Best Strategy for Learning Chinese

Picking and choosing what to learn

So you have made the decision to learn Chinese. Excellent! Now what? What’s the best method to learn Chinese?

Obviously if you could just pack up your things and move to China, that might be a good start, but even that alone isn’t enough (as I found out the hard way). So what should you do when you get there? Or what can you do to prepare first?

Well, fortunately you have lots of choices (which may or may not be a good thing). Should you join a class? Find a one on one teacher? Look for a language exchange partner? Invest in books, CDs or other self study courses?

Well the truth is, no single method is good enough on its own (which is why this post is titled “best strategy” and not “best method”). You could invest in the Pimsleur series and master it completely. But even that will only get you familiar with a limited aspect of the language.

classroom approach might be great for some. However you may be shocked to find the outside world not following the rules and structure taught in class. So maybe “learning by doing” is the answer.

Forget about formal training and learn by making mistakes – get out there and learn what people are saying in the real world! Unfortunately that too doesn’t work for most personalities, plus this approach lacks the structure and system required to explain what it is the people out there are saying.

The solution then is a combination of all of the above.

For my first few years in Taiwan and up till now, all my Chinese was self taught using a combination of self study courses and books out there. I was able to pick and choose the areas I wanted to focus on, in a manner that worked best for me and my personality.

In the last month, I have enrolled in a university course, which is my first formal study of Chinese. This has opened my eyes to new methods of learning that I wasn’t exposed to previously.

While my listening and speaking skills are good for my level, my reading and writing skills are much lower than my classmates. This indicates to me that while this particular course I’m in is great at teaching reading and writing, it can improve in teaching listening and speaking.

You will see some of the ideas and concepts I have been experiencing added to the CLO course over the next little while. The idea is to provide a smorgasbord of learning methods, allowing listeners to choose which methods work best for them, and which areas they want to focus on.

Don’t feel compelled to have to use every new feature and tool being introduced. Imagine you are walking through the street scene pictured above. You don’t need to go to visit every shop to find what you need.

However, if enough resources are made available, there should be something for everyone, and you should be able to tailor make a strategy that meets your particular needs.

It’s been very rewarding for me to get to know you listeners as individuals, and what your own personal goals and strategies for learning Chinese are, and what techniques I can implement to help you out.

The CLO course looks very different today than what I envisioned a year ago when I first started. With your help, I expect it to look a lot different a year from now, so keep the feedback coming!

Vocabulary Section Update

The observant among you might notice that the Vocabulary section for all lessons has a slightly different look to it.  Gone are the old bulky playback buttons.  They have now been replaced with the sleeker playback buttons featured in the Word Bank.  Initial loading times for the page might be greater, but I believe the buffering system and overall performance should be better.  Over time, I will be adding extra related vocabulary to older lessons, so this should hopefully improve the overall experience for pages with a lot of audio entries.

Listening Skills


During my first year in Taiwan, with my Chinese skills at a bare minimum, I found it frustrating to constantly be in situations where I couldn’t understand what people were saying around me, or to me. That’s when I learned a neat trick to get myself more involved – guessing! I began to recognize patterns in what I was hearing around me, and began to build around that.

I first learned how to recognize subjects – “I”, “you”, “he / she” etc. I then learned how to recognize questions – “….ma?” along with the key question words “what”, “which”, “where”, “who” etc. After that, it just became a game of fill in the blanks. I might be in an elevator when someone asks “you… where…?” I would instantly reply “Jiānádà” (Canada). The gleam on their face told me that I had answered their question of where I was from correctly!

Later, as my vocabulary began to increase, I began to recognize key verbs. I would walk into a McDonalds and point at what I wanted to order. The cashier would then ask me a question (you want…?) . In the early stages, this was a pure guessing game. I would quickly rack my brain trying to think what questions I would get asked when ordering fast food in Canada. “What do you want to drink?” –

Got it! I would then point at the drink I wanted (this time it was me who had the gleam, as she poured the drink I wanted). Next question just before payment – “you want… or…?” I was already waiting for her to ask if I was planning to dine in or take out, so I quickly pointed at the ground to indicate wanting to dine in.

This was a great confidence booster for me to be able to function this way. Well, until I ran into a cashier one day who asked “you want…” followed by some new words I hadn’t heard before. My confident demeanor vanished in an instance. Was this a new way of asking if I wanted to eat in? I tried pointing at the ground, but could tell by her confused look that I wasn’t even close. (It turns out that she had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to upsize my fries and drink!)

