Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 009: Max

Max works as a Chinese interpreter in Australia. Listen to this episode to find out:

  • The difference between translating and interpreting
  • How the free interpreting service works in Australia
  • The disadvantage of relying on an interpreter versus learning the local language yourself
  • How it was like to grow up with Chinese ethnicity in an English country
  • Why he recommends learning speaking / listening before starting characters
  • His approach to Chinese within his family now


Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 008: Rob Kilpatrick

Rob Kilpatrick teaches English in Taiwan, where he’s lived in the past 11 years.

Listen to this podcast to find out:

  • What made him choose Taiwan over other countries
  • What gave him his initial motivation to learn Chinese
  • How he was able to integrate the Chinese he was learning in class into his day to day life
  • The benefit of having local Chinese friends to learn the language and culture
  • The benefits of living in Taiwan in general
  • The benefits of learning Chinese in a classroom environment
  • What can be done on your own to improve your Chinese
  • Why he thinks learning characters from the beginning is important
  • The importance of having local Chinese friends

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 007: Malachi McGee

In this episode, I interview Malachi McGee. Malachi originally came to Taiwan 7 years ago as a Mormon Missionary. Listen on to find out:

  • Why Malachi decided to stay on in Taiwan even after his missionary term was up
  • About the Missionary Training Center program’s intensive Mandarin course
  • Why he decided to stay on in Taiwan to continue learning Chinese
  • His process for learning Chinese on his own
  • How he practiced reading characters
  • Why he chose to also learn zhuyin (bo po mo fo)
  • The process that LDS missionaries go through to come to Taiwan
  • The benefits of travel and living in foreign countries

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 006: Todd Blackhurst

In this episode, I interview Todd Blackhurst. Todd moved to Taiwan from Texas with his wife and 3 teenagers in 2013. Listen to find out:

  • What promoted Todd to move his whole family to Taiwan
  • How he prepared for the big move
  • The adjustments for the kids, now living in Taiwan
  • The comparisons between the local education (American school) and American education
  • What he would have done differently if he had come with younger kids
  • How living in Taiwan is different from coming as a visitor
  • The challenges an American family has living in Taiwan
  • The differences in how direct you communicate with other people in Taiwan versus America
  • What worked for Todd when it came to learning Chinese
  • Their long term plans and language investment in Taiwan
  • Why he recommends others travel as a family
  • An aspect he loves about living in Taiwan
  • The closeness of family in Taiwan

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 005: Brad Saap

In this episode, I interview Brad Sapp. Brad spent 13 years in China working in trade companies in Beijing and Qingdao. He currently lives in Toronto, where he continues to actively engage with Chinese clients.

Listen to this podcast to learn:

– How Brad landed up in China
– His approach to learning Chinese
– His take on learning characters and writing
– What it was like to work for a Chinese company
– The advantage to being able to speak Chinese
– The business culture differences with Chinese companies
– How he dealt with Chinese staff who didn’t speak English
– How he uses Chinese outside of China
– The perspective of Chinese immigrants in Canada
– How learning Chinese compares to other languages

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 004: Edward Greve

In this episode, I interview Edward Greve. Edward is an American who has lived in Taiwan for the past 8 years. He initially started as an English teacher and is now doing a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics.

Listen to find out:

  • What brought Edward to Taiwan in the first place
  • What process he took to learn Chinese on the side
  • His standard process to learn a new language
  • His stance on learning characters from the very beginning
  • The difference between learning simplified versus traditional characters
  • Who he practiced speaking with
  • His take on learning Taiwanese and other local dialects
  • What he’s doing now with computational linguistics
  • How learning Chinese compares to learning other languages like Italian, Dutch, French, German, Thai and Indonesian
  • About the scripts used in different Chinese dialects like Taiwanese and Cantonese
  • The importance of being able to express yourself through written Chinese
  • The advantages of being able to speak Mandarin while living in a Chinese community

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 003: Aaron Posehn

In this episode, I interview Aaron Posehn. He’s a Canadian, with a degree in Asian studies, who moved to Taiwan to work as an editor.

Listen to find out:

  • How Aaron got interested in Chinese culture
  • What it was like to be the only non Asian in a Chinese class of 300
  • About his first trip to China and Mongolia
  • Why learning Chinese alone isn’t enough to work in a Chinese company
  • About Aaron’s Chinease book and website.
  • What it’s like to be living in Taipei and interacting with others in Chinese
  • What he would do differently, if he was to learn Chinese again


Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 002: Elias Ek

In this episode, I interview Elias Ek.

Elias is from Sweden, but has lived in Taiwan for the past 25 years, where he runs his own company, Enspyre.

Listen to find out about:

  • Elias’ first encounter in Chinese in Taiwan
  • His first job in Taiwan
  • Experience of working as a foreigner in a Taiwanese company
  • His breakthrough in learning Chinese
  • His experience on learning speaking without characters
  • His use of Chinese while running his own company in Taiwan
  • How he prepares for giving speeches in Chinese
  • His approach interviewing new employees
  • Why classroom language learning is broken
  • Difference in western versus Chinese business culture
  • How he elicits ideas from his staff
  • What he would change about his strategy learning Chinese
  • How Chinese compares in difficulty to other languages

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 001: Joe Westerhof

In this first episode of the new Learn Chinese Insights Podcast, I interview Joe Westerhof.

