The Solo Approach: Chinese Learning Softwares

The Solo Approach: Chinese Learning Softwares
Jun 14, 2013 By Jill Levine, ,

I've always been surprised by the number of people who are stubbornly against using language-learning software. Although Do-it-yourself Chinese definitely has a bad reputation, it's often the students, not the software, who are to blame, as the content of the software is very similar (or better) to what you'll get in Chinese classes. However, without a teacher or grades to keep you in check, staying motivated to learn can be quite difficult. Even so, with the right program—if you stick to it and enjoy using Mandarin—the results will come.

After learning Chinese for the past few years, I've had some amazing classes and some really horrible ones, and I've noticed that the textbook and learning materials make a huge difference. At the very least, language-learning software, which is updated quite frequently, will have a more modern and relevant set of vocabulary. So, with the abundance of new technologies (Nciku anyone?), why not check some of it out and try to learn a little something? Learn or brush up on your Chinese on your own schedule. (Note: Prices are converted from USD, so they might be cheaper [and/or less genuine] in China.)

The Solo Approach: Chinese Learning Softwares

1) Tell Me More Chinese
Despite its admittedly sketchy name, Tell Me More Chinese is the heavyweight champion of the do-it-yourself method. ­The software comes with 950 hours of Chinese language lessons: you could listen to the audio files for 40 days straight without sleeping (which may not be the best way to learn a language). The system probably works best in a classroom setting, used as a supplement to a class or as an alternative to a textbook. One particularly cool feature of the software is that it can pick up your tonal mistakes if you speak into a microphone.

Tell Me More Chinese students can learn one lesson at a time or skip around to fill in the holes in their Chinese vocab knowledge. Overall, the system works pretty well, and although it's a bit expensive, it's a good investment for serious language learners.

Pros: Tons of material, tonal training, complete language software experience, all levels
Cons: Pricey

Price: 1,909 RMB ($300 USD)

2) Rocket Chinese
Reviews for Rocket Chinese are so braggart and forceful that I immediately became suspicious that they were all written by the Rocket Chinese staff themselves. I decided not to trust the reviews and went straight to the site itself and submitted my email address (I'm predicting Rocket Chinese spam for life) to get a 6-day free trial.

Despite the overly aggressive online marketing tactics, the site is written in a very friendly and "chill" manner. It's broken up into four sections: Interactive Audio, Language and Culture, Writing and Survival Kit (not available in the free trial). The Interactive Audio section was fairly basic. You can record your own voice and then compare it to native speakers (embarrassing), as well as listen to some basic conversations. I was most impressed by the writing section, which includes videos as well as pretty decent explanations and diagrams. The language and culture section had some of the typical corny content, such as "Forbidden City", but there were some helpful lessons there as well, like "Ordering Drinks". The dialogues are polite and a bit stilted; similar to what you'd hear in a first year textbook. While it was not the most exciting way to learn, the explanations were solid nonetheless.

Overall, Rocket Chinese is best for beginners, as it's fairly useless for anyone who has taken a semester or more of Chinese. It's a good, cheap way to get excited about taking Chinese or to learn a few basics before your proper classes start.

Pros: Inexpensive, easy to use, available online
Cons: For beginners only

Price: 636 RMB ($99.95 USD)

3) ChinesePod
Many swear by ChinesePod, so I went on their website to preview a lesson and see what all the fuss was about. I stuck in my headphones and listened to an Intermediate level sample lesson about hotpot. To my surprise, it was really good. The narrator was interesting and engaging, the vocab was a mix of new and old, and the grammar was very useful. After listening to the podcast, I actually felt that a few new words were internalized. The dialogue is fairly believable and definitely useful.

This software would be helpful to anyone from beginners to those with a basic grasp and even those who just need a little push to reach professional capacity. The exercises and lessons are decent as well, but require a good amount of self-motivation to refrain from peeking. I would personally buy it for the dialogues and new vocab, as well as for the ability to bring it everywhere on a smartphone (iPhone and Android phones currently supported).

The annoying thing about ChinesePod is that it is available on a pay per month basis (89 RMB per month for basic; 190 RMB per month for premium). For beginners, the most basic lessons are free but the real strength of this program is its ability to teach intermediate and upper level Chinese. Also, there is no way to test your speaking ability, so it is definitely more useful as a listening, writing and grammar tool. If you want to practice your speaking skills, classes are available through the site as well, although they are quite pricey: 3,429 RMB for two classes per week for three months, or 6,796 RMB for five classes per week for three months.

