Learning Mandarin the low budget way

What can you do if you want to learn Mandarin but don’t want to spend loads of money to attend Chinese courses or visit China for an extensive period? Learn Chinese low budget style. Here’s how!

Video and online lessons

You need a teacher to study a new language. There are many teachers out there online posting video lessons for foreigners. Mandarin Corner, Yoyo Chinese and ChinesePod for example, to name three popular channels. Search a little longer and you’ll find plenty of other Chinese teachers and language schools operating from China who create authentic content free of charge. And not just classic teaching, but also specially edited street interviews and real life communication which are extremely useful.

There’s no shortage of beginner lessons too. Yoyo Chinese created a series that starts with the basics where each video builds on the next one.

You’ll also find an increasing number of Mandarin speaking laowai vloggers like Thomas阿福, 口语老炮儿马思瑞Chris, Fulinfang拂菻坊 or 莫彩曦Hailey on YouTube. Although it can be intimidating to see a fellow foreigner speaking Mandarin so fluently, it has the power to inspire as well. The CCTV show 外国人在中国 introduces many longtime laowai from different cultures and backgrounds and is worth checking out. It’s not a must, but it’s also no shame to have a role model. If someone from your own cultural background has mastered Mandarin, there’s no reason why you can’t, right?

Looking for a real teacher for online lessons? Then Italki is the place to start, but you will have to spend some money.

Online communities

Quora question about how hard it is to learn Mandarin.

Learning a new language like Chinese is no good on your own. You can find several Mandarin learning groups on Facebook and corporate sites that share content for learners. Members of learning groups do not always post the most relevant content, but in general you will find like-minded people and more experienced learners to ask for advice. Advice is much needed when you’re doing low budget learning, since most of the time you’ll have to sort out what’s best for you(r learning) on your own. Instagram can be fun place to check for Chinese content as well.

Quora answers many questions about learning Chinese and keeps you updated on new learning tools and tips and ideas how to study effectively. You do see some double content and not all answers are as relevant and correct as you would want them to be.

Chinese forums is a forum dedicated to all questions related to learning Mandarin. Many forum members are longtime learners and China nerds (in a positive way!). Over the years, lots of topics have been covered. If you have a specific question, you might get or find an expert answer here.

Apps

There are plenty of good apps available for learning Mandarin and it’s impossible to cover them all. The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco (or alternatively Hanping) is arguably the most essential learning tool – with lots of add-ons. Anki and Memrise are popular apps for flashcard learning. DuoLingo, LingoDeer and HelloChinese help you learn new vocabulary. That’s just to name a few. If you want to get more detailed information, this website provides an up-to-date list of apps. I noted elsewhere that language apps won’t solve all your problems, but they sure can be entertaining and support your learning in a meaningful way.

Make friends online and offline

Learning a new language like Mandarin is a lot more fun and worthwhile with native speakers to practice and communicate with. WeChat is the most popular social app in Mainland China with over 1 billion monthly active users. It is the preferred tool for communication – even in many professional settings. The app does come with some privacy issues (as does Facebook) not unlike Douyin – the “Chinese TikTok” – which is something you have to consider. When it comes to making Chinese friends though, WeChat can be a big help to connect to Chinese speakers and immerse yourself online. You can switch the interface to English and the inbuilt translation tool will translate Chinese accordingly.

More directly focused on language learning is the app HelloTalk. It’s a platform and online community which allows you to socialize online – by texting, speaking, camera sharing and drawing – with native speakers. You can actually save your chats and interactions to study them later. Quite useful.

The same approach can be used offline – more locally. Check your local university, Confucius institute and other language schools for language exchange programs for example. Get to know one member of your local Chinese community and your likely to be introduced to more Chinese expats. With some luck you’ll find a tandem partner to buddy up with.

Chinese music, movies and series

If you like music, you should try listening some songs in your target language. Find out what Chinese music you like and create your own playlist for your way to work or before you go to sleep. It’s not always easy to find “appropriate input” that you enjoy and understand to some degree, but any daily input is better than none. Unlike it’s often said, listening to Chinese music doesn’t improve the pronunciation of the tones so much, but it does help to get a better feeling for the language and acquire new vocabulary.

