Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods

Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn (see How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really?).

But it’s made harder by a lack of good materials and inefficient teaching methods.

The Problem

Contrast studying Chinese with, say, Spanish. There are endless dictionaries, flashcard sets, verb charts, grammar explanations, pronunciation guides, audio recordings, etc. for the motivated learner to use. Indeed, with Spanish the problem is having too many materials to choose from. Not so with Chinese. Probably because it hasn’t been taught as widely as other languages in the West, the materials are still lacking in almost all the above listed areas.

Also, Spanish teachers don’t face the same problems that Chinese teachers do (specifically tones and hanzi). Chinese teachers are usually native speakers of Chinese who don’t have natural insight into what it’s like for a learner not to know how to deal with tones and hanzi. They don’t remember how they learned tones (as children) and they do remember how they learned hanzi (in elementary school). Neither of those experiences is particularly relevant to an adult learner of Chinese as a foreign language.

This article will briefly outline what I think are the most pressing needs in Chinese materials and teaching methods. I’ll also give a few solutions, but the purpose of this article is simply to shine a light on the problem so that creative and motivated readers can begin to fill the gaps. Or, if solutions already exist, I’ll be thrilled to hear about them!



  • The current English-Chinese / Chinese-English dictionaries I’ve seen lack the completeness and usefulness that learners need. Community projects with free licensing options (like MDBG and its CC-CEDICT) are a great start but still not quite enough. There is so much potential for greatness here, I just won’t be able to resist writing another article soon on exactly what we need and how I imagine we could get it. But it’ll take cooperation and a willingness to sacrifice profit for the simple goal of improving the bank of knowledge available to learners (and I’m not sure how many people will be interested in that kind of approach if it doesn’t necessarily generate revenue).
  • Divergent concepts, countless synonyms, and unknown connotations are just some of the pitfalls we learners face when just trying to answer the simple question “How do you say ___ in Chinese?” I still haven’t seen Using Chinese Synonyms by Grace Qiao Zhang but it might help with some of these questions.
  • There’s also the unique interconnectedness of Chinese vocabulary (as illustrated by the hanzi web). I would love to see someone come out with a whole book of those diagrams (using only useful words). There could be different levels of books depending on the frequency of the words (which is also information we don’t have readily available, although people like Jun Da are taking steps in the right direction).


  • I’d also like to see a “Radical Web” book come out. It would be like the hanzi web but instead of showing which vocabulary words contain the central “hub” character, the hub would be a radical. In other words, once I learn the kǒu radical, what characters can I write with just that one ( kǒu,品 pǐn) and which other characters does that go into? I think I’d better just write a separate post explaining this one too.
  • I myself still have unanswered grammar questions and I’m not sure exactly where to go to get the answers. I’ve heard rumors of a comprehensive grammar resource coming out soon, but I’m not at liberty to divulge any details yet.


  • One of the reasons I wrote Chinese 24/7 (and its 28 pages dedicated only to the tones) was that I felt the available materials didn’t adequately describe what’s going on with the tones (especially in combinations and natural speech).
  • The 3rd Tone seems to be the main issue that needs to be addressed now. It’s clear now (to me and many others) that the 3rd tone should just be called the “low tone”. Here’s a short article about John Pasden’s better tone diagram. Olle Linge recently came to the same conclusion in his thesis for Lund University.
  • A friend of mine has just released an excellent tone drill app for iPhone and iPad. The Laokang ® Tone Test is elegant in its simplicity, and it also assumes 3rd tone = low tone. It’s also the only thing I’ve ever seen that distinguishes between 3+3 combos and 2+3 (I thought they were exactly the same!).

Audio Recordings

Teaching Methods

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually taken a Chinese class. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who have and I’ve noticed a few patterns.


The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • The tones are the hardest thing for students learning to speak Chinese.
  • Tones should be emphasized from the beginning of a student’s study of Chinese.

I see the following problems with the way tones are taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Native Chinese teachers still use the traditional tone diagram (that says the 3rd tone is a “v” shape) which I believe is not as useful as the 3rd tone as “low tone” diagram.
  2. Teachers also focus too much on the tones in isolation rather than the much more important combinations.
  3. Teachers expect students to produce the tones before they can even hear the difference between them (especially in combinations). That’s asking too much.
  4. Some teachers try to “skip over” the tones with the assumption that students can “add the tones” later after they’ve had some more experience with the language. I believe this is a little bit like learning to drive an automatic transmission and then trying to “add the stick shift” later. It’s usually better to just get going on the tones from the beginning.