Joe came to Taiwan 17+ years ago from Michigan, US. He initially began teaching English but now works in a trading company in Taichung, doing import / exports.

In this episode, you will find out:

  • What brought Joe to Taiwan in the first place.
  • His background learning Chinese – what worked and what didn’t.
  • His initial impressions of Taiwan.
  • The benefits of living in a small town.
  • How he transitioned from teaching to working in trade.
  • Issues that westerners have, when working in Taiwanese companies
  • Why Taiwanese companies don’t hire western employees
  • What to focus on, when trying to get a job with a Taiwanese company
  • What it’s like to be married with kids to a Taiwanese
  • On dealing with the Taiwanese language versus Mandarin
  • Joe’s theories on westerners who are fluent in Chinese
  • Joe’s advice on learning Chinese (or any language)

Changes to Course Outline Page

I recently made a couple of small changes to the Course Outline page.

The “Complete” links have been renamed as “Transcript” and have moved to the front of every lesson. I feel “Transcript” is a more descriptive label than “Complete” and moving it to the front better reflects the progression that most users make with the lessons: Start with the lesson, while following along with the transcript, then move to the Vocabulary page, followed by the Activity and other pages that follow.

Hope that makes sense and doesn’t cause too much disruption in your lesson navigation.


Pleco Flashcards Support for iOS

One feature that many users have asked for, is the ability to export flashcards to Pleco, the popular dictionary app.

This could always be done of course through the Export page. However this required multiple steps.

I’m happy to announce that if you’re using an iOS device (iPhone or iPad), then head on over to the flashcard page and select the lesson range you want.

You’ll now notice a new button at the bottom called “Export to Pleco”.

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Clicking on this will directly open the Pleco app (assuming you have it installed already). After a few seconds, you should see a message like this:

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You’ll now have a list of CLO lessons inside Pleco that you can choose from.

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Inside each lesson is the vocabulary, that you can then use to create your own flashcard lists inside Pleco.

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Hope this is useful for you.

At the moment, Pleco says this function only works on iOS devices. We can add Android support when they do.

New Design

If you haven’t noticed, the entire site has been recently updated with a brand new design.

It was a bit of a rocky start at first, with lots of small features not working.

Most have now been fixed though, and early reviews seem to be good.

The biggest benefit of the new site is that it is completely mobile optimized. Most activities should work on your phone or tablet.

The only thing that doesn’t work on phones / tablets are tools for recording your voice, such as Test your Pronunciation and the ability to record voice responses to exercises. These can be done from the desktop / laptop version however.

Other improvements include:

  • Design improvements to the flashcards and word bank pages.
  • New progress bar that shows up on the Course Outline page for each level. Complete all the activities in each level to reach 100%Progress
  • Persistent audio player and mode switch on the Complete transcript page let you pause the audio and switch between characters, from anywhere on the page.Playback

Please send me feedback on things you like or don’t like about this new design, as it’s an evolving process.

CLO App for Android

Well it took some time, but it’s finally here. The new CLO App for Android has been released on the Google Play store.

Like the iOS version, the Android version comes with the first 3 lessons for free. You can then purchase lesson content for levels 1 and 2 into the app.

These include the lesson audio, transcripts, flashcards and new character animations.

CLO Android

Try it out and let me know what you think.

Now that the Android version is released, I’ll be able to get back to making improvements to both apps, including content for later levels.

Thank you for your patience!

Tally Marks in Chinese

Do you know what tally marks are?

They are used when counting with a pencil and paper.

In western societies, a common way to note tally marks is like this:

You mark down a single stroke, each time you’re counting an item. After you have 4 strokes down, on your 5th stroke you cross off the first 4. That way it’s easy to count a group of 5.

In Chinese they use the same concept, but instead of vertical strokes, they try to build the character 正 as follows:

As you can see, each complete 正 character uses 5 strokes. So a series of 正 would each represent 5, just like the English ones above.

So where else can you see 正 tallies?

When you are ordering items from a menu, you can use 正 to indicate the number of dishes you want to order. Start with 一 for one, and work your way up.

So the next time you see the above strokes, you’ll know what its purpose is!

New Progress Page

I have added a new home page for subscribers to measure their progress.

Once logged in, click on the CLO logo on the top left of the page to be taken to this new page. It is a modified version of the current course outline page. It will look something like this:

CLO Progress

On the left, is a new navigation bar, to let you switch between levels.

On the top is your current lesson level. This is based on your score from the level test. I encourage you to take this test often, to measure your progress.

Next, we have the name of each lesson in the current level, along with color coded activity icons. Activities you have started, are colored orange, while completed ones turn to green. Obviously the goal is to complete as many of the activities as possible, so that you have green icons across.

Hopefully you find this page useful in your learning. If not, let me know what I can do to improve it.

New Flashcards

The flashcard page on the site has been updated with a new format.

The old format was quite outdated, requiring Java and not being mobile friendly. The new version should work fine on mobile browsers – both desktop and mobile, without requiring any additional software to be downloaded. It uses a similar format to the level test that was added recently.

