Tag: AllSet Learning


Oct 2016

Simulating 80% Comprehension in Chinese

A while back I wrote about What 80% Comprehension Feels Like, and I quoted the English examples used in Marcos Benevides’ excellent presentation which simulate 80% comprehension in English by including made-up English-like vocabulary words.

I’ve been thinking about that presentation a lot, both about the impact of such a demonstration, as well as about how it could be accomplished in Chinese. I ended up creating my own examples in Chinese. I’ll go ahead and share that first, and follow up with some discussion of the considerations involved.

(Before you attempt to read the following, please note that if your Chinese is not at least at an intermediate level, the following exercise is not going to work. Like its English-language counterpart, these examples are most effective with native speakers.)

Chinese Samples

Here is 98% comprehension:

Chinese: 98% comprehension

Here is 95% comprehension:

Chinese: 95% comprehension

Here is 80% comprehension:

Chinese: 80% comprehension


The tricky thing about reading Chinese is that it’s not just a matter of vocabulary and grammar; there’s an issue not present in English: the issue of Chinese characters. When a learner reads a difficult Chinese text, all three of these components tend to play a part in the difficulty: vocabulary, grammar, and characters.

But for the example to work for both learners and native speakers alike, there needs to be a way to guarantee that parts of the text were incomprehensible, as accomplished with made-up words in English. How can one do this in Chinese?

How I did it

First of all, to maximize the chances that the “intelligible” parts of the Chinese sample text are also readable by learners, I used as simple a text as I could: a Level 1 Mandarin Companion graded reader. For these examples, it was The Secret Garden.

Then, I had to be sure I chose the more difficult content words to swap out, and that I got all instances of them in each sample. Obviously, I had to count the words to make sure I got the desired percentage right. But equally important, to make my samples representative of real-life 98%, 95%, and 80% comprehension experiences, the words chosen should “cloud” reading comprehension to the appropriate degree, no more, no less.

But here’s the tricky part: how to represent characters the reader doesn’t know. The obvious way would be to create my own characters that don’t really exist. I enjoy doing this, but it’s time consuming, and to make it look truly credible it would have to not stand out at all when mixed in with the other characters. Too much work.

So I turned to the Unihan database of Chinese characters. Over the years, more and more obscure characters have been added to this set of characters, and I found a list of the most recent additions. (Most recently added should mean most obscure, but I chose Extension D from this page because it was both recent and a small download.)

A quick check confirmed that these characters were indeed obscure, but many of them didn’t look like simplified Chinese characters, or were just too weird, so I had to choose carefully. After making my choices, I also had to check to make sure that educated Chinese adults didn’t recognize the characters (guessing doesn’t count).

After that, I selectively swapped out characters in the samples. (My 80% comprehension text sample is the shortest, because I was running out of “good” obscure characters, and I didn’t want to have to find more!)

One interesting side effect of using such obscure characters in my texts was that most software couldn’t render them. Whatever fonts they used just didn’t include those bizarre characters. Only Wenlin, with its custom font designed to render all kinds of obscure characters, could display them all. So I had to do screenshots of Wenlin’s interface.

How to use this


I used these passages as part of a presentation on extensive reading at LanguageCon in September. I got the effect I wanted: Chinese members of the audience giggled (embarrassedly?) at the characters they didn’t know, especially when they got to the 80% comprehension example.

Chinese learners smiled wryly: there wasn’t much amusing about a fake recreation of the challenge they face on a daily basis, trying to read Chinese.

More than anything, I hoped that the Chinese audience could empathize with the learners of Chinese. Most Chinese people never know what it feels like to have to learn so many foreign characters as a part of a foreign language learning experience. Through these examples, though, they can get an inkling.

Actually, maybe they were chuckling in relief… at least they’ve got that challenge behind them.

The AllSet Learning blog also has a similar Chinese language article on this topic: 80%没有你想的那么多.

What I wish my Chinese teacher knew


Jul 2016

What I wish my Chinese teacher knew

One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.


Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.

As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)

The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.

Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:

  1. I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
  2. I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
  3. If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
  4. This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?

Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.


Sep 2015

How I Learned Chinese (part 4)

It seems to have become a tradition of mine to drag this series out over years and years, but this part should be the last one I need to write for quite some time. Just a quick sum up:

Part 1 (2007): How I got started in Chinese in college
Part 2 (2007): How I coped with no one understanding me after arriving in China, and how I got to a decent (intermediate) level of Chinese
Part 3 (2012): How I updated my goals to help me power through the “intermediate plateau”

This post is more of a look at how I learned, rather than specifically what I did. I’d also like to look more closely at the relationship between study and practice. This balance is essential to any learner’s long-term progress, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Learning Timeline

First, a quick timeline of my experiences:

