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Learn Mandarin Now Podcast Review

I want to introduce and discuss the Learn Mandarin Now Podcast and provide a short review of how and why this podcast series can help your Chinese progress. At the same time I want to talk generally about the use of audio podcasts.

The Basics

  • Learn Mandarin Now is a free learning Chinese podcast available on this website and also via iTunes.
  • At the time of writing there are 120+ episodes available on the website. Each episode is ~8-10 minutes.
  • All podcast episodes are downloadable and come with Chinese/English transcripts and vocab lists.
  • Each podcast follows a similar format: vocabulary introduction, dialogue and then step-by-step explanation of the language used in the dialogue.

Free Podcast

Probably the most important thing to mention upfront is that Learn Mandarin Now is totally free. A lot of other podcast shows have free tasters and then paid extended lessons or payment for other learning resources like the PDF scripts.

Learn Mandarin Now however is all free – the audio, text transcripts and download files are all available without cost and even without registering. Pretty cool, especially considering the quality of the material.

Structure of the Learn Mandarin Podcast

The basic structure of each 8-10 minute episode is: vocabulary introduction, dialogue and then a step-by-step explanation of the language used in the dialogue. This is fairly standard and you’ll hear this format in most foreign language podcasts.

The obvious comparison in Mandarin Chinese learning needs to be with Chinese Pod, one of the largest and most popular providers of Chinese audio podcasts at the moment. Chinese Pod follows a similar format (vocab, dialogue, explanation) and has a much larger library than Learn Mandarin Now but of course it isn’t free. Chinese Pod’s basic package starts at $14/month which isn’t cheap.

Learn Mandarin Now‘s podcast series (currently ~120+ and growing every week) is also more tuned towards beginners than Chinese Pod. This also makes sense as the vast majority of Chinese learners are in the early stages of study and as such there’s a lot more demand for beginners to low-intermediate material.

The best recommendation I can make if you are at an early level in learning Chinese is to use a free resource like Learn Mandarin Now to get started with (and, with 110+ episodes, a good distance into) Chinese listening comprehension. It’s a quality, free resource that is perfect for beginners to cut their teeth on.

After exhausting that content (perhaps after a year of study, depending on how fast you progress) then you should start looking at Chinesepod’s intermediate series and above to continue your study.

Style and presentation of the Learn Mandarin Now podcast

The presentation format of the Learn Mandarin Now podcast is very much educational: “here’s the information, here’s how to use the information”. Over each episode this strict adherence to education first, entertainment second remains in place.

Whether this is a good or bad thing totally depends on your learning style.

Again, let’s come back to the Chinese Pod comparison. Chinese Pod podcasts (especially the early beginner lessons) tend to have a lot more “banter”. There are normally two or more presenters in a Chinese Pod podcast, compared to the single presenter you’ll hear in Learn Mandarin Now.

Using multiple presenters means that you’ll often hear discussions and general chat on Chinese Pod podcasts. This can be entertaining, often educational, but at times the presenters get off topic and there’s very little language learning value to the digressions. This is especially the case in the beginner’s podcasts as the presenters speak in English! This means that for each 10 minutes of listening you may only be hearing a minute or two of Chinese. Considering the purpose of listening to Chinese podcasts is to expose yourself to more Chinese this is not ideal!

Learn Mandarin Now has one presenter (Song), who is a Chinese native speaker (from Beijing). Stripped of another host Song sticks to the script, focusing on the educational core of the podcast.

Again, whether you find the Chinesepod “banter” approach or the Learn Mandarin Now’s “school-room” approach is totally dependent on your personal preferences and learning styles.

There’s a similar contrast in the two main audio learning programmes out there: Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. Pimsleur’s programmes focus entirely on the foreign language, using as little English as possible. They are quite dry but their teaching potential is great. Michel Thomas’ audio programmes on the other hand are like a virtual classroom where there are a number of “students” on the audio recording learning alongside you. There’s a lot more digression,  mis-stepping and off-topic conversation, mainly in English.

Again, both methods work if you stick to them. The main thing is consistency. The absolute merits of the educational vs. entertaining approaches doesn’t matter if you don’t stick to a consistent habit of using the material. Therefore the best approach is to download and listen to a bunch of Learn Mandarin Now podcasts and a bunch of free Chinese Pod lessons and see which you prefer.

How best to use audio podcasts

Audio podcasts are a vital resource for getting used to the sound of Chinese and tuning your ear. Beyond this early level you can use extensive listening through podcasts to increase your listening comprehension, making you much more capable of carrying out conversations.

Initially (beginner level) listening is all about tuning your ear. At this stage I’d recommend listening and focusing on replicating the sounds, not worrying overly much about the complete meaning of sentences. The Learn Mandarin Now podcasts start right at the beginning with 你好 and the basics. First listen and focus on the sounds and repeating back what you hear. Then use the scripts on the website to read along as you listen. This will help you to couple together the sounds of Chinese and the letters than represent the sounds in the pinyin romanization system .

You can find out a lot more about using listening to get started in Chinese in my First Week in Chinese course (which is available as a free bonus with my Chinese Character Course).

Beyond the early beginner level audio podcasts are best for building your listening comprehension. At this point it’s about listening to a lot of Chinese at levels slightly above your current comfort level. By always focusing on material that is slightly above your current level you’ll always be learning but, importantly, not frustrated by difficulty.

Learn Mandarin Now is good in this respect because i) most of the episodes remain in Chinese rather than conversations in English and ii) the existing episodes are structured more like a traditional course, moving from one topic to another and steadily building in difficulty.

Action Plan for Listening Practice

  1. Early beginners: Check out the full podcast archive at Learn Mandarin Now and use the early lessons to begin “tuning your ear” and building a basic base in Chinese. Supplement this with the free lessons at Chinesepod if you like the style.
  2. Moving forward: Push through the complete 110+ lessons at Learn Mandarin Now  and/or supplement with Chinese Pod’s basic (paid) lessons.
  3. Intermediate:This is where Chinese Pod’s content starts to shine because the podcasts become 100% Chinese. This is the ideal entry point for the content because it maximizes the amount of Chinese you hear in each listening session.
  4. Beyond: Native language material from Youku / Youtube. Also check out 懒人听书 (Lazy Person’s Audio Books) for free Chinese audio books and radio shows. Start with kids shows if required and go from there depending on your interests.