I realized then that I had to increase my vocabulary to increase my guessing odds. But how could I forecast what questions and what new vocabulary someone was going to throw at me next time? I decided to play the odds again.

Over time, I began to pick out words that I would hear repeated in these different questions. I figured that if I heard a word being used repeatedly, that meant there was a greater chance it would be used again in the future, so it was in my interest to find out what it meant. After finding out that “hē” meant “to drink,” I was a lot more confident answering “you want drink what?” than answering “you want… what?”

This is the same concept used in the CLO course. Certain words get introduced in lessons and are never brought up again, so you are probably less likely to remember them. Other words get introduced, and then are later brought up again in future lessons.

Learning the more frequently used words first allows you to set the context to “guess” the meaning of the remaining words. You may notice this approach in the explanation portion of the lessons too. We first listen to a conversation without translating, then pick out the words we do know to help us figure out what’s remaining.

Developing this technique can be valuable in improving your listening skills.

How I Became a Yankees Fan

Wang Chien Ming

The two most popular sports in Taiwan are basketball and baseball. Every time a school bell rings signaling the start of lunch hour or end of classes, you will see a rush of kids to the basketball court to get in some practice time. Sales of basketball clothing and shoes modeled after top NBA players are hot sellers here. Baseball is also quite established with the local Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), featuring six teams, the winner of which goes on to play in the Asia Series competing against teams from Japan, South Korea and China.

One major difference between many Asian sporting leagues and their Western counterparts, is that in the former, teams are owned and named after corporations, rather than cities. While each team does have a regional market, home teams aren’t always played there. The current 6 teams in the CPBL are the Elephants, Whales, Bears, Cobras, Bulls and Lions. While interest in this league has had its highs and lows (due to a few game fixing scandals that emerged), interest in baseball as a whole has been reignited in the past few years, when the New York Yankees baseball team signed Taiwanese pitcher Chien Ming Wang to be one of their starters.

Since then, Wang hasn’t looked back, turning into one of the premier pitchers in the game. This has caused a huge fan base to develop in Taiwan, not only in Wang, but in the Yankees organization as a whole. Yankees games are televised live and repeated at other times of the day with Chinese commentating. How the Yankees fared in their last match is included as part of the sports wrap up in local news. When Wang is pitching, it isn’t uncommon to see the game on multiple channels as well as televised on big screens in public settings (for games that take place early morning Taiwan time). Wang’s achievements usually make the headlines in all newspapers, recording how he fared in the previous day’s game. Indeed, Wang has become an ambassador for the sport in Taiwan, and his trips back to the island draw a media circus. His image is used in advertising all over the place, selling everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to HP printers.

It can be expected that this kind of excitement shown towards trend setting athletes such as Wang in Taiwan, and Yao Ming in China will prompt scores of new kids to want to follow in the footsteps of their idols. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere here will be like years from now when there are multiple teams with multiple Asian stars leading them!

Level 3 Course Outline

You may have noticed a new addition to the Level 3 Course Outline.  Premium subscribers can now view the new vocabulary items for each lesson in any of the 4 modes we’ve been using elsewhere (Pinyin, Simplified, Traditional and English).  Hopefully this can provide yet another way to review the vocabulary taught in each lesson.

Regular users can sample how this works by playing with the modes for the first 4 lessons of level 3.

Writing in Chinese Basics – The Radical

Some common radicals

There are different approaches to learning Chinese. Some choose to only focus on listening and speaking. Others add reading to the mix. The truly adventurous however attempt to add being able to write in Chinese to their portfolio. On the surface, this looks like an impossible task. The Chinese language has thousands of characters – a lot of them quite complicated looking. How on earth is anyone expected to memorize them? Today’s post will detail one of the secrets behind why the process isn’t as difficult as it seems on the outside!

A person with no English background may look at the written English language and think “how can anyone memorize how to write so many words?” A closer look however will reveal that it’s not the words you are memorizing, but the letters they are composed of. Once you have the letters down pat, all you are doing is rearranging existing letters in new combinations to form new words. Well, unbeknownst to many, Chinese characters work in a similar fashion! If you were to actually study characters in detail, you will notice that many share common features, known as radicals. Once you learn how to write the common radicals, you will find new characters are just different combinations or variations of existing radicals. Since many of the characters tend to be pictorial representations of certain concepts, you can even try to learn why certain radicals are combined and what the meaning is behind the combination. Take a look at the following example.

