How I Study Chinese

Learning a new language is not easy for me. So to keep what Chinese I’ve acquired up-to-date, I use a lot of different tools.  I’ve provided the below as an overview for anyone interested. I hope it helps.

Chinese Pod

If you’d studied Chinese at all, you’re bound to know about Chinese Pod. Their two primary  hosts, Jenny and John, are “famous” within the Chinese language scene. I’ve been using the service for over two years. They continue to remain the model for podcast-based Chinese learning.

Pros: For beginners, Chinese Pod offers a free podcast series dedicated to that skill level. For the rest of us, the tiered pricing structure gives a lot of flexibility. If you’re a self-learner or need a lot of guidance, they can find a niche for you. There is also a very active user community if you have follow-up questions about the lessons or Chinese culture in general.  Also, for people who need to read their lesson like me, PDFs are available. And of course, the podcasters genuinely sound excited about their work and have great rapport. This definitely is a contagious.

Cons: At some of the lower price tiers, the audio for the dialogue is not offered. This means you actually have to find the time in the podcast where the dialogue is and continually replay it. This is a little bit annoying, as this should be an easy feature to provide. There are also some free alternatives out there that may make Chinese Pod start looking expensive, however  I’m still investigating them.


This is the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” site for Chinese learners.

Pros: The dictionary has every input method you could want: English, Hanzi (汉字), and Pinyin. It’s pretty forgiving on the Pinyin side, which is helpful when trying to find a word whose tones you can’t quite remember. Also, they have tons of sentence and dialogue examples that allow you to see the words in action. If you use MSN, they even have a bot to do quick dictionary look-ups.

Cons: The site is just too messy, so I don’t use it beyond the dictionary capability that often. Because of this, it becomes more of a reference tool,  instead of an effective study device. And since they do so many things, it just gets garbled together, almost begging you to go elsewhere. Some of the sentence examples tend to be fairly advanced, so casual users may have some difficulty finding examples relevant to their needs.


Recommended by a friend, this site could develop into a great tool for mastering new vocabulary.

Pros: The overall concept of putting together a review schedules for new words is solid. If you already are using a set of books they support, this site can be a snap to get started with.  The game mechanics around earning badges, while cheesy, do provide enough incentive to get started with the site. Also, the cram mode is nice, especially if you need to learn a lot of words in a short period of time.

Cons: If you have to create your own vocabulary list, it can time-consuming. The list creator tool is buggy and does not let you fix mistakes, which can be extremely frustrating. You definitely need to double-check EVERYTHING you put into this tool. If you master a vocabulary list, there is no way to archive it. You either must leave it in the queue or delete it forever. So while I enjoy parts of this site, the lack of feature improvements makes me feel like the developers don’t really have their heart in it. Sadly, I think their missing a huge opportunity.

Very similar to the Lingt concept, except with a focus on learning Chinese characters. It’s a flashcard system that passes over the writing and focuses on recognition. I’m still in the trial stage, so this review may be a little premature.

Pros: Overall, the layout of the site is nice, clean, and clear. The actual learning tool is easy to use and heavily drills you on new characters (if you’re honest). For the most part, the logic around the new characters they introduce makes sense.  During the lesson and tests, you are given access to the Hanzi, Pinyin, as well as an audio of the character. The fact that any character you fail to recognize during a test gets put into the next lesson is great for lazy students like me. It is a paid service, but you can participate in a 14-day free trial.

Cons: Outside of the tests and lesson review, you can’t go back in and review characters. A cram mode, like what’s found on Lingt, would be nice. If you want to see the character again, you must wait for the next testing of it.  And while I understand the logic of new lesson characters, it does tend add in some complicated (and not widely used) characters early in the study process.  You’d think they’d focus on some simple and more common characters. Payment is also a little high ($68usd) for some. Also, one could argue that the fact that stroke order is not taught diminishes from one’s learning, but this is only relevant if you want to learn writing.

nciku: Not for Minors?

I’ve been in China for over five years and my Chinese is still only at a conversational level. I’m nowhere near fluent. So since I’m not a natural language learner, I need to spend a little time each day either attempting to improve my language skills or just trying to prevent losing them.

I’ve been using nciku for about a year or so now. I find their site to have such a confusing layout that for the most part it’s completely unusable to me. For looking up vocabulary words though, it’s my #1 destination. The ability to input English, pinyin, or hanzi is incredibly useful, so decided to check out their iPhone Chinese-English dictionary application.

The first thing that struck me was the price. Considering their website and MSN bot is for free, $4.99 seemed a little too pricey; especially since I have a free dictionary from another vendor already. But as I was leaving the page, I noticed this:

Rated 12+ for the following:

  • Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
  • Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References

So I have to ask, who is making these classifications? Is it self-imposed by nciku or just a general disclaimer put on to every dictionary by Apple? Other English-only dictionaries in the iTunes store don’t have a rating or are rated at ages 9 or above.

Since I don’t know the full story, I wont say this is political-correctness or legal protection gone awry. I’m just going to leave it as the quirky item it seems to be and be glad that I’m old enough to increase my vocabulary with my iPhone. Watch your kids folks, Merriam-Webster might soon get classified as a gateway drug.

The Ride to the Restaurant

Getting a taxi in Beijing on a Friday night is always a frustrating ordeal. Trying to get one on a Friday night while it’s raining is just a complete and utter disaster. Other means must be sought, and I’m not so proud that I wont resort to taking a less-sophisticated form of travel. So while the others continued their wait in the pouring rain for that taxi that would never come, I quickly grabbed this sānlúnchē (三轮车) and headed out. I thought some of you would like to enjoy the experience with me.

Ole Miss in China

While putting this website together, I discovered that my alma mater is part of a nation-wide program to promote the study of Mandarin Chinese.  From what I can tell, it’s a 5-year program that also allows you pursue a second major.  It’s a smart move, many in the U.S. don’t realize it yet, but being a skilled professional fluent in Mandarin is going to be more and more important in the upcoming years.

Congratulations to the University of Mississippi Chinese Language Flagship Program.

UM Chinese Flagship Program Promo from UM Media Documentary Projects on Vimeo.