Recent thoughts on learning Chinese

Over the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of questions again about what I’ve found works and doesn’t work with learning Chinese.

Here are a summary of things I’ve tried and thoughts on them:

1. Local classes

My wife and I attended some local classes in the first year I tried to learn. That was only about 2 hours per week and while it was interesting, it’s way too little to be very meaningful.

2. ChinesePod

This is a great podcast. They concentrate on spoken Chinese and much of it is good fun. I really liked the older material with Ken and Jenny but the new hosts are getting there. They have different levels. Newcomers might find much of the Newbies level quite challenging at first, but it’s important to persist with it. The step up to Elementary is substantial but not too scary. The step up to Intermediate though, is really too big a jump. I now find Elementary too easy but Intermediate is often too hard. I can’t comment on higher levels.

The accents on ChinesePod are pretty clean but some people complain that it’s a bit too Shanghai-ish. It seems pretty good but it’s not as clean as material that I’ve used from Beijing. You can really tell the difference.

ChinesePod also have lessons that you can do daily or weekly with teachers. These are not inexpensive but I think they’d be good value for those that want to progress quickly. Having someone to talk to for 20 mins a day, 5 days a week should help enormously, and allows for the teacher to provide one-on-one help in your weaker areas. I’ve done a demo session and I might take this up soon.

3. Rosetta Stone

This is probably the best known of the traditional language learning systems. For most languages, there are 3 levels. For Chinese, there are 5 levels. Each level consists of 4 units. I’m currently half a unit from completing the 5 levels. My inlaws (Chinese) say I’ve learned an enormous amount by doing this material. I’m sure that’s true but I have to say I’ve found it very, very frustrating at times.

A surprise for most people is that all spoken and written words in the course are in your target language. Read that last statement carefully. They argue that children learn by seeing. While this concept mostly works, I could not have learned using Rosetta Stone without having Google Translate and Pleco open the whole time. There were way too many subtleties that I could not have picked up from the pictures alone. I have had many moments of “how the @#$@#$@ could I have known that???” when working with Rosetta Stone.

When I signed up, they also had a Studio product that gave you online access for about $60 each six months. That was amazing value and one of the main reasons that I used it. It let you book into online classes that were conducted directly from Beijing. There was no limit to the number of classes you could book into. Clearly this was a problem for them so about a year ago, they dramatically changed the rules to where the Studio product was no longer worthwhile in my opinion, for many, many reasons. That was a real pity as it was the best part of the product and they broke it.

4. Pleco

This is by far the best app I’ve found for using on my iPad. It helps me translate Chinese to/from English in many useful ways. I use it every day. One of the reasons that I can’t move to a Windows Phone is that it’s not available on that platform and I wouldn’t want to live without Pleco.

5. Serge Melnyk’s Podcast

This is an odd one. Serge is a Russian (yes you read that correctly) that has a podcast on learning Chinese. I’ve come to really like Serge and have signed up to his site so that I could download all the content. If you have travelling time when you can listen to podcasts, it’s well worthwhile, although the accent is quite bizarre.

6. HSK Review

This is a great app for learning the Chinese characters that are required for the HSK exams. I hope to do at least HSK 1 and HSK 2 exams this year, perhaps HSK 3 if I’m lucky.

7. AnkiApp

This is in many ways an even better app for learning HSK based characters. It keeps track of what you are getting right and wrong, and how hard you find each character. It works out what you need to work on and provides great review drills for you based on that feedback. It also then assesses what level it thinks you are at for each of the levels.

8. Google Translate

This is invaluable and much superior translation-wise to the Bing Translator (sorry Microsoft). The pinyin input editor doesn’t work on IE11 (sorry again Microsoft) but no surprise, works like a charm on Chrome. Many of the translations are “interesting” so I’m glad I have a bunch of patient Chinese speaking buddies on Facebook that help me out where I just can’t work out what something really means.

