Getting fluent in Mandarin: Underestimating the four tones

In the process of Mandarin learning you’re never “done”. That’s especially true for the four tones. This video by an Mandarin expert reminded me that the mā-má-mǎ-màway people typically think of the four tones is wrong. He reveals some other interesting things as well.

Mastering the tones

In this first episode of LeLe Linguistics, LeLe Farley walks you through “the first step” to achieving fluency in Chinese: mastering the tones.

LeLe Farley is a rising star on YouTube. What he has to say about learning Mandarin should be taken quite seriously, since his fluency in Mandarin and accurate pronunciation are outstanding and he doesn’t beat around the bush as to how he got there.

Who is LeLe Farley? In his own words: “Grew up in Texas, college in ATL, post grad in Beijing. Now, I’ve come to LaLaLand to try and make a name for myself as a Chinese English bilingual rapper and comedian. Banned in the PRC, but hope to return one day.”

He’s an interesting and wildly creative guy. Let’s examine his take on the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. He starts off debunking some common “misunderstandings” about them…

1. “Don’t think tones aren’t important”

YouTube comment: "I always loved those people who said they speak Chinese without the tones"

LeLe notes that many learners of Mandarin seem to think that tones aren’t that crucial to becoming fluent or that 差不多 (“almost right”) is good enough. Don’t believe Chinese people who complement you on your excellent 中文, he adds, most of the time they are just being polite – they might hardly understand what you’re saying.

Bottom line: hitting the tones right is essential for comprehension. You may not hear the difference, but they do. I don’t think LeLe means to say that you have to hit EVERY single tone a 100 percent right, but rather that you should put some real effort into it.

2. “Tones are not for beginners only…”

YouTube comment: "98 % of the foreigners learning Chinese can't get their tones right"

I argued in earlier post that it’s best practice to get the tones right from the start in drill-like fashion, meaning repeating nothing but tones and pinyin for at least two weeks. While I still think that’s extremely helpful and necessary, it’s just as important, as LeLe explains in his video, to keep at it. Instead of gradually lowering “tone quality standards” once you’ve finished base camp. I couldn’t agree more with his message that if tones don’t come natural to you, you have to learn them the hard way. A long-term endeavor that will involve getting your ego hurt from time to time again. This of course is not something that learners want to hear, but it’s the truth anyway.

3. “Don’t learn tones, learn tone combinations instead”

YouTube comment: "You just taught me more about the tones than my mainland Chinese teachers"
(16 tones = tone combinations)

LeLe emphasizes you shouldn’t just learn the four tones in isolation, but learn their frequent combinations. As most words in Mandarin consist of two syllables, this makes a lot of sense. These “basic units” keep coming back.

Although I don’t like this kind of diagrams much – they remind me of similar ones for German grammar – , the point is to memorize these tone patterns and – over time – store them as little soundbites in your brain. New vocabulary can be shaped and pronounced accordingly.

Mandarin tone patterns 16 + 4

The next step to sound even more native-like would be to put these words in a sentence, since they too typically exist in a larger unit.

4. “The third tone is the tricky one”

LeLe explains why the third tone and the 3-2-combo in particular is the nastiest one to most learners. Even many Chinese teachers seem to be confused about the exact pronunciation of the third tone. They may pronounce it correctly; explaining how it changes in certain combinations can be a problem though. As a student you probably don’t get the relevance of this at first. That’s why you have to keep at it while you advance, record yourself and mimic native speakers.

Further reading

The way the four tones are being taught is evolving as are the linguistics behind it. Equally important, in my opinion, are intonation, stress and rhythm which determine for a large part whether you sound “native” or not (imagine a foreigner speaking Mandarin with a French accent). How much time did your teacher(s) spend explaining these musical qualities?

By the way, LeLe Farley is not the first to come up with all this:

Learn tone patterns on YouTube

Good for practicing: In this video not merely the 4 tones are introduced, but the 16 frequent tone combinations are also covered at some length.

I hope you enjoyed this short article. Feel free to let me know your take on the four tones in the comments.

Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

It is said the best art comes from turmoil and hardship. This seems particularly true for Mainland Chinese cinema which for decades had gone practically unnoticed, but reemerged in the relatively liberal eighties and nineties, transforming long years of revolution, war and chaos into internationally acclaimed works of art.

If you’re only into the newest movies from China, you’d best stop reading here. This is a list of mostly older Mainland Chinese movies I’ve come to like and recommend to anyone interested in China.

Although the reality presented in these films may seem very different from the China we see today, these lived experiences continue to shape China. Since this blog is mainly about learning Mandarin I’ve added my estimation of the difficulty level for each film.

Included on my list:

  • Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)
  • To live – 活着 (1994)
  • Coming home – 归来 (2014)
  • Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)
  • The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)
  • Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003
  • Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

Concubines! Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman (played by Gong Li) who is forced to become one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. The four concubines “compete” with each other in order to be the master’s favorite taitai and gain the privileges that come with that status.

The movie can be read in many ways. In my eyes it’s mainly an condemnation of traditional patriarchal society and capitalism where women are sold as slaves. But Lantern can also be seen as a symbolic depiction of any power system or government that demands absolute of obedience of its subordinates by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who don’t. That’s how the system maintains itself and the master – whose face remains invisible – gets his way. Power and wealth will be shared only if you comply with its rules. North-Korea and other totalitarians regimes come to mind.

The film was directed by China’s most renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and has been banned for a certain period in China after it came out.

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Hibiscus Town was directed by “third generation” Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin and probably the first film to look back upon the upheavals of the cultural revolution. Actually the story – which is set in a small Hunan village about sixty years ago – is still very relevant today as radical ideologies demanding absolute equality have all but disappeared.

Hibiscus Town tells the story about the kindhearted and pretty Hu Yuyin who successfully sells a local variety of bean curd made from rice. She works hard and together with her husband Guigui manages to save enough money to build an impressive new house. During the Four Cleanups Movement of 1964 however, they suddenly see themselves denounced as “new rich peasants” who have to undergo some kind of punishment for their “reactionary” thinking and behavior.

The film – typically classified as a “scar drama” – was well received in China when it came out, but internationally still is not that well-known.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better” – final line of Fugui.

I know of no other movie that gives a more lasting impression of China’s inner turmoil and life-changing revolutions in the past century than To Live. It’s yet another movie by Zhang Yimou. The storyline in one sentence: After Fugui and Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) lose their personal fortunes, they raise a family and survive difficult cultural changes during 1940s to 1970s China.

I was surprised to learn that the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China by the authorities due to its “critical portrayal” of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Beautiful soundtrack by Zhao Jiping.

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English / Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

This is probably the most tragic film about the cultural revolution directed by Zhang Yimou (as if To Live wasn’t heart-wrenching enough). Coming Home is actually a love story, but not a happy one: Lu and Feng (played by Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution. He finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife no longer recognizes him! Lu is determined not to give up and desperately tries to reawaken his wife’s memory.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese, songs can be difficult to understand, partly a “silent” movie)

This is a rather sombre and slow movie by Chen Kaige, another member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Yellow Earth focuses on the story of a communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution. There he stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. He returns to the army, but promises to come back for the young girl, Cuiqiao, who has been spell-bound by his talk of the freedom women have under communist rule and who wants to join the Communist Army. The story relies on images more than on words.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Advanced (partly non-standard Chinese)

Another one by Zhang Yimou starring his favorite actress Gong Li. The film tells the story about a desperate quest for justice. A peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. One thing that makes The Story of Qiu Ju stand out is the fact that many of the street scenes were filmed with a hidden camera which gives an authentic picture of daily life during the Deng Xiaoping era – a whole different approach compared to Zhang’s To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

This rather bleak but internationally well received movie was directed by Li Yang who has been “controversial” in China for addressing China’s social problems in his highly realistic films.

