I myself tried to make a go at that level, but it just never got traction. I thought the premise was a bit off the mark thinking it would bring together the non-English speakers.

    So there it was I thought, a site that wouldn’t suit advanced learners or necessarily non-English speakers. The flood of ‘advanced/not-necessarily English speakers’ never did show up did they?

    I can’t however, fault the content, I liked the topics, I liked the blog posts, but I guess day-in day-out it was too much for a lower-intermediate (me) to grasp. I can get a plethora of non-comprehension just by watching local tv, so going to zh wasn’t incentivized. There were no tools to mind the gap, too much work for me to constantly adso, to pour over.

    I do think the pedagogy also was troublesome. Although you mention that you tried to limit the chengyu, it still felt to me like a typical Chinese approach to learning the language.

    I’d still like to see some ‘advanced podcasts’ that are basically short soundbites, something more than a Skittle but less than a Snicker bar. I’d like some advanced podcasts that stick with me on a short bus ride, and fewer that need me to sit quietly somewhere for 1/2 hour with dictionary and paper in hand.

    Why not ‘advanced’ podcasts as short and concise as the newbie shows? Look, I practice my fluency and spoken output in real life. I read magazines in Chinese with dictionary at my side. I watch interesting (that can be argued) t.v. in Chinese. I hear conversations on topics all the time in real-life. This endless stream of banter is not what I need more of.

    What I need are PODCASTS: a short clip on a couple ‘advanced phrases’, some lively banter about it, a bit of good pedagogy, rephrasing, rehashing, ah ha’s, and then a see’ya tommorrow, that’s it.

  18. Lantian,

    It seems we differ in opinion on a lot, or maybe you don’t quite understand the premise of ZH. ZH is targeted not at the people who can easily handle native media, but at the group just below that level.

    ZH is not an “experiment.” It’s not going to end, and it didn’t fail. We never got tons of traffic because our overall product is aimed primarily at English speakers, but the market of English speakers with advanced Chinese is quite small. We knew this from the beginning. No surprises.

    We do want to attract more and more Koreans and Japanese, but if we’re falling short of our goals in those markets, I’m quite sure it’s a failure of marketing more than anything else. According to our stats, we do have a good number of Koreans and Japanese (more than the English-speakers), so your apparent assumption that we have close to none is off base. They just don’t comment much.

    I think the biggest problem, though, is that you’re evaluating a materials intended for advanced learners from the standpoint of a lower-intermediate learner, and that’s going to cause problems. I admire your enthusiasm, and there’s no doubt that you’re an intelligent guy, but I think this is key to giving the ZH podcasts a proper evaluation.

  19. For an “advanced” student of Chinese, listening to “native” Chinese media is like listening to discussions between native speakers who are not paying attention to you. They are either unaware, or don’t care, if you are not following the conversation.

    Listening to the advanced Chinesepod podcasts is like listening to the same conversations, but the participants are your friends who are making sure that you don’t get left behind. Your friends are speaking naturally, but are pausing frequently to explain the more advanced words and context to you.

    Another comparison:

    Listening to native media is like reading a Chinese novel, in Chinese.

    Listening to advanced Chinesepod podcasts is like reading the same novel with a vocabulary list and some other explanitory notes on every other page.

  20. Hi John and Alaric,

    I’d agree with both of you that I don’t offer the already ‘advanced learners’ (or just almost there) viewpoint. Can’t argue there.

    About it not being an ‘experiment’ though and whether it will stick around, I think I may have been jumping the gun a bit, but the recent vaporizing of the blog and cut back in episodes per week make it not a big assumption on the part of a customer that the revenue there was sustaining the production. Cpod has a terrible habit of pulling and vaporizing stuff w/o notice.

    In general (at least for a learner in China) there’s little opportunity to rachet down someone’s Chinese, those comfortable language partners are not easy to find. I’m not sure if that’s actually a pitch for the advanced format as it stands, but personally I see having a product online with the technology that we have today as not needing that bright line separating out the advanced. I think there’s lots more opportunity within the podcast show format/dialogues/banter to make it more accessible than in it’s present form.

    What I’m saying is that we need to teach people more learning mechanisms, coping mechanisms, and to make the product more accommodating for different levels.