女, 子

The first character represents a woman (it somewhat represents a person sitting down cross legged). The character next to it represents a child. Put these two together and you get:

which is the character meaning “good.” The pictorial representations and meanings can be quite abstract as you can see, but it does add to the enjoyment and ease of learning the language if you are able to think in these forms. Now once you have learned how to write the radical for woman, you will notice it cropping up in lots of other characters.

媽, 按,要, 妞,妹,如,妥,姓,婪,姚,姆

Notice how the same radical shows up on the side (a squeezed version) in some characters and at the bottom in others. This particular radical takes three strokes to write, so once you have mastered it, that is three less strokes for you to memorize each time you write one of these new characters using it. In total, there are 214 radicals, although some are a lot more commonly used than others. If you have ever wondered how Chinese dictionaries are used – here’s your answer. The thousands of characters out there are neatly sorted into dictionaries by radicals, so there’s another good reason to learn them. In future posts, I will go over which radicals and characters you should start learning first and how to go about actually “learning” them.

Chinese Names

Chow Yun Fat

Today’s post describes the naming system used in Chinese families and how they differ from Western conventions. The biggest difference is that in Chinese, the family name is listed first. This can cause a problem when moving to Western societies. Some adopt the Western convention by using a Western first name and moving their family name to the end (such as actor Jackie Chan). Others may choose to retain their Chinese name but change the word order (such as Chien Ming Wang, pitcher for the NY Yankees baseball team). Others may decide to leave their name and word order as it is, such as in the case of Chow Yun Fat (pictured above), the famous Hong Kong actor. For less common names, this can cause confusion as to which is the first name and which is the last name. Indeed, Chow Yun Fat has corrected many who address him as Mr Fat, pointing out to them that it should be Mr Chow instead.

Unlike in Western societies, where there are several common first names and a lot of varying last names, in Chinese there are a lot of common last names, and it is the first name that tends to vary from person to person. In fact, estimates suggest that the top 100 common family names are shared by 90% of the Chinese population! Chinese family names are usually formed using a single character, whereas the first name is made up two characters. As a teacher, I found it fascinating to look through the class attendance lists which were all uniform as every student’s name was 3 characters long. You may also notice this the next time you stay to watch the credits at the end of a Chinese movie.

Whereas in English, there are certain words reserved as common names (John, Peter, Paul etc.), in Chinese, pretty much any word combination can be used to form a given name. This sometimes causes a problem when Chinese people are looking for Western names, as they assume the reverse is true. This results in their trying to form English names for themselves using words out of a dictionary, or by forming a literal translation of their Chinese names which can produce strange results (the first producer I used in Taiwan for my podcast introduced himself as “Dull Bird” which I didn’t bother questioning). When a child is born, convention is usually to give them a nickname to begin with, giving the parents time to seek a more proper name for the child (usually done within the first month of birth, sometimes with the help of a fortune teller). This is why stories using children often refer to them as “Little so and so” or using a character that is repeated twice (makes it sound cuter!). It is usually possible to guess the gender of a person from a name, since men tend to be given names with masculine meanings while women’s names usually promote female qualities. When women get married, unlike in traditional Western culture, they often retain their maiden name. Children however will adopt their father’s family name.

There are several options available for Westerners looking to create Chinese names for themselves. One option involves a standard transliteration of their Western name into Chinese. This is the format used for many famous Western stars giving us names like Tāngmǔ Kèlǔsī (汤姆克鲁斯) for actor Tom Cruise. However, this result doesn’t follow the normal pattern of 3 characters, so it is obviously referring to a “foreigner.” The other option is to consult the help of a Chinese person to come up with a name that combines elements of your first and last name plus any meaning you may want to convey (similar to how brand names get translated into Chinese as in our last post).

Western Culture from a Chinese Perspective

Harry Potter Book 6 Cover

One thing that struck me during my initial stay in Taiwan, was how everything imported from western culture had to be imported into Chinese first. If I asked someone on the street where the nearest McDonalds was, they wouldn’t know what I was referring to, even if there was one across the street, since I would need to use the Chinese equivalent 麥當勞 (Màidāngláo). The same is also true for famous Hollywood actors, books or movies. Ask any kid who Harry Potter is, and they couldn’t tell you. But refer to him as 哈利波特 (Hālì Bōtè) and of course they would rave about the latest book!

As you can see from the above examples, the Chinese equivalent is usually formed using a transliteration of the sound using the closest equivalent in Chinese characters. While it’s usually possible for Westerners to deduce the English equivalent by hearing the Chinese (especially if you have heard it before), local Chinese speakers usually have a harder time going the other way. I found this to be an interesting phenomenon, since characters that to us are homonyms (mài and mǎi for example) are completely distinct to native Mandarin speakers so it is harder for them to associate them together.