Two Chinese coal miners have hit upon the perfect scam: murder one of their fellow mine workers, make the death look like an accident, and extort money from the boss to keep the incident hushed up. For their latest “mark,” they choose a naive teenager from a small village, and as they prepare to carry out their newest plan, things start to get complicated. The story literally takes place in the underworld where people do the most ruthless and evil things for money.

Maybe not very surprisingly since it highlights a dark side of Chinese society, Blind Shaft has not been approved for release in China.

This is merely short list of Mainland Chinese movies I’ve been wanting to share on my blog for some time. If you have any suggestions for Mainland Chinese films you missed in this list please let me know : )

For more Mainland Chinese films from the 80’s visit this page.

CHINESE ANALYSIS: popular China vloggers put to the test

For my previous post I did some research on YouTube Channels for Mandarin learning and I came across the fairly new account of Xiaolu 晓露, who does something very interesting in her videos: she evaluates the Chinese of expats in China.

How fluent is fluent?

Not just random foreigners in the Middle Kingdom, but popular YouTubers like 杰里德Jared, Thomas阿福 and others who speak Mandarin in their videos with native-like fluency – or so it seems to the average viewer. But how well – after spending many years in China – do they actually speak the language? Does their Mandarin have any flaws at all? That’s what Xiaolu sets out to ascertain.

Testing the Laowai YouTube Elite

And when you watch her videos, you wonder why nobody got this idea before her, since everybody has apparently been waiting for a native speaker – preferably a teacher like Xiaolu – to take a critical look at the Mandarin skills of the laowai YouTube elite. Although Xiaolu’s channel is still rather unknown, people quickly started commenting suggestions which candidate to “analyze” next. So more content is to come and maybe other online teachers will hear the call too.

Xiaomanyc 小马在纽约

Steve Kaufmann

A BRIGHT WORLD – 世界青年说

No bashing

Xiaolu doesn’t “judge” her laowai vlogger colleagues in a nasty way, she isn’t out to bash a bunch of expats trying to speak Chinese – that would be a cheap strategy to attract more views. On the contrary, her approach is friendly and constructive, doing some casual explaining on the side, both useful and enjoyable.

Test results and grading system

Xiaolu’s chosen format works well, even though I think it is not completely fair to judge someone’s Chinese skills based on one video. We should keep in mind that listening, reading and writing skills should be added to the picture too.

Another thing to consider is the difference between someone holding a monologue – which can be prepared – and actual communication with locals – which is harder to fake.

I’m also pretty sure that the gap between Afu’s and XiaoMa’s (referring to the embedded videos above) Chinese skills is bigger than Xiaolu’s grades reflect, giving the impression that both are more or less on the same level which – from what I’ve seen so far – they are not. So Xiaolu might reconsider her grading system a little.

Anyway, this is excellent and original content. I hope Xiaolu keeps up the good work. Here’s the link to her account.


P.S.

Only a couple of days after this short review was posted, I got the following reaction from Xiaolu, explaining the difficulties of accurate and fair grading:

Thanks for the review. I love it😍. Some thoughts of my own: I did consider to get rid of the grades part. Because I don’t want people taking offense. But some of my subscribers actually quite like it. I just want people to learn Chinese in a different and fun way. And I never intended to criticize in anyway. I agree with you there is a fairly large gap between xiaoma and afu. The grade is only based on my personal view and I do get more strict with advanced learners. Xiaoma is the second online influencer I analyzed. I do feel his overall Chinese is below the score I gave to him. But I get frustrated sometimes between telling the truth and not hurting people, also hopefully encouraging them at the same time🥺

Xiaolu

Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Mandarin

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You want to improve your Mandarin skills? For some of the greatest online resources for Chinese you don’t have to look far: they can be found on YouTube. But where to start? Like so many others I greatly benefited from watching online lessons on this video-sharing platform. This is my personal top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Chinese.

10. eChineseLearning

  • Followers: 110K
  • Since: 2010
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

eChineseLearning is a longstanding channel to which many online teachers contribute, so you find loads of useful material here – if you know where to look, cause the channel seems to be organized rather randomly. With so many people creating content, it’s hard to discover one connecting approach or style.

