ChinesePod Review – An alternative way to learn Chinese


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This is my review of ChinesePod, the Chinese podcast that I’m using since July 2012.

I will explain how a podcast is different from a traditional Chinese course, introduce the main features of the software and the prices of the different kind of subscriptions. Also, I will point out the most common mistakes that people make when they start using a podcast to learn a language.

Can a podcast as ChinesePod improve your learning process?

Last March I came up with a daily routine to learn Chinese as fast as possible.

I put a lot of emphasis on motivation, flashcards review, the use of a “traditional” Chinese course and the importance of listening to Chinese music and movies in a regular basis. I also stressed out the fact that I wanted to avoid quick burnouts so I would keep my studying time under one hour per day.

It was all good as following a strict routine helped me to keep the motivation and study every day. You can find my main mistakes and realizations with Chinese study here.

Since I was walking one hour per day to reach my office, last June I decided that I wanted to try to spend this time in a more productive way.

I was already listening to Chinese music almost all the time I was on the road. However I like bands as the Er Shou Meigui that have a strong Beijing accent (which I can barely understand).

So I wasn’t learning any new words through my listening practice (movies at that point weren’t helping that much neither). Nor I was improving my ability to understand Mandarin as you progress much faster when you understand what the hell people are trying to tell you.

And even if I live in China, when you spend all your day working in front of a computer your exposure to the language is limited. I’m not a student anymore and when I go out with my friends I often prefer to switch to English (or another language I can fully understand as Italian or Spanish), have a cup of (cheap, I must admit) wine and relax.

The result is that I was learning most of my new vocabulary through my flashcards. And, even if flashcards and SRS systems are a fantastic tool to learn a language, this is not “healthy.”

The problem is that when you only rely on flashcards to memorize new words your brain kind of freak out as you lack the context necessary to fix a new word in your mind. If you are interested on this topic, I wrote a whole article dedicated to the importance of learning Chinese words in a context.

So I decided to spend one hour per day (the time that I needed to go back and forth from my office) listening to a Chinese Podcast.

And I discovered that podcasts are great to learn new words and improve your listening ability.

Why I chose ChinesePod rather than another one?

Mainly because I knew that the host of the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (the levels I’m interested at the moment) was John Pasden, the guy that runs one of my favorite blogs about Chinese language, Sinosplice.

Chinese podcast

What I like about ChinesePod

  • You can download every lesson in mp3 format. Hence you can listen to them on your favorite mp3 player everywhere you go. But this is probably something that most of podcasts can offer to you.
  • While I’m writing this post (October 2012) ChinesePod offers about 2700 lessons (and they add a new lesson per day). Even if I skipped the first two levels (they are too easy for me) I still have about 1700 lessons among which I can choose. This is great because for avoiding boredom I only want to listen to lessons on topics that I find interesting.
  • Most of language courses focus on the same topics (order food at the restaurant, ask for directions and so on). This is ok to start with but after a while my span of attention becomes too tiny for surviving to it. Despite the fact that also the ChinesePod lessons talk about the everyday life, I found them much more specific.

    So you can listen to the discussion between a taxi driver and a woman that doesn’t want to get in a taxi without safety belts, learn how to get the best discount card from your hairdresser or assist to the tragicomedy of a business man that almost loses his flight because her secretary misspelled his name while booking the ticket.

    In this way you learn a lot of small details about the Chinese daily life instead of getting bored and starting to wonder about the cute girl you met at Starbucks. And BTW, she was really cute, isn’t it?

  • Even if John speaks Chinese very well, after each dialogue he plays the role of the clueless laowai. The result is that every lesson is a “Socratic” dialogue where John asks a ton of questions about the grammar, the tones, the vocabulary and the Chinese customs, and the female host (Jenny or Dilu at the levels I’m listening) answer to him.

