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 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.

Ideology in Chinese textbooks

Chinese learning materials have improved a lot over the last 50 years, however more often than not the Chinese learner gets that feeling of being stuck in an artificial world while the real thing – authentic communication – is being kept away from him. But what happens when this artificial world is an ideological world?

Every learner of Mandarin is familiar with it: dialogues that are written just to present grammar patterns and a bunch of key vocabulary; fictional characters that talk like robots, exchanging bits of information nobody cares about. Some new stuff is introduced, then everything gets explained with multiple examples, exceptions and little footnotes. The learner is supposed to do a number of exercises and after all that he should be able to reproduce most of that on his own and then move on to the next chapter. Furthermore, he’s expected to progress at an ever steady pace, at the end of the book reaching the language level it says on the cover.

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

Now we all want to master Mandarin and speak with native-like fluency. What we don’t want is to linger in this artificial realm where non-existing people have endless minimalist conversations like “ni shi Jianadaren ma? wo bu shi Jianadaren, wo shi Meiguoren.” and so on. We don’t want to be children in our target language, we want to be treated like adults from the start. Like in the movie The Karate Kid the black belt is our goal, but we’d like to skip the part with the hard work and suffering.

Ideology and politics

But there is something far worse. Learning materials thankfully have evolved away from that, though not completely. And you could even argue that it’s impossible for any foreign language textbooks to be completely “clean” of it. Older learners who started learning Chinese in Mainland China way back still remember in particular. It’s the presence of ideology and politics in textbooks.

Although this probably has to do less with didactic aspects than it has to do with the simple fact that back in the time of Mao everything was about ideology and politics. Whoever wanted to understand China had to read Mao and the founding stories of that era. Everything referred to that particular set of beliefs and principles of Mao’s political system and the party. You just couldn’t escape it.

In fact, all that was very relevant. Let’s not forget the communists had kicked all foreigners out of the country. Those few foreigners who did come from abroad to visit the People’s Republic of China had good reasons to know their deal about Maoist China and it’s main narrative. After all they had to know how to behave diplomatically in the New China and not to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

This Chinese reader published in Beijing in 1972 is a perfect example of how politics infiltrated the study of Mandarin on every level. This series of readers was developed for intermediate learners. And in some ways I’m surprised by its quality. The chapters are well arranged, the characters nice and clear to read. Black and white drawings visualize what you’re reading. There’s even one color picture of the Great Wall. You’d expect that 50 years later the books would be falling apart, but clearly they refuse to do so.

Sacrifices for a socialist future

The first book starts out with the founding of the PRC, looks back on the Second Sino-Japanese war and shares many “educational” stories about the Mao-era, like the student girl from Shanghai who is sent to the countryside to learn from the poor peasants. It also contains a speech from the Chairman where he urges his countrymen to make sacrifices for the great cause, even to die if need be. It’s rather heavy stuff that would repel any present-day learner who’ll probably ask what all this propaganda is doing there in the first place. Let’s say it’s a different experience…

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

But it doesn’t stop there. We also meet the great war hero Dong Cunrui in the first book. It’s a short meeting, since he decides to blow himself up with dynamite to destroy a Japanese bunker, shouting “for a new China!”. There is no way to effectively place the explosives so he chooses to support the bomb with his hand, thus loosing his life. From what I hear the story of Dong Cunrui is still being told in Chinese schools today. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

A revolutionary party is, in its essence, the party of its leader that carries out his ideology and cause, and the main thing in its building is to ensure the unitary character and inheritance of his ideology and leadership.

Kim Jong-Un

Liu Hulan – “A great life, a glorious death”

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

Where you mention Dong Cunrui, we should also not forget the Liu Hulan. She was a local communist youth leader in a village in Shanxi Province. One winter day in 1947, the Kuomintang surrounded the village and forced the whole village to gather in a temple. The nationalists started arresting several communists, including Liu Hulan. I’ll quote a fragment of the textbook here:

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

The army officer urges her to point out her fellow communists to them, but she refuses, saying not even for a mountain of gold would she betray them. Then she states in front of them all that she doesn’t fear death. That being said the nationalists kill her. Chairman Mao, so we continue to read, remembered her with the words: “A great life, a glorious death”. She died at the age of 14.