I’m still working on a list of movies and series that are fun to watch. For now:

  • ifun.tv (lots of choice, mostly no English subtitles for Chinese though)
  • tv.cctv.com/live (watch live Mainland Chinese television, all CCTV channels)
  • imdb.com (the movie database)
  • Wikipedia (an extensive list)
  • Netflix (I don’t use it myself, too afraid to get addicted)
  • YouTube (Some older movies can be found here, like “To live” and other classics)

Popup dictionary for your web browser

Install this add-on for when you’re surfing the Chinese web. It’s an extremely useful translation tool – even for those who aren’t actually studying Mandarin.

Blogs

Apart from all other channels, the blogosphere is a great space for tips, inspiration and experience sharing when it comes to language learning.

Share your goals

What are your reasons to learn Chinese? Which level do you want to achieve? Which language skills are most important to you? Let others know about your Mandarin learning goals. I see some fellow bloggers preparing for HSK tests and sharing their progress on a regular basis. That’s a great way to stay focused, reflect on what you’re doing and let your readers and friends support you. This seems like a lot of extra effort, but to be open about your learning routines and keeping track of your progress are actually rewarding and can get the best out of other people too. There’s no perfect approach, what counts is your daily effort and support from whoever is willing to offer it.


The “pitfalls” of low budget learning

As we’ve seen you can find plenty of free and instantly accessible resources online – almost to the point that you get swamped by them and feel kind of lost and paralyzed. This overabundance of materials forces you to take a more structured approach and to limit your time you spend on each. Although I recommend online communities, spending too much time on Facebook and other social media is distractive rather than effective. Before you know it the time you planned for studying is gone.

It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This means – and this is easier said than done – that you have to confine yourself to the essentials. You have to be your own doctor in a way and prescribe your daily cocktail of learning materials. Combine YouTube video lessons and app learning for example. To some extent, you’ll have to create your own curriculum. Do ask others for advice. Experiment with different things and stick with those that work best for you.

He who considers too much will perform little.

Friedrich Schiller

That all being said, there is no ideal strategy to master Mandarin. You have to find your own way.

What do you think of “low budget learning” for Mandarin Chinese? Can it be done? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

New vocabulary trainer app: Daily Chinese

Pleco and Anki are probably the most popular apps for learning Chinese with flashcards. But what about an “all-inclusive flashcard app” that covers almost all vocabulary that you need to survive in China?

Too many apps for learning Mandarin

Have you ever felt lost in the monkey jungle of apps for Chinese out there? It’s hard to tell from the outside if an app is a valuable asset for your learning tool kit or just another anticlimactic nuisance.

Too many apps for learning Chinese

What’s more, some of the apps with a track record of quality content and high didactic standards demand monthly subscriptions which in time add up to quite substantial sums. Most of the time, I’m just not sure if I should invest that money in an app or rather use it to purchase books or even regular Chinese lessons.

But occasionally a new app pops up that’s worth our attention.

New app: Daily Chinese

When I stumbled across this LinkedIn-message about a new vocabulary trainer app for business Chinese, I wasn’t jumping in the air with excitement, but I clicked the link anyway. To my surprise, Daily Chinese looked promising and even has a very polished website.

LinkedIn message from design leader of Daily Chinese app
The LinkedIn-message

What’s the added value?

How revolutionary is it? Well, everybody is familiar with flashcard apps like Anki and Memrise where you can build your own sets of flashcards, structure your learning and track your progress.

Daily Chinese is similar, yet different:

  • You learn with spaced-repetition
  • You can track your progress
Several “packs”, progress tracker and performance stats. Screenshot from the app store (13.12.2019)

What’s different:

  • The app is well-designed and easy to use.
  • You don’t need to look for sets of flashcards made by others or create your own decks which can be very time-consuming. The Daily Chinese app provides key vocabulary packs for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners including HSK, grammar and idioms.
  • But there’s more: the app also contains survival decks for students and expats.
  • Or you’re dealing with China professionally? The special packs for work-related learning can prove useful. This includes such fields as office & email, language teaching, going online, finance and software. Other topics include the news, global politics, economics, science & tech and sports.
  • One of my favorites is the pack about the time of Mao Zedong. All the online-related vocabulary packs I find very useful as well.

Ready-made vocabulary lists

Until now, I had a hard time finding ready-made key vocabulary lists. The app (which is free btw) allows you to boost or refresh your vocabulary in a goal-oriented manner. Preview the list to see if the word are relevant to you.

Be aware though that there aren’t any example sentences. It’s vocabulary only. In my opinion, the app is most effective when you’re already familiar with the words and their context. It’s never a good idea to learn words that are completely new for you in isolation. That’s why I’m not convinced this is an useful app for beginners.

