ChinesePod Review – An Alternative Way to Learn Chinese

This is a review of ChinesePod, my favorite learning Chinese podcast.

The first version of this review was published in 2012; As the product has evolved a lot since then, from time to time we update this article to add new features.

I will explain how a podcast is different from a traditional Chinese course, introduce the main features of the software and the prices of the different types of subscriptions. Also, I’m going to point out the most common mistakes people make when they start using a podcast to learn a language.

Can a podcast like ChinesePod improve your learning process?

Since I was walking an hour a day to get to my office every day, I decided I wanted to try to spend this time more productively.

Even living in China, when you spend all day at work in front of a computer your exposure to the language is limited. I am no longer a student and when I go out with my friends I often prefer to switch to English (or another language I can fully understand like Italian or Spanish), have a glass of wine, and relax.

Although I was listening to Chinese music almost the whole time I was on the go, I like bands like Er Shou Meigui who have a strong Beijing accent (which I can barely understand). Also, the movies weren’t helping me much to acquire new vocabulary either.

The result is that at the time I was learning most of my new vocabulary through flashcards. Although flashcards and SRS systems are fantastic tools for learning a language, this situation was not “healthy”.

The problem is that when you rely only on flashcards to memorize new words, your brain goes crazy due to the lack of context necessary to fix a new word in your mind. So I decided to spend an hour a day (the time I commute to and from my office) listening to a Chinese podcast.

I then discovered that podcasts are ideal for learning new words and improving your understanding.

Why did I choose ChinesePod instead of another?

Mainly because I knew that the speaker for the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (the levels I was interested in at the time) was John Pasden, who runs one of my favorite blogs on the Chinese language, Sinosplice.

How much is ChinesePod worth?

My conclusion is that ChinesePod is an awesome product. But is it worth the money you pay?

The Basic subscription costs USD 14/month and the Premium subscription costs USD 29/month.

If you want to save a little money, you can also pay quarterly or annually. Prices are as follows:

  • Monthly Basic: 14 USD/month
  • Quarterly Basic: $13/month ($39 quarter)
  • Annual Basic : 10 USD/month ($124 annual)
  • Monthly premium : 29 USD/month
  • Quarterly Premium : $26/month ($79 quarter)
  • Annual Premium : $21/month ($249/year)

What I like ChinesePod?

  • You can download all the teaching materials (audios, videos, and transcripts). So you can use them without being connected to the internet.
  • If you buy a Premium subscription, you will also have access to their excellent apps (available for both iOS and Android.
  • ChinesePod offers more than 4,000 lessons.
  • Even if I skip the first two levels (which are too easy for me), I still have over 3,000 lessons to choose from. This is very good since to avoid boredom, I only want to listen to lessons on topics that I find interesting.
  • Most language courses focus on the same topics (ordering food in restaurants, asking for directions, etc.) This is fine to start with, but after a while, my attention span becomes too poor to survive. Despite the fact that the ChinesePod lessons also talk about everyday life, they seem much more specific to me.
  • So you can listen to the argument between a taxi driver and a woman who doesn’t want to get into a taxi without seat belts, learn how to get the best discount card from your hairdresser, or help the tragicomedy of a businessman who almost missed his flight. because his secretary misspelled his name when booking the ticket.In this way, you learn a lot about the small details of everyday life in China.
  • Although John speaks very good Chinese, after each dialogue he plays the role of the lost laowai. The result is that each lesson is a “Socratic” dialogue, where John asks a bunch of questions about Chinese grammar, tones, vocabulary, and customs, and the female speaker (Jenny or Dilu in the levels he was listening to) the answers.
  • This is fun and John plays the role of the “dumb” student (which is you and me) quite well. So it’s easy to establish some kind of empathy with him.
  • This is usually enough to keep my attention, even if I’m walking through traffic in Shanghai.
  • You will also learn Chinese grammar by listening to ChinesePod because they often choose a particular grammatical structure (for example the infamous 是…的), repeat it several times during the dialogue, and then discuss it.
  • What I like the most is the discussion of the new words. This way I can put them in the context of the dialogue and thus remember them much better than when they appear directly in my flashcard session.
  • Each dialog comes with a pdf and HTML transcript (Chinese and Pinyin characters) and a translation. I especially like the HTML transcript because I can directly copy and paste the phrases I’d like to remember to my flashcard list.