One reason I like the Laokang ® Tone Test is that it addresses the first 3 problems in a single screen.


The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • Hanzi is extremely time consuming to learn.
  • A knowledge of hanzi is not necessary when learning speaking and listening (pinyin is enough).
  • Hanzi is best learned after a learner has a certain degree of fluency in the language (as the Chinese all had before they started learning hanzi).
  • Hanzi can be learned just as efficiently (or maybe more efficiently) without a teacher through sheer rote memorization.

I see the following problems with the way hanzi is taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Teachers require students to learn hanzi from the first class. This takes most of the student’s time and energy and yields very slow results. I’ve met people who’ve had a year of formal Chinese classes and still couldn’t communicate with the clerk at the front desk of a hotel. I think the emphasis should be on pinyin, speaking, and listening for at least the first year (maybe two) or until students reach a reasonable level of fluency so their already useful vocabulary need only be linked to the characters rather than trying to learn it all at once.
  2. Teachers don’t teach simple characters first. I’ve talked to students who came away from their first week of Chinese class being able to write 你好 nǐ hǎo in hanzi and explain the little “girl + son = good” legend. But they couldn’t say “nǐ hǎo” with the right tones, nor could they explain what’s going on with a 3+3 tone combination. Those two characters are both kind of complicated. If the student already had a working fluency in the language, there could be a system of teaching the characters based on complexity starting with simple first (一, 人,大,太,etc.) instead of starting with the first thing you want to say in a Chinese class (你好).
  3. Teachers ask students to spend class and homework time copying and memorizing the characters. I don’t need a teacher to ask me to write a character 20 times. I just need to do it myself. Programs like Skritter (go here if it’s blocked in China) provide all the structure necessary for a systematic review of hanzi (including stroke order) without any need for a teacher.
  4. For most of us, reading is more important than writing. Computers and cell phone inputs allow us to choose hanzi from a drop-down list based on pinyin we type. For example:
    So if I don’t need to write anything by hand, I can still write emails, text messages, and even contracts, etc. with a working knowledge of reading and pinyin. Of course this doesn’t produce a “fully literate” student, and students wouldn’t be able to pass hand-written tests like the HSK, but maybe those aren’t part of the student’s goals. If the student’s goals don’t include hand writing, why not give computerized / text message tests? Conversely, if a learner’s goals involve writing, why not organize a separate class for those kinds of learners?

Because of the time-consuming nature of hanzi, teaching Chinese writing should not be treated the same way other foreign language programs (e.g. Spanish) treat writing .

L1 Environment Learners vs. L2 Environment Learners

The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • Most Chinese teaching is focused on materials (textbooks) rather than the concepts of the language (vocabulary, tones, grammar, etc.)
  • Learning Chinese in a classroom in America (L1 environment) should be different than learning Chinese in a classroom in China (L2 environment).

I see the following problems with the way Chinese is taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Teachers rely on textbooks too much. I realize that curricula must be planned, syllabuses distributed. But the fact is: a native speaker of Chinese has a brain full of excellent, correct Chinese. That’s all we learners really need access to. Regardless of whether I’m in a Chinese class in America or in China, there are countless real-world situations and objects (i.e. within actual reaching distance of where I’m seated) to drive a class forward. Beginning Chinese class can basically just be the students asking “How do you say ___ in Chinese?” and the teacher modeling correct pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
  2. Learners in China especially don’t need a text book. The entire class, regardless of level should be organized around the learner’s own experiences (shopping, buying bus tickets, etc.) and materials (a flyer on the ground, a photo of a street sign, etc.). The teacher should just serve as a consultant to answer the student’s questions and correct errors. I realize most programs require the teachers to give grades at the end, and this can be tricky with the sort of consultant, learner-driven class I’m describing. But even a little more focus on learners supplying the materials would be a great start.
  3. Learners outside China might benefit more from a textbook because they probably won’t be “needing” the language in their daily lives like someone in China would.

Those are the main problems I see for now. Anyone see any more? Any solutions to these problems that I don’t know about? Please let me know if I’ve left something out.

45 Replies to “Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods”

  1. Excellent post, Albert! Now we have an agenda, the only thing remaining is to fix these problems. 🙂 Joking aside, I have some comments.

