From 结巴 to 流利: Three Tech Fixes to Get Your Chinese Up In No Time

Posted by Michael Li on 23. Feb 2010

BEIJING, Feb 23 - For most expats putting in long days at the office, learning Chinese is like driving around Guomao every day after work: difficult, ornery and downright-frustrating.

In other words, a complete nightmare.

Believe it or not, ABCs (including half-ABCs like myself) don't have it any easier.

Unless you grew up with parents drilling you every night over dinner or happened to be enrolled in one of those weekend classes at the local Chinese school, then let's face it:

If you're in Beijing right now, you're probably just as fluent as the Marine at the Embassy. (Read: Not at all.)

But what about the rest of us who're in desperate need to get our Chinese up?

Fortunately, all you need to do to learn Chinese the fast and easy way, at home or on-the-go, is to have a computer, an Internet connection, and some of your time (and in some cases, $).

Here's my inside scoop on the top three tech fixes for helping you learn Chinese:

Go to, pronounced (N-ci-ku), n词酷,if you're looking for the best Chinese-English, English-Chinese online dictionary on the market. And yes, "it's more than a dictionary."

Some cool features to note:

  • Ability to hand-draw Chinese characters to find matching results
  • Mobile support for on-the-go learning (iPod Flash Cards, nciku Mobile mini)
  • Active member community that contributes directly to the site (Yes, you can create your own conversations and then submit it to the site for other people to read and learn from.)

Nciku has gone to great lengths to promote an active member community on their site. With the amount of content their members are doling out for the site, you'd think Nciku should call itself "The Wiki of Dictionaries."

One other cool feature is their Video Notes, which lets you learn Chinese by watching a short -- and sometimes hilarious -- animation clip of the word/phrase in action.

Oh yeah, did I mention that everything's free?


You've probably seen those Phelps-Rosetta commercials on TV that were airing during the Olympics.

Yes, when it comes to learning Chinese with a punch, Rosetta Stone scores 5 out of 5, both on your wallet and what you can get out of it.

Image: Indigenous persons not included

Two unique features keep Rosetta Stone at the top of its competition:

The first is their voice-recognition program that lets you pronounce words and characters out loud using a mic in a series of rigorous lessons that cover some useful situations.

Beyond that, it also acts as an in-the-box tutor, so if your pronunciation isn't on the dot, it'll tell you (with a certain buzzer-like sound effect) that you need to fix it.

Luckily, you can click on any word or phrase and listen to how it actually should be pronounced.

The other feature is their online web version, which offers essentially the same content, albeit better suited for users on-the-go, making it good for learning Chinese if you're traveling or living in Beijing.

In the end, Rosetta Stone is well worth a try if you can afford their premium price.


Okay, what has done is pure, innovative genius.

If you haven't already, check out their site's Sample Lesson for an interesting approach on learning Chinese.

Yes, it sounds like they're doing a radio talk show!

For some reason, all I can think about when I listen to that sample lesson on chopsticks (筷子) is random chatter from one of those radio station channels that you can listen to in the GTA games.

Nevertheless, choice seems to be the keyword for, as it offers a colorful, well thought-out website, chock full of useful features and options.

From Virtual School, a course that lets you learn in a live, one-on-one, online class with a ChinesePod teacher using Skype, to Basic Tools -- where you get access to audio, video, and text lessons -- you're sure to find a good fit for your learning level and goals.

Here's the bottom line:

Free; user community creates content; useful slang and real-world terminology; online dictionary

Rosetta Stone
Speech-recognition; go online or disc; invisible tutor to help develop your pronunciation

Multiple options based on specific needs; innovative talk show audio lessons; well-designed interface

Expats: Have you tried any of these products? Others? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!

Non-expats: See... we really are trying to learn your language!

Michael Li (who is not pictured above) is an American expat living in Chaoyang. A professional in the trade and logistics industry, Michael enjoys writing on the latest technology trends and gadgets from both the US and China. A native of Tianjin, Michael has lived in the US for over 20 years and speaks fluent English and Chinese. In his free time, he enjoys theatre, tennis, and traveling. Michael holds a BBA in Marketing Management from Mercer University.

Emails are welcome. Michael can be reached at mli AT uschinatlc DOT org

Image courtesy of Flickr user Kanpeki Yume through Creative Commons.

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