    -Why not implement ADSO-like popups with the Chinese text online
    -Why not have various PDF versions, with either Chinese only, or with pinyin, and/or with English
    -Why not have shorter less intense advanced shows

    Personally I find watching Chinese t.v. and shows as easy or maybe even easier (but of course also sometimes way harder or completely incomprehensible) than listening to some of the advanced Cpod podcasts. I’m not exactly sure why. But that makes me kinda differ with Alaric that they are like good conversational buddies.

  21. -Why not implement ADSO-like popups with the Chinese text online

    I second that suggestion, Lantian. I love pop-up annotations.

  22. to be honest, there’s already a glut of materials covering the humanities topics, and many students tend to find another lesson on Journey to the West a bit boring.

    Hey!

    I mean, I guess Chinesepod is marketing to the executive crowd, but how many of them are ever really going to get decent Chinese? I’m not saying that you guys have to go all “China is a mystical civilization” on us, but I always tend to think that it’s the literary and particularly the historical that make China tolerable. Then again, I spend a lot of time translating news and reports on economic development, so perhaps I’m just all GDP’d out.

  23. The ZH site is excellent, perfect for my level, and I believe there is a niche here for students at a high enough level to want all the explanations in Chinese, but who still value the explanations of challenging phrases/concepts.
    To answer Xiong Dahai’s question, there are quite a few “books on tape” available in Mandarin. The larger bookstores in Beijing and Shanghai have them, usually on CD-ROM in mp3 format. Quality varies, but I have good versions of Qian Zhongshu’s “Wei Cheng,” Ba Jin’s “Jia,” Hai Yan’s “Bianyi Jingcha,” and Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.”

  24. Hey John,

    I think one of the most obvious explanations for the lack of traffic on the advanced blogs is that there are no obvious linnks to the advanced section of the site. (The top right corner is not a place most users look.) In fact if a user clicks “Advanced” on the archives section, he is taken to advanced lessons that are four months old. So put on a link: If you build it, they will come.

  25. The fact that most of the ZH team grew up in mainland China is great in terms of their accurate Mandarin, but one downside is that this can narrow the scope of opinions that are expressed in the podcasts.
    It would be cool to have John in on some lessons and also interview some other fluent Chinese speakers from outside the mainland, asking them to share their knowledge and experience. While native Mandarin speakers are vital to the podcasts, fluent non-native Chinese speakers do exist in the real world and may have interesting perspectives.

    Connecting/linking the individual podcasts directly might be a good way to keep people interested and listening. For example, why not do a serial summarized reading/discussion of Journey to the West or The Old Man and the Sea over 10 podcasts?

    You could cover more international news stories while they are hot, e.g. the US midterm elections, giving several perspectives on them.

    You could improve the questions that are asked in each lesson. In most cases, these are really really easy. Maybe you could have at least one or two which require more analysis and thought.

    flipyrface had some good comments too.

  26. I’ve expressed my opinion about the “scale-back” on the chinesepod site, but I just wanted to say that I love the advanced podcasts.
    I think Alaric hit the nail right on the head. The advanced podcasts are like watching/listening/or reading Chinese media with a friend at your side helping you through. Personally I’ve been a little frustrated recently because I’m advanced enough in my Chinese to find most of the standard learning material boring, but not advanced enough to just learn straight from real Chinese media or in-depth conversations. Making that jump is difficult because it’s not clear what steps you should take.
    I think John and the Cpod team have done an excellent job in topic selection. One area of China that i’m particularily interested in now is modern social issues and phenomena. I think the ZH site has done a great job touching on these.
    I do, however, agree with other posters saying that the dialogs are too stilted and unnatural. I think it might be interesting to have a real discussion/debate between 3 or more native speakers. Right now the discussion is interesting, but it only scratches the surface and almost never involves disagreements. I think to help make that jump we need more realism.

  27. Yeah, I was kinda peeved about the whole cutback thing, too. Reading this string of comments, however, really brought home what an excellent product you guys put out, John. Definitely add me to the list of people who like things just the way they are and don’t want to see you guys upset the apple cart trying to please everyone.

    Alaric: what a dead-on description of the advanced podcasts! Sometimes, I’ll listen to one or two and find myself unwilling to go listen to CRI or watch CCTV…It’s reassuring to know that even a guy with your skillz appreciates having his hand held…god, I know I do.

  28. […] talked about the Advanced lessons on ChinesePod before, and one of the criticisms I got was that the dialogues (which are scripted) seem too fake. I think […]

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