Tag: ChinesePod


Oct 2015

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


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!)


Apr 2014

FluentU: a Producer of Original Videos for Learning Chinese (2)

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, FluentU is showing a lot of potential as a learning platform and a content producer. In this review I’ll look more closely at FluentU’s self-produced video series, and finish with an interview of content director Jason Schuurman (my ex-co-worker at ChinesePod).

Fluent-U’s Video Series

So, assuming you have a FluentU account, where do you find the FluentU-produced videos on the FluentU site? It’s not quite as obvious as you might think. They’re not aggressively recommended. But if you go into “Courses,” you’ll notice that some course names start with “FluentU.” Those are the ones FluentU has produced on their own. Unfortunately they’re not really grouped together for easy identification, so I went ahead and listed out all the ones I could find currently available on the FluentU website:

1. FluentU: A Good Morning (Newbie, 8 clips adding up to 2:07)
2. FluentU: Table for Two (Elementary, 7 clips adding up to 3:48)
3. FluentU: Making Friends and Drinking Coffee (Elementary, 12 clips adding up to 3:01)
4. FluentU: A Trip to the Supermarket (Elementary, 7 clips adding up to 4:50)
5. FluentU: Studying on Campus (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 4:58)
6. FluentU: An Evening Get-together (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 8:20)
7. FluentU: Dinner with a Friend (Intermediate, 9 clips adding up to 6:42)
8. FluentU: Shopping at the Clothing Store (Intermediate, 7 clips adding up to 6:34)
9. FluentU: A Basketball Afternoon (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 6:13)
10. FluentU: Going in for a Job Interview (Upper Intermediate, 9 clips adding up to 7:13)

So only 1 Newbie series, 3 Elementary, a whopping 5 Intermediate, and 1 Upper Intermediate. I was hoping for more video at the lower level, but at least I got to see what FluentU created across 4 levels.

One of the things I really like about these series is that although they’re broken up into short episodic clips, there’s also a “full” version that ends each series, putting all the clips together. This is great for review, and it also meant that I could easily watch each series without having to watch them one by one. (Watching a series on FluentU isn’t quite as easy as watching a playlist on YouTube.)

FluentU Original Video Series

The video themselves are professionally made, using young, attractive actors. There’s a bit of a Taiwanese flavor to them all (unsurprising, since they were all shot in Taipei, I believe), which may upset the Beijing-centric putonghua police. I think it’s fine, though, the videos seem to be designed to be universally applicable to mainland China learners as well. I didn’t encounter any Taiwan-only vocabulary, pronunciation was pretty standard (although not perfect, by Beijing standards). There was also some Taiwan-style usage of sentence-final modal particles, like , , and , but I didn’t find it too distracting.

At the lower levels, it’s clear that the creators slowed down the speech and added additional pauses for lower level learners. While this is nice, it has a funny effect, making some scenes feel quite awkward. You know those conversations where neither side is quite sure to say, and there are long awkward silences? There’s a lot of that feeling in some of the lower-level video series. Even within just the Elementary series, though, we quickly see the awkwardness in one series–FluentU: Making Friends and Drinking Coffee–fade to a much more natural rate of speech in FluentU: A Trip to the Supermarket. By Intermediate, the language is a lot more natural, while still being quite clear. I found the Upper Intermediate surprisingly accessible (read: not difficult), meaning it will be more useful for more learners, which is a good thing. (Other material marked “Upper Intermediate” on FluentU is usually quite a bit more challenging.)

FluentU Original Video Series

I noticed that the writers also went to great pains to make the dialogs full of high-frequency words and phrases. While it’s usually easy to pick out words that aren’t useful in most videos or even standard textbooks, there really aren’t many at all in FluentU’s videos. In fact, the language is usually so simple and everyday that the videos don’t really through you any cureveballs at all. There aren’t “twist endings” like you frequently find in ChinesePod dialogs. One thing that keeps the videos interesting, though, is a pervasive flirtiness running through many of the male-female dialogs. You kind of expect the video to devolve into a “what’s your number?” or “we should hang out sometime,” but they stay innocent.

In fact, it’s the flirtiness, combined with an amusing awkwardness, that makes these original videos memorable. Probably my favorite example of this is the elementary video where the cute flirty waitress informs the young protagonist where the bathroom is, immediately followed up by a cutesy “don’t forget to wash your hands!” (Ha ha, wut??)

FluentU Original Video Series

Then there’s also the very awkward pre-interview high-five (between strangers) in the Upper Intermediate job interview lesson:

FluentU Original Video Series

(The girl and guy from that video are going to end up as co-workers, and if that sexual tension doesn’t later erupt in a sequel series, I really don’t know what the writers are trying to do here.)

Overall, I enjoyed the videos. Especially at the lower levels, they still feel like “studying,” but they’re very usable and easy on the eyes. I can see these being useful in the classroom, especially for college students.

Interview with FluentU’s Content Director, Jason Schuurman

thinking Jason

Me: Although it’s a very different service, FluentU kind of reminds me of ChinesePod in that it offers a lot of material and tools, and it’s up to learners to put them together in the way that makes sense for them. Can you comment on how that might work at FluentU, and how different types of users use the service?

Jason: Yeah, we definitely provide a lot of freedom and flexibility. We feel this not only allows for a broader range of users to benefit from the site, but it also let’s our users take their learning into their own hands and not get bored with materials they weren’t interested in learning in the first place.

That being said, we still do provide structure for those who want it in the form of recommended content and more specifically, ‘courses’. Courses at FluentU are something like a playlist-meets-lesson plan, and guide users through various sets of content ranging from multi-part video series, to topically related materials and textbook vocab lists.