1998-1999 (STUDY): Started Chinese classes at UF. “Practice” consisted of meeting a language partner once a week, but it barely made a difference.
2000 (PRACTICE): Arrived in China and started using my busted Chinese. Was dismayed to discover my Chinese was decidedly not awesome.
2001 (STUDY): Found a professional tutor who was able to help me fix my major pronunciation issues. This, in turn, led to much more efficient practice.
2001-2003 (PRACTICE): Lots of speaking practice with people around me (details here), some self-study on the side, but the major emphasis was practice.
2003 (STUDY): One-semester HSK course helped me identify some holes in my self-studied Chinese, especially in more formal Chinese.
2004 (PRACTICE): My first job in Shanghai was English-related, but I still got to use Chinese for most of my work. I learned a lot.
2004-2005 (STUDY): Prepped for grad school, using a tutor.
2005-2007 (STUDY/PRACTICE): Masters program in applied linguistics in Chinese. Heavy components of both practice (everything was in Chinese) and study (there was plenty of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar to learn).
2006-2013 (PRACTICE): Working at ChinesePod was tons of great practice, but I also learned a great deal, even if I was never directly “studying.”
2010-present (PRACTICE): Building AllSet Learning, learning to run a business, managing Chinese employees, was all done in Chinese. More great practice. And learning all day long.

The Role of Study

Especially in the beginning, you need a helping hand to learn Chinese. It’s very hard to start “practicing” without some kind of structured study. Many learners turn to schools for this, and tutors are another option (both have pros and cons), but it’s hard to argue that some kind of formal study is not helpful for most people.

The key is that study alone will rarely lead to real fluency. At some point (preferably in the elementary stages), you need to be given ample opportunities to speak Chinese in a natural way. Hopefully this is motivating and fun, and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad Chinese!

Study itself has many forms, however, and I’ve found that many learners appreciate school lessons in the early stages, whereas 1-on-1 tutoring becomes much more useful once there’s a good foundation, and concrete goals for how Chinese can be applied start to take shape. So for me, the “schooling” was OK as my first three semesters’ foundation and then as HSK prep. Tutoring helped me fix the very specific pronunciation problems I was still having when I first arrived in China (I really needed individualized attention for that). Later, again, tutoring made the most sense once I had the concrete goal of getting into grad school and needed help learning some specific material. (I also had to spend a lot of time managing my tutor, though… There was no AllSet Learning back then!)

I remember very clearly, sitting in my Chinese syntax class in grad school, listening to the professor detail some finer points on the relationships between certain Chinese prepositions and verbs, and thinking, “these are the ultimate advanced Chinese lessons. The meta-lessons that even native speakers are clueless on.” So there was always a strong aspect of “study” within the “practice” of grad school in Chinese. Once I started working, though, “practice” really became the main focus, and “study” was relegated to an ongoing “as needed” self-directed activity.

The Role of Practice

My real “practice” started when I arrived in China. It was the reality check I needed, but also a source of motivation. To quote part 2:

> OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

> At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism.

That was kind of rough. It would have been nice if I had been prepared for actual communication in Chinese in progressive stages. I got through the initial shock, though.

The early years of practice in China were both the hardest and the most fun. They were the hardest for me because I had to force myself to talk to strangers regularly, and often my non-comprehension made those conversations quite awkward. Oh yes, I dealt with a lot of awkwardness. But my psyche was protected, in part, by this weird “I can’t believe I’m in China talking to people in Chinese” euphoria that imparted a certain delusion of unreality. And so in many ways, it all felt like a weird, fun dream.

The “delusion of unreality” slowly wears off as you get to the Intermediate stage, however. Most things Chinese people say in Chinese are no longer “funny” or “crazy” because you’re used to Chinese culture, and you’re used to the way people speak. To give a simple example, you stop thinking, “it’s so weird that Chinese people are always asking me if I’ve eaten” every time and you start thinking of it as a normal greeting. You stop “hearing Chinese” and you start just listening to people. And just talking back.

It’s at this point that the practical application type of “practice” becomes really important. For me, it was my initial training job in Shanghai first. Then it was the work of my Chinese language masters program: following the lectures, completing the readings, writing papers, etc. Then it was directing ChinesePod lesson development. And then it was my work at AllSet Learning (and later Mandarin Companion).

Bob and Weave

It’s all about a Mix

If you look at my timeline, you’ll see a lot of vacillating between “study” and “practice.” You’ll see long periods of “practice” broken up by mostly shorter periods of intense “study.” And you’ll notice that the “study” is heavily concentrated in the beginning, whereas “practice” is heavily concentrated in the later stages.

Hopefully you never have a total lack of practice in the beginning (even if it’s just with a teacher), but practice should really ramp up over time until it’s just “application” (using Chinese for normal communication or work or whatever). Similarly, your “study” looms large in the beginning, but should never go away completely (even advanced learners pick up new vocabulary all the time), as it shrinks down in overall prominence.

