Note: this video is not an update of my Chinese level, because I recorded it the day after the previous one (John is also a co-host on Chinesepod). [I actually do a little worse with my Chinese than the previous video because I was a sick this day and tired because of it.] Youku link on the way shortly.
I interviewed the show’s other co-host Jenny in Mandarin, and she throws in plenty of English words (as she does during her podcasts, she’s probably used to doing that in that recording studio with a white guy beside her), and then she gives us a tour of the Chinesepod offices, eventually transitioning to mostly English. All parts of the video are subtitled in English, and traditional/simplified Chinese (click CC on Youtube to activate).
As stated in the video, Chinesepod ended up being my favourite resource (apart from the obvious one) for improving my Chinese, especially my listening comprehension. This review has no affiliate links and I’m not paid by Chinesepod, so this is just my honest opinion. I’ll point out a few of my favourite features here, but mention the major drawback that this is a premium paid product, and as such may not be for you because of its price.
Chinesepod’s level system
When I started off, Chinesepod was one of the resources a lot of people had mentioned for me to try out. I’ve tried language learning podcasts out before and found that they fail miserably due the major issue of being stuck on the same level (usually too easy to be a real challenge), and covering the exact same content you can get from any decent course (basic travel and the like). Because of this I tend to advise people to go straight to native content.
But if it’s possible to transition in with something easier than typical native content, then it’s good to take advantage of that! And luckily Chinesepod managed to solve these two major problems I have with other podcasts; they actually have quite a large amount of varied content and separate each podcast into one of six different levels.
They attempt to take inspiration from the European Common Framework system, where Newbie and Elementary are A1/A2, Intermediate is B1, Upper Intermediate is B2, and then Advanced and Media are C1/C2. I wouldn’t agree that they have it down precisely, but it’s a good enough ballpark to make it so that you can stick to a level that works for you, while aiming to bring yourself up as part of a long-term strategy. For my own purposes I currently have no problem understanding their Intermediate podcasts, but still struggle with their Upper Intermediate ones, and this is from lots of forcing myself up a level throughout my intensive 3 months learning the language.
So from my first week I started off on Chinesepod’s first level: “Newbie”. I didn’t quite find this to be so unique – you’ll have covered this kind of stuff in any beginner’s course already. Then I moved into “Elementary” and stayed there for about a month. In this level there is a very short dialogue, followed by the hosts explaining (in English) what everything means, and the lesson usually lasts for about 15 minutes.
All levels that I went through (Newbie, Elementary, Intermediate and Upper Intermediate) have the format of a brief introduction, then the actual dialogue (played multiple times in the lower levels, and only once in intermediate levels but is much longer), then the rest of the recording is for picking apart that dialogue so that the listener understands it entirely, as well as any thoughts from the host about what’s happening.
I’ve glanced at the Advanced and Media levels, but the discussions are much more complex, so I still can’t quite follow them enough to check them out.
In lower levels, they give a word-for-word translation in the discussion after the dialgoue, as well as a more appropriate natural translation. This idea of two different translations is something I definitely appreciate, and find that the likes of Assimil do it in their courses, and that it helps immensely in learning the target language.
Once Elementary was starting to get comfortable, I moved myself up to Intermediate. This time the dialogue that they will be discussing is much longer, and they transition into one of the hosts only speaking Chinese (Jenny or Connie), while the other (John) sticks to English. This is part of being eased in, so even though Intermediate can be trickier, you can still keep-up somewhat. At this stage, translating everything is not necessary so the hosts only discuss the slightly harder words or phrases.
And for Upper Intermediate, both hosts only speak in Chinese, although occasional English is thrown in. It’s an effective system of easing you into the language, while still challenging you. So for people who don’t like high-pressure systems you will indeed enjoy it! As a rule, I kept myself in the level that was challenging me, rather than the one I felt comfortable with. So at this stage, most of what I listen to is Upper Intermediate precisely because I find it hard, and find Intermediate comfortable.
I think what really makes this stand out is the fact that Chinesepod have been doing this for so long, and have such a business built around it (and plenty of people working there as you see in the video), that they can make quite a lot of podcasts!
They produce a new one pretty much every day; although it must be pointed out that this is not necessarily a new one for the level that you care about. So you actually get about one new lesson a week that you can use, which is an important consideration before paying for it that I’ll mention below.
But what this means is that when you sign in, you have a LOT of lessons to choose from, from their archives. Their automatic counter tells me that they are approaching 2,000 different podcasts at the time of writing. I’m not sure how evenly it is distributed, but this means about 250-300 at any given level, probably more for some than others.