It is more complicated than this though, as some transliterations may end up producing meanings that don’t evoke the proper emotion. Some companies have a done a great job of combining the transliteration with a reasonable meaning. One of my favorites is KFC, which becomes 肯德基 (Kěndéjī). That sounds reasonable close to “Kentucky” while retaining the jī at the end meaning “chicken.” Another one I found particularly interesting was Coca Cola which is 可口可樂 (Kěkǒu kělè). From a transliteration point of view, it would have made much more sense for them to invert the characters to produce “Kǒu kě kǒu le” or something similar. However, the former name has a literal meaning of “tasty cola” which is obviously a good feeling for Coke to evoke and is why it was chosen.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? When in Rome, do like the Romans do. Learn what the Chinese equivalent of your name is. (In my case Adam becomes 亞當 (Yǎdāng)). Learn the name of your country and city is in Chinese if you expect to be able to tell where you’re from. If there are any other topics you wish to talk about, find out what their equivalent is in Chinese first to give yourself a head start.

Link to Us

For those of you with blogs or websites out there, who are interested in linking to CLO, I’ve set up a link page with some graphics that you can choose from.  This page will be added to the “About Us” menu.  If you have ideas for other images, do let me know.

Stroke Order

Stroke Order

My first lesson in Chinese characters came early on – during my first day at the high school I would be working at, soon after I had come to Taiwan. All of the teachers had to be present for a morning meeting led by the principal. Like anyone on their first day on the job, I showed up on time ready to begin my new experience.

However, I soon found that since the meeting was conducted entirely in Chinese, I had to find a way to occupy the next few hours. I noticed that there was a pen and paper placed in front of each person to take notes. I also noticed a card placed in front of each person with Chinese writing on it. I asked the person next to me what was written on it, and he explained that it was my name written in Chinese – “亞當老師” (Adam Teacher).

I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to write my name in Chinese (after all, I had a few hours to kill with lots of paper in front of me to practice on). So that’s exactly what I did. By the time the meeting was over, I was pretty proud of myself as I seemed to do a reasonable job of copying my name exactly as it read on my name card.

The next day in class, I decided to impress my students by showing them that I knew how to write my name in Chinese. As soon as I had placed the chalk on the board and began my first stroke, I heard a few “wrong!” choruses from the students.

“How could this be wrong if I haven’t even finished?” I retorted. That’s when I learned my first lesson in writing characters.

Since Chinese characters were initially written with paint brushes back in the day, the order of strokes used to write the character made a big difference to what the end character looked like. Nowadays, even when using pens and pencils to write characters, it is still possible for the trained eye to tell when a character is not written properly because of the wrong order of strokes used to write it.

There are rules for stroke order. In general, top always comes before bottom, and left always comes before right. So horizontal strokes are written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. Where there are multiple elements like in the example picture above, there are rules for which components are written first.

Rather than memorizing these rules, I found myself a dictionary that listed the stroke order for each character. I followed this order to practice the most commonly used characters. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself automatically figuring out the stroke order for new characters just by looking at them.

Couple of Tweaks

In response to some great user suggestions, the following two features have been added.

1. The audio player in the Complete and Podcast review pages now features a pop-up version, hopefully allowing better coordination between pausing and restarting the audio, while scrolling down the page.

2. There is now a direct access window on the sidebar that lets you go directly to the Vocabulary or Complete page for any lesson. This will hopefully be easier than manually looking for the lesson in the (many) Course Outline pages.

These are great, because I wouldn’t have been able to come up with these ideas on my own. If you think of other such features that will help out your overall usability experience do tell!

Pinyin Conversion Tool

In order to make the word bank work properly, we had to have a Pinyin conversion tool installed.  Thanks to feedback, we have decided to turn this into a separate tool.  While there are a lot of similar tools out there on the web, the difference here is that this lets you convert back and forth between numbers and tone marks (all the other ones I’ve seen only go one way).  This will be useful to me for the front page to turn the tone marks into numbers.  If some of you prefer to use numbers or have applications that don’t display tone marks properly, you are welcome to use it.

Again, this is another great tool brought to you by your own comments and ideas.  So do continue to send me your feedback and how you use the resources on this site, and / or what else would help in your learning.

The Pinyin Conversion tool can be found under the Resources tab.

When Should Students Learn Chinese Characters?