It’s not that I concocted this; it’s not a method. It’s a very natural process, and I’m merely reflecting on how these principles played out in my own experience. Through my work at AllSet Learning, I often help frustrated learners, and a study/practice imbalance is one of the major sources of frustration. Some learners have unrealistic expectations about how far traditional “study” can take them, fluency-wise. Others have been immersed in “practice” for far too long and are not even sure how to go about addressing the gaps caused by years of neglecting “study.” I admit that it’s partly just luck, but somehow I managed to strike the right balance over the years.

I can’t say I learned Chinese the fastest or to some mind-blowing level, but I achieved my goals and have the skills to apply it in my career. I’ll never stop studying Chinese (“活到老学到老,” as the Chinese say), but especially due to the strong “practice” components of the past 10 years, I do feel confident in saying “I’ve learned Chinese.” (Just not all of it!)


Sep 2015

Update on Work at AllSet

I don’t blog as often as I once did, mostly because I’m so busy at work. (Also, having two kids now doesn’t give me lots of extra free time.) Sometimes I get asked about what AllSet Learning is doing. I’ve even been criticized for not writing about it enough here!

So here’s a little Q&A to fill in readers…

Q: Is AllSet Learning still providing 1-on-1 Chinese lessons in Shanghai?

Yes, of course! We normally do not advertise; we rely mainly on word of mouth (which has been quite kind to us over the years). We’ve got lots of satisfied customers at all levels, each studying a personalized curriculum. If you’re in Shanghai, definitely get in touch. (If you’re not in Shanghai, it might be worth getting in touch too.)

Q: But you’re also doing other things?

Yes, working day in and day out with individual learners helps me stay in touch with learners’ needs and keeps me sensitive to where the gaps still are. Then we release products to fill those gaps when we have time to develop them. So we’ve got the Chinese Grammar Wiki, Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, iOS Pinyin chart and Picture Book Reader, and Pronunciation Packs, plus the books we developed for Mandarin Companion.


Q: And you still have time for new clients?

Yes, in fact, we’re currently gearing up to start new clients post-summer, so if you’ve been deliberating, now is a good time, while there’s still room. Summer is typically our low season, so we spend more time on product development, then get busier again with client duties in the fall.

Q: So were you developing anything new this summer?

Definitely! We’ve had a very busy summer. Aside from the new Mandarin Companion Level 2 book, we’ve got quite a few things almost done, which we’re currently polishing and will be announcing soon. (If you’re curious about these, sign up for the newsletter to the latest news.)


Q: Aren’t you also involved in the Outlier Chinese Dictionary workbook?

Yes indeed! I’ve already started meeting and discussing with Ash, and that project will start soon as well. I’m very excited about this, because it’s something I’ve sensed a need for among my clients. Unlike some language issues, characters are not something I want to tackle on my own, so it’s very satisfying to be part of a larger effort at helping making characters more accessible to learners.

That’s about it for now! If you’re curious about anything AllSet Learning is doing, please get in touch.


Jun 2015

Mike’s Immersion Experience in the Chinese Countryside

I’ve had many conversations with learners looking for an immersion experience in China. Well, Michael Hurwitz, my friend (and former AllSet Learning client) decided to round out his China experience with a month in the Sichuan countryside (outside Chengdu) doing farm work. He went through an organization called WWOOF that sets up labor-hungry foreigners with organic farms and the like.

But is a month enough? Was it a good experience? I interviewed Mike to get his take on it.


农村 Mike

Could you explain why you felt the need to run off to the Chinese countryside for an immersion experience?

Mike: It was something I’d wanted to do for awhile, but the language element was only part of it. I was also interested in checking out a more “authentic” Chinese place than Shanghai, if that makes any sense. The lack of westerners and English speakers around was a big part of my reasoning, but I was also hoping that the stronger “Chineseness” of the 农村 [countryside] (and 农民 [rural workers], for that matter) would rub off on me a bit and that I’d understand a bit more about China, having seen a lifestyle very different than the urban one I’d been participating in.

What was the farm work like?

Mike: The work itself was nothing crazy, primarily because the farm was as much about environmental education as it was about growing stuff. I mostly planted trees and pulled weeds, with lots of other work thrown in. The farm’s owner was really flexible; for instance I sometimes have knee problems (because I’m secretly a 45-year old man) and he had no problem with me forgoing work that involved lots of crouching. Towards the end of my time there, the owner even had me translate some instruction manuals for products he’d ordered from the US into Chinese! Productive work, but not quite what I’d imagined beforehand.


How was the food?

Mike: Food was very hit or miss. I don’t eat pork, which complicated things, as one of the 阿姨s [ayis] simply couldn’t understand that, and often left me no meat alternatives, which is tough when you’re doing physical labor all day. However, the other 阿姨 [ayi] was a wizard in the kitchen and made some absolutely magnificent dishes that I still crave.


Were you able to practice a lot of Chinese? What kinds of conversations did you have? Was the location a good choice?

Mike: Definitely got a huge amount of practice. No one else on the farm spoke English, so all communication was done in Chinese. It was very productive in that it was easy to get past the normal sorts of introductory conversations and actually start talking with people about normal things grown-ups talk about.