    Vocabulary/dictionaries: One addition problem is that dictionaries sometimes contain very little information about usage. Is this word spoken or formal? Which kind of sentences can it be used in? I’ve said many things in Chinese that turn out to be correct, but which “no one ever says, but might right in an article”. I think reading/listening a lot helps, but better dictionaries wouldn’t hurt. Regarding synonyms, I’ve found a book called Chinese Synonym Usage Dictionary to be very useful, but mostly on a more advanced level.

    Hanzi: I think teaching methods regarding character/word acquisition is severely underdeveloped. Most teachers I’ve had didn’t even talk about how to learn characters/words. I’ve learnt all radicals on my own and use a system similar to Heisig, creating mnemonics to remember characters. This can be taught and it does work for most people, yet it’s seldom done. I’ve written a series of articles about this, starting with this one about radicals and character components.

    Tones: Apart from what you have already mentioned, including my own article and thesis, I think there is an additional problem. For some reasons, tones seem to be the domain of beginner students. I’ve attended a number of advanced classes and teachers seldom or never comment on students’ pronunciation. Right now, I believe the only way to learn proper pronunciation is to take responsibility yourself, because no-one else will do it for you. By contrast, if I took a Spanish course in Sweden, I would assume that pronunciation was a natural part of the syllabus even in advanced classes.

    Focus on details: One thing I have noticed that separates Westerners who teach Chinese from native speakers who teach Chinese is that we are less inclined to focus on details. If a beginner writes a character which I can read, but incorrect because some stroke might be wrong, I will still encourage that. I expect my students to write perfect characters right from the start. I’ve heard about and met several native speakers who teach Chinese who are very strict and ask too much of their students. This will only make them frustrated and disappointed. Teaching Chinese is a lot more about making students believe it’s possible to accomplish rather than teaching them a few characters, regardless of how well they are written.

    I’ll probably have more comments later, but this is already long enough. Thanks again for an excellent article!

  2. Regarding radical webs, has something which might be exactly what you’re looking for. Simply find a radical and you will see a list of other words that use that radical branching out to the right. I’m not sure if this exactly what you mean, but it should provide at least part of what you’re looking for. I find this kind of website very useful when comparing similar characters.

  3. I’ve just come across this book:

    which is a truly wonderful book. It deals in depth with most issues you could want to understand about Chinese grammar.

    Like this guy I take exception to Chinese being called one of the hardest languages to learn:

    For learning hanzi I use Anki: With ten minutes a night I can learn about 10 new hanzi a day without effort.

    • @Jonathan,
      I’d like to see that book. Thanks for recommending it. I also thought Benny Lewis’ article was entertaining.

      @ David Morrissey,
      Thanks for the links. I’ll have a look.

      I’ve seen that thing and I love it. The only problems are: 1) it’s not very easy to use (I don’t like the layout very much), 2) it has too many characters in it (I want frequency / usefulness to show me which characters / words to learn next. But you’re right, it’s in the right direction.

  4. Great post! I am an American teacher of Chinese ( my native language is English) at the high school level, and I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. I myself don’t introduce characters for quite awhile, because especially at the high school level, the students need to feel successful right away. I focus on getting them to speak a bit first, so that they are not too overwhelmed.
    I also agree that spending time practicing writing characters in class is not the best use of time – but in my particular situation, if they’re not given class time to do it, it won’t get done. So sometimes we choose the lesser of two evils.
    I also agree about the “low tone” vs 3rd tone…a more accurate portrayal of how Chinese is actually spoken. A question, though – how should it be indicated in pinyin?

  5. Erica: Regarding the third tone, I think it would be a bad idea to change the Pinyin, because that would certainly confuse any student who learns on his/her own outside class. I just change the way I describe the tone.

    However, there is another question here. How are we to present the third tone as a low tone in practice? The traditional falling-rising tone has an added benefit, namely that the third tone in isolation is actually pronounced falling-rising.

    It might be true that a low tone is dominating in natural speech, but we can’t start from natural speech. Any suggestions? I have some ideas, but I would love to discuss this!

  6. I’ve been taking Mandarin night classes for most of a year now, with a native speaking laoshi with decades of experience. I think she strikes a good balance teaching us with the limited time available and variety of young (eager) and old (tone-deaf) students.

    The standard tone rules were explained at the beginning, but in general she isn’t too picky. At this stage we’re still limited in our vocabulary based on a context, so it’s difficult to expect a student to understand how something we say might be confused with something else.