As far as users go, on one end of the spectrum, you have users who only use FluentU for the content itself. Our library of videos and audios is very large and already organized for you, translated into English, and completely annotated. These users usually already have a system for review they prefer, prefer not to review at all, or are in Chinese classes already and looking for engaging authentic content. Most of these users are intermediate and above and subscribe to our Basic subscription plan.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the users who use FluentU as their single source for most or all of their language learning and are Plus subscribers. Not only do they get all the content, but they have access to and can create decks (vocab lists), and are able to actually learn everything within the FluentU library using our personalized review tools. Learn mode integrates videos you’ve watched and tracks your progress so that we can do things like make sure clips you see are comprehensible to you and do an even better job recommending you content. All that adds up to a pretty complete learning package.

How big is the video library, exactly? How many FluentU-produced videos do you have now?

Jason: Our total count in the video library as I write this is 1251 videos, with 65 at newbie, 86 at elementary, 138 at intermediate, 257 at upper intermediate, 360 at advanced, and 340 at native. Of those, we’ve produced 10 ‘Courses’ of videos of our own, each about 5-10 videos apiece. Though, it’s ever-increasing because we publish at least 12 videos a week, sometimes more.

In addition to that we also produce our own audio dialogs, which we call ‘Audios’. They’re similar to some videos, but are more lesson-like and practical, and of course, don’t require the user to actually watch anything, which is great for mobile. (They’ll also be available offline on our upcoming mobile app.) Right now we have 228 of those spread across the levels, and also publish around 10 a week.

And as for ‘Decks’, which are vocab lists of various types available for learning via the Learn Mode, we have 124, and continue to publish more as well.

How have you been growing the library? Are you focused on particular levels, or topics, or styles of video? What are the plans for that?

Jason: We’re always looking for and preparing new videos. In general, we make sure to cover a wide range of topics and formats, and also keep difficulty in mind so that we can continuously publish a good mix of content. Though we also keep things like the overall library balance and user feedback and requests in mind as well. So far this has worked really well, so while we have no plans to change much in that regard.

How should learners decide what videos to watch on FluentU?

Jason: Browse! The videos in our library are divided into different topics, formats, and difficulties, which help users choose what to watch based on their interests and Chinese level. We also display the percentage of vocabulary the user already knows for each video, which allows them to chose videos that are more precisely at their level.

In addition to that, we have “Courses”, which if you don’t know exactly what to you want to watch or are looking for more structure, organize the content into playlists for you. Courses are also popular because they’re longer forms of content. You can slowly pick away at a course, with your next video, deck, audio, or learn mode session waiting for you every time you sign in, meaning you don’t always have browse for new content.

How do your difficulty levels relate to textbooks or other online services like ChinesePod or the Chinese Grammar Wiki?

Jason: We based our difficulty levels on a lot of things, but mostly a combination of our own knowledge and expertise (bolstered of course via sources like the Chinese Grammar Wiki), and other helpful standards like the new HSK levels. When actually determining difficulties, we consider things like speed and clarity, but linguistically we place a strong emphasis on frequency and usefulness to ensure that lower-level videos are filled with the stuff you really need when starting a language.

Can you explain the process for how you went about creating and filming your original video series?

Jason: When we first started compiling our library of videos, we realized there was a lack of quality, entertaining, video content for lower-level learners. There’s certainly stuff out there, as our current library reflects, but nothing as well-produced and linguistically-minded as we would have prefered. The stuff out there was either very entertaining but not practical, or very practical, but not entertaining. We wanted both, and so we decided to just make them ourselves. Essentially, we wanted to make sure our lower-level learners were getting as great of a video-learning experience as our more advanced users, and making some of our own videos was the best way to do that.

To produce them, we teamed up with a small independent film production company who we felt really understood our ‘vision’ with the videos. From there, we decided on what scenarios were most needed/wanted, wrote the scripts with our pedagogy in mind, and produced the videos.

You say the FluentU video series is for “lower-level learners.” Can you explain that a bit more? Is it for someone with a year of formal Chinese under their belt, or is it an absolute newbie, or someone who’s learned pinyin and a few basic phrases but nothing else, or what?

Jason: We’ve produced our own video series at the newbie level all the way up the upper intermediate level, but we made sure to produce more at the newbie, elementary, and intermediate levels simply because there’s less good material at that level.

The ‘newbie’ level courses are meant for learners with a little bit of understanding as to how the Chinese language works in particular in terms of tones, pinyin and characters, but without any prior master of them. Through a combination of the scripts, which are written for language learning, and a filming style that is meant to take full advantage of the video-learning format, we wanted to make understanding the content just come naturally, which is very important for newbies. To do that we emphasize things like repetition of key vocab, visual cues, slightly slower speech, etc.
The video player and learn mode also allow the user to start with pinyin first, and graduate up to characters when they’re ready. And finally, we also other courses meant specifically for learners who aren’t familiar with, or who need more practice with, things like tones and pinyin.

I’d say with a year of formal Chinese under your belt, you’d be just about at our ‘intermediate’ level. With ‘elementary’ being somewhere in between that, and what I’ve just described above.

How are your own videos different from other video-based learning material? What makes them special?

Jason: Well, I think for one we put a ton of care into making sure they were not only useful, educational, and pedagogically sound, but also interesting and worth watching. I think the biggest problem with a lot of language learning video series, is not unlike the problem that many textbook dialogs have, in that they end up being either boring, or unnatural and feel somewhat stilted in the end. We tried really hard to make sure ours were visually interesting (and hopefully even sometimes funny!) and also that our actors did their best to speak and act naturally, while still maintaining the clarity of speech that is so important to a language learning video. That’s probably the biggest difference in my mind.