Additional modes and options will be added to this page in time, so keep sending me your feedback.

When you first go to the page, you will see a settings page:

CLO Flashcards Options

Lesson Range: You can choose to test yourself on a single lesson, or you may select an entire lesson range. Your previously selected lesson range will be shown here. As you change the lesson range, the number of questions in the test will be updated at the bottom of the screen, above the Start button.

Test: You can choose to test individual characters, all vocabulary and sentences as well.

Mode: Choose between testing pinyin (if you’re not studying characters), simplified or traditional characters.

Question Mode: If you want to test your listening skills, choose listening. If you want to test your reading skills, choose Visual.

Test Definition: If you select this option, then each question will have two parts – one testing your recognition of the Chinese, and another asking you to select its English definition.

When you are ready to begin the test, press Start.

CLO Flashcard Test

If you have chosen Listening mode, you will hear a word and will be asked to type in the pinyin for it. If you have chosen visual mode, you will be shown the characters and will be asked to type it below. Type in the pinyin for the characters, and select the characters that match the question.

CLO Flashcard Test

If you enter an incorrect answer, the correct answer will be shown on screen for you.

CLO Flashcard Test

If you have chosen to test definitions as well, then you will be asked to choose the correct definition, after you typed in the correct pinyin.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

CLO Level Test

As I wrote about recently, the CLO Level Test is now ready for trial. Anyone can try it, even without an account.

To begin, choose your mode.

Choose Mode

If you haven’t learned characters yet, then start with pinyin. You will hear a word being played. Type out what you hear with the tone numbers, then press Enter.

You can press the Play button to repeat the word you hear.
Pinyin Test

If you type out the pinyin correctly, it will then ask you to choose the correct meaning of the word you just heard.

Select Meaning

After selecting the correct meaning, you will be taken to the next question.

The simplified and traditional versions of the test work in a similar manner, but ask you to type out the character that you see on screen. You can use the built in pinyin IME (input method editor) to do so, so there is no need to install a Chinese keyboard on your computer / device, if it doesn’t have one already. Choose the correct Chinese characters from the suggestions given. You can press Space to select the first one, or type the number of the selection you want.

There are 20 questions in total. As you answer correctly, the questions will become more difficult, as it selects questions from more advanced lessons. If you answer incorrectly, then the questions will become easier, as they are chosen from earlier lessons.

At the end of the 20 questions, you will be assessed a lesson score.

If you are logged in, your results will be saved in your member page. Future tests will continue where you left off, so you can try to raise your score from there.

If you are not logged in, you can register for a free account, which also gives you access to 10 demo lessons.

Let me know what you think, and if you find this test helpful!

7 Signs you have a Bad Chinese Teacher

Bad Chinese Teacher

If you’re learning Chinese through one on one, or from a classroom, here are seven signs that you don’t have a very good teacher, and what you can do to fix them.

  1. Uses too much English. Obviously if you’re just starting out, then a certain amount of English will be required up front. However a good teacher should quickly start using Chinese as much as possible, especially words and phrases that you’re likely to hear over and over in each class. If you find yourself hearing the same English words over and over (eg. “Good job!”) then find out how this can be said in Chinese and encourage your teacher to do so.This might also be an issue if the teacher is using you to practice English, rather than focusing on teaching Chinese. Unless the class is meant to be a language exchange, keep the focus on speaking Chinese where possible.
  2. Doesn’t correct your pronunciation. One of the biggest obstacles that new learners to Chinese have is tones. In the beginning it can be frustrated to have your teacher correct each mistake you make, but this needs to be done. You may have to work hard repeating the same words and phrases again and again until you get it right. Some teachers may feel embarrassed to keep correcting you and may instead choose to move on.You can recognize this is happening if you find that words that your Chinese teacher understands you speaking are not understood by others. This is a sure sign you need to continue working on your pronunciation. Encourage your teacher to keep correcting you, and even thank them for doing so, to let them know it’s okay.
  3. Likes to complete your sentences. When you’re asked a question, it can sometimes take some time to formulate your answer. You know what you want to say, but just need to find the right words in Chinese. It’s important to take the time to find the right answer. If the teacher keeps interrupting you by blurting out the answer, then you are losing a valuable opportunity to remember these words and concepts on your own.If this happens, remind your teacher not to give you the answer and instead give you time to think. If you are truly stuck, then ask for a hint, instead of the actual answer.
  4. Always discusses the same topics. A good teacher should recognize when a concept is learned and move on and look for new ones. If you are always being asked how your weekend was, and your answer is always the same “same old“, then you know that either the teacher needs to ask a different question, or you need to come up with a different answer for the sake of learning.A good teacher should be able to ask further probing questions:What did you do?
    What did you like about it?
    Was there anything you didn’t like about it?Some of us are natural introverts and won’t spontaneously come out with detailed answers. A good teacher should be able to get around this by asking the right questions to elicit new answers in new subjects, that will require new vocabulary to be learned.
  5. Doesn’t test if you understand a concept. When a new vocabulary item is learned, a good teacher should test if you understand it before moving on. Ways to do so could include asking you to make one or two sentences out of it. If the teacher is especially proficient, they could ask you what the difference between this word and a similar one was, as there may be subtle differences that may need to be understood.Many words in Chinese don’t have one to one translations in English, so they could be used in some situations like their English counterparts, but not in others, so some additional examples may be required.
  6. Doesn’t provide a proper balance between listening and speaking. Ideally, you should be getting equal exposure to listening to your teacher speaking in Chinese, while also being given time to practice speaking yourself. The exception here would be if one of your skills was especially weak and you specifically wanted your teacher to focus on that.
    If you find that your teacher is spending most of the time talking, with not enough time for your replies, then this is something that will need to get fixed.
  7. Is more interested in friendship than teaching. Some teachers may have a fascination with foreign languages and culture, and may use this teaching opportunity to further their own interests. If you find yourself constantly having to change the topic back to learning Chinese, this may be an indication that you need a new teacher.