    Some time is spent on hand-writing hanzi in class, but she mostly uses it as an opportunity to demonstrate pitfalls and show some patterns. Stroke order is shown, but she isn’t too fussed. Anything time consuming is assigned as homework. When she draws characters, she doesn’t seem to take any particular care making them more legible. She likes to show us characters in all their shapes and forms.

    Because she’s been teaching so long, she only knows so much about computers, though basic input methods are covered. The only dictionary she knows is a book. My (Chinese) girlfriend often points out outdated terms in the textbooks we have.

    Most class time is spent reading dialog from the textbooks, and then practising that dialog with some substitutions. I don’t really find this an effective way of learning. I’m not really made to *think* carefully about what I’m trying to say, or listen carefully to what my partner is saying, so it doesn’t really stick in my head. But I do learn eventually 🙂

    Outside of class, I spend a huge amount of time with Anki. Without it I’d find it impossible to keep up with the enormous amount of stuff to memorise. I don’t know how my classmates get through without it, but it does seem I can remember a much broader range of words than most.

    One thing I don’t understand is everyone’s attraction to radicals. It didn’t take me long to see the patterns of components in characters while memorising them. Perhaps in a year’s time I’ll be forgetting characters and need new tools to associate them together, but Hanzi Web graph visualisations seem like more effort than it’s worth. Is this something more experienced learners find interesting, like English speakers find the Greek/Latin roots of words interesting?

  7. There’s free multiradical data available for Japanese at I wrote a basic script to convert from Traditional to Simplified radicals, but there are obviously a lot of errors. There are also some characters not there which are used in Traditional chinese. I was considering manually correcting/adding the missing Hanzi to the data, but I kind of have a lot on my plate right now 😛

  8. I just read this acticle nand thought to myself: “The author must have read my mind!” Our course is just ridiculous! It consists of the following: each morning a dictation where we have to write the correct Chinese characters of the previous lesson including pinyin, daily homework which takes everyone in the class on average 3-4 hours, a quiz each week of the past lessons and everything, even homework is graded. But wait! All this does NOT include the time to memorize and learn how to write the Chinese characters. Spending vast amounts of time learning vocabs, memorizing characters, sentence structures etc. is fine, but spending approx. 80% of this time to be able to physically write characters ([sic!] with a writing utensil) is a hugh waste of time. Praticing this repetitive and time consuming skill should be left until an intermediate level is reached. How often will one actually need to write Chinese characters on a piece of paper? 99% of the time characters are input via pinyin when typing an email or texting. Every Asian uses this method. Thus, spending 80% of the time on something that is of very minor importance is insane! Surely one is able to acquire this skill later on without a course wasting valuable time on this. I’d rather invest this time learning vocabs, how to read characters and how to speak. This will, however, give me a unsatisfactory grade (because I will not be able to write down the answers in any quiz or exam), which is an understatement. But who cares, I set myself a different goal and anything that is not contributing to this objective will not get my attention. Just a side note: The Chinese character for learning acually means “to learn from imitating” Well, there you have it ladies and gentlemen the whole Chinese educational pedagogy. Rant over!

  9. @Jens,
    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have a look.

    I agree with Olle Linge: no need to change the diacritical mark for the 3rd tone. Just explain it differently (think of it as an arrow pointing down rather than a “v” shaped tone). Maybe?

    Thanks for the description of your class. And I see that the hanzi web looks like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ll be writing another post soon to show how it could be made without that much work 🙂

    @David Morrissey,
    I wasn’t quite able to figure out how to use that. Do I click the boxes?

    How funny! I didn’t read your mind exactly, I just heard what was in a lot of people’s minds and it also just happened to be in your mind 😉

  10. @albert no, that page wasn’t interactive, the image on that page is just a screenshot of the multi-radical lookup method at You can also browse that data at e.g. and a few other sites.

    What I was saying was I think there isn’t much available for Chinese right now, but that the free Japanese Kanji multi-radical lookup data which is downloadable from that page ( could be adapted for Chinese Hanzi relatively easily. I think programmers could then create easier-to-use lookup methods which allow finding Hanzi by selecting any of the radicals in combination. I was referring to the “” file under the “Downloads” section at the bottom of the page.

    Disclaimer: I’m the developer of a commercial Chinese/Japanese etc translation program and I’ve been wanting to investigate modifying that data to support Chinese Hanzi and add it to my software at some point. I intend to release the resulting data if I do ever modify it, but I don’t know if it’ll happen at all this point.