Chinese characters

This is a question that many students ask when learning Chinese. When is the best time to begin learning how to read and write characters? Should I focus just on speaking? Should I learn to read without writing? Is it even possible to begin learning how to read and write before learning how to speak?

At first glance, Chinese characters can present quite a mystery to foreigners. There is certainly an awe to them. How on earth are we expected to learn how to read several thousand characters, leave alone learn how to write them? Well, in this blog, I hope over time to reveal some of the secrets behind the process of learning how to read and write characters. Just make sure you don’t go around telling all your friends how it works.

It’s a lot like learning magic – if you start telling everyone how you do it, that takes away a lot of the fun, right? Why make it less impressive that you can read and write Chinese? Learn the secrets, enjoy the process, then wow all your friends!

I’ll use today’s post to answer one of the questions above. Is it ever too early to learn to read and write characters and is it possible to learn them even before you can speak?

The answer here is no, it’s never too early to learn. In the current university class I’m in, there are several foreigners with a remarkable ability to read and write but who lack experience in their listening and speaking skills. The process to learn to read and write can be taught separately from the listening and speaking process, and with time, anyone can learn how to do so in a reasonable amount of time.

Having said that, having a command of Chinese characters can aid greatly in vocabulary building, especially if you are living in a Chinese community, since you now have the ability to acquire knowledge from reading the vast number of signs around you, and being able to read books and stories at your level, that will aid in recognizing grammar and sentence patterns.

In future posts, I will provide more of a background on Chinese characters and how to demystify them, while outlining some of the steps needed to learn how to read and write in Chinese, along with techniques that can greatly reduce the amount of workload required so stay tuned!

Chinese Characters Intro

Chinese characters everywhere you look

In recent while, I’ve gotten a few emails regarding the best way to study Chinese characters. While I’m sure the answers to this question will vary from person to person, I thought I would use this blog to detail my own personal experiences with learning how to read and write Chinese.

One of the reasons that many find it hard to learn Chinese, even while living in a Chinese community, is due to not being able to read Chinese characters. Most learners of second languages get the majority of their learning from reading. If you’re trying to learn English while living in an English speaking country, you will get a lot of peripheral learning from being able to read.

While out on the street, you may see a bank and recognize it as being so, along with the word “bank” printed on the sign outside. However, looking at a street scene like the one pictured above, it’s hard to get any learning when you don’t understand any of the characters printed.

The majority of my initial learning of characters came from waiting at traffic lights on my scooter. I would look at street signs that were printed with the Pinyin equivalents below and try to match the characters with their equivalent Pinyin. I would pick out characters that were distinct and easy to remember such as 大 and 小 or that I were likely to see such as the characters for road or street and would pick them out from address signs. I learned numbers and tried to pick them out where I could too.

I then tried to extend this into something practical by learning the characters for certain foods. I felt much safer looking at a menu and being able to pick out beef (牛肉) at a glance instead of always having to rely on others. My favorite fruit was mango, so I could soon instantly look at the fruits and beverages section and pick out anything with 芒果 in it.

Without knowing, I was employing an approach of using comprehensible input, to further my knowledge. I would focus on what I already know and look for something slightly above it.

Further posts in this series will go into more detail on how you can use this approach to further your own learning.

Learning Insights Blog

The latest addition to the community page is the new learning insights blog.

In this blog, I hope to chronicle some of my own personal experiences while trying to learn Chinese, as well as detail some of the practices that worked best for me and how they apply to this course.  Along the way, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts of what ideas work for you, so that we can all benefit as students.  Much of the direction of this course has come from user feedback, so I hope this new blog will provide a better forum for that.

About Adam

Adam Menon

Welcome to Learning Mandarin Chinese Insights, a new blog I’ve started that will give you more of a background about myself, as well as some of the insights I’ve picked up along the way while learning Mandarin Chinese, and how they apply to my Learn Chinese Online(CLO) course.

I came to Taiwan in 2003, like many others, to teach English. My focus was on making and saving money teaching English, but one of the reasons I had chosen Taiwan was because I figured if I had to learn another language, learning Mandarin Chinese would be as good a choice as any.

During my first year here, not much effort was made on learning Chinese. I assumed I would learn by osmosis. After all, everything around me was Chinese – all the signs I saw and all the sounds I heard so I would have no choice but to learn Chinese, right?

Well I was shocked to find after my first year, that my level of Chinese was nowhere near what I would have hoped for after living here for a year. That’s when I decided to get serious about learning Chinese. Why waste such a grand opportunity to learn a new language while living in a new country!