That’s the end of this two-part review of FluentU. Check out Part 1 if you missed it.


Apr 2014

FluentU: a Developing Video-based Platform for Learning Chinese (1)

FluentU has quickly become the most talked-about video service for learning Chinese online. The site sports a clean, modern feel, and the team have been very responsive over the past year, as user feedback has informed a number of nice changes. Although I’ve been following FluentU’s development (and even met with the founder a while back), I haven’t reviewed the service myself until recently. It’s not a coincidence; I’m actually a bit skeptical of video-based learning (it’s really hard to get right), and I wanted to wait until FluentU got a few more features out before I reviewed the service.

For the most part, I’m going to assume that most of my readers have already heard about FluentU (it’s certainly not new anymore!), and I won’t provide an in-depth introduction to how the service works. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Why video?

Why video? This is a really important question. Working at ChinesePod, we were often confronted with the “why don’t you guys do video?” question. The logic seemed to be: “if audio is good, video is better.” ChinesePod has done a few experiments in video over the years, but never fully committed to it. The reasons are:

1. Professional video is much more labor-intensive than audio (by a factor of 5-10)
2. Users often say they want video, but don’t really want to pay extra for it (poor ROI)
3. Many users use audio material in a way that doesn’t work with video (e.g. listening while working out, or while driving)

What conclusions can I draw from this? Not a whole lot. Maybe video is just not a good fit for the ChinesePod brand. Building up a big fanbase over years and years, all centered on audio, probably doesn’t naturally lead to demand for video. If ChinesePod were to really commit to doing video, it would have to be a concerted, long-term effort, and more than just a few experimental videos.

FluentU, on the other hand, has focused on video from the start. In its early days, it utilized tons of clips from YouTube, which meant its resources could go into translation, vocab management, and other tools (rather than video production). More recently, FluentU has started producing its own professional video content.

Video is great for providing the full visual context of language, including both cultural elements and body language. This is especially powerful for learners not in China (learners which can also take advantage of the unblocked internet and faster speeds for viewing FluentU videos).

FluentU: the Video Player

FluentU does a great job of presenting video. The player is great, right down to all sorts of tiny details. If you know FluentU at all, you know this, so I won’t say too much here.

FluentU - Video - The Four Tones in Use

Some specific details I like:

1. Being able to loop a specific clip within a video.
2. Color coding in the video timeline so you can see where the dialog happens in the videos and where there’s no speaking going on.
3. Hovering on the subtitles automatically pauses the video, so you can check the meanings or pinyin of the words you’re hearing.
4. When you first select a video, you’re presented with the entire video transcript up front (which you can also download). This is especially useful for intermediate and above; if you can read enough to get the gist of the transcript, you don’t have to suffer through 5 minutes of a video before discovering it’s not what you want.

But there’s a catch… because FluentU makes extensive use of YouTube, it doesn’t work flawlessly in China. I have a VPN, of course, but it’s still a little slow. It’s usable, but the lag is quite annoying, I must admit. I imagine using FluentU on a fast (unfiltered) internet connection would be pretty awesome, though.

FluentU: Learn Mode

The is one of the key features I want to focus on. It wasn’t around in FluentU’s early free/beta days, and it has a lot of potential. Basically, “Learn Mode” is FluentU’s take on SRS, an idea which isn’t so great all by itself, but holds a lot of promise for enhancing other methods of learning.

When you choose a FluentU video at your level that you’re interested in, you can choose between “Watch” and “Learn.” “Watch” is just watching the video, as expected. “Learn” takes you to a new interface which is focused on figuring out which words in the video you actually know, and familiarizing you with the ones you don’t know. This process should feel very familiar to anyone who’s used Anki or other SRS vocabulary review software, but FluentU has done its own take on SRS.


When you don’t “know” a word, you have the option of watching one or more short video clips which include the word. It’s a very cool cross-section of the word in action across all kinds of video content and contexts. Imagine that all those sample sentences you love so much in your favorite dictionary (or Chinese Grammar Wiki) were all mini video clips. That’s what it does, complete with transcript for each individual sentence.

After you “learn” the word and continue, the system will cycle back and test you on the words you should have “learned.” There are multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank, and straight-up translation mini-quizzes for each word.

FluentU FluentU FluentU

So I’m totally on board with the idea of extending SRS into something more interesting, and I like seeing innovation around the boring SRS model, but there are a few issues (which I’m sure FluentU is working on). First, if you’re in China using a VPN, the lag issue is even worse for these tiny clips than for the full videos.

Second, the “Learn this word” vs. “Already Know” dichotomy may be a little hard for some types of learners to deal with. There are just so many words we learners are working on in learning, which fall in that fuzzy region somewhere between “Learn this word” (as if it were new) and “Already Know,” that being forced to choose may be just a little agonizing.

If you choose “Already Know,” then BAM, that word is forever (?) on your “known” list, which might make you feel like you damn well better know it before clicking “Already Know.” Perhaps that’s the idea: getting you to browse clips more, and make fuller use of FluentU’s archive of annotated video. Fair enough. I just think it will be hard for some users (read: super-serious learners with perfectionist tendencies, like I used to be) to confidently click on “Already Know.”

FluentU - The Four Tones in Use

One thing is for sure: the “Learn” mode offers a much more focused way to “study” FluentU’s video content, rather than just casually browsing. It really is a very different experience from the site’s main video-watching experience, more similar to a quiz than enjoying a TV show. I can see how this might attract some users and turn off others.

If FluentU can get “Learn” mode right and get more users actually using it, it has huge potential. Any learning service that can accurately determine what its users “know” is very well poised to offer an amazing, personalized learning experience. Right now, FluentU offers a little green strip next to every video displaying what is “known” (based on feedback from “Learn” mode). There’s a lot of potential here.