And the topics can be quite varied! Work related, social, getting around, dealing with private issues, technology – actually almost any general topic that someone could have suggested could have been covered at this stage. The crucial thing this means is that you can go through and pick and choose what you want.
I found it way more interesting and relevant to listen to topics about travel, socialising and technology than say, applying for work, office etiquette and family issues. Even skipping a lot of lessons, I still had plenty to keep me busy at any given level, and this was from listening to about 3 a day!
As well as plenty of interesting topics and an appropriate level to do it on, I definitely appreciated the way in which this information was presented.
For example, John is a very skilled host and teacher and manages to talk on the listener’s behalf even though he clearly knows much more Chinese than he’d be letting on. So he would ask if something is a first tone, or if one word is a particular (common) character – questions that the learner needs to know at that level, but that John is obviously fully aware of. But he asks it in a non-condescending way, as if it’s really the first time he’s ever finding out. I also think he brings a great English-native perspective to things, pointing out how strange some turns of phrase are and the like.
It’s great that they don’t take it so seriously, and even point out on occasion how strange a particular dialogue might be.
Another thing I was surprised at (but appreciated) is that during the dialogue the speakers often use an informal register (if appropriate), and many times speak quite quickly (from Intermediate up). This is a stark contrast to most learning material where they speak intentionally slowly, clearly and formally for you.
Jenny (or Connie) speak a little too clearly in their explanations in the levels I was on, and consciously form their Chinese into something that a learner is more likely to understand, and even throw in some English words (a little too low-pressure for my liking, which tends to be much below the level of the actual dialogue, but at least it keeps you in the conversation, and only the dialogue itself is the tricky part).
But this is balanced out by the fact that the dialogues themselves are not translations of English dialogues. It’s important to point this out, because most learning material I’ve come across is written by English speakers who get translators to produce the target language, and a formal result is created. Here the dialogue is kept as original Chinese, with slang or natural flow intact, and then translated to English, even if a literal translation is quite strange in English. This allows much more potential to really find out how Chinese works, than starting from English dialogues, formally translated, would.
So while I found the dialogues themselves quite difficult, and the explanations much easier to follow, it’s great that the dialogue is a much more natural non-watered-down Chinese that you would typically hear when in the country. The actors do a good job, and the sound-effects are effective in making you feel like you are in the scene rather than a recording studio.
While I know there are some systems that prefer a target-language only approach (Rosetta Stone for example are pretty keen on this idea), I’ve found that this ignores our potential to take advantage of being adults, and using translations can indeed help (when done efficiently). So this “easing in” process worked for me with Chinesepod, the same way some books I use to learn Chinese were also in English. (Although my practice time with people still always follows a no-English rule.)
Whether or not this would work for you depends on what you are looking for. To be honest I find most Chinese TV quite tedious, so I’m happier to go with something that caters more for an international audience, especially when the dialogue parts are more natural conversations, even if scripted. When listening just to the dialogues (not the podcast that follows), you can get exposure to completely natural Chinese that brings up turns of phrase that you should be learning at your current level, while also being an interesting or very much useful exchange that you could really need.
What I listed above are the main parts of what I like about the system, although there is plenty more. Some other aspects I appreciated included (note: most of these are part of premium and not basic subscriptions, including use of their app):
- A very well written app – so good that I actually accessed all content entirely from my phone. Their tablet interface is even better.
The catch is that older lessons don’t come up in your feed unless you go online off the app and “subscribe” to it from their website so that it is forced into your feed. So browsing actual lessons (apart from new ones) must be done on the site.
- Ability to switch between simplified and traditional so you only see one in the entire system; important while I was in Taiwan
- Ability to download just the dialogue audio without the explanation podcast that followed – when I saw an interesting dialogue in a lower level I’d listen to just the dialogue to test myself rather than the longer entire podcast.
- Fully written transcripts (Chinese and pinyin) and translations; a huge help to be able to follow the entire (scripted) conversation, and try to force myself to get used to faster speech by checking what they really said.
- Active commenting on each podcast, and interaction from Chinesepod staff to answer any questions that might come up
- System for storing flashcards on key vocab. It’s very easy to add new vocab as you come across it, although the flashcard review system itself is very simple. It’s better to export it to be used in Anki or similar.
- Exercises and other examples – as well as the main content there is further review material and questions to test your vocab in audio format.
- Integration with Skritter – while stroke order is something I don’t care much for at all when learning to read/write (more on that later), to improve your own stroke order and practice using particular characters, the website integrates a simple version of Skritter’s interface, which is a very effective means of learning stroke order of Chinese characters.