Positives

  • Some useful content for beginners and intermediates
  • Native speakers from China
  • Covering the Mandarin basics and more

Negatives

9. Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com

  • Followers: 313K
  • Since: 2009
  • Nr. of videos: 500 – 1000
  • Language level: Beginner

Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101.com is one of the most longstanding Chinese learning channels on YouTube. It focuses mainly on beginners and covers all sorts of Mandarin basics. And more on the meta level: they also support learners with Chinese learning strategies and tips.

The teachers in the videos use a lot of English, to the degree of word by word translating every Chinese sentence into English, even though the videos are fully subtitled. That’s convenient and may attract more viewers, but in terms of teaching it’s not best practice.

Positives

  • Great quantity of helpful videos, mainly for beginners
  • Native speakers from China
  • Learning advice

Negatives

  • Too much English

8. Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子

  • Followers: 1,7K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate

Fragrant Mandarin 香橘子 is a fairly new channel which is not so much about classic teaching, but about online language immersion. The content I’ve seen so far looks promising.

Positives

  • Authentic and high quality content from a charming couple in Guangxi Provence, China.
  • Original approach to Mandarin learning

7. Chinesewith-Xiaolu

  • Followers: 0,5K
  • Since: 2019
  • Nr. of videos: 0 – 50
  • Language level: Beginner to upper intermediate

Chinesewith-Xiaolu is a rather fresh channel covering basic Chinese. What got me interested is the fact that Xiaolu evaluates the Mandarin skills of Laowai vloggers. Her comments on news and current affairs are also worthwhile.

Positives

  • Original and fun content
  • Professionally edited videos

Negatives

6. ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪

  • Followers: 4,3K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 100 – 200
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChineseEddieG汉语艾迪 is a young charismatic guy with a talent for teaching.

Positives

  • Interesting content for beginners as well as more advanced learners
  • Native speaker from China who covers original topics like religions, internet slang, Chinese car brands and swear words

5. Chinese Zero To Hero

  • Followers: 32K
  • Since: 2016
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Advanced

Chinese Zero To Hero‘s YouTube channel is a very HSK-focused channel. They actually cover all levels, but on the whole and compared to other channels, they offer more content for intermediate and advanced learners. In an earlier post I recommended their website, but recently it seems to have a security problem and my browser doesn’t allow me the visit their webpage anymore. But from what I can tell, these guys from Mainland China are really committed to improve the world of Chinese learning with solid video content, learning resources and strategies.

Positives

  • Useful if you are preparing for HSK
  • Interesting content for higher levels
  • Well organized channel

Negatives

  • Using more English than they have to

4. ChinesePod

  • Followers: 178K
  • Since: 2014
  • Nr. of videos: 300 – 400
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

ChinesePod is a popular learning website for Mandarin Chinese where you can find over 4000 video and audio lessons. Their YouTube channel “shares just a taste” of all this content, so to get full access to all the material – similar to Mandarin Corner – you have to sign up.

What makes ChinesePod stand out is the abundance of quality content for all levels, their bilingual approach and their years of experience.

What I’m not a big fan of though is the fact they are using so much English. From a teaching point of view that’s less than optimal. I know many learners, especially people new to the language, appreciate all the explaining in English, BUT – in the long run it’s actually not that helpful.

Positives

  • Great variation of content for all levels between complete beginners and upper intermediate learners
  • The channel is neatly organized
  • It’s easy to find the kind of video’s or playlist(s) you are looking for
  • Bilingual Chinese-American teachers who bridge the gap between the two cultures really well and understand the needs of non-Chinese students
  • Team of charming teachers

Negatives

  • A lot of explaining in English

3. Yoyo Chinese

  • Followers: 284K
  • Since: 2006
  • Nr. of videos: 400 – 500
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Yoyo Chinese is probably the first and most well-known Chinese learning video channel, founded by Yangyang Cheng, a former Chinese TV host. If you look at some of the first uploads, you’ll discover she actually started out teaching English to Chinese people. It’s a pleasure to watch her teach: very passionate and upbeat. Newer content is mainly done by junior staff members.