Would you pay for this app?

I would! But no monthly subscriptions please. I hate those. As a vocabulary trainer, this app is especially useful for people studying or working in China or those planning to do so.

What I don’t get

The Android version wanted to access my fitness data and list of installed apps. Why’s that?

Anyway, we have to wait for the beta-version to see how long this good thing lasts. You can download the app for Android or iOs.

Have you ever used Daily Chinese or do you prefer a different, life changing, planet saving app to remember all those characters? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

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Blogs can be a great source for tips & tricks, ideas and inspiration, even free resources like reading materials, cheat sheets, video’s and podcasts. Blogs come an go though and some of them have already turned into online fossils. So when I made this top 10, I looked for four things:

  • Engaging and fresh content
  • Relevance
  • Passion
  • Integrity

Top 10 blogs for learning Mandarin

ONE: Sinosplice

This is a great blog by John Pasden, an expert and Mandarin nerd “who’s been around” for a long time. He has published a great series of graded readers for Mandarin learners. Check out his list of resources and inspiring podcasts. It’s a great starting point by someone who knows every obstacle on the way, but maybe a little too nerdy and old-school for some.

TWO: Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog by Mandarin expert Olle Linge from Sweden who has studied for four years in Taiwan and teaches Chinese and English. Having a solid background in linguistics, he answers almost all questions related to successfully learning Mandarin Chinese. His main advise for language learners: “If you don’t take responsibility and think for yourself, it will take ages to reach a decent level, but if you become aware of how to learn and study efficiently, fluency is within reach.” Olle also organizes the “monthly extensive reading challenge“. The main goal here is not “intensive reading” but reading as much Chinese as you can below or at your current level.

THREE: FluentU

FluentU is more like a corporate blog which has a team of (freelance) writers blogging for them. They don’t always share the most practical advice, they do post a lot of relevant tips and ideas though. If you’re wondering what apps you might want to use and which Chinese movies to watch, this is the right place.

FOUR: Chinese Zero to Hero

Chinese Zero to Hero is not a blog, it’s a very well built website for Chinese learners. Lots of useful resources for listening, reading and grammar and they keep improving and expanding the website. I’ve grown very fond of the transcribed YouTube videos and their music database. You can even adjust the website’s settings to your personal taste (show / hide Pinyin, simplified / traditional characters etc.). Great work.

FIVE: alllanguageresources.com/chinese/

All Language Resources is all about reviewing learning resources for Mandarin Chinese and they do a great job on this.

SIX: Chineasy Blog

This is another corporate blog and similar to FluentU you’ll find a broad variety of topics here, not everything directly related to learning Mandarin, but interesting and engaging articles nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the Chineasy approach to character learning, you’ve come to the right place. What the blog lacks, is a categorization of content by topic, level, date etc.

SEVEN: Sapore di Cina

This website as well is a lot broader than just focusing on mastering Mandarin. I included it because of its practical tips for foreigners interested in traveling or even living in China.

EIGHT: Just learn Chinese

This blog by native Chinese speaker Grace (currently living in Toronto, Canada) hasn’t been updated for several years and has some technical issues, but its content and resources are just to great to ignore. If you are looking for free reading material on your level, you might get lucky here. Or look for tips, for example on how to express disagreement in Chinese.

NINE: Chinese Hacks

Chinese Hacks is a widely-varied blog where you find all kinds of practical advise, ideas and inspiration. I particularly enjoy the Chinese idioms covered on his site. Pity it’s not being updated anymore.

TEN: Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze is run by three authors who studied Mandarin in China and offer their advise to other learners. This main overview by Kevin Peters, who taught English in Xinjiang for four years, is especially useful for starting learners.

Related post: China podcasts

Check my post on podcasts about China!

What’s your favorite Chinese learning blog? Please feel free to comment down below.

New show: Granny knows best 奶奶最懂得 (2019, TV series)

jamie bilbow cooking with granny 6

In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.

About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)

  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The series’ rating on Douban (04.12.2019)

Three reasons to watch the show

  • Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
  • Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
  • Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before

The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.

Jamie Bilbow on facebook about his show Granny Knows Best (09.10.2019)

How did Jamie (大米) become so fluent in Chinese?!

Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?

Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.

His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)

These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.

Jamie Bilbow selling homemade hummus through the old streets of Beijing (Source: Jamie Bilbow on LinkedIn)

Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.

You can find more about his activities on facebook or weibo.