9. PeraPera Chinese Popup Dictionary

This is an add-on for Chrome (and for Firefox) that has quickly become one of my favourite things. You just click a button in the top right of the browser when you want to use it, and you just point at words or phrases in Chinese that you don’t understand and it tells you about them. Awesome idea.

10. FluentU

This is another excellent service that I’ve signed up to. It’s about $19 a month when I signed up and it produces a bunch of content each month. I particularly like the way that different levels are supported, the way that the content is often quite current, is presented in a natural way, with characters, pinyin, and English all shown.


1. PinYin

I made the mistake of spending too long with pinyin visible when I was first learning. It can become a crutch for you, and eventually you need to learn to read Chinese characters. In Rosetta Stone, you can choose what’s displayed. For the last year or so, I changed to only having Chinese characters displayed. It was VERY painful at first but I’m so glad I persevered with it. I now only turn on the pinyin display (in addition to the characters) when I don’t understand something. It’s important to force yourself to read.

Learning to pronounce pinyin correctly is also a challenge. There is no simple story here. You just need to learn the basic rules on how words sound, and after a while you will see “xin” but “shin” will come out of your mouth.

Focus a lot on listening. Some sounds take a while to get used to. Good examples are the difference between the “u” in “qu” and “zhu” or the sounds that we really don’t have in English like “nv” (The v is really a u with an umlaut). Other challenges are getting used to “c” sounding more like “ts” in words like “cai”, etc. So, listen a lot.

2. Movies and Video

Watching movies is obviously good but it’s a real challenge. At first, I struggled to find many Chinese movies that weren’t endless martial arts of medieval warriors.

My Spanish friends told me they learned English by watching movies in English but with English subtitles. This is important because you don’t want to know what something means, when learning you want to also know what they actually said. The problem with Chinese is that you have the added problem of not being able to read the characters, and certainly not at the speed that they are displayed at. (And I might be getting old, but they are really small too).

I’m told that Karaoke is good for learning. I haven’t tried it. Many people swear by learning languages by singing songs in the target language.

There is a world of good content on YouTube. I really like many of the game shows. You might as well find something entertaining while you’re learning.

3. Growing up with Chinese

CCTV has a series called “Growing up with Chinese” that is targeted at teenagers wanting to learn. There are 100 episodes that are available for download. I watch those while trying to get some exercise on a treadmill. They start out very basic but I think they move a little too fast into more complex topics. However, the host Charlotte is adorable, and the more of these things you learn from the better.


The biggest hint though is just to get out there and try to talk to native speakers. They will correct you much more quickly than you’ll ever work out yourself. I see this every day. For example, we were at my in-laws for lunch. I said to my mother-in-law “我很高兴我不需要药”, and she look puzzled then said “我很高兴我不需要吃药”. Note that I’d left a word out that helped a lot with what I meant. Only natives can do this for you.

With all the formal types of courses too, you'll quickly find that what they teach really is quite formal and you'll come to a sad reality (at some point) where you find that's just not what people say. That's why it's so important to get to common spoken language pretty quickly. For example, people often learn "ni hao" as the first phrase for "hello". After a while, you'll realise that it's not common for people to say that. "nin hao" which is more formal is pretty common in some situations though. A better example is to ask yourself how often you'd say a phrase like "good morning" or "good day". Most Australians would be more likely to say just "morning" rather than "good morning". Similarly, while you'll learn "zao shang hao", you'll often hear people just say "zao". For "bus" the courses will teach "gong gong qi che" but as an example, my brother in law says "gong che". There is no answer to this apart from talking to natives.

One source of natives that I’ve found useful is local meetup groups. There are lots of Chinese who want to learn English and are happy to chat to you back/forth with both languages, plus native speakers who are just happy to help because they get to meet new people.

Anyway, that’s it for now. If I think of more, I’ll add them later. Good luck!

An update on using Rosetta Stone: Studio now isn't very useful and is not great value as an add-on option

I had a surprisingly large number of responses from my previous posting about learning Chinese. An update for those considering Rosetta Stone ( for Chinese, Spanish or any other language that they offer:

I had to renew my "Studio" subscription today and it's now a much worse deal than it was.