Want to find a really good one on one teacher? Try our One on One Skype program. Base it on the CLO course, or just general conversation.

Chinese Speakers Replying in English

Does this ever happen to you?

Chinese Speakers

You speak Chinese to someone and they reply back to you in English. How does this make you feel?

Should you reply back to them in English, or continue speaking in Chinese?

In reality, your Chinese might be perfectly fine. Maybe they are wondering what you think of their English.

In the same way you are practicing your Chinese with them, they may be using the same opportunity to speak English with you.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone

Do you ever find yourself learning Chinese for an extended period, without seeing any real progress?

Do you know anyone who has lived in China for several years, but still can’t speak Chinese?

Or maybe you’ve been taking classes at an institution for a while, but find yourself still stuck at the same level.

Why is this?

The problem in all these cases is that we easily get stuck in our comfort zone when learning.

When you move to a new learning environment, there is an initial excitement as you start to learn the vocabulary needed to survive there.

Once you get acclimatized though, you find that you know enough vocabulary to survive, without having to learn any more. There isn’t any stress on you to learn anything new, so you’re content at the level you are, without any pressure to learn any more.

Surprisingly, many schools and learning programs are content letting you stay in your comfort zones. You would think that students would drop out if they weren’t making progress, but it’s actually the opposite that happens. They get “comfortable” without the stress of learning, yet still feel good that they are making the effort of learning.

You may have seen this at your local gym as well. People come in for “workouts”, but use it as a social setting instead, listening to music and chit chatting with friends, while barely drawing a sweat.

If the experience becomes too “hard”, then students are more likely to drop out.

At CLO, we take the risk of upsetting you by purposely upping the level of difficulty at each level. Some levels have more of a jump in difficulty from one to another (level 2 to 3 for example). Some students quit when the material gets too hard.

For others though, who do slog it out, and put in the effort to catch up to the new difficulty level, the benefits are clear. It’s what is required to make clear progress.

Are you satisfied with your progress learning Chinese the last few years? Are you ready to get out of your comfort zone?

Use Chinese to Build Rapport

Use Chinese to Build Rapport

When you approach someone in a Chinese community, a game of chicken ensures. They hesitate to speak in English with you. Break the tension by approaching them first, in Chinese! Locals tend to be put at ease when they hear you make attempts to speak their language.

However, this also works well in western countries. If you overhear people speaking in Chinese on the street (it is best to confirm that they are indeed Chinese speakers first!), you can expect surprise, bewilderment and then encouragement (usually in that order) when you try speaking Chinese to them.

While it’s common to find westerners who speak Chinese in China, it’s very rare to find ones who do in western countries.

So show off what you know and stand out from the crowd! 

Creating an Online Classroom Experience

Learning Chinese in a Classroom

When I first arrived in Taiwan, one of my main goals while being here was to learn Chinese. In the beginning, I figured I would automatically learn the language just by being here. So I focused on learning street Chinese – the way locals spoke it!

After I began to get serious about learning Chinese in Taiwan, I started attending classes at local language centers. I ended up trying out three different ones to get a feel for the different styles.

I found clear benefits to learning Chinese in a classroom setting, as opposed to  Over time, I tried to integrate as many of these benefits as I could into CLO.

Having a Live Teacher

As good as online courses can get, there is no replacement for having a live speaker to practice with. The teachers I had were very good. There was a lot of interaction and they challenged you to come up with new answers to questions, using the Chinese that was taught in class.

While most of CLO is designed to be self study, I did try to integrate some of the “live teacher” aspect into the exercises feature. The questions posted there are purposely open ended, like the ones you would hear in a classroom. Submit your own answer in your own format and a real teacher will send you feedback on your grammar and character choices (if your answer was typed) or your pronunciation (if your answer was an audio submission).

And of course, we also offer the option of live one on one classes via Skype, if you prefer.

Lots of Repetition

I actually got a shock the first day of class when the teacher came in and began speaking a mile a minute. I barely understood 20% of what she was saying. I worried that I was in the wrong class and should transfer to a lower level. Fortunately I persisted.

As the classes continued, I realized that 80% of what she was speaking was repeated from class to class. Things like “Hello class, how are you? How was your weekend? Ok, let’s turn to chapter 3 of your text book. Who wants to start reading?”