There are also other premium features of Chinesepod, such as one-on-one tutoring, but I found alternatives to be much more affordable. The difference between the premium package and the full package with lessons is $460 for 3 months for 2 20 minute lessons per week, which works out as about $60 per hour, which is way more expensive than almost every other alternative I know.
Chinesepod were kind enough to give me some sample lessons for the review, and I’ll mention how it went when reviewing and comparing general live-lesson sites, but in general I’d say to use more affordable alternatives. Chinesepod stands on its own for the rest of its site.
There is also a Praxis option that I checked out to access other languages (Englishpod, Spanishpod, Frenchpod, Italianpod), but there is way less content in each of these, and no app access at all, which was a major justification for paying as I saw it.
The only problem: the cost, and how I’d recommend using it if you do
The main issue I really have with recommending this universally is how much it costs. This is a premium product, and as such is suited to a particular demographic of learners, and is an impractical investment for people on a tighter budget.
The cheapest access is the “Basic” one, which is $14/month or $124/year (with other term options). This gives you access to the actual audio lessons, but not to the review and dialogue-only audio, activities, mobile access, personal flashcards list, or synch across devices. “Premium” access, which does include all this, is $29/month or $249/year.
Based on the investment, research and time Chinesepod makes, they are justified in putting up this price, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are justified in paying it, since you may not use it to that value of an investment.
One of the things I like about Chinesepod is that it doesn’t try to be everything, and as such it works great when combined with various other programs (so I only really used it to help me with my listening comprehension, and did my vocabulary study and the like with other tools). As versatile as it is, you absolutely must use it with other systems/courses (or much more ideally, with real people) if you are serious about learning Chinese.
And as such, price tags of a quarter of a grand a year is nothing to be sniffed at and not practical for most people, since this is just one aspect of your Chinese learning investment. I have spent a chunk of my own money on Chinesepod, but this is because learning Chinese was a full-time job for me, taking up a huge amount of hours every day. So if you are also learning Chinese full time it could be worth it to go for a package specifically around the timeline that you are studying for intensively.
But if you are a casual learner, or realistically spend most of your time on other material, it’s much harder to justify this pricetag. The premium monthly fee works out as about $7 per (15 minute or so) podcast that you’ll listen to, maybe $3.50 if you decide to cover two levels.
What you pay is much better justified as accessing their database of already made lessons. This is why I have a suggestion if you are going to try it out and if you can afford the one month fee (after looking at their free courses to see if you like it beyond what I’ve said here):
Sign up for basic access for one month, spend a few hours downloading all of their audio and PDF transcripts for as many lessons as you think look interesting for the levels and content you think will keep you busy for the next 6 months, going through their archives to get all this, and then deactivate your paid subscription. Other premium features like exercises etc. are useful, but you can learn more or less the same rules and such as part of other courses. For the sake of downloading for later study, the premium access option is more worth it for the “dialogue only” MP3s to listen to something quickly or take advantage of content within a level below what you need.
To me, the monthly fee does not really justify just four new lessons for your level. It does justify mobile access (much simpler than downloading files and transcripts etc. and a lot less work), but unfortunately, once your subscription runs out, your app becomes useless and you can’t even access content you’ve already downloaded to the app! It also justifies many other features I’ve mentioned such as the exercises and community to ask questions of for each podcast, but in the end I didn’t use a lot of them myself.
Since new lessons are so infrequent and not really time-sensitive, there isn’t such a huge need to stay subscribed the entire time, unless you like the much simpler way of downloading via the app, and the ability to add new words to the flashcard database easily or other features I’ve mentioned.
If you don’t mind some manual downloading (get ready for lots of clicking) and working on your flashcards separately, then a once off one month subscription is what I’d recommend you go for, and then maybe come back in 6 months or so to catch up again.
There you go! My overview of Chinesepod after using it a LOT over the last 3 months. I’ll keep using it as a paid subscriber while I’m still actively learning Chinese, since I like to access the lessons on the app, and I do recommend it, but for most people the one-month workaround (if they don’t mind the manual downloading) would be how they’d get the best value out of it.
Overall I have to hand it to the Chinesepod team for doing a great job. Some of their earlier lessons needed some tweaking, but they’ve taken feedback from people and created a pretty damn good system in the end! Having met the team myself and seeing all the work they do, I know they’ll be going strong for quite some time, so I was glad to have gotten the tour of their office while passing through Shanghai, and I hope other companies get some inspiration from them for interesting ways to present teaching a language!
If you have used Chinesepod yourself, let us know in the comments!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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