Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

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Zegpoddle
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Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby Zegpoddle » Sat Jan 12, 2019 3:48 am

The book and recordings we are using in my first-year college Chinese course (Integrated Chinese) don’t provide enough listening practice, so understanding even very simple native-speaker conversations is my weakest skill, one I’d like to work on more intensively on my own. I see a lot of subscription-based Mandarin audio and video courses online, most of their content securely hidden behind a paywall. Here are seven of them, but you may know of more:


If you have paid for any of these services, I’d like to know your opinion of them:

    • Were you satisfied (or not) with the quality of the material provided?

    • Was it a good value for the amount you paid?

    • How much did it actually help you improve your listening comprehension skills?

If you make a recommendation for or against any of them, please give your reason(s).

Here are a few preferences of mine, which may or may not be totally unrealistic:

What I need (must-haves):

Lots of listening practice: Something based around naturalistic dialogues or conversations in Mandarin Chinese between people carrying out ordinary, everyday transactions (ordering in restaurants, buying a subway pass, asking for directions, reserving a hotel room, etc.).

☺ Authentic or reasonably good standard Mandarin accent (I want to get that down first before I start dealing with Shanghainese or Sichuanese or other regional variations.)

Accurate transcripts in both pinyin and Hànzì. If I don’t understand something I hear, I want to be able to check, in written form, what exactly the person was saying.


What I prefer (if possible, but the lack of which is not necessarily a deal-breaker):

Organized, sequential, graduated learning, starting slow and easy and then growing progressively more advanced, with later dialogues/episodes building on vocabulary or grammar introduced in earlier ones, is better than a scattered collection of episodes that cover a bunch of random topics and that were later corralled into “levels” without having been originally planned for that purpose. I prefer not to have to hear a hundred times that “we only use méi 没, not 不, with yǒu 有” presented each time as if they think it’s the first time I’ve heard them explain it. (I’m finding a prep book for the HSK1 test pretty easy, so I’m guessing I’m near the upper end of A1 on the CEFR scale.)

Additional exercises are a nice extra feature, but only if there is an answer key to them; otherwise they’re not useful. Developing listening comprehension is my main goal, not practicing grammar. I'm primarily looking for input.

☺ The ability to download audio tracks to listen to offline at a later time is also a plus. Streaming-only services that cut off all access to their material after your subscription expires don’t seem like the best long-term value to me...or am I wrong about that?

Web-based is okay–-I don’t need an app. I especially don’t like watching videos on my tiny smartphone screen, which I use only for practicing characters on various flashcard apps.


What I’m trying to avoid:

Talking heads facing a camera and giving lots of grammar explanations. I want to practice and develop my skill at understanding and using the language [procedural knowledge], not just broaden my abstract knowledge about the language [declarative knowledge]. Note that this rules out at least half of what I see on YouTube. I don’t need a video that reproduces the experience of sitting in a classroom and watching a teacher stand in front of a whiteboard explaining language points. (Chinese with Mike is a perfect example of this kind of ineffective approach that will not lead to any real acquisition or fluency at all. I need example conversations, not disquisitions.)

Two people using English for ten minutes or more to introduce and chat about just two or three isolated target-language vocabulary words. (One of the Spanish podcasts is like this. The density of learning in each episode is amazingly sparse, and you get no opportunities to listen to a continuous flow of the target language for even ten seconds at a time.)

Series that are superficial, glitzy, and overproduced, with tons of extraneous music woven all through the lesson, constant interruptions for ads about their other products or upgrades, and annoying fake-funny scripted banter between hosts. (Another Spanish podcast is absolutely full of this, to the exclusion of much actual content. I’m paying to learn the language, not to listen to “Josh” and “Anna” pretend to be “cool.”)

☹ Services that make it difficult to cancel your subscription by burying the link where it’s impossible to find or, worse, requiring that you contact them to beg to end your subscription (and then a charge from them shows up on your credit card bill for the following two months anyway).