Pros: Interesting, all levels, useful vocabulary
Cons: Monthly subscription

Price: 89 RMB ($14 USD) for monthly subscription; 6796 RMB ($1068 USD) for classes

4) Pimsleur
The teaching methodology for Pimsleur is a little outdated, but many (who can stand it) have made language progress with the software. It should also be said that Pimsleur is for beginners. If you know anything at all about Mandarin or have taken it in the past you will be incredibly bored by the content.

The software comes with eight half-hour lessons on 4 CDs that students are expected to play back many times. The software's language-learning method is basically rote repetition of lessons wherein an English speaker explains the lesson topic and two Mandarin speakers read a dialogue. Many users have complained that the lessons contain too much English for a true Mandarin immersion program. In the end, beginners may be able to parrot back questions but will most likely not be able to understand the answer. Also, some very important basics—including numbers—are surprisingly missing from the lessons.

Pros: Can be used on the go
Cons: Boring, outdated, missing basics, expensive, beginners only

Price: Per level (three total): 637 RMB (Mp3s) - 2199 RMB (CDs) ($100 USD-$345 USD)

5) Rosetta Stone
The most famous name in language software just doesn't seem to work for Mandarin. Everyone I know has found it useless and boring: those with multiple semesters of Chinese under their belts complained it was much too easy. Rosetta Stone claims that with their software a student can learn a language as easily as a baby does. Well, it takes a baby about five years to be fluent and two years to string together sentences. If it took me two years to be able to say a simple Chinese sentence I would have thrown Rosetta Stone out the window a long time before that.

Learning a language is heavily reliant on critical thinking and takes a lot of effort; there is no easy magic fix. The Rosetta Stone software features a lot of guessing, pictures, and not much practical vocabulary. The program is also very expensive and each level must be purchased separately. Even as a refresher course there are much better and cheaper options out there.

Pros: Better than doing nothing
Cons: Expensive, method fairly useless for Chinese, beginners only

Price: Per level: 891 RMB ($140 USD)

6) Fleunz
To many, the Fleunz software seems cool, mostly because it ends in a "z". Fluenz treats the student like an adult and explains the basics of Mandarin. The explanations are in English, and there are a lot of them. It sometimes feels like you are in a Chinese Linguistics seminar instead of an immersive Mandarin software. The program does a good job of relating English to Mandarin syntax, making it seem less foreign and scary. If your brain works best that way, then this is good beginner software for you. The program teaches simple sentences and modern vocab and then progresses from there.

On the other hand, Fluenz is not as useful for advanced speakers. It's also pretty expensive even though it shares many similarities with other Mandarin learning software, so it's probably best to try a few other less expensive trial programs out first. It's about the same price as Tell Me More, which in my opinion is probably a better deal.

Pros: Complete language system, good for Chinese, explains linguistics
Cons: Expensive, best for beginners

Price: 2055 RMB ($323 USD)

These programs are best used as a supplement to a class, a tutor, or living in China. Don't expect magical fluency overnight, try hard and you will definitely get something out of it. For an actual trip to China, there programs alone are probably not going to cut it for a beginner. When you manage your carefully practiced, "Bówùguǎn zài nǎr? (Where's the museum?)," you will probably have a very hard time understanding whatever answer you get. However, if you are a beginner interested in Chinese, wanting to test out a new language or someone just wanting to brush up and learn a few new words, go for it! Many of the programs have free trials, so test a few out and see what method works best for you.

Related links
Where to Learn Chinese? University vs. Private Language Center
Learning Mandarin: 7 Dos and Don'ts
Learning Chinese, digital-style

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Keywords: learning Chinese self-teaching Chinese how to learn Chinese Chinese language-learning software


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



... another opportunity when you're busy working during the day, is also to study mandarin at evening classes. ;-) Serena from YCC Mandarin School

Jun 26, 2014 12:03 Report Abuse



skrittr is amazing for vocabulary and tones , though the writing part could use a bit of 适应

Jun 14, 2013 12:14 Report Abuse



This sounds like an advertisement for snake oil.

Jun 14, 2013 11:21 Report Abuse



wow! Thanks! I just started livemocha after seeing your post about it and it's great!

Jul 26, 2012 19:04 Report Abuse



me too

May 28, 2018 10:25 Report Abuse


Daniel McDermott

I do believe Rosetta Stone is a great learning tool for learning the basics, but definitely using it as a standalone learning tool will set you up for failure. It's voice recognition is not perfect, but does seem to help pronounce words. It reinforces the learning, which is very nice to learn the material. Only a crazy person would pay full price, many large companies offer substantial discounts on the software (I purchased it for 90% off from the company I worked for back in the States), or of course there is that torrent thingie you could try.

Jul 22, 2012 03:01 Report Abuse



That's ChinesePod

Jul 23, 2012 17:19 Report Abuse