  11. Hello,
    just finished reading “Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods” a great read. I have been learning mandarin for close to four years in Canada and have never been to China (first trip coming up in October) . I started with teachers who emphasized learning the tones and I think it has stood me in good stead despite my Chinese friends correcting me when the context clearly lets everyone know what was meant. I have refused the rpessure to spend hours of my time writing the same hanzi 20-30 times and while I am not good with hand writing hanzi I communicate with many Chinese people who cannot read pinyin.
    I wnated ot comment on your discussiona round the use of text books. I have used online schols for learning for the past three eyars and their focus is on the use of textbooks. As I have gotten better with my spoken Mandarin I have “forced” my teachers to spend more and more time with me as we bagua. It has helped me tremendously, I need to learn so many new words and it is making me much more able to converse about daily life and situations much more than the text books could ever do. last week I went with a Chinese friend (not very good English) and her 3 friedns (no English) for Mid Autumn festival lunch. We conversed in Mandarin about many different things and topics ranging from work to friends to movies to house prices to jokes, all about life and normal conversation, just in Mandarin not English. The texbooks would take a long time to get me to where I was on Monday.

    Sorry to go on just your subject piqued my interest.

  12. @David Morrissey,
    Got it! I’d love to see something like for Chinese, but not only for radicals. For example, I want to click three times and get (rather than writing the 24 strokes with my mouse 🙂

    The ba1 gua4 method of learning! I love it. That sounds similar to what I did. Good luck with your upcoming trip to China. I hope it’s a fun linguistic (and otherwise) experience for you.

  13. I read this post with great interest as my book, “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” (LCTSR), specifically addresses some of the issues raised. This book originated from the instruction material prepared for a group of eighth grade students who signed up for their very first Chinese class. I’m not here to tout my book but would like to use it for this discussion.

    1. Vocabulary – A “standard” lesson in a text book typically presents a scenario then discusses the new words and the incidental grammar rules. LCTSR groups the vocabulary into commonsensical categories, and for the adjectives, provides relevant synonymns and antonymns.

    2. Hanzi – LCTSR encourages leaning the Chinese characters but lets the students opt for just learning the pinyin. At my “Learn Chinese Weekly” site, I do blog on individual radicals and some common words in which they appear.

    3. Grammar – The songs and rhymes in LCTSR are there to support the grammar and vocabulary taught. Students are encouraged to form correct sentences by plugging nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs into the typical sentence patterns.

    4. Tones – Right from the start, LCTSR teaches you the pinyin system and the correct pronunciation of tones and combination of tones. When in doubt, simply refer back to Chapter 1. The “v” symbol is the correct representation of the third tone. If you pronounce a third tone word slowly, it actually comprises a low tone followed by a second tone. This is not apparent when one speaks rapidly, as many Chinese are wont to do. The upward inflection is more noticeable in a female or a child than a low male voice.

    5. Audio Recordings – LCTSR provides a reading of each and every Chinese word in the book, even the lyrics. Audio recordings are absolutely necessary for the beginning learners.

    I look forward to reading your blog about the ideal dictionary.

  14. Olle Linge: I agree with you that “the traditional falling-rising tone has an added benefit, namely that the third tone in isolation is actually pronounced falling-rising.” When followed by another word, the rising portion is truncated. We see a similar situation with the English words “maintain” and “maintenance”. This is just one of the pronunciation exceptions that go along with the tones.

    This may be a good place to bring up another exception (or rule, depending on how you view it) that applies when two 4th tones meet. The first one is uttered in the rising 2nd tone to lessen the burden on the vocal chord. In this case, I would vote for making the tone marks in the pinyin agree with the actual pronunciation. However, the current convention is to still retain the tone of the isolated charcters, e.g. 不要 bùyào.

  15. You’re right about this. Now what we need is to form a team to produce materials with more international content using modern ESL or Spanish teaching methods to teach Chinese. We could translate materials used for other languages and set up a website to market them, similar to the websites that provide free worksheets for teaching English.

  16. @Lydia Lin,
    Thanks for your contributions to the world of Chinese language teaching! I agree that the pinyin should reflect how things are actually said (不要 should be written bu2 yao4). I even wish were written as “buo” instead of “bo”, but there’s nothing I can do about that now 🙂

    @Chris McColl,
    I think you’re idea to produce activities is a great one. If you don’t have high hopes of making any money, then it might be especially satisfying ;-). Please let us know if a community project like that gets going. I myself, for the moment, am focusing all my energy at the reference resources we need rather than classroom / learner activities. But we need both.