It's now $75 for 6 months for Studio sessions.

  • Online classes used to be 45 mins. Recently they reduced them to 20 mins. Given how often people have connection issues, etc. that 20 mins can disappear very quickly.
  • They've also reduced the number you can attend. You used to be able to have 2 scheduled at any point in time. Now they limit you to 2 "group sessions" per month during the period. (You can pay for additional private sessions).

The combination of these two changes now makes it much less useful. Two x 20 min sessions per month is an almost meaningless amount of practice.

They also now automatically change you to auto-renew when you subscribe. They tell you where to remove this auto-renewal but the first 4 or 5 times that I went into that screen, no such option appeared. Later, an option did appear and I used it.

Overall, things just aren't what they used to be at Rosetta Stone. It's now pretty hard to recommend the Studio option where it was a no-brainer before.


Even after I renewed, I could not even connect to their "new" service. Although the system processed the renewal, it still tells me it's expired. My online chat person "Siva S" tells me that the problem is that I've purchased all 5 levels of the program. I can't wait till they explain to me how making an extra purchase from them stops me from logging on. Siva told me that they had "renewed" the program. I'd have to speak to Customer Care; they aren't available and then disconnected himself. Impressive (not).

Their website is now full of issues too. It insists that my billing address is in the USA, even though it pretends to accept changes to it.

Overall, it's gone from something that could be recommended (with some limitations) to now being an app to avoid. That's a pity as I liked much of it before.

Experiences with learning Chinese

I've had a few friends asking me about learning Chinese and what I've found works and doesn't work. I was answering a question on a mailing list today and I thought I should post this info where it might be useful to many. The question that was initially asked was whether Rosetta Stone was useful but I've provided much more info on learning the language here.

I’ve used Rosetta Stone with Chinese but it’s really hard to know whether to recommend it or not. Rosetta Stone works the same way in all languages. They show you photos and then let you both see and hear the target language and get you to work out what they’re talking about. The thinking is that that’s how children learn. However, at first, I found it very frustrating. I’d be staring at photos trying to work out what they were really trying to get at. Sometimes it’s far from obvious. I could not have survived without Google Translate open at the same time. The other weird thing is that the photos are from a mixture of countries. While that’s good in a way, it also means that they are endlessly showing pictures of something that would never happen in the target language and culture.

For any language, constant interaction with a speaker of the target language is needed. Rosetta Stone has a “Studio” option. That’s the best part of the program. In my case, it lets me connect around twice a week to a live online class from Beijing. Classes usually have the teacher plus two to four students. You get some Studio access with the initial packages but need to purchase it for ongoing use. I find it very inexpensive. It seems to work out to about $70 (AUD/USD) for six months. That’s a real bargain.

The other downside to Rosetta Stone is that they tend to teach very formal language, but as with other languages, that’s not how the locals speak. It might have been correct at one point but no-one actually says that. As an example, Rosetta Stone teach Gōnggòng qìchē (pronounced roughly like “gong gong chee chure” for bus. Most of my friends from areas like Taiwan would just say Gōngchē. Google Translate says Zǒngxiàn (pronounced somewhat like “dzong sheean”) instead. Mind you, the Rosetta Stone option isn't really as bad as "omnibus"; it's more like saying "public bus". If you say the option they provide, people would understand you.

I also listen to ChinesePod in the car. They also have SpanishPod. Each podcast is about five minutes of spoken conversation. It is very good for providing current language.

Another resource I use is local Meetup groups. Most cities have these and for a variety of languages. It’s way less structured (just standard conversation) but good for getting interaction.

