eChinese Learning and Chinese Pod: Mandarin on my terms

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.’”

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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.

The Discussion: 37 Comments

I’ll be in Taipei myself before too much longer, teaching English and learning Chinese. Any way you can link me to the Best Teacher in the World, or is she a very private and individualized tutor?

July 23, 2007 @ 4:36 am | Comment

EAST-ASIA-INTEL.COM

Thursday, July 19, 2007

China official’s closed meetings with candidates’ advisors raise eyebrows

A senior Chinese government official’s closed meetings with top foreign policy advisers to leading U.S. presidential candidates have come under fire from critics of U.S. policy towards China.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo. AFP

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo met on June 19 with advisers to Democrats candidates, including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. He also met Republicans including Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Washington Post reported June 28.
“United Front tactics at their best – getting Americans to adopt the habit of receiving lectures from PRC officials on how to limit the scope of American interests,” said Richard Fisher, a China specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, noting that such interaction is a “massive mistake” on the part of the candidates.

Conservative critics of China said the move appears to be a pre-emptive influence effort by Beijing, which was caught funneling cash into the 1996 reelection campaign of President Bill Clinton and also sought to influence the Bush administration through FBI double agent Katrina Leung.
The Dai meeting was arranged by former Clinton administration Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre. Others involved in arranging the discussions were former Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Reagan administration Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci.

The campaign aides included former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith, representing the Clinton campaign; former Navy Secretary Richard J. Danzig, representing Obama; former State Department official Derek Chollet, representing Edwards; former State Department policy planning chief Mitchell B. Reiss, representing Romney; McCain’s national security adviser Randy Scheunemann; and Antony J. Blinken, staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an adviser to Biden.

“This deserves close watching,” Fisher said.”

July 23, 2007 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Qin , send me an email. I think she’s now teaching at Shi Da and not giving private lessons anymore, but I’m not sure.

July 23, 2007 @ 9:39 am | Comment

Richard,

Thanks a lot, man! I had no idea you were a regular listener… Your opinion means a lot.

As for my devilish side… I guess I’m a little too smart to go public with it. Sorry! :)

July 23, 2007 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

Psst — John Pasden, aka John Zobrowski, John Ciancaglini, John “Johnny Bones” Testa, is only living in Shanghai because he had to flee the US in fear of retaliation after killing a rival mobster with a blender. His soul is a dark and terrifying realm where not the slightest glimmer of good shines. Pass it on!

July 23, 2007 @ 12:33 pm | Comment

I hear he keeps a razor in his shoe.

July 23, 2007 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

Great post, Richard.

I was particularly interested in your comments about hanzi, the study of which I tend to avoid. I’ve also avoided the regularity of personal tutoring needed to make significant progress. In Taiwan it sounds like you found someone who really knew their business. Many don’t.

As for the grammar, I agree. When I was at school, sometime in the last century, grammar was wiped of the curriculum as unnecessary. But it’s vital for explicit language learning – you simply must have a grasp of how the language is constructed. Or, at the very least, it helps to make rules stick and facilitates progress.

I’ve yet to get really serious about learning Chinese, but there are some wonderful resources (many free) out there. I’ll certainly take a look at eChineseLearning. As for Chinese Pod, I’ve always preferred http://www.melnyks.com/.

Although I’m not a subscriber there, I find the podcasts very useful, well structured, and more in keeping with my false beginner status. How I long to become a fully qualified pre-intermediate!

July 23, 2007 @ 1:25 pm | Comment

What you really need is for friends, lovers and colleagues to start communicating with you in Chinese.

July 24, 2007 @ 12:39 pm | Comment

Richard, a truly valuable post for all us language hacks. If I ever get my Vietnamese anywhere up to near bilingual, I will definitely take up Mandarin. The great thing about Korea is that we do get Mandarin cable channels, so at least we get exposed to its nuanced sounds. Meanwhile, it’s a pity that someone doesn’t developed a similar eTieng Viet program.

July 24, 2007 @ 5:40 pm | Comment

Completely off-topic, but does anyone have any contacts in Qingdao? I have a friend coming over from the BBC and she needs people to talk about the impact of the Olympics there.

July 24, 2007 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

Yes, I used to live in Qingdao.

July 25, 2007 @ 10:32 am | Comment

Another excellent resource for studying Chinese is to actually live with Chinese people. For my first year in China I attended BLCU but was just put into a large classroom with very little chance to speak. And of course I just made friends with other Americans. My second year I did a homestay where the family forced me to speak mandarin everyday. My progress in four months far exceeded my first year at BLCU. The website is http://www.chinahomestay.org for anyone interested.

