This will be a brief post (famous last words). It’s about a topic I am sensitive about, namely, learning Chinese. I am frequently frustrated that unlike a number of of bloggers who started learning Chinese either in college or even earlier, I came here much later, when I had a fulltime job and extremely limited study time. Some of my peers in similar situations simply chose not to study Chinese at all, while most did the best they could, using a tutor for a couple of hours a week, which can be quite useful for learning some basics, though it will never make you even close to fluent.
I made the most dramatic strides back in Taiwan, where for about 10 weeks I took lessons every day for two hours. My teacher there, literally the best in the world, forced me to study hanzi, unlike any of my previous tutors. She insisted it would help with my pronunciation, speaking and understanding of Chinese grammar. And she was right. I would sit at Starbucks and write Chinese characters for hours, and so much about Chinese became clear to me as I realized that many of the homonyms I was speaking actually shared pieces of one another – and seeing how pieces of those characters manifested themselves in other characters was eye-opening. Suddenly the language began to make sense.
Those days were short-lived, interrupted by my totally unexpected transfer to Beijing, where I have next to no personal time, either for blogging or for studying Chinese. My teacher in Taiwan (who came from Beijing, by the way) told me I had learned about 800 characters, but I didn’t believe it – I could recognize several hundred, but often I couldn’t be sure unless I saw the characters in context. Anyway, once I moved to China, my reading skills rapidly deteriorated. I am still getting tripped up over simplified characters, and with no daily lessons and no time to sit at Starbucks filling endless pages with clumsily scribbled characters, I’ve rapidly been forgetting a lot of the things I’d learned in Taiwan.
I tried to book lessons with a tutor here but my schedule had been too insane. I never had time and was cancelling most lessons. So ironic, that I come to China and my Chinese gets worse! There’s now some light at the end of the tunnel; my company recently allowed me to hire a few new people, so I am not forced to do everything myself. So now is the time for me to get serious again about Chinese, the most important goal in my life.
An unexpected email helped push me to action. Last week a company I hadn’t heard of, eChineseLearning, offered to give me a free lesson, and their timing was perfect. They explained to me that I would have my own “virtual” teacher and a customized web-based lesson based on my speaking ability, which they determined with a pre-class phone call. Well, why not? It was free, and all I had to do was download Skype and turn on a webcam, and we were ready to go.
I have to admit, it was a little unsettling at first, working with a teacher who was God-knows-where. But after a few minutes you get used to it, and I really enjoyed it. The teacher was first-rate (though no teacher compares to the one in Taipei). She quickly picked up on my weak spots and strengths (if I have any) and we hardly spoke a word of English during the 50-minute class. She used one of my favorite Chinese text books, Contemporary Chinese, and when I had trouble with a new word she would write it on the board and go over it with me. I was surprised I could see the board so clearly; it was almost as if she were right there in the room with me. Anyway, this was a totally positive experience, and most astonishing was the price. Let’s just say that their lessons are incredibly affordable, especially considering you have a live teacher giving you a customized lesson. Honestly, I don’t know how they’ll break even unless they have a huge volume of customers.
When I first spoke with the people at eChineseLearning, I mentioned I was a big fan of their competitor, Chinese Pod. No, they insisted, Chinese Pod is a friend, not a competitor. Maybe. I can actually see how one can enhance the other – if you have the free time to work with both. I’ve been a big fan of Chinese Pod for well over a year, and I’ve twice ponied up the cash to be a paid subscriber. Nearly every day I use a phrase that I learned from Ken and Jenny and John (and sometimes Aggie, but is she there anymore?). And I wonder how many men in China, if not around the world, go to sleep fantasizing about Jenny’s mellifluous, velvety mezzo voice, which somehow manages to be sensuous and sensible at the same time. Quite a phenomenon.
I do have some beefs with Chinese Pod, however. Unlike the Pimsleur tapes and any good textbook, there seems to be little continuity of material, little building upon what you learned in the last lesson and carrying it to the next level. Grammar is almost never mentioned, and Ken seems to want to avoid breaking down sentences grammatically like the plague. But the sad news, Ken, is that grammar is important and I wish there were discussions about it incorporated into the podcasts, as opposed to simply offering us examples of grammatical usage. If we understand the grammatical rule, we can apply it to other sentences and not just the one we memorized in your latest podcast.
Watching Chinese Pod evolve has been fun. Compare the Intermediate lessons now to those of 18 months ago, and you can see they’ve made quantum leaps. Usually I download the lower Intermediate and more challenging Elementary lessons. (The intermediate ones can sometimes be a bit challenging for me but extremely useful, while the elementary are often on the easy side – I guess there’s no happy medium.)
The addition of John Pasden was a stroke of genius; Ken is magnificent for the elementary lessons, but John adds a level of detail and insight that makes the intermediate lessons far more useful. He seems to know exactly what words Jenny should repeat for the readers’ sake and when to have her tell us their tones. He is also funny, in his squeaky-clean, Beaver Cleaver way that makes him so endearing. (We just know that under that all-American white bread veneer there’s a devilish side somewhere, though we almost never get to see it.)
Okay, so Chinese Pod is unsurpassed for quickly learning useful phrases and words. John’s Ken’s and Jenny’s voices stay in our heads because they are so good at what they do, and just so nice. And funny, too: we tend to remember things we find funny. The 60 seconds or so of banter at the start of most lessons is fine; it relaxes the listener and prepares him for what’s to come. Ken and Jenny and John play beautifully off of one another. Even the podcasts’ sound effects have been getting better and better; again, a then-and-now comparison will drive home how much more sophisticated they’ve become.
My main issue with Chinese Pod, along with the lack of building blocks, is the price. After twice paying $30 for a month’s subscription, I came away disappointed each time. On the Internet, $30 is a high price for a monthly service, and if you’re going to fork over that much every month you expect a lot of bang for the buck. The interactive copy and lesson plans and flash cards they offer simply didn’t cut it for me. I think they’d attract a huge number of new customers if they’d slash the $30 price to a more palatable $19.95 a month, and $9.95 a month if the customer commits to a full year. $30 a month crosses a psychological barrier many e-customers will shy away from. Especially when so much of the good stuff is being given away for free.
All of that said, nothing can keep me away from Chinese Pod. I love their podcasts, their blog and their people. I can see why an advanced learner may find it rather tame, but for someone like me, it’s a godsend. Meanwhile, as I work with eChineseLearning in the weeks ahead I’ll be giving periodic reports; as I said, their first lesson truly won me over. Definitely check it out if, and supplement it with Chinese Pod. I’m sure Ken will change the rates right after reading this post.
Well, I guess this turned out to be a not-so-brief post after all. I can only write posts this long on weekends, at least for now. From tomorrow through August 13 I will be under the gun once again with 14-hour days and not even enough personal time to read my emails. Only 13 more months to go…. Okay, “time to say, ‘zai jian.’”
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.