☹ Anything crowdsourced or thrown together very unprofessionally by Joe Blow in his parents’ basement, Joe’s only qualification being that he is a native speaker, but with no previous experience actually teaching his language and thus no insights into the best way to go about it because he has no idea what non-native speakers will find easy or difficult in the process of learning it.

I hope I’m not asking for the moon, but if I am, please let me know. My apologies if this topic has been discussed before. Searches of this forum produce many scattered comments about these types of online subscription learning sites, but I couldn’t find any single thread about the ones for Chinese, and I thought it would be useful to collect users’ reactions in one place. If you’ve tried more than one of these services and are in a position to make comparisons, your feedback is even more valuable. :)

[Edit: Added the words "just" and "absolutely" for emphasis and clarity.]
Last edited by Zegpoddle on Sun Jan 13, 2019 7:15 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby Glossy » Sat Jan 12, 2019 4:54 am

The only service on your list that I’ve used is ChinesePod. I’ve done 228 of its lessons now - 4 from the pre-Intermediate level, 120 from the Intermediate level and 104 from the Upper Intermediate level. Overall I like ChinesePod a lot, but it has some downsides.

The reason that I didn’t start with ChinesePod’s Newbie and Beginner levels is that I did all 5 levels of Pimleur Mandarin before that. That was 150 lessons. That prepared me for ChinesePod’s Intermediate level.

In Pimsleur complexity increases slightly with each lesson. Some words are repeated in later lessons, but that’s because the designers of the Pimsleur program wanted to reinforce those words. The lessons don’t exist independently of each other. There’s an overall plan.

That’s not true of ChinesePod. There the complexity is only supposed to increase when you jump between levels. Theoretically all the lessons within one level have the same degree of complexity. Sometimes that’s not actually true, but it’s mostly true.

ChinesePod recommends that you do 120 Intermediate, 160 Upper Intermediate, 120 Advanced and 80 Media lessons. I don’t remember how many Newbie and Beginner lessons they recommend because I’ve never done those.

The idea is that as you listen to more and more lessons from level X, they become easier for you. You finish them in a progressively shorter amount of time. Eventually you’re ready for the next level. That has worked for me.

ChinesePod has many times more lessons than Pimsleur and they go up to much higher levels. ChinesePod lessons are more fun to listen to. I especially recommend the ones with John and Dilu. Those were recorded around 2013 - 2014 I think. There’s a much less formal atmosphere than with Pimsleur. Playful, but not phony.

The format is simple, at least in the levels which I’ve done:

There is a short introduction, maybe half a minute. Then there is a dialogue that lasts for a couple minutes. It’s recorded by native Mandarin speakers. Sometimes there are 2 of them, sometimes 3 or 4. Sometimes it’s a monologue. The variety of topics is enormous. ChinesePod has many thousands of lessons. You can find a transcription of this dialogue in the ChinesePod app, both in characters and in pinyin.

After that dialogue ends, it’s discussed and analyzed by two people for 8, 10, 12, sometimes 15 minutes. One of these people is always a native Mandarin speaker. The other is always a native English speaker. Both can speak both languages of course. In the Upper Intermediate level which I’m doing now they speak roughly 90% to 95% Mandarin. The rest is English. There was more English in the Intermediate level. I’ve read that there is no English at all in the Advanced level.

This roughly-12-minute discussion of the “main” 2-minute dialogue is never transcribed by the ChinesePod company. Users have made some transcriptions of their own, which can be found on ChinesePod website. Those aren’t perfect. I used them for many months, but then started flying solo. It’s worked for me. The language in the 12-minute discussion is simpler than in the 2-minute dialogue. The pronunciation is clearer. When I can’t understand a word after 5 to 10 attempts, I look it up in Pleco. Maybe 0.2% to 0.5% of the words in that roughly-12-minute discussion remain obscure to me even after that. You have to know when to give up and move on.

Close to the end the 2-minute dialogue is repeated. Then the hosts come back, talking for 2 or 3 more minutes.

