This is my review of ChinesePod, my favorite podcast for learning Chinese language.
I originally wrote this review in 2012; I’m updating it today because, during the last three years, ChinesePod changed quite a bit.
I will explain how a podcast is different from a traditional Chinese course, introduce the main features of the product 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?
In 2012 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.
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, at some point I decided that I wanted 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).
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 people are trying to tell you.
And even if I was living 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 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 freaks 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 the host of the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels at that time was John Pasden, the guy that runs one of my favorite blogs about Chinese language, Sinosplice.
How much does ChinesePod cost?
The Basic package costs 14 USD/month, the Premium package costs 29 USD/month and the Premium+ package costs 99 USD/month (with 4 lessons 1 to 1 included), 149 USD/month (with 8 lessons 1 to 1 included) or 299 USD (with 20 lessons 1 to 1 included).
In order to save some money, you can also pay yearly.
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 later on to get the new podcasts. This way you will lose the other features (the app etc), but it may represent a good trade-off for you.
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.
- If you buy a Premium package, you also have access to their app (available for both iOS and Android.
- While I’m writing this post, ChinesePod offers more than 2700 lessons. 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.
- 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 listened) 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) here: 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. Also, this year ChinesePod added a forum so that you can ask questions or discuss with other students.
- Many of the latest podcast also features a video. Personally, I’m not a big fun of videos (I listen to podcasts on my iPod). However everyone is different so this may be a big plus for you!
- With the Premium package you will also have access to the lessons’ review activities and personal vocabulary lists.
- With the Premium+ package you will have access to 1 to 1 lessons with a native Chinese teacher (click below or keep reading to know the prices). I think this options is quite interesting; however I never tried it myself.
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 pushes 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.
If the Newbie podcasts are too easy for you then you should start from the Elementary or even the Intermediate level. This way you 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.
- 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 write 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 final 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.
Hemu, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang.
Learn Chinese: My lazy way (Month eight, November 2012)
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 write about languages so it’s all good!
[Bruce Lee’s Photo Credits: www.flickr.com/photos/squeezyboy.]