Since my focus was still on teaching English, I wasn’t prepared to give up my working hours to learn Chinese, so all my Chinese learning had to be self taught during my spare time. I started devouring any and all material I could come across related to learning Chinese. I purchased books and CDs galore. At the same time, I was also interested in language learning techniques to improve my English teaching skills, so I began to develop an interest in the differences in learning techniques used by native Chinese speakers to learn English versus those used by native English speakers to learn Chinese.

Although I had purchased a lot of books and courses (I had over 20 of them occupying my shelf), I found that the majority of my time was spent on a few that I found to be the best. That was about the time the first seed was planted, that while a few courses excelled in certain areas, there didn’t seem to be one definite one out there that combined all the aspects that I thought were required for a good teaching system.

To make a long story short, I completed two more years in Taiwan (so three years in total) and then moved back to Canada. By then, I had enough of a vocabulary base to communicate basic concepts in Mandarin, but certainly not enough to understand Mandarin news on television. During my learning, there was very little focus given on reading and writing so my reading skills were quite minimal whereas my writing skills were non existent.

After returning to Canada, I decided to start CLO as a way to combine my experiences in language teaching and learning in Taiwan with my Computer Science background. I initially used Kirin, a native Taiwanese who was visiting Canada at the time, as my main speaker since she had a very clear manner of speaking. After she returned to Taiwan, I employed local immigrants from various parts of China and Taiwan who were now living in Canada.

During this time, I was still designing all the lessons myself and using the speakers as consultants and for the recording aspects. However, as the level of the course increased, I realized that at some point it would exceed my ability to create new lessons, which is why I decided to return to Taiwan after exactly a year off, to continue production of the course from here.

Since this was now a full time venture for me, I decided it would be in my interest to add some formal learning in Chinese to my experience. I was also very curious as to what types of techniques were used in classroom settings when teaching Chinese to foreign learners and whether any of these techniques could be used in my course so I enrolled myself in a local University course.

I’m happy to say that I’ve been very pleased with the class so far and would certainly like to develop some of the learning techniques used in the class into techniques that can be used in my course. There is a great emphasis within the course on reading and writing Chinese characters, so my mind is bursting with ideas for things I could write about in this blog in that area.

I am in talks right now with multiple teachers on what techniques they could contribute to the course, so I’m certainly excited about the possibilities for the future.

As I share my experiences with you, I would love to hear from some listeners as well. Let me know what techniques work for you and what don’t. I’ll admit that a lot of the ideas in this course didn’t come from me, but from feedback from users, so please continue to send me your comments, as they will direct the future direction of this course.

Create Your Personal Feed

In preparation for the return of PDF transcripts to the Premium section, I have added an option for you to select what exactly you would like delivered to you in your Premium feed. The Premium feed currently features 3 different categories – the dialogue summary, the slow dialogue summary with pause for repeating after the speaker, and the podcast review. By visiting the new feed options page, you can select which of the above you want delivered to you in your feed. If you are happy receiving all of the content, then no changes are necessary.

Later, when different PDFs options are available, you will also be able to choose which versions of the PDFs you would like included as well.

If you do make any changes, it may take some time for your old feed to update, so do be patient. As always, if you have any technical issues, please let me know.

Word Bank Update

Thanks to feedback from users, I’ve been trying to improve the functionality of the Word Bank.  As this course has progressed (now heading into level 3), so has the size of the Word Bank.  While this of course is a good thing, it also means that when searching for certain entries in Pinyin, a lot of homonym results may also show which may be completely unrelated to what you are searching for.

In the past, the Pinyin search did not support tone marks, so every variation of a word and all its homonym equivalents were shown with the search.  Recently, I have added tone mark support to increase this accuracy.  This has resulted in better results when you click on Pinyin words from the Complete transcripts.  However the problem still remained that it wasn’t easy for users to enter tone marks when searching for Pinyin words manually.

I’m happy to say that this problem has now been solved!  When searching in Pinyin, you can now use numbers to represent tone marks (similar to the number format used when lessons are released on the front page of the site), and the Word Bank will automatically convert these numbers into the appropriate tones.  Try it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Really Complete Transcripts

Observant viewers may notice a change in the latest Complete transcript for lesson 116. There is a bar on top that now allows you to view the characters in various forms including Pinyin (the default), Traditional, Simplified or in plain English! The popup translations still work as before translating Pinyin to English, Chinese characters to Pinyin and English back to Pinyin. Hopefully those of you studying to read Chinese characters will find this useful for upcoming lessons.