    This is funny and John plays the role of the “dumb” student (that is you and me) pretty well. So it’s easy to establish some kind of empathy with him. This is usually enough to keep my attention even if I’m walking in the middle of a traffic jam in Shanghai.

  • You will learn the Chinese grammar by listening to ChinesePod because they often pick a particular grammar structure (for instance the infamous 是…的), repeat it several times during the dialogue and then discuss it.
  • The part I prefer is the discussion of the new words as I can put them in the context of the dialogue and I can remember them better than when they directly appear on my flashcards session.
  • Every dialogue comes with a pdf and a HTML transcription (Chinese characters and pinyin) and a translation. I especially like the HTML transcription because I can directly copy-paste the sentences that I would like remember to my deck of flashcards.

    I’ve discussed the reasons for which you should use flashcards and for which you should only prepare flashcards that contain whole sentences (instead of simple words or characters) on my last post about Chinese language (How to get the most out of your Chinese course).

The other features of ChinesePod

  • ChinesePod’s lessons are organized in six levels: Newbie, Elementary, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, Advanced and Media. Once you subscribe you can accede to all the podcasts and assess your level.

    While the dialogues of the first two levels are quite simple and the discussion after the dialogue is in English, from the Intermediate level the female host speaks in Chinese while the male host keeps talking in English. Starting from the Upper Intermediate lessons also the male host speaks in Chinese (but he still switches to English from time to time).

    The lessons of the Advanced and Media level are entirely in Chinese. Also, the Media level introduces unfiltered Chinese taken from original sources.

  • You have the opportunity to let a comment on the page of each dialogues to ask a question, give or receive feedback. So far I’ve never used this feature but I believe it can be useful, especially if you don’t live in China and need some feedback.
  • I signed up for a six month basic subscription (74 USD) hence I cannot accede to the premium features such as the grammar, the exercises, the classes or the app for iPhone. I did this choice because I was mainly interested on the mp3 lessons and transcriptions.

podcast in chinese

Common mistakes among ChinesePod users

  • It’s on the human nature to avoid wasting the resources for which we paid for. This is one of the reasons for which we keep eating till there is no food left even if we are not hungry anymore (the other reason is that we are greedy).

    Since we paid for all the podcasts, this primitive impulse push us to think that we should make the most out of the course by starting from the beginning and going through all the dialogues.

    In my opinion this is the most common mistake within podcasts users, and is also pointed out by both John Pasden at Sinosplice and Niel de la Rouviere at Confused Laowai.

    If the Newbie podcasts are too easy for you then you should start from the Elementary or even the Intermediate level. This is the main way to step outside your comfort zone, force yourself to pay more attention and learn faster.

    I did exactly this mistake with ChinesePod by getting stuck at the Intermediate level way too long. Till I read the review of ChinesePod by Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 Months and I switched to the Upper Intermediate Level.

  • Another mistake closely related to the first one consists on choosing a level and then go through all the podcasts, without considering whether you are interested on the topic or not.

    As I point out almost each time I blog about Chinese language, your worst enemy while learning a complex language as Mandarin is boredom.

    When you get bored you lose motivation, you start to rationalize that you will never learn Chinese no matters what you do, that one day you will leave China and will forget everything anyway and so on. The list of our retarded rationalization is endless.

    These are all bullshits that your brain (and mine, I have a black belt on rationalization) exploits to make you come back to your comfort zone. Steven Pressfield named this phenomenon “resistance” in his wonderful book The War of Art, a must read for every person that has a creative job or is trying to get better at something (Mandarin, for instance).

  • You only listen and don’t follow up. Regularly listen to a podcast is great. However if you don’t follow up by reviewing the dialogue then you are losing a great opportunity to enrich your vocabulary.

    I recommend to use flashcards and download the free software Anki for carrying on your flashcards sessions as it embeds a great algorithm that will make you save a lot of time.

A quick disclaimer

If you think that all this motivational stuff is bullshit and the simplest way to learn Mandarin is to go out there and speak with Chinese people, you are right. If you are enough motivated this may be enough for you.