This was very cool because so often as a foreigner you’re seen as more of a curiosity than an actual person, so you can’t really have genuine conversations, but living on the farm with the same people for an extended period helped me get past that.

The location was something of a mixed bag. While being out west meant there weren’t any English speakers, it also meant there were some very non-standard accents and a lot of older folks who just couldn’t speak Mandarin. It led to situations where I had to have younger people translate from the local dialect into Mandarin for me, which was colorful but inconvenient.

Another element was that many of the things I was doing and experiencing – farm work, new foods, new activities, etc – were things I had never had cause to talk about or learn the vocabulary for in Chinese, so there was a lot of learning on the fly there as well. It was a bit overwhelming at first but after a week or so it got a lot easier. It helped as well that the farm’s owner and his wife were Beijingers, so I could always lean on them when I needed something more 标准 [standard].

Would you recommend what you did to other learners looking for an immersion experience?

Mike: I would definitely recommend an immersion experience, but location-wise, I’d say I had mixed results. Being in a place with so many non-standard accents and weird dialects made it a less smooth experience than I’d hoped. I think volunteering somewhere with more standard Mandarin would ameliorate that though.

Would you recommend what you did as a purely cultural experience?

Mike: Most definitely. I didn’t know what to expect going into this experience but I learned a tremendous amount about farming and rural Chinese life. Most of the people I met were great and it was wonderful to see a totally different side of the Chinese experience!



Apr 2015

The Chinese Pronunciation Wiki

For years, I’ve had a few sections on Sinosplice for pronunciation:

Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese: Setting the Record Straight
The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

(Notably absent: tone change rules)

I’ve also blogged about pronunciation many times, but I didn’t feel like a blog is the best way to organize all this information, and these days I’m putting most of my time into growing AllSet Learning rather than reorganizing Sinosplice.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has turned out to be a hugely successful experiment, and in about three years has become the internet’s favorite reference for Chinese grammar issues online. Our work is by no means finished there; the Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow.

Chinese Pronunciation Wiki Screen Shot

But it’s now time to bring a bunch of scattered information together in the same way we did for grammar, but this time for pronunciation. We’ve started the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, and it’s still in its early days, but the foundation is strong.

One of the key concepts behind the site which I believe is missing in many current courses and resources with regards to pronunciation is a clear idea of what to focus on, when. Remember: mastery of Chinese pronunciation is a long-term endeavor. Take it step by step.

We’re doing a soft launch of the site this week, and will do a more public launch next week. I’d love to get some early feedback.

A few notes on what we’ve got so far:

– We aim to keep beginner explanations simple, without resorting to linguistic jargon. Full linguistic description for those who want it is part of the longer-term plan.
– Many pages still need to be fleshed out, but for now, the pinyin chart, pinyin quick start guide, tone change rules, and erhua pages are already quite useful
– I’m interested to hear what higher-level learners and native speakers think about our page on Chinese accents (which can be quite a hurdle for learners)
– Images/illustrations are coming
– I have tons of ideas for higher-level pronunciation topics, but we have to cover the basics first

Thank you for your support of the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, everybody! There will be more news and an official announcement next week.


Mar 2015

The long quest for a fuller explanation of 和 (he)


When I first started learning Chinese in 1998, I learned the word 和 (hé) as a way to express “and.” However, it was an “and” with limitations; it was not to be used to connect sentences or clauses. For example, none of these sentences could be expressed with :

– Today we’re going to learn how to hold the pen and learn the stroke order for one character.
– You get a new job, and and I’ll stop living in the treehouse.
– He ran into the street and got hit by a garbage truck.

So the way I learned was as a way of connecting nouns and noun phrases. Not verbs. Different from English, but not too tough, right?

The only problem was that after moving to China in 2000, from time to time I would encounter examples of what were clearly verbs being linked by . It didn’t happen often, but often enough to bug me. Worst yet, although some Chinese teachers had told me to only use to connect nouns, others told me could be used to connect verbs too. This conflicting advice was frustrating, and in the end I decided to ignore the non-noun uses of because you don’t need to use for verbs; there are other ways to link verbs.

Fast forward to this year.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has a beginner-level article on that until very recently stated that is used to connect nouns and noun phrases but not verbs. Then someone on Reddit politely called us out on it with a very good counter-example.

Now that I have a team of Chinese teachers at AllSet Learning, I can have one of my lead teachers properly research the issue. She didn’t find much, and did extensive examination of 和 in use in various corpora. Then we also discussed the issue with a group at a recent teacher training session.

The result is that we now have a new page on advanced uses of . It’s still good to start with the basic uses, but more advanced learners can jump into the other messy details.

The bad news is that the issue of when you can and can’t use with verbs is still quite murky. The wiki page needs more examples and more references. (If anyone knows of any research papers or books that touch on this issue, please share! See the Chinese Grammar Wiki page for more details.)