Watch all episodes of Granny Knows Best here.

Should I read texts above my level?

Some people get fed up with coursebooks and graded readers, because the more they progress, the less challenging those texts become. But moving on to more daring stuff, they discover that reading turns into an uphill struggle again. Deciphering just one page of text takes ages. How much of a struggle should reading be? What’s the best strategy to improve your reading skills?

  1. Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?
  2. Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?
  3. Should I look up every unknown character?
  4. What about Pinyin written above the characters?
  1. What’s a healthy reading speed?
  2. How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?
  3. Should I read children’s books for a start?
  4. Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?

Reading texts far above your level is a bit like plodding your way through high snow. The longer the text, the more exhausting it gets. My advice would be to do both, but to concentrate your time and effort on “less demanding texts”.

Why so? Because – it sounds all too obvious – the best way to improve your reading skills is to read. A lot. You must cover some miles every day. But not just random characters or unreadable prose from the Ming dynasty. Preferably, something meaningful that your brain can process in an enjoyable way. In other words: extensive rather than intensive reading.

Which doesn’t mean you should abandon intensive reading altogether. 80 percent = extensive, 20 percent = intensive worked out really well for me.

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

Luca Lampariello (01.12.2019)

Reading a lot above your level is “applaudable”, but doesn’t necessarily result in picking up all that new vocabulary. On the contrary, I would have forgotten most of it by the next day. And to counter that, I would spend more time reviewing than actually reading.

Reading on your level means that you are familiar with 95 to 98 % of the words in the text. For each 1000 words you should only have to check 20 up to 50 words on average. It should feel more like a relaxed Sunday morning walk.

Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.

H.P. Lovecraft

Extensive reading of texts suitable for your level is the best way to accelerate. I tried both strategies and I’d say extensive reading is the most helpful means to absorb new words through context and read faster. It shouldn’t cost much effort, since you’re (speed) reading the text as opposed to studying it to extract every detail for eternity.

Extensive reading is also helpful when your preparing for HSK tests, especially the higher levels where reading speed becomes more crucial. Only reading textbooks and HSK tests may not be enough. What you need is all-round reading experience. Once your brain is trained to process Hanzi faster, you’ll extract the meaning from a random HSK question without much guessing.

Should I look up every unknown character?

Admittedly, I often do this myself, however it’s not a good habit to develop. For three main reasons:

  • Looking up characters interrupts the reading process and makes you slow.
  • Looking up every unknown character isn’t necessary to understand what you’re reading. Often you can guess the meaning, or it becomes clearer after a few pages.
  • The more characters you have look up, the harder it gets to remember them and the less time you have to read.

Unfortunately, looking up 1000 characters every month doesn’t result in learning 1000 new characters every month. You have to be a very committed and skilled learner to pull that off. I’d suggest reading easier texts and looking up a limited amount of key characters only.

What about Pinyin written above the characters?

It’s an unnecessary distraction. As helpful Pinyin is when you are just starting out reading Hanzi, after a while you should allow your brain to focus on characters only. It needs time to adapt.

Focusing on Hanzi: this is an old-fashioned graded reader with CD and Pinyin cover mask.

The (non-Chinese?) brain cannot ignore Pinyin and prefers to process alphabetical letters first. Try it yourself:

That’s even more true for English translations added below the Chinese sentence:

So it’s better to get rid of the Pinyin in an early stage and allow your brain to absorb the characters. That doesn’t mean you cannot occasionally uncover the Pinyin if you’re unsure how to pronounce a character.

This question has been debated in depth in this episode of the Mandarin Companion podcast by the way.

What’s a healthy reading speed?

This depends on your reading strategy. If it’s intensive reading, take 10 or 15 minutes per page if you have to, since you are really studying the text.

For extensive reading, you shouldn’t take much more than 4 minutes per page, only occasionally consulting a dictionary (or better, consult it after reading). Remember that you don’t have to understand every detail and analyze sentence patterns, grammar points and so on.  

How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?

The free reading tool DuShu enables you to analyze Chinese texts on their difficulty level. It shows you detailed statistics like the percentage of vocabulary in different HSK levels and give a difficulty ranking. Like “lower intermediate”, “intermediate”, “upper intermediate”, “advanced” and “highly advanced”. The actual reading experience doesn’t always match this ranking, since the tool doesn’t know what you know, but it’s clarifying anyway.