July 25, 2007 @ 11:18 am | Comment

How great to see a thread that isn’t going to be invaded by a raving han nationalist :)

i’d encourage anyone who is serious about chinese to learn the characters. don’t make my mistake, learn the traditional characters first. you can read the simplified easily if you know the traditional but not vice versa. it is not as hard as you’d think and once you have the radicals down it becomes much, much easier.

i totally agree about chinesepod. from my perspective it is just great to have some contemporary, relevant upper intermediate and advanced materials. i find that is the real sticking point once you get beyond upper intermediate, but newspapers and books are still too time consuming…

July 25, 2007 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

And I just took a look at Chinese Pod for the first time in many weeks and it looks like, thanks to Pasden, they are actually offering grammar materials! Once they lower the price I will subscribe again. Seriously. Even if it’s $29.95.

July 25, 2007 @ 9:59 pm | Comment

James P,

I emailed someone in Qingdao, I just wait for her reply to see if she is interested, tell me if you get this message. I told her if she’s interested I’ll give her your email since I won’t put hers here…

July 25, 2007 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

JamesP

I also know some local Qingdao residents. If you are interested, just leave a message here.

July 25, 2007 @ 11:00 pm | Comment

Deleting my comment does not make a serious

problem in current China go away…

Whoever deleted my comment, if you like

China sooooo much, why do not you do

something to help out the miserable state of

Chinese people instead of rambling so much

about Chinese culture. There are one point

seven billion Chinese people and close to one

billion still live lifes of extreme poverty. Unlike

in many other countries, these poor things do

not have a welfare system to rely on. They are

poor and they are all on their own. You are

helping by simply go to the countryside and

donate your worn clothes to some of these

poor people.

My comment have little to do with the subject

of your post. But you have to understand,

ignoring controversal subjects does nothing

to help the problems of China. More people

need to be aware of the miserable states of

the Chinese people in order for the Chinese

people to get some real help! Furthermore,

Chinese people need more outspoken voices

to help them understand their own miseries!

July 26, 2007 @ 2:58 am | Comment

@Anonymous:

“why do not you do

something to help out the miserable state of

Chinese people instead of rambling so much

about Chinese culture.”

Beijing doesn’t seem to like the foreign NGOs that are in China to do just that, and at the same time Beijing fails woefully in its implied contract with its people to provide for their general warfare. For the cost of China’s fleet of Russian destroyers, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen could have new, first rate water pipe networks so that 30 million people could drink the clean water produced by those cities’ new water treatment plants.

Beijing spends hundreds of millions of USD bribing foreign dictators and subsidizing foreign militaries but can’t find a dime to get rid of K-12 tuition and book costs for all of China’s rural kids.

You just don’t understand what a government should be doing to provide for social stability for its people.

July 26, 2007 @ 7:30 am | Comment

Hear hear, Kebab boy! Glad they didn’t ban you at Sinocidal! Time, however.. ;)

July 26, 2007 @ 9:07 am | Comment

thanks canrun, if Time does throw a block up, they usually do it on Sunday. But that has only happened a few times. There are enough hotheaded, sexually frustrate chinese boys on the Time blog to justify anything I say.

pipi did commit a foul of sorts and deleted my very tasteful thanks to my supporters, guess he’s got a personal bone to pick ;-)

July 26, 2007 @ 10:10 am | Comment

“i’d encourage anyone who is serious about chinese to learn the characters. don’t make my mistake, learn the traditional characters first.”
As an ardent chinese-speaker for nearly the past decade, I couldn’t agree more. Knowing the traditional characters makes it slightly easier to go to Japan, or obviously Hong Kong or Taiwan, after you have become alienated from the sociopolitical “scene” (and it certainly is a scene!) in China.
For all commenters particularly enthusiastic about the motherland’s rise, please, keep your options open.

July 26, 2007 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

“You just don’t understand what a government should be doing to provide for social stability for its people.”
I couldn’t have said it better.

July 26, 2007 @ 12:06 pm | Comment

@Goat Boy – DO NOT mistake tolerance for support. If PiPi deleted a comment, he undoubtedly had good cause.

If I had to take a guess: you probably wrote, or linked to, something that would have gotten the site shut down.

You’ve been given another chance, don’t blow it.

July 26, 2007 @ 1:46 pm | Comment

@Richard: Great post! As one heading into the world of Chinese learning academia this fall, and having repeatedly taken stabs at learning in my time here, it’s good to know I’m not alone in my struggles.

I also adore ChinesePod, and need to will myself to use it more. I agree though, the price has always prevented me from using it. Not so much because it’s not good value, it’s only because I assume I’ll only use it about half of the time I intend to when paying – and once I waste that money the first time, I’ll be discouraged enough to not bother wasting it again. Basically, the “join the gym” mentality.

I 100% agree on learning characters, and for those touting traditional, I think for anyone living in the PRC that’s troublesome and an added level of difficulty in the process.

Personally, I think Taiwan, HK and Japan would do well to switch to both simplified characters and pinyin spelling/phonetics. I realize the debate that this statement could bring, but increasing the accessibility of a language should be more important than the sense of “heritage” embedded in it.

July 26, 2007 @ 2:16 pm | Comment

Hey KAT:

Actually you are 100% wrong, all I did was throw out a thanks. No links, no pasting. Ask Pipi if you don’t believe me.