  17. Hi Albert,

    You seem to have forgotten print dictionaries:

    The ABC dictionary by the late John Defrancis for example and the Oxford dictionaries. Then there’s the genealogy by Rick Harbaugh and I have my own charts which I produced a few years ago. You can see one here:
    It originally had arrows on it but I can’t work out how to put them onto the spreadsheet in Google docs but I hope you can get the general idea. My objective is not to make money from producing materials as such, but we need good materials (Spanish/Chinese) for our school so we can beat the competition and get more students and make more money that way.


    Chris McColl (

  18. I’ve been a student of Chinese for 5-6 years now and thing that frustrated me the most as I progressed was the real lack of any good, systematic teaching materials for more advanced grammar. Most of the textbooks I used in both the US and China tended to sideline clear explanations of grammatical topics for vocabulary and contextual collocations (i.e., explaining the format of a particular sentence in a piece without regard to further application).

    My reasoning for this has generally been that in comparison to many Western languages, which have clear and necessary conjugation and affixation rules that must be memorized for even basic intelligibility, Chinese grammar comes of as simpler and more straightforward. Beyond basic sentence structures, ‘de’ rules, and some coverb rules, grammar discussion is turned into fill-in-the-blank collocation memorization and dissection. Only after I and some of my fellow learners made an effort to slog through a number of formal grammars and really dig into how to use things like bǔyǔ at a more basic level did our spoken Mandarin move from intermediate to conversational; a class offered at Tsinghua specifically on Chinese grammar for foreigners didn’t hurt either.

    I know a lot of people truly hate detailed grammar talk and lessons and wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of Chinese class becoming progressively more like Latin class, but I have found that the lack of that foundation hurts a lot of long-term learners who didn’t have the means or interest to dig into texts specifically written about grammar. I’m excited to hear about the text you mentioned in your article.

  19. @Chris McColl,
    I’m actually thinking quite a lot these days about print dictionaries, and I’m kind of disappointed with all of the ones I’ve seen. It’s ALL part of my upcoming magnum opus about dictionaries. It looks like you’re off to a great start producing your own materials too!

    I agree completely. I want more detailed, complete grammar explanations and I want them now! If learners don’t want to use them, that’s up to them. But the materials would be nice to have so we can make that choice, eh?

  20. One thing that I think that needs to be seriously changed about Chinese teaching, and Putonghua in general perhaps, is the s/sh distinction. Why the hell are students learning a distinction which many (probably most) Chinese native speakers cannot recognize and do not use? I think that ‘sh’ should be removed from pinyin altogether, and students should be taught from day 1 that the ‘s’ sound can be pronounced in two different ways.

    Also, I feel like 口语 is willfully ignored in every classroom setting. I understand that the Chinese teachers want to teach good, standard Chinese, but Chinese as it is spoken by day-to-day native speakers in Beijing or the NE is completely ignored, and in fact many Chinese teachers seem baffled as to why anyone would want to learn 口语. Why would I want to study 口语? Because I want for Chinese people to be able to talk to me as they talk to each other. That’s what knowing a language is. There are practically no teaching materials regarding 口语, so I am faced with the prospect of recording some real Chinese, then asking someone about it. They will act embarrassed and ask me why I want to know that, then sometimes they will explain it, but it is usually very difficult for them.

    • @john,

      May I ask where in China you are (if you’re in China)? Because up “north” (wherever that starts), they definitely do say “s” and “sh” differently. I do to. I try to speak as “standardly” as possible, and I’ve noticed most people don’t have trouble understanding me (even if they themselves don’t say “s” and “sh” the same way I do). But believe me, I have the utmost sympathy for you dealing with this as well as the other pronunciation changes that happen down “south.”

      But a question to keep in mind is: What’s the best way to speak for the whole country? I still believe that’s “standard” Mandarin, which does actually distinguish “s” and “sh”. But maybe it’s better to just jump into whatever the local accent is. I realize I’ve taken this off in a slightly different direction. Maybe it warrants its own little post. Hmm…now you’ve got me thinking.

  21. While learning Mandarin since a while, I fully agree with you that teaching methods should be different up mindsets. Native Mandarin teachers are great for Japanese/Korean students that can blink to memorize characters while Westerner initially see characters as almost bitmaps! Mandarin is indeed easy with a proper method/tools.