The English Wikipedia tells the same story in more detail. The article is surprisingly subjective and quotes only a few sources. This is how the death of the young girl is described: “During the interrogation, the Kuomintang tried every possible method to induce Liu Hulan to betray her allies. Liu Hulan refused to obey and died heroically.” It seems the story of Liu Hulan still lives on today, not least on Wikipedia.

Revolutionary vocabulary

The vocabulary which we learn in this book is probably not like anything you’ve seen before, unless you’ve been – let’s say – “politically trained” the Comintern way. It’s been said that after you read Marx, Engels and thinkers like Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse and so on you’ll never be quite the same.

But this is something different. This book is supposed to teach you a foreign language. It comes however, with a totalitarian world view that separates friend from foe and good from evil. It tells you everything you need to know to function in this new society that Mao is building, even though the Chinese reader obviously is aimed at foreigners. Let’s take a look at some randomly selected vocabulary from the book:

  • 反动派 – reactionary faction (in other words everyone against communism)
  • 帝国主义 – imperialism (those nations who brought humiliation upon China by claiming parts of it)
  • 机枪 – machine gun (power comes from the barrel of a gun, right?)
  • 机械化 – mechanize (remember the Great Leap Forward?)
  • 进攻 – to attack
  • 开国 – the founding of a country
  • 叛徒 – traitor
  • 破坏 – to destroy
  • 强迫 – to force
  • 手榴弹 – hand grenade
  • 牺牲 – to sacrifice (one’s life) (this seems to be the main message in most of the chapters)

To me, ideology is corrupt; it’s a parasite on religious structures. To be an ideologue is to have all of the terrible things that are associated with religious certainty and none of the utility. If you’re an ideologue, you believe everything that you think. If you’re religious, there’s a mystery left there.

Jordan Peterson

Ideology-free learning?

Mao's red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng
Mao’s red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng near the Henan University

I know the example I brought here is a rather extreme one, but then again, Marx, Lenin and Mao still play a major part in the education of Chinese children today. However nowadays Mao’s red book is sold on the streets for little money and people don’t seem to care so much. Nobody will blame you if you don’t know your Mao-bible by heart or – for that matter – decide to sell it. Western tourists pay good money for it. But does that mean the end of ideology in Chinese textbooks for non-native learners? Have we really moved on? It actually made me think of the deeper question whether it’s possible to learn a foreign language WITHOUT absorbing (some of) its values…

What are your thoughts on this topic? Would you say your Chinese books are ideology-free? Please feel free to comment below.

趙傳 – 我是一只小小鸟 (1990)

I’m a little bird (1990)

有时候我觉得自己像一只小小鸟
想要飞却怎么样也飞不高
也许有一天我栖上枝头
却成为猎人的目标
我飞上了青天才发现自己
从此无依无靠

每次到了夜深人静的时候 我总是睡不着
我怀疑是不是只有我的明天没有变得更好
未来会怎样
究竟有谁会知道
幸福是否只是一种传说
我永远都找不到


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


所有知道我的名字的人呐
你们好不好
世界时如此的小
我们注定无处可逃
当我尝尽人情冷暖
当你决定为了你的理想燃烧
活的压力生命的尊严
哪一个重要


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高


我是一只小小小小鸟
想要飞呀飞却飞也飞不高
我寻寻觅觅寻寻觅觅一个温暖的怀抱
这样的要求算不算太高
这样的要求算不算太高

Corona virus: 口罩都卖完了!

After the Mexican flue, SARS and MERS it was about time the world got hit by another pandemic. Allegedly, this time it all started on a Wuhan wet market where the locals buy their portion of snake and armadillo meat. In this post, I share some virus-related key vocabulary and firsthand footage from Corona-survivors.

Shortage of face masks

To start on an optimistic note: Did you know that if you’re still alive today, you’re a virus-survivor too? (One of 7.7 billion people)! If you were planning to go to China, you might want to postpone your next trip though and wear one of those trendy face masks if you use public transport, just in case. That is if you can still lay your (disinfected) hands on one. For this Chinese YouTuber it all seems too late.

With English and Chinese subtitles.