I learned French, English and Spanish simply going out, talking with people and paying attention. It worked because I had the right motivation. I was living in France, a country where nobody wants to speak English or any other languages (no offense to French people here, Italian and Spanish people are as spoiled as them). I desperately needed to learn English for my job and I just love Spanish and cannot stop to talk in this beautiful language every time I can.

But this didn’t work with Chinese. Despite I live in China since 2010, I can easily get around with English and ask help to a friend every time I need to do something more complex as rent an apartment or go to the hospital.

So for me the choice is either to avoid boredom and find the right motivation or never learn Chinese. And I guess I’m not the only one with this problem.

Is it worth to pay for ChinesePod?

My conclusion is that ChinesePod is an awesome product. But is it worth the money?

It depends. ChinesePod is not cheap. A six months Basic subscription costs 74 USD while a six months Premium subscription is worth 149 USD. You can also subscribe for a month, three months, one year or two years. You find the details here.

Since this is allowed, you can also subscribe only for a month and download the podcasts that you want to listen to (the database contain about 2700 lessons at the moment I write). You can always re-subscribe in a couple of months to get the new podcasts. In this way you will lose the other features of the product, but it may represent a good trade-off for you.

chinesepod reviewHemu, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang.

Learn Chinese: My lazy way (Month eight)

I spent all the month of September traveling (Hong Kong, Shanghai and Xinjiang Province) so I didn’t have the time to watch any Chinese movies. Also, in Xinjiang I lost my beloved iPod Shuffle so that at a certain moment I stopped to listen to my podcasts. I only started again at the end of October, when I bought a new iPod.

This also means that I didn’t build any new flashcards (I was pulling most of the sentences for my new flashcards from ChinesePod).

The good news is that I always completed my daily sessions of flashcards review and added ten new cards every day from a deck I downloaded last March (Mastering Chinese Characters, which contains about 14,000 words and sentences in Mandarin).

Also, when I travel I’m forced to talk in Chinese, especially when I visit remote regions as the Altai Mountains (at the border between Xinjiang and Russia) where nobody speaks English.

Hence I think that, even if I didn’t follow my routine, my Chinese improved as a result of my travels. And improving my Chinese was the only reason for which I set up a routine and started to blog about languages so it’s alllll good ; )

Click here to read the review of the most popular Chinese courses!

[Bruce Lee’s Photo Credits:]


  1. says

    The most important thing that I got from listening to podcasts (primarily ChinesePod) was the habit of learning. Firstly the lessons were actually quite fun so I looked forward to listening to the dialogue and the banter of the hosts. Secondly it took no effort – I could listen and stare out the train window and think about other stuff. But in spite of the lack of focus, I still pressed play every day on the way to work, and somehow I still learned stuff.

    In my opinion, getting a habit in the beginning is worth infinitely more than the words and grammar that you will learn during that time!

    • says

      Hey Greg, I was also listening to Chinesepod on my way to work.

      I’ve found over and over again that you need to put conscious effort for about two weeks and then everything becomes an habit. This works for learning languages, eat healthier, go to the gym or stop to smoke.

      Once you build an habit you will feel bad if you skip a day and this light “guilty” feeling is often enough to keep at it. So far I’ve been Anki flashcards for 10 months in row.

      With Chinesepod I was able to do it every day for about three months than I lost my iPod and also the habit. Now I need to recreate it hehe

      I cannot accede to your blog, my VPN is dead this week : S

      • says

        In terms of that habit thing, I agree it only takes a couple of weeks – but I find that it’s easy to derail a habit like that. But once you’ve been doing it for a year, say, then even after bad periods you can easily bounce back into that habit.

        On flashcards, the ‘guilt’ I feel is not hitting zero on the outstanding card count – that is part of my motivation.

        Good luck in getting back the VPN so you can visit my blog :-) How do you host your own website, to be accessible in China?

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