But the good news is that it’s really great to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki expanding in this way, through feedback and the dedication of AllSet Learning’s academic team. It’s not every day you get to see a free resource like this blossom, and it’s even more gratifying to be part of it.


Aug 2014

Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution

I’m really exited to announce that AllSet Learning now has its own Online Store. After releasing several new products on Apple and Amazon’s platforms in recent years, I’ve discovered that those channels can sometimes be more than a little “challenging.” But those platforms don’t support all of AllSet Learning’s ambitions. Some of the things I want to do won’t be realized even in the next few years, but others can be broken down into simpler units that people can use right now to improve their Chinese. AllSet Learning clients have been benefiting from some of these for years already. And those are what we’re putting in the new store first.

AllSet Learning Online Store

The title of this post is “Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution” referring to Sinosplice’s own Tone Pair Drills. We actually used those with AllSet Learning clients in the very beginning, and they worked pretty well, but we wanted to keep improving on the concept. Over the years we tried some things that didn’t work so well, and others that worked great. Each client had different needs, so a modular approach made the most sense. We’ve organized the best of these different drills into “packs,” added professional-quality audio, and it’s with that material that we proudly launch our new store.

If the idea of pronunciation practice is boring to you, I can sympathize. As a student, I totally blew off my “mandatory” language lab sessions, and still got A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet Learning clients do a regular pronunciation practice over an extended period of time to achieve dramatic progress.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pronunciation practice in Mandarin Chinese should be a regular part of any formal study, starting from day 1 and extending well into the intermediate level. Two weeks on pinyin at the start of a beginner course is far from sufficient, and it’s rare than an intermediate learner wouldn’t benefit from tone pair practice or other focused pronunciation exercises. So clearly, this is an aspect of Chinese study materials that could could stand a little expansion.

Thank you, Sinosplice readers, for the support you’ve given AllSet’s endeavors in the past. As a thank you for your readership, I’d like to offer this 20% discount voucher to Sinosplice readers (valid for 3 days):


Thanks for visiting the AllSet Learning Store and checking it out!


Aug 2014

Boring Small Talk is an Opportunity

At AllSet Learning, I hear about a lot of different learner problems. One of the more common ones from intermediate learners is, “I just keep having the same boring conversations over and over again: where are you from, how long have you been in China, are you used to eating Chinese food, etc.” Learners tend to see these limited, unchallenging conversations as contributing to the intermediate plateau they are on.

(Side note: not too long ago, these same learners were likely struggling to get Chinese people to talk to them in Chinese, so from that perspective, this problem is a good one to have!)

Cab Driver Snap in Shanghai
photo by Toshihiro Oshima

There are two things I say to these learners:

1. You’re being too passive. Here you have a friendly, willing conversation partner, and all you can do is sit back and let them pick the topics from the same old boring set?

2. The small talk is just a signal. They’re trying to tell you they are willing to talk to you, and you’re wasting a good opportunity with your passiveness.

You can’t really expect a Chinese person to outright say to you: “Hey, I’m interested in you! Let’s talk! You can talk to me about anything you want.” So what does it look like when a Chinese person conveys this same information with other words? It looks exactly like boring small talk. So when you start getting hit with boring small talk, take it to mean this: “Hey, let’s talk! I can’t think of any good topics, though, so I’m going to throw boring topics at you until either you get brave enough to start a real conversation, or we both tire of this.

That’s a lot better, isn’t it?

Now about being too passive… All you have to do is keep a few interesting questions handy to pull out when you are in this kind of situation. Sure, not every situation is appropriate… You might be more willing to ask a cab driver about bizarre things than your girlfriend’s aunt. But at least have them ready for when you are “prompted” the next time. Keep updating your questions if you find certain ones are getting old.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

– Is Mao your hero?
– What’s the best foreign food you’ve ever had?
– What do you think of India/the USA/Japan/Israel?
– What do you think of religion?
– Do you give money to beggars? Why or why not?
– Do you play games on your cell phone? What games?
– Do you believe aliens exist?

Yeah, some of them are a little serious or weird, but those tend to have one of two effects: (1) they stop talking to you (no more boring small talk!), or (2) you get an interesting perspective from them.

Good luck!


Jul 2014

Clean Water in China?

Last week AllSet Learning staff took a team-building trip to the mountains of Zhejiang in Tonglu County (浙江省桐庐县). It was a nice trip, and one of the things that struck me most about the natural beauty there was the lack of litter and crystal-clear water. Anyone who has traveled much in China knows that it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but disgracefully covered in litter in so many otherwise breath-taking tourist destinations. Not so in Tonglu!


I was also surprised to learn that the locals there drink the water straight from the mountain streams without treating it at all. They don’t have “normal” plumbing, it’s all piped from the higher regions of the flowing mountain streams. I have to wonder: with so much of China so heinously polluted, could this water actually be safe to drink?


Anyone else want to weigh in with some facts or links?



May 2014

Chinese Grammar: just jump in!