China is red

It’s a very, very serious situation, so I did some homework on the virus-related key vocabulary that you read in the Chinese news. “For your daily apocalypse click here”. The virus is everywhere. It’s amazing how quickly bad news spreads and people start panicking. (Positive news about China usually doesn’t make it to Germany, it’s mostly bad, though more and more people (mistakenly) sympathize with “the Chinese way” of governing, although they don’t live there themselves). Even here in Europe many ten thousands miles away from the disaster zone the news is dominated by it. Online news papers provide hourly updates as if the world will perish. It’s almost like a drug.

Map of confirmed corona virus cases.
China is red again! This is a map of how the virus is spreading. You can see in which countries cases have been confirmed.
Map showing the spread of the Corona virus on 26.02.2020
Update (26.02.2020): By now, it’s not only China that’s red! The virus has spread to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, North- and South America. (Source: gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com)

Business opportunities

But where disaster strikes, you’ll also find business opportunities! Do you think 25 bucks is a good price to protect yourself against virus infection? The Asian girl on the picture sure does. Did they pick an Asian girl for a reason or is it just me? From what I hear masks in Germany and many other countries are sold out at the moment.

Amazon product information for face masks. Prices are rising.
口罩都卖完了!

武汉加油!

Meanwhile people in Wuhan can’t go nowhere, so during the long cold nights they started shouting at each other to uplift their spirits. A rather unusual spectacle, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine a complete lock-down on such a gigantic city.

武汉加油!
新冠病毒Xīnguān bìngdúNew corona virus
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú de rénPeople infected with the new corona virus

Who can you trust?

In this video “teacher Mike” discusses the latest rumors about the virus. Which media can you trust, the western or Chinese news? Where does Mike get his info from? After all he lives there, so he needs to know. Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Virus vocabulary

感染gǎnrǎnto infect
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú dí rénpeople infected with the new corona virus
受到病毒感染shòudào bìngdú gǎnrǎnget infected with the virus
无症状感染者wú zhèngzhuàng gǎnrǎn zhěpeople that are infected but do not display any symptoms
传染他人chuánrǎn tāréncontaminate others
有传染力yǒu chuánrǎn lìto be contagious or to have “contaminating power”

The ultimate learning video

I finally found a video that walks you through all the Corona-related vocabulary that you need to understand Chinese news reports about the virus. Chinese and English subtitles. Very clear pronunciation.
确诊quèzhěnconfirmed diagnosis
确诊病例quèzhěn bìnglìconfirmed cases
死亡人数sǐwáng rénshùnumber of dead people
2%死亡率2% sǐwáng lǜdeath rate of 2 %

What’s this Corona virus anyway?

For real in-depth information about the virus you need to listen to Li Yongle Laoshi, cause he can explain almost everything. He’s one of the first people I see explaining something about the virus itself: how it behaves and how it multiplies and so on. With Chinese subtitles.
封城fēng chéngsealed city
宣布”封城”xuānbù”fēng chéng”to announce that the city is sealed
武汉wǔhànWuhan
症状zhèngzhuàngsymptoms
无症状携带病毒者wú zhèngzhuàng xiédài bìngdú zhinfected people without symptoms
治疗zhìliáomedical treatment
接受治疗jiēshòu zhìliáoreceive medical treatment
扩散kuòsànto spread
病毒扩散bìngdú kuòsànthe spreading of the virus

The best vocabulary list, sorted by language level, on the Corona virus I found so far, you can download here.

Go shopping, decrease panic

In this video German vlogger Thomas阿福 shows us the “shopping situation” in Shanghai. Are prices really skyrocketing as rumor has it? You can add to the panic as I’ve written above but you can also try to decrease panic and hysteria like Thomas does here. Great job!

An expert opinion…

I’ll finish here with a message of hope from German professor and virus expert Rolf Hilgenfeld, interviewed by German Youtuber Thomas阿福. Hilgenfeld states that the Corona virus won’t be able to multiply forever. Scientists are testing vaccinations right now. Once enough people have been in contact with the virus and produced antigens, the growth will decrease and the pandemic will stop. A matter of 6 to 12 months, he estimates. Let’s hope the situation gets better soon.