Over time I began to learn these phrases and expressions very quickly as they were repeated again and again in each class.

Once I figured out those phrases, there was only 20% of new material. This became a good source of comprehensible input, as I could now learn new material in the context of what I already knew. I found my brain much more in tune at this stage, whereas earlier it would start to tune out when there was too much new material.

I’ve tried to implement this same concept in the CLO course. Lessons from later levels are conducted almost entirely in Chinese, which could scare some away. But:

a) It’s all Chinese that was taught in earlier lessons.

b) Most of the phrases are repeated again and again in each lesson. Phrases like “Welcome to Learn Chinese Online, lesson X”, “Let’s listen to today’s dialog at normal speed”, “Let’s listen to the dialog again at a slower speed. Please repeat after her.”, “What does this word mean?”, “Do you remember what that means?” etc.

So once you get used to all these phrases (which you should, since you’re hearing them so often), the rest of the lesson should be a breeze, since it’s only 20% or less new material.

Learning from Other Students

While in class, other students would ask questions that I hadn’t thought of, that I would learn from. The teacher would also ask the same question to different students around the class, so while you were formulating your own answer to the question, you could also listen in and learn from what other students were responding with.

The Comments section in each lesson is meant to emulate this aspect. You can read what questions others have asked and learn from the answers given, or submit your own.

While I enjoyed the experience of learning Chinese in a classroom environment, there were also some areas that I wasn’t pleased about, that I felt could be improved. I’ll discuss these issues in the next post.

Image Source

Common Errors that Chinese Speakers Make in English

Confused Face

If you happen to be living in a Chinese speaking environment, you may notice a lot of common errors that native Chinese speakers make when they try to speak English. These errors can actually help you learn Chinese, since if you backtrack to see why they make such mistakes, you will often notice references to how Chinese differs from English. Knowing these differences will help in your quest to learn Chinese!

One to Many Translations

Many of the mixups are caused by several words in Chinese having multiple meanings in English, depending on context. So you can expect Chinese speakers to mix these up as the same word is used in multiple situations in Chinese, whereas each situation has its own word in English. Here are some examples.

  1. he and she. Often times,  you will hear Chinese speakers mixing up he and she while speaking English. You might wonder how one could confuse males as being females and vice versa, until you realize that in Chinese, (in speech) can refer to he or she, so the concept of having a different word for each is new to them. (The written form is of course different, as 他(male) and 她 (female) use different characters, but in spoken form, there is no distinction made between the two).
  2. borrow and lend.  You might hear questions like “Can you borrow me a pencil?” The reason for the confusion of course comes from the Chinese word jiè (借) which is used both for both “borrow” and “lend”.
  3. problem and question. The word wèntí (问题 / 問題) can mean “problem” or “question” in Chinese. So the question “Do you have a problem?” sounds much more harsh than “Do you have a question?”
  4. open and turn on. The word kāi (开 / 開) is used for both in Chinese. It even extends to other meanings like drive, start and operate so it’s a wonder it doesn’t get mixed up more often!
  5. have and is. This is a big one. There are many situations in Chinese where the word yǒu (有), meaning “have” is used where we would use “is”in English. So as a result you hear English phrases like “There have” instead of “There is”.
  6. watch, look and read. The same word kān (看) is used for all three.
  7. big. In English, the word “big” is usually reserved for describing the size of a physical object. In Chinese though, (大) can be used in all sorts of situations, resulting in English sentences like “The rain is big today” (It is raining heavily) or “Today’s sun is very big” (It’s very hot today).
  8. Special. The word for “special” in Chinese, tèbié (特别 / 特別) can be used to say that something is very good. Eg. “This food is very special” which would be an odd usage in English.
  9. Terrible. Lìhai (厉害 / 厲害) literally means “terrible” but is often used in Taiwan to mean someone is very good at something (terribly good?).
  10. Uncomfortable. In Chinese, saying that you feel uncomfortable, or not shūfu (舒服) is a common way to say that you feel sick. We don’t have this same usage in English.
  11. Very. In English, some verbs are modified with very before them, like “very fast”, while other ones require “very much” to be added at the end. In Chinese, they are all “very”, so you end up with phrases like “I very like”.
  12. Help. In English, “help” means to aid someone. In Chinese though help also extends to doing something for someone. So if you tell a Chinese person you are going to help them do something, they may hand over the reigns to you to do it on your own, since that is one of the meanings of bāng (帮 / 幫).

Can you think of other examples of English words or phrases that are used incorrectly by Chinese, due to differences in how they translate between English and Chinese?

Image Source Examples Source

What’s New

Some have wondered what I have been up to behind the scenes at CLO. We stopped creating new course material sometime back as so few people had made it all the way to the end of level 7. Instead I focused on tools to improve the current site and look for more tools to take users to level 7 quicker. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

1. Better signs of progress.

The main feature of CLO is that it’s progressive. The lessons get more difficult as Chinese that was taught earlier is reused. So how do you track this progress?

Each lesson has various activities assigned to it, that test your vocabulary, grammar, typing and character recognition skills. A good way to make sure you’re keeping up is to complete the activities after listening to each lesson. I’ve now made it easier to show you what lesson activities you have completed from the Course Outline page.