Mini-Interview with FluentU’s Founder, Alan Park


Me: The FluentU video player is fantastic! How did you design/develop it?

Alan: Thanks for the kind words! We designed/developed it through the same way that we develop the rest of the site: by going back and forth with our users and adjusting based on feedback, until they loved it. And then adjusting it some more.

FluentU has some great video content, but it seems to also be branching out into audio too. Are you having second thoughts about a “pure video” approach?

Alan: Our team doesn’t have many “sacred cows.” We experiment a lot and are always trying new things to make the best language learning site possible. We started with real-world videos because video has many advantages. Video is exciting, and it opens your eyes to a whole new world and culture. People talk naturally on video. It’s memorable and helps words stick. And most of all it’s fun. On the other hand, audio has 2 huge benefits: it’s cheaper to create than video, and it doesn’t require as much active engagement for the user as video. We’ve found that there is definitely a place for audio alongside video.

Is FluentU primarily aimed at individual self-study learners, or at schools and other institutions?

Alan: Our focus is individual learners, but many schools and institutions tell us that their students are loving FluentU.

You’ve launched other languages on the FluentU platform. What does this mean for Chinese? Will Chinese get any “special treatment” going forward, or are new features now “all or nothing”?

Alan: Chinese is our first language, so it will always get “special treatment.” And by virtue of the fact that there is pinyin and Chinese characters there is no way around it. Besides, it’s my favorite foreign language.

The “Learn” feature on FluentU is a unique take on spaced repetition. Is it popular with your users?

Alan: Yes, they love it. Instead of saying that it is a take on spaced repetition, I would say that spaced repetition is just one small part of it.

The “Learn” feature is really a personalized quiz for learning vocab through video contexts. Instead of learning vocab through flashcards, why not learn them through short video clips which are handpicked for you?

What’s next for the “Learn” feature?

Alan: We’re making it mobile friendly. Right now, it involves a lot of typing, which wouldn’t translate well for smartphone. Stay tuned!


Just a few takeaway points:

– FluentU has a great, learner-centric video player with awesome features and real attention to detail
– FluentU may not work well in China, even if you have a VPN
– FluentU has “Learn” mode, which may not be for all users, but it definitely takes FluentU well beyond “a site with a bunch of videos,” and looks very promising

In part 2 I’ll be looking at the FluentU-produced video series, with a more in-depth interview with Content Director Jason Schuurman.


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

Foot Massage Confessions

Spa foot massage

Photo by bodhana mallorca

In a recent ChinesePod lesson on foot baths, I made this comment:

> I think I find this form of Chinese “relaxation” painful about 90% of the time, but that other 10% is quite nice!

This prompted this reply from RJ:

> My experience as well. Compared to “foot massage”, water-boarding is a sport. They scrape the sensitive bottoms of your feet with a very dull knife, so as not to draw blood. All the while they are thinking: die laowai, die. Had I been a CIA operative under interrogation, I would have cracked. The gal that took me, my host, seemed to be having a great time however. The deluxe 1.5 hour package also came with a happy ending. They packed my legs in a warm “herbal paste” that felt a lot like hot drain cleaner. They also wrap it up in several layers of cloth and tie knots so you can not escape. I was so relieved to see that there was still skin on my legs when they finally removed the restraints. I had to drink an extra beer at dinner just to get rid of the residual pain. How I managed to smile for an hour and a half I dont know, but I could just imagine the whole crew laughing and slapping their thighs after we left. “We got another one, die laowai die”! 🙂

User podster replied with:

> Ah yes, the Chinese foot torture. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Oh, sorry, it’s just “enhanced interrogation.” I got some chemical goo that probably doubles as rust remover at the shipyard smeared on my legs during one of these therapeutic treatments. As the searing pain began to set in, they asked me “烫吗?” [“Too hot?”] I wonder how to ask in Chinese exactly how much pain is “normal.”

I really do wonder if our western feet are built differently (wimpier), or what. Exaggeration aside, this kind of experience seems to be par for the course when it comes to foot baths/massages.


Nov 2012

Japanese Fortune Cookies in China

As most of us in China know, fortune cookies are not a Chinese thing. They’re an American thing. ChinesePod just recently did a lesson on American Chinese Food, and user he2xu4 linked to this TED talk which gives more detail on the issue: Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso. (ChinesePod also once did a lesson on the fact that you can’t get fortune cookies in China.)

The thing is, it looks like now you can get fortune cookies in China. I took this photo in my local Carrefour supermarket:

Chinese Fortune Cookies!

OK, so it was in the “imported foods” section (they seem to be from Japan), but the packaging is in simplified Chinese. They come in two flavors: “cream” and “chocolate.” It says on the package: 装密语签语饼干, which means something like “Secret-containing Fortune Cookies.”

Probably the best thing about these fortune cookies, though, is that they feature Pac-Man. The Japanese may have had the invention of fortune cookies stolen by the Chinese in the United States, but at least as they introduce fortune cookies to mainland China they’re sneaking Japan’s home-grown video game icon into the mix!


Nov 2012

What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:

1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)

2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)

To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]

OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).

A few additional notes for beginners:

* Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
* Particles are something new. Some of them, like and , aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like , will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
* Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word . So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with , but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.


Nov 2012

Sapore di Cina for Chinese Learners

I’d like to call attention to a relatively new blog on learning Chinese by Furio from Italy. It’s called Sapore di Cina (“Flavor of China” in Italian), and the author has a lot of good ideas (in English). A lot of his recommendations are the types of things I tell learners as well, so if you like Sinosplice’s entries on learning Chinese, there’s a good chance you’ll like Furio’s blog.