This tool cannot tell the difficulty of a text, but it filters out the HSK vocabulary. Useful when your preparing for a HSK test and want to focus on HSK characters only.

Chinese Text Analyser can do all those things and more, but you need to purchase the software first.

Should I read children’s books for a start?

I wouldn’t recommend children’s books for beginners. Books for children are much harder than you would assume and usually contain lots of irrelevant vocabulary, since they are meant for kids.

As for content, expect to be bored quickly, unless you are into little rabbit becoming friends with fat piggy in the green forest. More grown-up stories like Harry Potter, The Hobbit or The little Prince require plenty of skill to read and enjoy in Chinese. Try cartoons and graded readers instead.

Reading Xiao Wangzi
Reading 小王子 in an early stage of my learning. I translated character by character. What was even worse: I couldn’t tell which characters belonged together and failed to recognize common grammar patterns. Honest effort, but not a recommendable reading strategy. The little Prince is a good read though.

Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Free online resources:

Non-free online resources:

What are your experiences with reading Chinese texts? Where do you find useful resources? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

One essential podcast for serious Chinese learners

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I’m talking about the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast. It’s not about teaching you Chinese in 15 minutes or getting 100 percent fluent while you’re asleep or some other click-bait nonsense. No, it’s an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin.

Why I recommend the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast

  • Experts views on how to study Chinese effectively and everything related to studying the language
  • Delivers answers to questions many serious learners of Chinese are struggling with. From improving your pronunciation to gaining fluency in speaking and reading and lots of other topics.
  • Great interviews with other Chinese learners who share their stories about how they mastered Mandarin. Some of them, Steven Kaufmann for example, learned Chinese during the seventies. In other words, before the internet and apps like Pleco or Anki revolutionized language learning. Yes, you can learn Chinese: They started out much earlier, without all the tools and resources we have at our disposal today, and still were very successful.
  • Critical discussions about new developments in Chinese teaching and learning from insiders and experts. Doesn’t sound too interesting? Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is a relatively young field. Many questions still need answering: Why is Chinese taught the way it is taught in China today? How do non-natives effectively learn to read Hanzi? What’s common practice in “traditional” Chinese teaching isn’t always backed by solid empirical research, to say the least. The podcast keeps an eye on those new developments, so if a promising method has been invented, you’ll probably hear it here first.

The podcast is all about the meta-level of learning Mandarin. The format doesn’t aim at teaching people the language, though you can pick up some words occasionally. It’s hosted by Mandarin-experts John Pasden and Jared Turner and I really recommend it.

The online Chinese cooking community

What’s the one thing that always gets Chinese people excited? It’s food!!! Yes, my friends. Chinese can talk endlessly about it. You like to pour some panda sauce into the wok too? If you enjoy Chinese cooking, then you’ve come to the right place.

The most hungry online cooking community in the world

Xia Chufang
The main page

下厨房 (xià chúfáng) is a Chinese platform where users can share their recipes with an online community. Xia Chufang is the platform in China where Chinese cook out of passion AND – welcome to the new world – for likes, followers and views.

Like and comment or save the recipe, cook it yourself and share the result

What I am showing you here, is the desktop version, but it also runs on mobile (and I have no idea which personal data they process or where they store it, so be warned).

You want to discover some new recipes, but the ingredients are all Chinese to you? If you haven’t installed it already, this is where a pop-up dictionary comes in handy. Now you won’t get lost.

If you are a cooking fanatic yourself, you can make your own profile, upload your creations and get in touch with other online cooks. The vast majority out there is from mainland China and most recipes come in Mandarin. A chance to put your language skills into practice!

Xia Chufang, user profile
Create your own profile

Here are some nice dishes to start with:

  1. 番茄炒蛋 (tomato scrambled eggs)
  2. 蒜蓉西兰花 (stir-fried broccoli with garlic)
  3. 家常蛋炒饭 (home-made egg fried rice)
The most popular dish seems to be “cola chicken wings” with over 68.000 people making their version of it. Most used keywords are 家常菜 (home cooking), 早餐 (breakfast), 豆腐 (Tofu) and 红烧肉 (red-cooked meat).

But you can find recipes for all levels. Enjoy!

PS. I wrote “Chinese cooking”. A reader from China pointed out, it’s not that simple. Just imagine someone from Sichuan eating Shanghai cuisine where they add sugar to everything. Unthinkable. So I received this map with China’s eight major cuisines (中国八大菜系地图) and we get a little closer to the truth:

China's eight major cuisines