CLO Progress

I continue to look for ways to enhance the current feature set, so if you have any other ideas for improvements do let me know in the comments below.

2. CLO Test

One question that many users who have already studied some Chinese before starting CLO is “What is my current level?”. In the past, the answer was to go through the Course Outline pages and look at the vocabulary taught in each lesson, until you come across a lesson with a word you didn’t know. Then start there.

In the coming weeks, I hope to offer a better solution in the form of a 20 question test that anyone can take. Your answers will then place you at an approximate CLO lesson number (anywhere from 1 to 420).

This is also a good way to test your progress through the course. More details will be made available shortly, when this test is ready.

3. Learning Insights

I’ve recently started adding more articles to the Learning Insights blog. While some topics pertain to maximizing the benefits from CLO, others are also related to learning outside of CLO and even a new cartoon series that I hope to expand, if there is demand. Take a look, and keep sending me feedback.

4. Updated CLO app

The CLO iPhone app has been updated with a new look to match iOS7. An Android version is currently being worked on. And yes more level content will be added over the next few months.

5. Read Type Chinese

I am currently working on a new online course that will be sold separately called Read Type Chinese. The focus on this course will be on reading characters and being able to type them out. I actually began the original version a few years ago, but went through a few different models before settling on the current model, which uses similar lessons to CLO, but using a more interactive format.

The sequence of words and characters taught is purposely different from CLO, and instead follows the HSK character and word list. This way there is less overlap between CLO and RTC.

Level 1 (around 30 lessons) has been posted, which matches Level 1 of HSK. Level 2 lessons will be begin being posted in the next few weeks.

You can signup for a free account to try out the first 10 lessons of the course, to see what you think. Here are some frequently asked questions about the new site.

Comprehensible Input

The key to learning a new language is finding sources of “comprehensible input”. This is a source of material that is slightly above your current level of understanding. Why is this important?

Your brain is remarkably good at identifying and learning patterns. Most of the learning you actually do is done in the background by your brain, without your conscious knowledge. The trick to optimal learning is to put your brain in an environment that it can learn from, and that’s where comprehensible input comes in.

WChinese Street Signshen I first came to Taiwan, I was overwhelmed by all the Chinese signs and labels around me. I couldn’t wait for the day when I’d actually be able to understand what they all meant.

With so much material around me to “learn” from, I’d be able to pick up Chinese in no time, right?

Well, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Since all these characters were foreign to me, my brain didn’t know where to begin, and so very little learning could take place. In fact, what I found happening was my brain would instantly pick out the one or two signs that were in English, since that’s all it could decipher!

This is why when kids are learning to read, we don’t start them off with Harry Potter. You start with easy to read books with smaller sentences first, then let them work their way up to more difficult material.

When learning Chinese, you need to use the same approach. If you’re just starting off, you’ll want to start with some absolute beginner material that introduces you to the basics. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can them move on to more difficult (but only slightly more difficult) material, so that your brain can process the new material in the context of what it already knows.

If the new material is too easy, then while it may be fun to absorb, no actual learning will take place. If it’s too difficult, then your brain will give up as there will be too much new information to process.

CLO was designed with this approach in mind.

Each lesson only teaches a few new words at a time, while reusing words that were previously taught. Dialogs and articles are presented for you in their entirety in the beginning of a lesson, so that your brain can try and process the new vocabulary on its own first, before the explanations are given.

If you ever find your learning reaching a rut, where you don’t find your Chinese improving, it may be because there is a lack of comprehensible input being provided to your brain. This happens when you hang around the same people all the time who are speaking at the same levels that you are already used to.

If this happens to you, the it’s time to look for new sources of input. Try striking new conversations in new topics that you’re not familiar with. Or try reading or watching a program that is slightly above your current ability.

Doing so will ensure that your learning never ceases, and that you’re constantly making new progress.

Image Source

The Importance of Proper Tones

Has this ever happened to you?

The man on the left is trying to order shuǐjiǎo (dumplings) but he can’t remember what tones to use, so the vendor doesn’t understand him.

Along comes the new man on the right who uses the proper tones and thus gets what he wants.

To native English speakers, words sound the same even when you change the tones used, but to Chinese speakers they result in completely different words with completely different meanings.

So make sure when you’re learning new vocabulary in Chinese, to also make note of what tones to use to avoid being misunderstood!

Learning Street Chinese

Chinese Street Food

Photo Credit

During the first few years of my life in Taiwan, I didn’t take any formal training in Chinese, assuming that I would learn Chinese just by being here. I quickly came to realize that that wouldn’t be the case. I actually had to put some effort into it.

The good news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me. The bad news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me that I didn’t know where to start.

Basic Greetings and Politeness

I began by learning what I needed to know. Basic greetings, thank you and goodbyes. Vocabulary that I was likely to use on a frequent basis. Using these words and phrases often and actually being understood gave me the confidence to continue my learning journey.

Basic Vocabulary

From here, I began to learn the names of objects around me that I was likely to interact with or name on a daily basis. If you’re a teacher, then these may be objects in a classroom. Listen to how students identify them and learn them for yourselves. Start with the most frequent objects and work your way down.