The blog post that first got my attention was Learn Chinese online: 27 excellent free resources. It’s a good list, and since any list of this sort doesn’t stay up to date for long, it’s good to check it out now. I was happy to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki in Furio’s list of resources.

Recently Furio published ChinesePod Review – An alternative way to learn Chinese. I won’t deny that it’s a complimentary review of ChinesePod in general (and me in particular), but one of the good things about this review is the Furio calls attention to some of the more effective (and economical) ways to get the most out of ChinesePod.

I’ve added Sapore di Cina to my on short list of Chinese resources on Sinosplice. Check it out!


Aug 2012

Graham’s SRS Method

Sinosplice commenter Graham Bond recently left a lengthy and interesting comment on my Misgivings about SRS post. (“SRS” refers to spaced repetition system like Anki; I explain how SRS works in an earlier post.)

I quote Graham’s comment here, almost in its entirety, adding in a few links and just a little emphasis:

I have become a hopelessly-addicted SRS user in recent months. This decision came at something of an impasse in my (nine year-long) Chinese language-learning journey, and was made largely on the back of blog I came across, the author of which was positively evangelical about the possibilities of the technology.

By now – nine months in – I recognise all of the problems and limitations cited above. I was mistaken to think, as many others have, that SRS was a cure to all language-acquisition ills. It is bound to unnaturally skew one’s priorities and lead to the kind of imbalanced result you allude to in your post (ie. I have bulging vocabularly pecs, and puny grammatical legs). That said, it has proved useful in certain respects, not least in introducing a competitive element to language-learning (albeit one in which I compete with myself) and imposing quite a hard-edged discipline (ie. I gotta get through my character sets every day, regardless of how I feel, otherwise the ‘overdue cards’ count mounts very quickly….this can verge on the pathological).

My current set up attempts to address some of the deficiencies mentioned above. Though it’s probably very, very boring, I’ll set out my current arrangements, as briefly as possible, in the hope of explaining how they work for me (and occasionally, how they do not).

I have four decks of cards which, in total, I spend around an hour trawling through daily.

Only one of these, the HSK deck, was downloaded and, as such, contains many words and (at Level 6) idioms which are completely devoid of context for me. Because of the sheer size of the contemporary Level 6 HSK category (1,400+ words), I have had to introduce new cards slowly – I try for 10-20 new words per day – in the hope that by the end of this year, 2012, I will be juggling all cards (about 2,500 for Levels 1-6), while never having to face a single daily session of more than, say, 150 words at one time.

I download daily audio from YouTube clips of 美国之音 TV news broadcasts and listen to them as MP3 files whilst commuting, or taking a stroll. I attempt to listen to at least 20-minutes worth of broadcast material daily. Additionally, I force myself to read at least one Chinese news article (I occasionally substitute this with a page or two of a novel) per day, regardless of subject. These two activities have allowed me to locate the usage of a lot of the fairly formal words or obscures idioms that I have come across in my HSK drills (especially when I read Chinese newspapers, as these are the most likely to feature the more obscure, Mao-era, political terms often used in the HSK). I don’t always have time to dwell on their exact usage – and there are many words/phrases I have not yet heard in any real-world context – but I do get a little thrill when I hear a word or phrase which I have previously only known in the HSK context, being used out there in the real world.

In short, I try to undertake the (largely written) daily SRS drills in tandem with attempts to exercise my listening and reading skills.

My second and third flashcard decks are drawn manually from Chinesepod.com. I listen to lessons at the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (keep up the good work, btw!:)) and, after each lesson, draw down new words/phrases into files which I transfer to my SRS system (Pleco, for what it’s worth). Thus I have an ‘Intermediate’ set, and an ‘Upper Intermediate’ set which are both increasing in size on a weekly basis, as new lessons are made.

My fourth flashcard set – and the most recent, and possible useful, addition – is a list of complete sentences which locates some of the most common/useful/interesting words/phrases in real-world context. I tend to take these sentences from the dialogues at Chinesepod.com, thereby ensuring that they are reliable in terms of how people really speak. This is an attempt to address the most obvious failing with SRS that it allows you to expand your vocabulary without requiring any understanding of how words are actually used in context. In this test, I look at the English translation and read out the correct Chinese sentence. The act of verbalising, if only to myself, seems to make certain patterns stick.

In terms of the specific tests that I undertake, I oscillate fairly systematically between, on the one hand, viewing the English translation and responding with the written Chinese translation (input using hanzi), while simultaneously verbalising the word in the (hopefully) correct tones; and, on the other, reading the Chinese word and verbalising the correct English translation out loud to myself. Regardless of the exact test I undertake, I try to be disciplined and have a rule for myself that if I could not, on request, write the hanzi that appear in the word, or if I get the tone of a character wrong (even if I knew how to write it), I mark the card as wrong. In some ways this is a vanity project – I want to be able to say (as I have been known to in the past) that “I am able to write everything that I am able to say”. On the other hand, as some other commenters have noted, writing a character over and over again does tend to make it stick in one’s memory banks.

As I mentioned, all of this takes me between 60 minutes and 75 minutes per day.

Despite all of my labours, I have concluded that while daily SRS work has enlarged my vocabulary and improved my reading skills (and to a lesser extent, listening skills), it has done absolutely nothing for my general conversational fluency. If anything, this is in a worse place now than it was nine months ago. I lived in China for several years in the Noughties (apologies:)) and, thus, feel confident in terms of my basic pronunciation and tones. But, here I am, nine years in, still finding myself jumping through all kinds of mental hoops and using torturous (and probably way overly complication and clunky) sentence constructions when it comes time to actually have a conversation at anything over a basic elementary level. Similarly, I have little confidence in composing a Chinese sentence in writing. I may be able to write the individual characters accurately, with the correct stroke order etc.etc, but I cannot necessarily link them fluently in a proper sentence, let alone a paragraph.