UPDATE: This format is now being used for the Premium podcast transcripts as well.  So you now have multiple ways to test yourself there as well.  Enjoy!

The Road to Level 3

It is now nearing 3 weeks since I moved production of the lessons to Taiwan and I’ve been quite pleased with the results. I have lots of ideas now for further development of this course and what the future holds for CLO. Here are some of my observations during this time:

1. Producing lessons from Taiwan does mean that the conversations and accents of the speakers will have a distinct Taiwanese sound to them. Some of you have commented on the differences in pronunciation you have heard including the mixing up of “l” and “r” sounds. I’ve purposely left these in the lessons for the same reason you may have heard extra “er” sounds being tacked on to syllables by Ray and Heidi or Jen and Bing in earlier lessons. These are distinctive trademarks of the various regions of Mandarin speakers around the world. Now the question that comes about of course is which version should you as a listener follow? Fortunately for us learners using Pinyin, the Pinyin sounds have been designed to follow the “standard Putonghua pronunciation” system out there. So when in doubt about whether to pronounce a word using a “l” sound or a “r” sound, you may find it helpful to look at the Pinyin spelling and use that as your guide. I will continue to let the speakers use their own versions though since one of the challenges for me early on as a learner was understanding why the pronunciation I was taught differed from what I was hearing. Hopefully, having a variety of speakers will help you understand these different dialects.

2. I have become more of a believer in the use of video now after reading some of your comments as well, so there will be an attempt to create a video version of most dialogues in the course. I believe that having more forms of input of the material in this course will greatly aid in the retention. So in addition to the lessons being listened to, you can now have access to the Pinyin transcripts, Chinese character representations and now a video version! This is also a great chance to look at the type of body language used in such dialogues since that makes up such a great percentage of communication in any language.

3. We are in the process of winding up level 2 of our course and are now preparing level 3. Since this course is designed to be progressive, there is a fine balance required in increasing the difficulty level at different stages to provide improvement but yet not increasing it to the point where the user falls behind (indeed I’ve received pressure from both camps to increase / decrease the lesson difficulty levels). Using small, individual dialogues alone to teach the language isn’t enough since they provide only a small sample of how new vocabulary is used. So the solution here again is to find multiple ways to present the information being taught. New vocabulary is first introduced in the main lesson. It is then reviewed in the podcast review and future lessons where applicable. In recent lessons you may have noticed that words are now making their way into the teaching of the lessons outside of the actual dialogue. So whereas in the past, we stuck to distinct Chinese phrases that were constantly reused in the same format in each lesson, we will now start to mix it up in upcoming lessons. The idea here is to build up your vocabulary by adding new words to each new dialogue, while finding ways to use and reuse existing vocabulary in the explanations. The amount of vocabulary that has so far been taught in the course is now large enough for us to experiment more with extra Chinese used within the lesson. Fortunately, for users afraid of falling behind, there is a safety net provided in the form of the Complete word for word transcripts which translate all the extra Chinese used within the lesson.

So what does the future hold for CLO? As mentioned above, the vocabulary that has been taught so far is now reasonably big enough for us to experiment with more options. This could be in the form of side material for you to consume between lessons, for those of you looking for a greater challenge. There are also plans underway to increase the Chinese character materials currently provided.

On a side note, as was mentioned in the last podcast update, the pricing plan is going to increase later this summer to reflect the new improvements and content to the course (current ETA is August 1) so you still have a chance to lock yourself into a subscription at a reduced price before the price increase. Existing users are also welcome to change to a longer term plan (which produces lower monthly rates) while they still have a chance.

Much of the development of this course has come from user feedback, so I encourage you to continue to send me your thoughts and comments, since that is primarily what drives further improvements.

Happy Dragonboat Festival to all of you in Chinese communities!

New Videos added

Well, you asked for it. 9 new videos were added to the Vocabulary pages bringing the total to 24. These videos show you the type of situations where the dialogues they represent may take place, thereby adding context to the lessons. As one listener put it, no academy awards will be won here, but hopefully their simplicity will still add some purpose.

The videos today feature Luise, Coco (and even yours truly in one!), who will also be speakers in our upcoming lessons. Expect more such videos to crop up over the next little while.

Graphics have been added to the Course Outline page showing which lessons have videos in them.

UPDATE: Another 18 videos have since been added – mainly to level 2.  Also, the links in the Course Outline now directly play the video.  Better get your popcorn ready!