The trick here is to focus on the vocabulary that you’re likely to use regularly since this makes it easier to stick. If you learn a word that you’re not likely to use in the immediate future, then you’re more likely to forget it. Save it for later.

The reason we focus on widely used vocabulary at this early stage is that your brain is still getting used to this new language that is so different from the languages you’ve learned in the past. So it’s important that it’s getting exposed to constant repetition.

Later when you’re more comfortable in the language, you’ll find it easier to learn lesser used vocabulary as new words will now be placed in context of words you already know. Right now at this early stage, you don’t have this context so what can be remembered is limited to what you’re exposed to often.

Basic Expressions

By now, you’ve learned basic greetings and basic vocabulary that applies to your daily life.Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these terms when people around you are speaking. However there is still a lot that you don’t understand. Instead of trying to learn it all, try and pick out a few words or phrases that you hear often. For me it was phrases like Méi guānxi, bú yòng and kěyǐ. 

I didn’t recognize any of the words before or after those, but I kept hearing these words over and over again. I asked the people around me – “What does bú yòng mean?” Slowly I learned these expressions, and started to pick these out even more, now that I knew what they meant.

Answering Basic Questions

You’ll find yourself in situations where clerks or the people around you ask you the same questions all the time. For me, it was at the grocery store, when the clerk would ask me if I wanted a bag, or if I had their store’s member card.  Early on, I had no clue what they were asking and generally ignored it (they tended to move on if they sensed you didn’t understand, which suggested to me that their question wasn’t very important to begin with).

Now that your goal is to improve, you’ll need to find out what these questions are. Get someone to come with you and translate exactly what they said, including the exact words they used. There may be a lot to take in, but again since these are questions you’re being asked frequently, you’ll be able to pick it up quickly. In most cases you’re only answering with a méiyǒu or bú yòng so it’s not exactly rocket science. It will increase your confidence though to know exactly what it is they asked you!

Handling Basic Tasks

You are now ready to move into a more active mode. Look for situations in your life that you’ve been able to handle so far with minimal Chinese. Perhaps it was ordering food, or filling up gas. It is now time to find the exact words and phrases you need to accomplish these tasks – no more pointing or miming!

One of the best places to improve in this area is when you’re standing in line. In most cases, the people in front of the line are accomplishing similar tasks – what words and phrases are they using? If that’s not enough, you may need someone’s help initially to say exactly what you want to say.

If the task is complicated then you may have to use a mixture of Chinese and pointing, but at least make the attempt. Over time you can replace the pointing with new Chinese you pick up along the way.

Learning Synonyms and Alternate Phrases

If you follow all the instructions above, you’ll eventually get to a stage where you know the names of all the objects you interact with regularly, and you know all the phrases that get you through the day. At this point, it’s easy to get comfortable – after all, you know all the Chinese you need to know. Imagine if your mom could see you now!

But yet you know that’s not enough. You still have no idea what other people on the street are saying when they are talking to each other. So how do you make the next jump?

It is time to start learning alternatives to what you already know how to say.

You know how to order your lunch box like a pro (you better know how, since you’ve been ordering that same lunch for the past three years!). It’s now time to start looking for new ways to accomplish the same task. When you’re in line and listening to the people in front of you, notice that they don’t all the use the exact same expressions. Some will use an alternate form. It’s now time to start learning what these alternate forms are.

So instead of asking hǎo ma all the time, switch it up with a hǎo bù hǎo instead (yes, be dangerous!).

And while you’re at it, why don’t you try eating something different for a change?

New Situations

You’re now at the cusp of greatness. You live your life like a boss. You feel like you’re practically one of the locals.

But you know deep inside that you’re far from it.

It’s time now to take things to the next level. Move outside your comfort zone.

Before you start kicking and screaming, remember that you already moved outside your comfort zone by coming here in the first place. Your friends are still back home, liking your Facebook posts from the comfort of their home, but you’re here! So why stop just before the finish line?

It’s time to make new friends. Local friends.

Join some clubs. Volunteer. Do anything – just get out there interacting with people.

Engaging in new experiences will expose you to new situations where you’ll need to learn new Chinese to keep up. The good news is that you already know what you need to do to get up to speed. Follow the same steps you did above. Rinse, wash and repeat.

Supplement with Other Resources

Following the steps above will take you a long way from “just getting by” to being able to master the Chinese you know to experience local life here.

To complete your learning however, I recommend you supplement your learning with 3rd party resources like CLO (of course). This will provide you with additional benefits:

  • Vocabulary that you might not have encountered so far (but will in the future)
  • Grammar explanations that will make sense of what you’ve been hearing so far (but weren’t able to explain)
  • Confidence to explore new situations by preparing you in advance
  • Learning proper pronunciation that some locals may not have

If you have any additional tips to learning street Chinese that aren’t covered above, do share them below!

Learning What You Need to Know

Taiwan Shilin Night Market

How do you answer this question?

Can you speak Chinese?

Do you reply with “Yes, I can speak Chinese“? Or is it “I can speak a little“.

Of course your actual answer might be more complicated.

What level do you have to reach to change that answer from “a little” to “Yes I can”?

To answer this, you have to determine your own goals. What is your reason for learning Chinese in the first place?