I don’t know how standard the Mandarin in those lessons is. The ones I’m listening to now were recorded in Shanghai, and some of the presenters have described themselves as natives of that city. The ChinesePod company has moved several times though, changing personnel completely.

I always use an iOS app to listen to these lessons. It has a download feature, but it doesn’t really work. You really have to be connected to the Internet to listen to lessons. I don’t think there is a legal way to record them so that you could listen to them after your subscription expires. Of course it shoud be easy to do though. There should be lots of sound-recording apps out there. I haven’t used them though. I don’t plan on listening to these lessons after I leave ChinesepPod. I plan on graduating to real-life Internet videos. News, political chat shows. I’m not much of a movie or TV series fan.

I think I’ve made a lot of progress with ChinesePod. I’ve heard real-life Mandarin conversations where I seemed to understand roughly half of the words. I’ve never attempted any HSK tests though.
Last edited by Glossy on Sat Jan 12, 2019 5:16 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby Glossy » Sat Jan 12, 2019 5:08 am

Above I said that most of the ChinesePod presenters are native Mandarin speakers. That’s sloppy thinking on my part. As I said, the lessons I’m listening to now were recorded on Shanghai. I’m not qualified to say how native their Mandarin really is.
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Re: Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby Glossy » Sat Jan 12, 2019 5:25 am

During the roughly-12-minute discussion of the main dialogue the hosts talk about grammar and usage. The native English speaker asks, in Mandarin, “is that word formal or colloquial?”, “can you use that construction with this word? that one?”, etc. The native Chinese speaker answers. But roughly half of their discussion is about the subject matter. Online shopping, an old Chinese fairytale, earthquakes, politics, whatever the lesson was about. Plus they explain idiomatic expressions. So the explanation of grammar and usage takes up less than half of the time.

I think it’s possible to get grammar and usage instinctively while listening to massive amounts of input. But I don’t mind such discussions in ChinesePod because they’re conducted in Mandarin. I’m still practicing listening comprehension there.
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Re: Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby snowflake » Sat Jan 12, 2019 5:30 am

This is not on your list, though I think it’s worth looking at…. AP Chinese test prep books that have a CD or downloads for the listening comprehension portion. The text will have the Chinese and English along with the answers. The thing is those won’t have a gradual progression, nor pinyin. Depending on your knowledge of characters, the Pleco OCR may be able to make up for the lack of pinyin.
Good luck!
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Re: Feedback requested: Subscription sites for learning Chinese

Postby Flickserve » Tue Jan 15, 2019 4:50 am

I tried some of these in my early days of Mandarin.

They didn't work for me. My level was too low and also their teaching system doesn't suit me. I cancelled the subscription.

Here is what I did (free) .

Get some measure of the language by passive listening to the radio every day for about twenty to thirty minutes when I drive to work. It helps a bit, mainly I think helps recognised when tones are spoken incorrectly by another person (but not yourself).

Downloaded Growing up with Chinese. Transcript is available from the CCTV website. I stripped the mp3 from the video. I analysed the mp3 matching each subtitle to each sentence in exact time on my desktop using an app called Workaudiobook. To do this properly, you will need to listen to a sentence repeatedly (Workaudiobook loops it automatically and you also have to adjust the timings) and match the words exactly. The offshot is that you will listen to sentences many many times over. The harder ones you will listen more off! The dialogue is only a few minutes long but the process of matching subtitles is much longer. I got through thirty episodes in just under two months with very satisfactory improvement. Definitely challenging and tiring if you are at early level because GUWC actors speak fast and have Beijing accent. You will start to recognise connected speech also occurs in Chinese.

You can have a look at Slow Chinese. I didn't use it because my vocabulary range was too low but they also have transcripts available.

Chinesepod is OK but expensive.

Chinese101 I just didn't like their presentation but it was in the days of being an absolute newbie.

The problem with apps is that to repeat a sentence, one needs to actively press a repeat button. That wastes time. Autoloop as what happens in Workaudiobook is much much better.

Now, my listening is OK for standard Mandarin (just lack enough vocab).
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