    1/ The “radical web” exist within this excellent mdbg website:
    Goto left menu of “Radicals/stroke” then eventually use “detailed list” for Kou3, then you have ALL characters from huge dictionary that you could write with radical kou3.
    Personally, I would prefer to have a table of radicals of ONLY few filtered characters + the inline related full characters that I am learning in a specific lesson to quickly really understand the logic behind.

    2/I have noticed that Westerners are statistically learning more through visual channel while Mandarin native teacher are using mostly oral channel (being also good at singing, music)

    Shang (European student learning Chinese)

  22. One problem is that the Chinese teachers think we should be taught Chinese they way they were taught Chinese, forgetting that they were not taught to speak Chinese (as it came naturally). If you look at the huge list of sounds to be learned in a Hanyu Pinyin chart or a Zhuyinufuhao chart, you will see that they are complicating it all. I only found about 22 hindrances to learning the basic sounds in Chinese that need introduction and practice and the rest can be use as acceptable approximates for the beginner. The sooner one is speaking it, the greater chance he will continue to learn. Boring beginners to death be having them repeat long lists of meaningless sounds and expecting perfection at the beginning is not the way to keep them it. Mandarin is the hot language to study now. Enrollment is high, but so is the drop-out rate.

  23. For tone training: do you know the utility called SpeakGoodChinese?
    It is a very nice tool. It contains pitch detection, so that you can see the tone curve of the words you speak.

    At first I thought it did not work because my tone curves looked so ugly. But then I showed it to my Chinese teacher, and she got perfect smooth curves! So it was really my bad pronunciation… (I am making progress, though…)

    Find it at:
    (works on PC, Mac, Linux)

  24. About tones:
    Along the fact that the 3rd tone is really a low tone, for me, it was equally important to realize that the 4th tone is a STRESSED tone. It helped me a lot improve my pronunciation.

    A side remark: various web sites use coloring as a mnemotechnics, attributing a color to each tone. I find those color schemes not intutitive at all (in addition to the fact that they often include red and green, which is useless for most color-blind people). In Pingrid I selected something hopefully more intuitive:

    1st tone: light blue (like the sky)
    2nd tone: orange (rising, dynamic)
    3rd tone: deep blue (like the sea)
    4th tone: red (strong, stressed)

  25. Pingback: Tone Test’s first mention in a blog |

  26. Hanzi….

    I’d also like to see a “Radical Web” book come out. It would be like the hanzi web but instead of showing which vocabulary words contain the central “hub” character, the hub would be a radical. In other words, once I learn the kǒu radical, what characters can I write with just that one ( kǒu,品 pǐn) and which other characters does that go into? I think I’d better just write a separate post explaining this one too.

    I’d love to work with you on writing a separate post on this issue. I’d say if you want to see all characters with “kou3”, you can, and you will find “pin3” ( kǒu,品 pǐn) . but I think more important is being able to place kǒu in any layout structure (ie on the top, bottom, left, right, inside, outside), this will give you a better idea if kou3 has sound or meaning correlation. Also important is the integration of frequency.

    Try out “sunrise method” app on Apple app store. It’s free and can always be improved but it addresses lots of your issues. I also have done a tree/web similar to It has value, but it’s more a radical/non-radical relationship. (limited to two parts)

    • @Roger Dunn,

      I agree, a “Radical Web” is exactly one of the resources I’m most interested in. But it would have to have some frequency data in it. I don’t want really obscure characters creeping in. So are you going to write it or what? 🙂

  27. As for tones, I agree with the third tone as being low in pitch and falling. it rarely rises unless it’s by itself.

    And the first tone is high in pitch and unstressed, while the four tone is very stressed and falls quickly from a high pitch.

    Second tone comes up from where the third tone leaves off and rises up but not as high as first tone.

  28. About tones-
    Sinoland (Chinese language school in Beijing) are focused at speaking kills and they really teach the tones as them have been talked by Chinese people (for example 3rd tone has always been just low one). Moreover, tones could also change if we but the words into sentence… as the tone of the word remains still 2nd one, the end of the pronunciation sound will make a “little curve”, etc.

  29. Yeah

    I can write it

    I’ve already incorporated frequency into it

    I can show you a web of traditional characters most common 3000

    If you want, I also can produce simplified. I can also modify the # of characters u want in the web

    If there’s a demand I can sell it to whomever has interest

    For now my free app has lots of this data incorporated in there

    Just let me know how I can help.

  30. I’d like to second John’s comment. I think he has a good point there. I took only a summer class of Chinese before going to China, but I pretty soon realize that the Mandarin local people spoke (in zhejiang), bore little resemblance what I had learned in the classroom. when I naturally picked up the way that the local people for speaking. I was often told I was simply making mistakes (technically true, i guess…), where I was when I tried to speak extremely correctly, I sounded nothing like them. I suppose it would be vaguely analogous to maybe if some Chinese person went to live somewhere in the US (or Jamaica, or India, or any other place with some different form of English), but only having studied the Queen’s English in the classroom.

  31. Pingback: Current Chinese Materials and Teaching Methods | superhumandarin

  32. Surely there are tons of materials in Spanish, and some good ones too, but you’ll be surprise to see how many mistakes and misconceptions plague these materials. Something as simple as the pronunciation -which is not a challenge if you compare it with Mandarin- is rarely addressed correctly. I have seen countless learners of Spanish who looked truly surprised when I pointed out some common mistakes with sound differences they never knew they existed. I’d say that people learn Spanish despite these materials, because it is not really a very different language from English (in relative terms).

    But returning to Chinese, the currently available materials are definitely not enough, and I completely agree with the tone rubbish you get everywhere: just ask a native speaker to speak at normal speed, and get the voice analysed by a proper program to see the pitch-contour from the formants; you’ll immediately see how the 3rd tone rarely goes up (it generally goes down, actually!), how the “neutral” tone is not neutral, and how certain tone combinations (e.g. 4+4) have unique pitch patterns that differ from the artificial assumptions of the typical tone diagram everyone reveres. Despite the widespread availability of software to display tones, everyone still relies on unproven blind dogma that gets transmitted from resource to resource, from teacher to student… uncritically.

  33. I really recommend checking out WaiChinese. It is made to connect a teacher and student to solve many of these problems.

    It includes a tone visualizer for students recording in realtime. It focuses on the two-word paring for tones. All of this is included in a system which a student and teacher can use to send audio files back and forth to get teachers feedback on pronunciation quick and easy. They are currently beta-testing the software.

  34. Hi Albert,

    Tried to ping you an email but the Contact section is down.

    This is a fascinating blog article. I know the article is a little old but a number of these ideas have still not been implemented.

    It would be great to revitalize this discussion and see what is still to be done and get it done.

    I’m the owner of Hanzi WallChart and a co-founder of WaiChinese (and very happy to see the shout out from Alex above!). WaiChinese is seeking to give students a much firmer foundation in pronunciation and tones using both voice-recognition and interaction with professional teachers. Next week we’re rolling out an exciting update that will allow for whole sentences to be analyzed. This will be the first time tone feedback has been provided on a sentence level by an app so we’re excited.

    I’ve also started work on something very similar to the “radical web” talked about above. Radical web sounds MUCH better than “frequency weighted node network map”. Hopefully this will make learning the characters a lot more sensible by providing a optimal route based on radicals (more accurately components) and frequency data.

    Anyway, I’d love to reignite this discussion somehow. Maybe an article reviewing where we are now , 3 years later, and what still needs to get done. From there we can get together people who want to fix this and get it done.

  35. I learned Japanese 25 years ago. According to the American language teachers association (who presumably know more than most about teaching monoglot English speakers), it is the hardest language to learn for an English speaker. But now I am in China I am finding Chinese to be a lot harder, even though I have the advantage of being able to read quite a lot of it, through the characters being similar.

    Part of the reason may be the difference between the brain of a 52-year old and a 27-year old, though my brain has not atrophied in any other way, and I think that old story that the brain starts declining after age 35 is a myth. Part of the reason may be the tones, but I think most of the difference is because the Chinese just don’t care so much about teaching their language.

    Even before I left New Zealand for Japan I was able to borrow lots of videos from the Japanese consulate in Auckland, and the Japanese embasssy run regular Japanese lessons and Japanese clubs, where people could meet to learn Japanese. My employer arranged for me to take professional Japanese lessons, and the Omiya City council ran a volunteer teaching programme for foreigners. Colleagues at work also encouraged me to speak Japanese. Open University in Japan also had a TV slot for Japanese as a second language.

    In China, it seems that everyone wants me to speak English, and there are no lessons organised. The Chinese Embassy in Wellington will not even answer phone calls, let alone help with the language.

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