In summary, SRS is rubbish for improving fluency, but is great for developing vocabulary and thus (depending on precisely how it is used), improving one’s reading and listening comprehension. Luckily for me, right now I am most concerned with improving my Chinese reading skills, so this works for me. And I am (semi)confident that this is great foundational work for when I do, eventually, get back to China and find myself speaking with real people again (you currently find me residing in a sleepy English village – which, over and beyond everything I have said, is my biggest problem of all – the general ambient sounds in my everyday life are not those of Mandarin Chinese!)

Thanks for the detailed comment, Graham! At the time you didn’t know you were writing a guest post, so… surprise! I appreciate you going to the trouble of writing such a detailed account. Other learners will benefit from your ideas.

I like the way you diversified your SRS review, and your confirmation on the shortcomings of SRS as a study tool is helpful. There’s no silver bullet for mastery of any language…


Jul 2012

The ChinesePod iPad App

In June we got Skritter for the iPhone (finally!), and this month we at long last get ChinesePod for the iPad (subscription required). ChinesePod has had an iPhone app for a while, and that app has gone through some rough patches over the years, but with this new iPad app release, things are starting to look a lot better. The universal app which combines the iPad and iPhone versions (following the iPad app’s general design) is already in development and coming soon.

The newly released iPad app lets you access all lesson content (including your bookmarked lessons and the massive ChinesePod lesson archive), and you can also download all audio through the app (eliminating the need for further iTunes syncs).

Some screenshots:

ChinesePod iPad app

ChinesePod iPad app

ChinesePod iPad app

It’s good to see this app out. I did a review of iPad apps for learning Chinese a while back, but the landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s already time to start completely from scratch! I’m happy that ChinesePod is joining the ranks of decent, modern iPad apps for learning Chinese.

Reminder: if you need an iPad app to help with pinyin, AllSet Learning Pinyin has you covered!


Feb 2012

Unmixing Chinese and Japanese fonts on the iPad and Mac OS

Recently an AllSet Learning client came to me with an interesting problem: he was seeing strange, slightly “off” variations of characters in his ChinesePod lesson, “Adjusting the Temperature.” Once upon a time I studied Japanese, so I could recognize the characters he was seeing as Japanese variants:

What he saw:
ChinesePod fonts (with Japanese characteristics)

What he expected to see:
ChinesePod fonts (fully simplified Chinese)

[If you really care about the tiny discrepancy, you may need to click through and enlarge the screenshot to see the difference. I’m not going to focus on including text here, because that’s exactly the nature of the problem: the text is subject to change based on your system’s font availability.]

The really strange thing was that he was experiencing the exact same issue on both his 2010 MacBook and on his iPad 2. In troubleshooting this problem, I discovered that my client was running both an older version of iOS (4.x) as well as an older version of Mac OS (Leopard). I was experiencing neither on my 2008 MacBook (running Snow Leopard) or on my iPad 2 (iOS 5.x). But his system had all the required fonts, and switching browsers from Safari to others did nothing to solve the problem. So I concluded it was simply a system configuration problem.

Fixing the issue on the iPad

Here’s the fix. On the iPad, go into Settings > General > International (you might need to scroll down for that last one). You might see something like this:

iPad Language Settings (2)

Note that in the order pictured above, Japanese (日本語) is above simplified Chinese (简体中文) in the list. This is crucial! That means that if English fonts are not found for the characters on a given page, the system is going to match characters to Japanese fonts next.

So to fix this issue, Chinese should be above Japanese. The thing is, there’s no obvious way to change the order. The only way I found to do it is to switch the system language to Chinese, then switch back to English. [Warning: your entire iOS system interface will switch to Chinese when you do this; make sure you can read the Chinese, or you know where the menu position for this settings page is before you switch!]

(Hint, hint!)

Switching to Chinese makes the Chinese jump to the top of the list, then switching back to English makes English jump back above that, leaving Japanese below Chinese.

You should see something like this when you’re done:

iPad Language Settings (1)

Fixing the issue on Mac OS X

The exact some issue applies to Mac OS X system preferences. Go to: System Preferences… > Language & Text > Language.

Mac OS System Preferences

This time, though, there’s an easier way to rearrange the order. Simply click and drag:

Mac OS Language Settings

Notice the little message on the right about when the changes will take effect.

Does this really matter?

In the grand scheme of things, not really. It’s actually good to have some tolerance for font variations. But the detail-oriented may find this particular issue quite maddening. It’s good to have a simple way to fix it.

So why didn’t I have the issue, and he did? Well, I had at some point tried switching the system language to Chinese, on both my MacBook and on my iPad, but I later switched them back to English. So without even trying to, I had taught my system to prefer Chinese over Japanese. The problem appears when English is the only language ever used, and the system doesn’t know what to give preference to. In my client’s case, you would think that adding a Chinese input method might clue in the system, but apparently Apple isn’t quite that on the ball yet.


Sep 2011

A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

> Me: Hi, how’s it going?

> Student: [confused] Going?

> Me: Hello, how are you?

> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

> Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.