I recently wrote a guest post on Olle Linge’s excellent blog, Hacking Chinese: How to Approach Chinese Grammar. At a later date I’ll probably adapt it to more specifically relate to AllSet Learning’s work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, but in the meantime, I made this little visual metaphor to add to what I said in that article:

Chinese grammar: video game controller metaphor

I was actually originally thinking the metaphor would be like the difference between a video game that you have to read the manual or you basically can’t even play it, and the kind of game where you can easily just “jump in” and learn as you play. (Although there used to be a lot of games of the first type, nowadays most console games are actually of the second type, with built-in tutorials.) But the above visual was a lot simpler and to-the-point, and makes sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.

Feel free to copy and share the image.


Jan 2014

Introducing Mandarin Companion

Ever since founding AllSet Learning in 2010, we’ve been steadily adding new products and expanding our mini-empire of resources. The Chinese Grammar Wiki was one of our most significant additions (and it’s growing nicely), and we also have two iPad apps out: AllSet Learning Pinyin and the Chinese Picture Book Reader. Last year, our expansion went in an all-new direction with our work on Mandarin Companion‘s brand new Chinese graded reader series.

If you follow me on Twitter you may have heard of Mandarin Companion already, but this is the first time I’m directly mentioning it on Sinosplice. I was waiting until all five of our Level 1 digital editions were released for both Amazon Kindle and iBooks, and now they are.

What is it and who’s it for?

Since I’ve gotten quite deep into extensive reading and graded readers over the past year, there’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll keep it simple in this post.

Mandarin Companion graded readers are for learners with 1-2 years of formal study under their belts (or the equivalent), looking for something longer and more interesting to read for pleasure, without having to constantly reference a dictionary.

Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 books assume a foundation of only 300 Chinese characters, and it’s 300 characters you will know if you’ve studied virtually any standard course.

To create this graded reader series, I’ve teamed up with a partner, Jared Turner, while also leveraging the tools and talent at AllSet Learning.

What are the titles?

We released five Level 1 stories in 2013, all based on western classics and adapted into Chinese stories (more on that in a future post). Here are the first five titles:

  1. The Secret Garden:《秘密花园》
    This was our first book, and it was an awesome choice. It’s an excellent story, free of complicated settings or plot twists. There are more characters in this story than in most of our other ones, but they all have easy (and very Chinese) names, and the story ends up feeling very Chinese itself, despite the British roots. (Just look at the cover!)

  2. The Sixty-Year Dream:《六十年的梦》
    You can’t tell from the name, but this graded reader is an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. In adapting this and making it totally Chinese, we had a lot of issues to consider. The original work is about going to sleep as a colonist before the American revolution, and waking up afterward in a newly formed country. It’s a story about change. Well, what country knows change better than China? For maximum dramatic effect, we chose a 60-year time span, going from pre-Communist China to post-Mao China. The relevant Chinese history of the periods adds a lot of color to the story.

  3. The Monkey’s Paw:《猴爪》
    I remember reading this classic story as a kid, and it totally creeped me out. The first time you’re introduced to the idea of pre-determinism it kind of blows your mind, right? I initially had my doubts as to how well this story could be adapted into simple Chinese while preserving the feel, but we pulled it off pretty well, if I do say so myself.

  4. The Country of the Blind:《盲人国》
    This graded reader is based on a classic H.G. Wells story, and I actually blogged about it not long ago, in conjunction with China. (Now you know why I was thinking about the story so hard!) The text of the story doesn’t get into any of those details, really, though… I just wanted as close to an “adventure” story as we could do at the 300-character level (it really is a challenge), and this one fit the bill. The sci-fi connection was icing on the cake! This one is also notable because we altered the original ending just a little bit.

  5. Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League:《卷发公司的案子》
    What if you adapted Sherlock Holmes to 1920’s Shanghai? Well, this what happens! This one was fun, because we had to research styles of the time to get the illustrations right, but actually none of that affected the text of the story itself. (But hey, details matter, right? Sherlock.. errr, 高明 would approve!) It was definitely a pleasure to create our own take on the world’s most famous sleuth.

I’m really proud of these books we’ve created, and I wish I had had material like this when I was just starting out on my journey of learning Chinese. You don’t have to wait until you can read a Chinese newspaper to enjoy reading Chinese, really.

Related Links

Mandarin Companion: the official website (FaceBook, Twitter)
Mandarin Companion graded reader grammar points: courtesy of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, of course
Chinese Breeze: another graded reader you may be familiar with (comparisons are welcome!)
Extensive reading (Wikipedia): good stuff here, including more on graded readers
AllSet Learning Product Newsletter: we just did a promotion where we gave away iBook versions of these 5 books. Sign up if you’re interested!