The obvious challenge for Asian languages is reading/writing. The input editors for Chinese that are part of Windows are excellent. Many of my Chinese friends speak fluently but cannot read or write. I was determined to learn to do both. For writing, I’m talking about on a computer, not with a pen. (Mind you, I can barely write English with a pen nowadays). When using Rosetta Stone, you can choose to have the Chinese words displayed in pinyin (Wǒ xǐhuan xuéxí zhōngguó) or in Chinese characters (我喜欢学习中国) or both. This year, I’ve been forcing myself to just use the Chinese characters. I use a pinyin input editor in Windows though, as it’s very fast.  (The character recognition input in the iPad is also amazing). Notice from the example that I provided above that the pronunciation of the pinyin isn’t that obvious to us at first either.  Since changing to only using characters, I find I can now read many more Chinese characters fluently. It’s a major challenge though. I can read about 300 now and yet you need around 2,500 to be able to read a newspaper fairly well.

Tones are a major issue for some Asian languages. Mandarin has four tones (plus a neutral tone) and there is a major difference in meaning between two words that are spelled the same in pinyin but with different tones. For example, Mǎ (3rd tone马) is a horse, Mā (1st tone妈) is like “mom”, and ma (neutral tone吗) is a question mark and so on. Clearly you don’t want to mix these up. As in English, they also have words that do sound the same but mean different things in different contexts. What’s interesting is that even though we see two words that differ only by tone as very similar, to a native speaker, if you say the right words with the wrong tone, you might as well have said a completely different word.

My wife’s dialect of Chinese has eight tones. It’s much worse.

The reason I’m so keen to learn to read/write Chinese is that even though the different dialects are pronounced so differently that speakers of one dialect often cannot understand another dialect, the writing is generally the same. The only difference is that many years ago, the Chinese government created a simplified set of characters for some of the most commonly used ones. Older Chinese and most Cantonese speakers often struggle with the simplified characters.

This is the simplified form of “three apples”: 三个苹果  

This is the traditional form of the same words: 三個蘋果 

Note that two of the characters are the same but the middle two are quite different.

For most languages, the best thing is to watch current movies in the target language but to watch them with the target language as subtitles, not your native language. You want to know what they actually said, not what it roughly means (which is what the English subtitle would give you). The difficulty with Asian languages like Chinese is that you have the added challenge of understanding the subtitles when they are written in the target language. I wish there were Mandarin Chinese movies with pinyin subtitles.

For learning to read characters, I also recommend HSKReview on the iPad. It is targeted at the HSK language proficiency levels. (I’m intending to take the first HSK exam as soon as I’m ready).

Hope that info helps someone get started.


Book Review: Dreaming in Chinese – Deborah Fallows

Another book that I've just finished reading on the Kindle is Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows. I had purchased the hard cover edition a while back on the recommendation of colleague Ron Talmage but hadn't got to reading it. I was glad to then see the Kindle edition of the book appear. I purchased and read it and loved it.

Deborah spent three years recently living in Shanghai and has documented many of the struggles she had with coming to terms with learning Mandarin and with getting used to Chinese society. I imagine that part of the hassle she would have had was dealing with Shanghai-ese rather than the Mandarin that she would have learned before heading off to China but I could relate so well to so many things she spoke of.

The book is also quite funny. I particularly liked the part where Deborah described trying to talk to an employee (who was wearing a big sombrero) outside a Taco Bell restaurant. She wanted to know if they offered take-away food but her attempts to pronounce the words (even though she had the correct words) ranged from asking for a big hug, to discussing hail.

My favorite part was where she discussed Chinese names. Chinese people will often adopt English names when they move to an English-speaking country, and of course, English-speaking people will often adopt Chinese names when they move to a Chinese-speaking country. The most common way to do this is to try to find a set of Chinese words that are like a transliteration of your existing English name. But it's also important to try to find words that mean something sensible in Chinese, like "Harmony". Deborah made me laugh out loud when describing one of her young friend's boyfriend who decided to choose a name to ward off gui (or evil spirits). He chose the name Fendui. Unfortunately, while it sounded like his name, it directly translated to "pile of shit". Beautiful!

If you have any interest in understanding Chinese society, even if you don't want to tackle Mandarin, this book is a great read. Highly recommended! (10 out of 10)