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.

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.

大张伟 – 葫芦娃 (2018)

Wowkie Zhang – Calabash brothers (2018)

葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
葫芦娃 葫芦娃
一根藤上七个瓜
风吹雨打都不怕
啦啦啦啦
叮当当咚咚当当 葫芦娃
叮当当咚咚当当 本领大
葫芦娃 葫芦娃 本领大

妖精 放了我爷爷!

The original theme song from the cartoon

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

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

1

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.

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…