宋祖英 – 辣妹子 (1998)

Spicy girl (1998)

宋祖英 – 辣妹子

辣妹子从小辣不怕
辣妹子长大不怕辣
辣妹子嫁人怕不辣
吊一串辣椒碰嘴巴

辣妹子从来辣不怕
辣妹子生性不怕辣
辣妹子出门怕不辣
抓一把辣椒会说话

辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣哟辣辣辣

辣出的汗来汗也辣呀汗也辣
辣出的泪来泪也辣呀泪也辣
辣出的火来火也辣呀火也辣
辣出的歌来歌也辣歌也辣

辣妹子说话泼辣辣
辣妹子做事泼辣辣
辣妹子待人热辣辣
辣椒伴她走天下 辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣椒伴她走天下

辣出的汗来汗也辣呀汗也辣
辣出的泪来泪也辣呀泪也辣
辣出的火来火也辣呀火也辣
辣出的歌来歌也辣歌也辣

辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣


辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣辣辣
辣妹子辣 辣妹子辣
辣妹子辣妹子辣哟辣辣辣

Vocabulary list

  • – spicy
  • 妹子 – “younger sister”
  • 不怕 – not fear / does not fear
  • 嫁人 – to get married (of woman)
  • – to hang up
  • 一串辣椒 – a string of hot peppers
  • 碰嘴巴 – to touch the mouth
  • – sweat
  • – tears
  • – fire
  • – song
  • 生性 – natural disposition / from birth
  • 说话 – to speak
  • 出门 – to go outdoors
  • 做事 – to do things
  • 待人 – to treat people
  • 泼辣 – bold and vigorous
  • 热辣 – “hot”
  • 走天下 – to walk everywhere (she goes)
  • 辣椒伴她走天下 – chili accompanies her everywhere she goes

大壮 – 我们不一样 (2017)

We are not the same (2017)

这么多年的兄弟
有谁比我更了解
太多太多不容易
磨平岁月脾气
时间转眼就过去
这身后不散的筵席
只因为我们还在
心留在原地


张开手 需要多大的勇气
这片天 你我一起撑起
更努力 只为了我们想要的明天
好好的 这份好好珍惜


我们不一样
每个人都有不同的境遇
我们在这里
在这里等你


我们不一样
虽然会经历不同的事情
我们都希望
来生还能相遇


这么多年的兄弟
有谁比我更了解
太多太多不容易
磨平岁月脾气
时间转眼就过去
这身后不散的筵席
只因为我们还在
心留在原地


张开手 需要多大的勇气
这片天 你我一起撑起
更努力 只为了我们想要的明天
好好的 这份情好好珍惜


我们不一样
每个人都有不同的境遇
我们在这里
在这里等你


我们不一样
虽然会经历不同的事情
我们都希望
来生还能相遇


我们不一样
每个人都有不同的境遇
我们在这里
在这里等你


我们不一样
虽然会经历不同的事情
我们都希望
来生还能相遇


我们不一样
虽然会经历不同的事情
我们都希望
来生还能相遇


我们都希望
来生还能相遇

Vocabulary list

  • 兄弟 – brother
  • 了解 – understand
  • 磨平 – to smooth / smoothen
  • 岁月 – years
  • 脾气 – temper, temperament
  • 转眼 – blink of an eye
  • 筵席 – banquet, feast
  • 不散的筵席 – an everlasting feast
  • – to stay
  • 原地 – in place
  • 张开手 – to open (your) hand
  • 勇气 – courage
  • 这片天 – this piece of heaven
  • 你我一起撑起 – we hold / support together
  • 更努力 – with more effort
  • 这份情 – this feeling
  • 珍惜 – to treasure
  • 不同的境遇 – different circumstances
  • 来生 – next life / in the hereafter
  • 相遇 – to meet

费翔 – 故乡的云 (1987)

Clouds of home (1987)

天边飘过故乡的云,它不停地向我召唤
当身边的微风轻轻吹起,有个声音在对我呼唤


归来吧 归来哟,浪迹天涯的游子
归来吧 归来哟,别再四处飘泊


踏著沉重的脚步,归乡路是那么的漫长
当身边的微风轻轻吹起,吹来故乡泥土的芬芳


归来吧 归来哟,浪迹天涯的游子
归来吧 归来哟,我已厌倦飘泊


我已是满怀疲惫,眼里是酸楚的泪
那故乡的风和故乡的云,为我抹去创痕
我曾经豪情万丈,归来却空空的行囊
那故乡的风和故乡的云,为我抚平创伤