Do you live in a Chinese speaking society and want to be able to communicate with the people around you?

If that’s the case, then all you need to do is get to a level of fluency where you have enough vocabulary to get your point across. You may not be using the optimum vocabulary, but your meaning still comes across clear (”foreigners” tend to get a free pass in this area).

Or perhaps you have married into a Chinese family. All you want is to be able to say things like “Can you pass the soy sauce”?

The path here is a little clearer. If you make a determined effort to always find out how things are said in Chinese, you’ll find yourself being able to say them yourself over time, without having to ask for a translation. This works especially well with words and phrases that are constantly repeated.

Perhaps you work in an industry, where you deal with Chinese clients. In this case, it’s important to learn the vocabulary for the items in your industry. What types of conversations will you be having with your clients?

Listen to the word choices that the translators are using and try to come up with them on your own. Over time, the goal should be to depend less on them, as you’re able to come up with those word and phrase choices on your own.

Living here in Taiwan, I’ve seen westerners selling goods at the local night market. They seem fluent in Chinese, being able to bargain with customers and answer detailed questions about their products. In many cases, the Chinese they know is limited to that industry. They only learned what they needed to know.
How about you?

Are you focused on learning what you need to know? Or are you wasting time in areas that don’t match your final goals?

[In regards to using the CLO course, if you come across words or expressions that you feel you’re unlikely to use in your daily life, I wouldn’t spend much time reviewing them. Focus on the “that sounds like something I should know” items.]

Match your Learning with the Right Chinese Tools

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. We’ve all heard that. The tones are hard to grasp and there are too many characters to remember. Many have tried learning Chinese in the past, only to give up in frustration.

Part of the reason for giving up is that the training methods they were using didn’t match the goals they had for themselves.

When I first started learning Chinese in Taiwan, I enrolled in a local university language center. All I was looking for, was to improve my listening and speaking skills so that I could improve the quality of my daily life here. However, in the course I was in, there was a heavy emphasis placed in reading and writing, both of which I wasn’t interested in at the time.

In addition, a written placement test was given to me, so they could place me in the right class level. However my reading and writing skills were non existent at that time, so I was placed in a beginner class, despite my listening and speaking level being much higher than that of my classmates.

This resulted in a poor learning experience for me, as I spent a lot of time repeating things I already knew, while also spending time in areas I wasn’t interested in.

At CLO, we have separated the skills needed to learn Chinese, so you can focus on the areas you want to strengthen yourself in.

The 4 skills required to learn Chinese are:

  • Listening:
  • Speaking:
  • Reading
  • Writing

The learning methods you choose should depend on what priority you put towards each of these skills.

If you want Listening to be your strongest skill, then focus on the CLO lessons, since there is so much listening content provided there. Don’t worry about characters, and just use the pinyin transcripts available for each lesson.

If you want to practice speaking, then I recommend our Skype One on one program, where you’ll be matched up with a teacher who will give you a lot of speaking practice. Since pronunciation is important, focus on the tone marks for each word in pinyin, to make sure you are using proper pronunciation.

If you want to focus on Reading, then you’ll need to look at the character (simplified or traditional) word for word transcripts provided with each CLO lesson. You can also try out our new site that helps you read and type in Chinese.

Lastly if you want to become really good at writing in Chinese, then you’ll need to learn the stroke order system. You can either use the character sheets that are provided with most lessons, or look at third party tools like Skritter that focus solely in this area.

4 Chinese Skills

By matching our tools with your exact learning needs you should find yourself seeing faster progress, as you’re only spending time in the areas you need to. You’ll also experience much less frustration in the areas you’re not interested in.

How about you? What skills are you most interested in developing? What tools do you find the most useful for you to improve in this area?

CLO vs Pimsleur Review

Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin) (affiliate link) is one of the most popular tools available for learning Mandarin Chinese. When I first began learning Chinese, I went through Pimsleur programs 1 to 3 and found it to be a great primer for learning the language. The features I liked about it included:

  • It was audio based, which meant I could listen to it on my iPod or while on the go
  • The lessons got harder as Chinese from earlier lessons was reused, which meant real progress
  • It forced me to constantly review earlier material as this material was reused in later lessons

There were a few issues about it that I didn’t like though:

  • The Chinese being used was very Beijing centric, which wasn’t how the locals where I was (Taiwan) spoke
  • The program only had 3 levels (now 4), and I wanted more beyond that
  • It was mainly an audio program, so I didn’t have any pinyin or character sheets to follow along with
  • While there was a lot of learning done within the lesson, there wasn’t much I could do outside of the lessons to help review the material

CLO was actually created to address these issues. I tried to incorporate the features I liked about Pimsleur (audio based, progressive, constant review) while adding more to it, namely:

  • Use speakers from Taiwan, whose accents I find are easier for beginners to follow (due to tones being emphasized more)
  • Expand the course to 7 levels of difficulty
  • Provide transcripts in pinyin or characters to follow along
  • Provide review tools to let students review the vocabulary, grammar and characters taught in each lesson

The course has gotten great feedback over the years, but we are not done yet. Expect to see more tools added in coming months to improve your learning experience. Stay tuned!