Jan 2014

Zaijian, ChinesePod

It’s been almost 8 years that I’ve worked at ChinesePod, but as of 2014, I’m now spending all my time with AllSet Learning. I’m incredibly proud of all the work I’ve done at ChinesePod over the years, especially of the enormous body of useful, modern lessons the ChinesePod team and I created for a new type of self-directed learner, a learner eager to devour practical and up-to-date Mandarin Chinese lesson material.

I’ll be in touch with the ChinesePod crew for years to come, I’m sure, but I think it’s a good time to reflect on ChinesePod’s greatest asset as an organization: the awesome people that work there or have worked there.

Hank, thanks for your support in a three-year transition from full-time work at ChinesePod to full-time work at AllSet Learning. One of the big takeaways I got from you was the idea that entrepreneurs can be a powerful force for change. It’s this idea, probably above all else, that pushed me to start my own company.

Jenny, I’ve watched you grow from a quirky kid to a mother of two with very polished hosting skills. It’s always humbling to remember you’re not a native speaker of English, and it’s been a privilege hosting podcasts with you over all these years. We had some great times behind the mic.

Ken, you created the product that became the ChinesePod podcast. It’s easy to forget that language-learning podcasts were not “a thing” when ChinesePod started, and the pioneering work you did with audio became the standard for the industry. It was an honor learning from you, and I’ve always respected your vision.

Connie, you’re one of the few of ChinesePod’s “Year 1” crew that’s still around, and your attitude and humor have remained constant over the years. You were always fun to work with, and added your mark, not just to Qing Wen, Advanced lessons, and the dialogs, but also to all those hilarious supplementary sentences you snuck in behind the scenes.

David Xu, you’re another member of the “Year 1” crew, and I still remember your first day, running around in the studio, all nervous. It wasn’t long before your audio editing skills were seriously impressing everybody. I won’t forget that you’re key to why ChinesePod podcasts sound so professional.

Jiaojie, it’s funny to think that we sort of went to school together at ECNU, but we had no idea we’d be working together. Thanks so much for your professional guidance on obscure grammar issues, and I’ll always remember you for your respect of the authority of the dictionary and for your flair for the romantic.

Dilu, you’re the “new kid on the block,” but you’ve become a legendary host in record speed, soaking in all the training and adding a style all your own. Thanks also for reminding us when we’d done a string of relatively boring lessons and it was time to mix it up! We had a blast.

Vera, you really don’t get enough credit for all the hard work that you do behind the scenes. You’re not behind the mic as much, but I’ve always been impressed by your positive attitude and awesome work ethic.

Amber, it’s been a really long time since I’ve worked with you, but those were some great times, and you did amazing work. You imparted something really special to ChinesePod that it’s never quite had since.

John B, you played a lot of different roles at ChinesePod over the years, but one thing was constant: good ideas. (Also trips to the store, but the great ideas were in greater quantity.) I miss working with you.

Dave, you were eccentric, but also genius, and we all know that your tech ideas were a tremendous help in transitioning from “scrappy little outfit” to “serious outfit,” and to ChinesePod’s long-term development in general.

Obviously, there are way more people I could thank. I don’t want to slight anyone, but this post is getting long.

I’ve really enjoyed working with ChinesePod’s translators, from Amber (yes, she played that role too), to Pete, to Jason, Greg, and all the way up to Tom. Those were some fun semantic conversations we had, and they went a long way in shaping my own ideas of how translation can and should aid learners.

Then there’s the other roles, like Steve, Aric, Canadian Matt, Colleen, Aussie Matt, Clay, Catherine, Joy, Nana, Jin Xin, Aggie, Jiabin, Ziheng, Zhang Feng, Carol, Suyi, Xiao Xia, Ross, Eileen, Rian, Sarah, Gulam, Bill, Rob, Hurwitz, J.C., Justin, Ray, Jiao, Vivi… the list is very long.

Thank you, team, past and present, and thank you ChinesePod users.




ChinesePod co-workers

ChinesePod.com office in Shanghai

Praxis Langage

The Exiler

ChinesePod 1000th Lesson Party

Praxis Langage


Ladies of ChinesePod, 2007

Ken on acoustic

My visit to ChinesePod


Gifts from Austin, Texas

Signed photo of the ChinesePod Squad




Nov 2013

Love Returns Home


This Family Mart ad reads:

> 回家 [literally, “love” ♥ “return home”]

The character has been converted into a little house, presumably because it’s a lot easier to do with than with !

The ad is for a charitable group which helps poverty-stricken children get an education. More info (in Chinese) here. (The video on that page reminds me of the new free 农村生活 content in AllSet Learning’s updated Picture Book Reader iPad app.)

In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “回家” grammatically, is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…


Oct 2013

Apps, Graded Readers, Wiki, Duolingo

Time for a personal update on some of the stuff I’ve been working on….

Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app

Over the weekend AllSet Learning’s Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app (v1.3) was finally approved! I am repeatedly surprised by how much time and effort the creation and maintenance of an iOS app takes. Although the app itself looks great, this is clearly not the best way for developers… it really makes me yearn for HTML5 apps.