Pong Audio Forum Update

Well it looks like some of you were able to make it in and post some recordings, which was great to see.  If any of you are interested in having an account that you can login to (rather than using Guest access) please email me your preferred login and password and I’ll set one up for you (you can change your details after logging in).  The advantage to logged in users (as opposed to guests) is that you can see who else is logged in and chat with them (through voice or text) so I hope this will allow you to get to know some of your peer learners.

There are some interesting possibilities for this application that I have in mind, that can hopefully be developed as more users sign in.

Update from Taiwan

There seems to be some problem listening and / or downloading podcasts at this point. I am in touch with my host to fix the problem ASAP.  (UPDATE: Problem fixed!)
Today’s lesson (#109 for those of you keeping track), is the first recorded in Taiwan. You’ll notice all kinds of different speakers in the next batch of lessons. Many of you have asked what the difference is between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan versus that spoken in Mainland China. While the basics are the same, there is a distinctive Taiwanese “accent.” I personally prefer this style for teaching since they tend to enunciate and emphasize the tones a lot more than their Mainland counterparts. The result is a more musical sound. In these early stages of learning, it’s important to emphasize the differences in tones more to get the hang of it, so expect to hear more of the same over the next little while.

As always, your comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.

Pong Audio Forum

I apologize for the site being down the last several hours. Turns out the website had been hacked into which caused some problems. Hopefully everything is resolved now and perhaps this post will make amends by introducing a potentially very exciting addition to the ChineseLearnOnline service.
This service is currently in beta.  It’s a regular forum with a twist.

1. It allows you to record audio messages using your computer microphone directly into your messages.

2. There is a tool to allow you to enter Pinyin tone marks into your text.

The idea here is for you to leave messages to each other (in Chinese of course) and perhaps even leave transcripts of what you’re saying. I’m hoping this will give people a good chance to show off what Chinese they have learned to others, while getting a chance to know other listeners in the process.

You can try it out by going to the following website:

For now, click on the guest account which allows you to view, listen and post. Once the first round of testing is complete, I will be adding registration facilities.

Known Issues:

The website above launches a Java applet which requires the latest version of Java to be installed on your computer. I don’t have enough test results from Mac platforms yet however on the PC side I have heard cases where Firefox seems to run it fine whereas Internet Explorer required the latest Java software to be installed. If you are in the latter case, you may need to download the the latest Java Environment from here:

I have also heard cases of users who were inside a firewalled network not being able to access this site so I apologize in advance if you’re not able to access this site.

I appreciate any feedback you can provide me regarding what you think of this service. My initial idea is for this to be a place for listeners to share ideas and learning experiences with each other while of course being able to practice what you have learned. I will later be looking for users interested in helping moderate the service.


Vocabulary summary page

Greetings from hot and muggy Taiwan!

I’ve been in contact with some of you in recent while and I always find it fascinating to hear about your individual approaches to study and how you use the material provided in the Premium section, as well as what I can do to improve the presentation for your individual applications. As mentioned in the last podcast update, I’m now working on creating more resources that can be used offline. One approach is to go the PDF route, which I still plan to do.

In the meantime though I’ve created a couple of pages that you may find interesting. They provide a listing of all the dialogue lines in various formats. The formatting has intentionally been reduced to a minimum to allow easy cut and pasting. Please let me know what you think of this format and whether it is something you find useful or not. If you have suggestions for other ways it can be presented that would help you out, do let me know as well.

These pages show content for all lessons if you are logged in, or lessons 1 to 4 if you aren’t.

Pinyin only

Simplified only

Traditional only

Simplified, Pinyin plus English translation

Traditional, Pinyin plus English translation

Music section Update

I’m proud to inform you that (what was formerly) the Music page has now graduated into the Music blog. This means that rather than me posting here anytime there is a new song, you can now subscribe to the music feed. To celebrate, I’ve added a new song that ties into my course quite well.

Flashcards updated

The Flashcards are now up to date to lesson 100.  My favorite modes are English and Audio since you can’t cheat on those. 😉

Adam’s Asia schedule

I will be traveling through different parts of Asia in the next month. I would love to meet any listeners in the area for a cup of coffee. Please contact me if interested.

Taiwan (Various parts): May 29-June 24, July 2-5
Hong Kong: Monday, June 25
Bangkok, Thailand: Tuesday, June 26 – Friday, June 29
Singapore: Friday, July 6

The Pig Song

Here’s a song for you pig lovers out there. It’s by a singer called Xiang Xiang who is famous for her “funny” and “off beat” tracks. Enjoy!

Simplified Traditional