Most videos are meant for beginners. Yoyo Chinese covers the whole spectrum to get you started: from Pinyin, tones to basic grammar and essential vocabulary. And Yangyang does a great job at this.

Positives

  • Great for beginners and English speakers
  • Passion for teaching + longtime experience
  • Innovation

Negatives

  • For such a longstanding channel the content is not that well ordered: only a couple of playlists, most videos are not categorized, but then again Yangyang’s username is “sloppycheng”

2. Everyday Chinese

  • Followers: 160K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner to upper Intermediate

The Everyday Chinese channel has grown quite popular in only a few years time. Young teachers from Mainland China do a good job on creating new and original content. It seems to me they take their inspiration directly from the classroom as they cover lots of topics people learning Mandarin genuinely struggle with.

Positives

  • Great content for beginners and intermediate learners
  • Good understanding of the needs of students, thinking from the learner’s perspective
  • Covering Mandarin basics and HSK levels 1 – 4
  • Nice street interviews and real life dialogues
  • Chinese-English subtitled + Pinyin

Negatives

  • Some videos only show slides with text and grammar which is OK, but a little static

1. Mandarin Corner

  • Followers: 54K
  • Since: 2017
  • Nr. of videos: 200 – 300
  • Language level: Beginner / Intermediate / Upper intermediate

Mandarin Corner is centered around Eileen Xu and still seems to be a rather underrated channel. Not only does Eileen create original and authentic content, she does so with using as little English as possible. That means you get to hear a lot more of the language than in most other Chinese learning videos. Mandarin Corner’s content is typically English-Chinese subtitled and – very important – also includes Pinyin, which makes the videos accessible for beginners too.

As for the more basic stuff: Mandarin Corner covers HSK levels 1 to 5 and provides loads of tips to improve your overall fluency. But what you can’t hardly find elsewhere – or not in the same quality – are the street interviews Eileen does, asking random people in her city about topics like “leftover women“, Japan, South-Korea and foreigners in general. Very interesting to watch, even if you are not in the least interested in learning Mandarin, but simply want to hear the opinions of average Chinese people.

Eileen has a very personal approach to creating videos. She takes you on a bicycle ride downtown, showing you around, and she even gives a tour of her old hometown. She also interviews interestingpeople like tattoo artists, rock climbers, the local phone repair shop owner and waiguoren in China.

To get full access to all the content and materials you need to sign up.

Positives

  • Highly original and authentic content from Mainland China for beginners up to upper intermediate learners
  • Covering the Mandarin basics
  • Interesting topics for people interested in China and Chinese society
  • Personal and innovative approach to online learning
  • Using a minimum quantity of English to explain. Subtitles: English, Chinese and Pinyin

Negatives

  • The channel is not that frequently being updated

That’s my top 10 of YouTube channels for learning Mandarin. I know there are many more – I just couldn’t include all. For this post, I only looked at the video channels, not at the websites and teaching companies that stand behind it. My main interest is simply to see what these channels have to offer to people learning Mandarin. I do very much admire all the work online teachers put into their videos, especially those who work more or less on solo-projects and who produce great results with limited means.

What are your favorite YouTube channels? Feel free to let me know which one(s) helped you to get to the next level.

Lingosteve’s wisdom on learning Mandarin

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Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advice on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

Learning Mandarin the low budget way

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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.

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.

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.

Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

2

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 advice 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 advice, 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 advice 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.

花儿乐队 – 果汁分你一半 (2006)

The flowers – I share half a cup of my juice with you (2006)

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
今晚多么美满
约会相当浪漫

我果汁分你一半
我结账你买单谁跟谁别细算
我果汁分你一半
偶尔我也会烦
脸色说翻就翻
我果汁分你一半
就算怎么艰难也要保持乐观
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
当喜欢上自然 一个眼神交换

我果汁分你一半
我吃饭你刷碗 不是我要偷懒
我果汁分你一半
偶尔你也会乱 发脾气不敢管
我果汁分你一半
向前向后攻占 粘我阴魂不散
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
啦啦啦…