Aug 2011

The Four Great Ugly Women of China

Recently ChinesePod was preparing to do a podcast on some of the “Four Greats” (四大) of China [more info in Chinese]. If you’re not familiar with any of these, you might want to listen to the podcast (it’s free). Otherwise, a quick sum-up of some of the most famous ones will suffice:

The funny thing is that in addition to the “Four Great Beauties” (of ancient China), there are also “Four Great Ugly Women” (who don’t seem to have their own Wikipedia page):

  • 四大丑女 (the Four Great Ugly Women)
    1. 嫫母 (Mo Mu)
    2. 钟离春 (Zhong Lichun)
    3. 孟光 (Meng Guang)
    4. 阮氏 (Ruan Shi)

I talked to a ChinesePod co-worker about these famous ugly women. The conversation went something like this:

> Me: So these women were so ugly that they went down in the history books just for that? Isn’t that kind of mean?

> Her: Well, they weren’t just ugly. They also had great talent.

> Me: Well, why not just call them “the four great women of talent” then?

> Her: Well, they were also ugly.

Point taken. Cultural lesson learned!


May 2011

12 Angry (Chinese) Men


As a result of a rather whimsical decision made by my wife, I found myself at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre for the first time last Saturday, attending a Chinese language version of the classic play Twelve Angry Men. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to.

To begin with, I was surprised by how “Chinese” the story seemed. The part about there being no air conditioning and the fan not working, and one of the guys wanting to be done with jury duty in time for a ball game (it was baseball originally, I believe), and the murder weapon being a knife rather than a gun–all just seemed to work well in the setting of Chinese society. It wasn’t until towards the end, when one of the characters started talking about how the jury’s deliberation was their duty as part of a “democratic society” and that “democracy made their country great” that the illusion sort of fell apart.

This isn’t to say that I think that modern day China is equivalent to the 1954 America in which the original story was set, but it’s interesting to me that it worked so well in this case.

I should also mention that the legal system of mainland China doesn’t make use of juries, so the “illusion” that it could be a mainland Chinese story was never very convincing to begin with. It did make for a good show, though.

I brushed up a little on my legal vocab before the play (ChinesePod has a fair amount), but it turned out that I didn’t need a whole lot. Some of the more difficult key vocabulary from the play:

贫民窟: slum
陪审团: jury
陪审员: juror
证词: testimony
合理的怀疑: reasonable doubt

Finally, a note on the title. This version of the play was simply titled 12个人 (12 People), but the previous movie version was called 十二怒汉 (12 Enraged Men). The classic version of that film is on Tudou under that title.


May 2011

Xiaoli is very weird

I just discovered these bizarre videos on Youtube called iamxiaoli. They’re supposed to be for learning Chinese, but they’re a little unorthodox, to say the least. Here are two of the ones I found more interesting:

0003 How To Say “Friend” In Chinese

0005 How To Say “What is This?” & “He Doesn’t Know” In Chinese

I’m curious how effective these videos are at teaching Chinese. Can anyone voice for having learned some words or phrases from these videos?

Anyway, Xiaoli got my attention. The (sparse) website is at iamxiaoli.com.

Not in content, obviously, but in some ways this stuff reminds me of ChinesePod in its early days, trying something new and different, unafraid to explore and experiment. I’m not surprised that this particular effort came out of Beijing.

Via Study More Chinese, via Social Mandarin.


Mar 2011

Da Admiral’s Mandarin Un-Learning School

I subscribe to SmartShanghai‘s email newsletter, less because I try to attend all the latest events in this city, and more because the man who writes it, “Da Admiral,” is pretty hilarious.

His latest newsletter, focused on “un-learning Chinese” definitely caught my attention:

> Whenever I’m stopped on the streets, the thing I get more than anything is, “Oh Admiral, Admiral… you’re so knowledgeable and good looking and insightful about Shanghai life and society — I bet you speak perfect Mandarin!”

> My friends, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

> The opposite couldn’t be more true! I don’t speak Chinese for shit!

> And then it occurred to me… Why don’t I take my eight-years-plus experience in not speaking Chinese and share it with others? For money?

WBW Couch Potato Edition

Un-learning in action, by Cris

> So I’m opening a Mandarin Un-Learning School.

> As a sort of compliment to “Mandarin Garden” or whatever it is, I’m calling it “Da Admiral’s Mandarin Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” and we’re accepting students at all skill levels, whether you want us to rip perfect fluency in Chinese from your brain, or even if you’re looking for something a little more part-time –maybe you’d just like to reduce your vocab a bit and un-learn a few key Chinese phrases — we can help.

> Here’s the pitch:

> “Through the sweat off his brow and sheer determination, Da Admiral has maintained a near perfect and unassailable wall of incommunicability with 99% of Chinese society. Dude is still pointing at shit on the menus like a nutsack who just got off the plane, like, yesterday.

> And now he’s willing to share his secrets with you.

> For a small enrolment fee, you’ll have access to our proven tools of whittling down knowledge of Chinese to basically nil. Whether you want to take a special, personal, one-on-one, 24 hour intensive course — basically this involves about seven pounds of weed and the Complete Filmography of Nicolas Cage — or are looking to un-learn Chinese in a group setting with our special “Dog Bloopers and Various Shit on the Internet” group classes, we’ll have you not speaking Chinese in no time.”

> Are you a Mandarin un-learner on the go? Subscribe to our special Un-ChinesePod, which is basically just me screaming nonsensical phrases in made-up French to you, intermixed with the latest news on the Batman sequel. Mind-numbing stuff. Just try to retain knowledge after a few of these.

> What I’m saying here is nothing about my time in Shanghai has been more rewarding — more spiritually fulfilling — than not learning Chinese, and I feel it’s a duty at this point to share my non-knowledge with others for money.

> I’m an educator at heart. I care about my students. They’re like my family for money. And when we’re in cabs together and I see them struggling with that last — “Zho-gw-ai” or “Yoh-gw-ai” or “Ting” or whatever the fuck it is, I don’t know, you know what I mean — I feel like my job is done.