What does ChinesePod offer you?

    • ChinesePod lessons are organized into six levels: Newbie, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate, Advanced.
    • Once subscribed you can access all the podcasts and evaluate your level. While the dialogues of the first two levels are quite simple and the discussion after the dialogue is in English in the Intermediate level the female announcer speaks in Chinese, while the male announcer continues to speak in English.
    • Starting from Upper-Intermediate the announcer speaks in Chinese (but still switches to English from time to time).Advanced level lessons are completely in Chinese and introduce original unfiltered Chinese sources.
    • Comments can be left on each lesson page to ask a question, give or receive feedback. In addition, there is a forum so you can ask questions or discuss with other students.
    • Apart from audio, there is also a large number of video lessons.
    • It offers the Say It Right video course, which is intended for all levels to help improve and correct errors in pronunciation, a key aspect of the Chinese language.
    • With the Premium subscription, you will also have access to lesson revision exercises, personalized vocabulary lists, vocabulary revision with flashcards.
    • Also with the Premium subscription, you will have access to its excellent app.

Common mistakes among ChinesePod users

  • It is human nature to avoid wasting the resources we pay for. This is one of the reasons why we continue to eat until there is no food left, even if we are no longer hungry.
  • As we have paid for all the podcasts, this primitive impulse pushes us to think that we should get the most out of the course, starting from the beginning and going through all the dialogues.In my opinion, this is the most common mistake made by podcasters, also highlighted by both John Pasden at Sinosplice. 
  • If Newbie level podcasts are too easy for you, you should start from Elementary or even Pre-Intermediate level. This is the main way to get out of your comfort zone, force yourself to pay more attention, and learn faster.

     

  • I made this exact mistake with ChinesePod by getting stuck on the Intermediate level for too long.
  • Another mistake closely related to the first one is choosing a level and then going through all the podcasts, regardless of whether you are interested in the topic or not.
  • As I point out almost every time I write about Chinese, your worst enemy in learning a complex language like Mandarin is boredom.When you get bored you lose motivation, you start to rationalize that you are never going to learn Chinese no matter what you do, that one day you are going to leave China and forget about it anyway, and so on. The list of excuses for our stupid rationalization is endless.
  • This is the bullshit that your brain (and mine, I have a black belt in rationalization) exploits to make you return to your comfort zone. Steven Pressfield calls this phenomenon “resistance” in his wonderful book From Him The Art War, a must-read for anyone who has a creative job or is trying to get better at something (Mandarin, for example).
  • You just listen and don’t check. Regularly listening to a podcast is great. However, if you don’t check the dialogue then you are missing a great opportunity to enrich your vocabulary.I recommend using flashcards and downloading the free Anki software to exercise your flashcard sessions as it incorporates a great algorithm that will save you a lot of time.

Last Thought

If you think this whole motivation thing is bullshit and the easiest way to learn Mandarin is to go out there and talk to the Chinese, you’re right. If you are motivated enough this may be enough for you.

I learned French, English, and Spanish, just by going out to talk to people and paying attention. It worked because I had the right motivation. I was living in France, a country where no one wants to speak English or any other language (no offense to the French, Italians, and Spaniards, we are just as spoiled as they are).

I desperately needed to learn English for the job I love Spanish and I can’t stop speaking in this beautiful language whenever I can.

But this doesn’t work with Chinese. Even though I have lived in China since 2010, I can easily get by with English and ask a friend for help whenever I have to do something more complex like renting an apartment or going to the hospital.

So for me, the choice is between avoiding boredom and finding the right motivation, or never learning Chinese. I guess I’m not the only one with this problem.

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