July 26, 2007 @ 3:36 pm | Comment

I think traditional characters have more aesthetic appeal, but aren’t necessarily more convenient. Or at least, learning simplified first shouldn’t complicate your life that much. That’s the way I learned it and I have little trouble reading traditional characters. I’m of the opinion that mastery of one writing system facilitates the comprehension of the other, no matter the order.

July 26, 2007 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

am clearly just a big dummy then! personally i struggle with traditional characters these days, but when i was learning them could switch to simplified no probs.

if any set is going to be got rid of it should be simplified, imho. it is no slower to learn traditional, in fact, i believe trad are more logical and easier to learn. though do agree with a switch to pinyin for mandarin, but then there are the political implications….does hk have a separate system? surely that would be because they speak cantonese….sorry for being anal, but japan of course already has three phonetic syllabaries – hiragana, katakana and romanji

July 26, 2007 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

Hey, no offense intended, Si. :-) I’m probably not the best judge of the most accessible system of writing for foreign learners anyway.

And personally I think pinyin is an abomination. Oh well.

July 26, 2007 @ 5:30 pm | Comment

Hi guys -

Thanks very much for your offers. If you could drop Claudia He (my friends fixer in Beijing) a note at scansionfish@yahoo.com.cn, it would be much appreciated.

many thanks
J.

July 26, 2007 @ 5:40 pm | Comment

Yes, true that Chinese government does not

really support foreign NGOs. But ignoring

controversal subjects in China would

further encourage the Chinese government’s

outrageous action… because it means that

people dare not to oppose its unfair regime.

Thus, all the reason to promote the unfair

practices upon poor malnourished Chinese

citizens. Therefore, more sites that expose

the Chinese government’s crimes against its

people are needed and such controversal

subjects need to be discussed more often so

that more people can be aware of such serious

problems that still thrive in modern Chinese

society…more Chinese people would find their

voice through such sites and discussions and

maybe the Chinese people would find enough

courage through such discussions to rectify

all the injustices.

July 27, 2007 @ 12:58 am | Comment

*sigh*

And things were going so well, too. Language learning was the subject, I think.

Ah well. Don’t ignore controversial subjects for even a SECOND! God only knows Richard never, ever posts about controversial subjects on this Blog, so let’s take over this entry at the first opportunity and point out that, contrary to common perception, China is BAD.

BAD. As in evil. Not good.

July 27, 2007 @ 4:11 am | Comment

I was also a fan of chinesepod but only for one month. unfortunately, there are no miracles for learning chinese

July 27, 2007 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

nausicca:

no offence taken! why do you hate pinyin?

July 27, 2007 @ 5:22 pm | Comment

I guess pinyin is needed to some extent cos otherwise any Chinese who travelled abroad would have a difficult time and Roman letters are pretty much universal in that respect. Personally I think I’d have picked up Chinese characters much more quickly if pinyin wasn’t used so widely in China simply because I’d have had no alternative.

July 27, 2007 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

nausicaa — Really? I’ve seen people do a lot of bad things to pinyin (like inserting spaces between all syllables and using CamelCase), but on the whole I think it’s a pretty elegant system for concisely representing the sounds of Mandarin. It’s not as good a learner’s tool as, say, Yale, or as linguistically precise as Wade-Giles, or as charmingly mad-scientist as Gwoyeu Romatzyh, but on the whole I’m a fan.

Or are you a fan of Zhuyin?

I’ll totally back you up on character set being more or less irrelevant. I started out with traditional characters, switched to simplified, forgot all the traditional characters, used simplified for about 4 years, then went back to traditional when I started doing classical Chinese. It takes a little while to adjust – and I still wouldn’t be able to hand-write traditional characters worth a damn – but in my experience it hasn’t made a lick of difference. Any mainlander with a reasonable level of literacy should be able to read fanti just fine.

July 27, 2007 @ 6:55 pm | Comment

Does anyone have any recommendations for learning Chinese in Beijing? I imagine there is a plethora of options – a personal recommendation would mean a lot.

I agree about studying characters, it does make a huge difference when attempting to learn how the language works, that some strokes change the tone from the base character ect. It’s also a lot of fun and I can’t wait to pick it up again when I get to Beijing in October.

Not sure about the traditional simplified debate, I started learning simplified and avoided traditional like the plague in Taiwan. However, that experience simply reinforced my opinion that if you are going to learn Chinese, learn every aspect of the language or you will stall not far down the line.

July 28, 2007 @ 1:38 am | Comment

@James P re Qingdao. My law firm has an affiliate relationship with the Wincon law firm, which is very much involved with the Olympics there. My firm’s summer associate split his summer with the Wincon firm and he ended up announcing a trial run of a yacht race in English, thanks in large part to Wincon’s connections. Feel free to contact me for specifics if you wish.

Dan

July 30, 2007 @ 2:16 am | Comment

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