That said, I’m really happy with what we’ve done! Sinosplice readers actually contributed ideas for this app’s new content, some of which is free, and some of which is paid. We probably should have added a bit less all at once to this release, but there’s still some more coming. Details about the release are on the AllSet Learning blog post: Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3.

I’m also putting a lot of time into my (sort of) new Chinese graded reader project, but I’m saving more details on that for a future update.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow. We’re adding more sample sentences and more translations across the whole thing, and while it’s already quite extensive in its coverage, it’s also beefing up across the board.

One thing I’ve gotten into personally (for fun, but also research) is Duolingo. I’m trying it out as a purely iPhone experience, and I chose French because I know very little about it, and I know that pronunciation is a challenge. Man, I’ve got some opinions. That’s a future post too, though.

I’m staying super busy, but I have a big long list of blog topics that will see publication on Sinosplice sooner or later. Because I’m spending so much time working on my own projects, it can be hard to not want to blog about them all the time too, but that would get annoying to some of my readers. If anyone has specific questions about what I’m working on, though, let me know, and the answers might just become blog posts.

If you’re interested in updates about all these Chinese-related projects I’m working on at AllSet, please do sign up for the newsletter. We won’t annoy you, and we’ll keep you updated!


Jul 2013

Help with the Chinese Usage Dictionary

Yale University has a great Chinese Usage Dictionary with 85 entries. Only problem is that it uses the deprecated HTML practice of frames, and the links in the left sidebar are not right. You actually can get to the articles by hovering over the links, noting the HTML file it points to, and then editing the URL in your browser, but that’s a bit tedious.

To make access easier, AllSet Learning has added an index page for Yale’s Chinese Usage Dictionary, and at the same time, added a few relevant Chinese Grammar Wiki links as well. Check it out!

The Chinese Usage Dictionary isn’t a full dictionary in the sense of Pleco or MDBG, and it doesn’t stick strictly to vocabulary or grammar, alternating between the two. But if you like comparisons of similar words with examples of correct and incorrect usage, or want some exercises, then definitely give it a look.


Jul 2013

Chinese Baijiu Toasts as an RTS Video Game

The “Chinese Banquet Baijiu Toast” video game needs to be made. (Indie game developers, this idea is free. Hurry up and go start a Kickstarter campaign!)

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

I was having dinner last week with former AllSet intern Parry and current AllSet intern Ben, and we started talking about baijiu (白酒) drinking strategies. I told them about my friend Derek who kind of made himself into an authority on baijiu by drinking way more of the foul liquid than most white people ever have. And then we started talking about baijiu toasts at Chinese dinners. I told them about my experience in Baoding last CNY, and how our hosts had brought “baijiu assassins” to bring down my father-in-law, who’s kind of legendary in the bajiu-drinking department. And I told them about some of the different strategies that are used in big banquet situations where the baijiu flows freely.

What are these strategies, you ask? I’m not talking about cheap “drink water instead of baijiu” tricks, I’m talking about respectable above-board strategies for these drinking events. Some basic ones:

1. Ganging Up: Individuals go toast one particular person, one by one, in rapid succession. That way each “attacker” only has one shot of baijiu, but the “victim” has many, with no time to recover.

2. Table Takedown: Similar to “ganging up,” but you send one person from your table to toast an entire table (everyone at that table must do a shot). When that person from your table returns, you send another person from your table to toast the whole table again. Repeat ad nauseam (and I do mean nauseam!).

3. Empty Table: If things get hot and heavy and there are enough tables at the banquet, it might be wise for everyone at the table to fan out and do multiple table takedowns (or ganging up) at the same time. That way there’s no one left at your table to get taken down! This is also a good time to go to the bathroom, but beware: if you seem to just be running from your drinking duties, you’re just asking to get ganged up on.

Now rarely is there really this much strategizing going on, I think (although there certainly was that dark night in Baoding!). But it makes me think that this could make a cool strategy game. It all reminds me of an RTS (real-time strategy) game like Starcraft.

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Could some indie game developer make the Starcraft of Chinese Baijiu Toasts? That would be cool… As long as I don’t really have to drink any baijiu to play!

Starcraft Baijiu Banquet

Thanks to Mei for doing the PSing!


May 2013

Interview by Furio

Furio of the Sapore di Cina blog recently interviewed me about the Chinese Grammar Wiki and AllSet Learning in general. He had some great questions, and I really like how the interview turned out. Check it out: Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning [also in Italian, in Spanish].

The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:

> You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?

> Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.

> That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.

Read the full interview.

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…


Apr 2013

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…


The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.

We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:

1. 你最喜欢吃什么? (What do you most like to eat?)

2. 谈到美国,你第一个想到的是什么? (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)

3. 你认为幸福是什么? (What do you think happiness is?)

And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.

So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.


Feb 2013

First Look at Google Glass and Chinese

I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:

Google Glass for Buying Vegetables in Chinese

My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.

I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the in 豆苗 wrong.”

If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).

Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…