> My job is done… and a tear comes to my eye.

I’m obligated to point out here: if you’re looking for a really good one-on-one “Mandarin Un-Un-Learning” experience in Shanghai, there’s AllSet Learning. And of course, the best Un-Un-ChinesePod is ChinesePod.


Jan 2011

Going to the Dentist in Shanghai

Life in China for us non-Chinese is a never-ending process of adaptation. Some things come easier than others. For me, one of the most difficult to get used to has been going to the dentist. Let’s face it — Americans are pretty vain when it comes to teeth, and we don’t see a lot on a daily basis to inspire confidence in China’s dentistry skill. Does an American like me dare go to the dentist in China? How does one make such a decision?

I don’t claim to have all the answers for everyone, but I can share my own experiences, which may be useful to some of you out there (especially those of you in Shanghai).

I started my China stay in Hangzhou. The only “dental clinics” I ever saw there were tiny little shops on the side of small roads. They often had glass sliding doors opening right into a tiny room with a dentist’s chair, and if you walked by the shop at the right time, you could peer right into a patient’s open mouth from the other side of the glass door, without even going inside. Not exactly private. Some of them also look, to put it nicely, quite “amateur,” and they offer pricing to reflect that. Clearly, they fill a need in the Chinese market, but they’re not the type of place most foreigners are going to entrust their pearly whites to.

Here’s one of the “roadside dental clinics,” this one in Shanghai, and actually looking a lot nicer than the ones I saw back in the day in Hangzhou (click through to the Flickr photo page for an explanation of the characters on the doors):

Dental Clinic

What I didn’t know at the time, living in Hangzhou, is that many Chinese people actually go to hospitals to have their dental work done. I’ve never done that, but from what I’ve heard the quality of dental work offered at hospitals can vary quite a lot, and the sheer volume of patients going through hospitals means the service is not likely to be of the same caliber as a dedicated dental clinic.

In a big city like Shanghai, western-style dental clinics do exist. They’re more expensive than more traditional Chinese options, but there are also acceptably priced options. For over 8 years in China, I had successfully avoided trying out any of these dental care options, feebly hoping that my faithful brushing and flossing would be enough to carry me through forever. Eventually, an old filling came out, and I had an undeniable need for a dentist. I ended up choosing Byer Dental Clinic (拜尔齿科) in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine (龙之梦) Shopping Center. It looked very clean, professional, and up-to-date, and respectful of patient privacy.

Byer Dental

Byer Dental

I was really impressed by the service and price I got from Byer Dental. Make no mistake; it was more expensive than I could have gotten from a host of more traditional Chinese options, but I actually felt at ease. I hadn’t been to a dentist in years, and it was good to see that the facilities were far more technologically advanced than anything I had seen before. The replacement filling used a high-quality white material which hardened instantly under a special blue light. The filling it replaced was from 1998, the ugly metallic green kind, that typically last less than 10 years before needing to be replaced.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my last filling, but just recently another old filling cracked, and I found myself back at Byer Dental. This time the total was 610 RMB (currently USD 93). I’m not a “member” or anything. I made the appointment the day before, was seen at 3pm on Saturday, and was completely done and out of there at 3:45pm. I could eat right away, and even though I had had a shot of local anesthetic, I guess it was just the right amount, because my mouth wasn’t even numb.

The staff is perhaps not super-fluent in English but sufficiently bilingual, and they were happy to talk to me in Chinese. I really enjoyed talking to the dentist about recent advances in dental technology, and the difference between my old crappy fillings and the new ones they put in. She taught me words like 光固化 (“photo-curing”? means “light,” and “固化” means “to make solid,” as in “固体,” the word for “solid”). Really friendly and informative staff every time I go.

This recommendation is based on only two visits to Byer Dental over roughly two years, but I’ve had really great experiences there. I recommended Byer Dental to my friend Hank, and he also had a good experience there. If you’re delaying a visit to the dentist due to fear of Chinese dental clinics like I was, I recommend you give Byer Dental a try before it’s too late.

Obviously, if anyone else has any good (or bad) dental experiences in Shanghai or the rest of China, please feel free to share them in the comments. This information can have a permanent effect on other people’s lives, so please don’t hold back!

Related ChinesePod lessons:

Elementary – Toothache
Intermediate – Going to the Dentist
Upper Intermediate – Straightening Teeth
Upper Intermediate – Phobias (in which I admitted that I had been in China 6 years already, but still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to see the dentist in China!)


Dec 2010

A Rough End to 2010

This Sinosplice silence has gone on for too long! Time for a personal post.

Leading up to Christmas, I was preparing to make a trip back to the USA. This time that involved not only the usual gift-buying, but also getting a good lead in the recordings at ChinesePod, and also making sure that all of my AllSet Learning clients are properly taken care of the whole time as well.

What was meant to be a “short and sweet” visit was turned not so short by the massive snowfall in the northeast, canceling my flight out, and turned not so sweet by a bout of the flu. (I thought maybe the constant exposure to Chinese germs had me toughened up to the point of being nearly invulnerable to American germs, but this time I fell hard.)

It’s been a long and tiring 2010, but an enormous amount of good work has been laid for an awesome 2011. I’ve got lots more ideas for this blog, and I’ll be taking the time to write them up. (Now if only I could eat solid food…)


Nov 2010

Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction

A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?

I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)

He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:

  1. Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?

    As I’ve said before, tones were the single most difficult part of learning Chinese for me, and I know it’s true for many other students as well. More needs to be done. We make this a major focus at AllSet Learning, but most schools really drop the ball on this one.

  2. Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.

    Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.

    Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.

    It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)

What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?