In case you have never heard of Douyin: it’s a Chinese short-video app with over 200 million daily active users in China. Or so they say. Can you use Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – as a tool for learning Chinese?
The ByteDance family
The company behind it (ByteDance) is still spectacularly unknown, although that may be about to change. Since its app TikTok has come under suspicion of political censorship in China’s national interest. Outside of China, ByteDance is best known for TikTok. This app could be called the global version of Douyin: same features, different users.
What makes Douyin so popular in China? One thing works really well: Douyin’s self-learning algorithm “personalizes” your feed. It does so based on your viewing behavior (interaction, viewing time etc.). It adapts almost immediately. The more you engage with the app, the more it’ll show that kind of content Douyin thinks you want to see. That’s why when my friend from Russia opens his app, he only sees half-naked women dancing around.
If you want to know more about China and learn Mandarin, could Douyin with it’s massive Chinese user base be a useful tool?
Well, potentially yes, and here’s why:
Content: On Douyin you’ll find a broad variety of content: singing, dancing, cooking, sports, animals and sightseeing. There’s also a lot random everyday, normal life stuff going on from all over China which usually is more interesting than the more fancy “premium” kind of videos. This makes Douyin an endless source of raw and local content.
Your personal feed: It’ll give you what the algorithm thinks you want to see. Whether you want to watch squirrels climb up trees or prefer watching people eating turtles and snakes, the app will figure it out for you. (Or actually content moderators who label all those videos accordingly and feed the right categories to the algorithm…)
Interact, get famous: you can create your own content, make duets, comment and engage with the community 24/7. If you stand out from the crowd, you might even get a lot of views. With the right mindset, you can get very big on Douyin. But don’t say anything wrong.
As for learning: not everybody speaks Standard Mandarin, some post stuff in their local dialect which is fun for other Chinese, but hard to understand for foreigners. I do see a lot of options to interact with Chinese people.
Interact with Chinese people? BUT AT WHAT COST?
Here we go:
Douyin and data protection are antipoles. Douyin’s data privacy equals almost zero. The moment you’ll install it on your phone, it will absorb everything like a black hole. From your contacts and numbers to your fitness data. Even if you customize your privacy settings: where and how they store your data, with whom they share it and for what purposes, I really couldn’t tell. Also the practice of fingerprinting is a major concern.
Douyin drains your battery and uses a lot of storage. Even when it’s only running in the background, it’ll constantly be updating and inviting you back in.
Commercial crap: Advertising! Apart from gathering your personal data, they run advertisements. No, let me rephrase that: they gather your personal data, so people who sell stuff like to advertise on Douyin. So be prepared for commercial content or run away while you still can! You can’t always differentiate between ‘normal’ and commercial content, because everything’s in the same Douyin format.
Favorite hangout for pedophiles: Since Douyin doesn’t take age restrictions very seriously, Douyin and its overseas equivalent TikTok have become very popular among people who like to watch and contact little children using the chat function.
Douyin addicts: The app is very addictive and time-consuming. It’s designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. An Indian kid was reported to have fallen from a roof while watching videos on TikTok. It can turn people into walking zombies whose only concern is the number of likes on their videos…
The kind of stuff people do for likes: if you have spent some time on these apps, it all becomes too obvious. Girls start to wear sexy outfits and hang their boobs into the camera. Why? Because it works. And people copy each other.
No politics or “controversial” content: no, I wouldn’t do that. Unless you want to get banned or worse. Douyin is for “fun” only, so if you happen to have an opinion about Hongkong or Xinjiang: be prepared to be banned permanently. This we know from the TikTok moderation guidelines that got leaked.
Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with [TikTok],” Huffman said at the event, “because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.
Douyin might be fun (like facebook used to be cool and fun once), but it comes at a high price. I can’t recommend an app which I cannot trust. I can’t recommend an app that shares my personal information with … I don’t know WHO or when and for what reasons. I can’t recommend an app that might be using the faces of its users for facial recognition software. I don’t want to be a slave of another big data company which claims to create value, but only throws an addictive toy at the masses to get people’s personal data.
In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.
How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China
After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.
Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.
He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.
All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.
The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw
Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador
Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.
For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:
It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.
Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.
Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:
He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
He’s not looking for cheap sensation
People open up to him and tell him very personal things
He’s a keen observerand a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.
China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.
Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.
Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.
The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.
One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.
The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.
The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.
The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.
Host: Rutch Kirchner, Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich, Frank Pieke and other MERICS experts
China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.
Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network
Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.
China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.
Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.
Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”
What can you do if you want to learn Mandarin but don’twant 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
Liu Hulan – “A great life, a glorious death”
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？”
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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 intoonline fossils. So when I made this top 10, I looked for four things: