I’m generally the first to admit I’m lazy. Perhaps it’s not lazy so much as being part of the Goldfish Attention Span Generation (GASG). I just can’t be bothered to focus on something for too long. This, perhaps, is why when I first heard of Active Chinese I was a little concerned it was a bit too… well… active for me.

You see, I study Chinese passively. I use the Dutrochet method of learning – which basically involves purchasing a lot of cleverly titled Chinese learning books (such as Learn Chinese and Chinese Learning) and waiting for their contained knowledge to osmose itself through the wood of my bookshelf and the thick shell of my skull.

Alas, I’m often left wanting, and so decided to fill my gullet with about four cups of coffee and see how ‘active’ I really needed to be.

The layout of the site is great. Straight-forward and intuitive, it doesn’t weigh you down with a million directions to go, but rather gets straight to the point. It currently offers 42 lessons with rumours that this will be expanded to a total of 90 in the next few months. Topics range from ‘Visiting Chinese Family’ to ‘Business Negotiations’ (and a plethora in between).

Where the site really excels is in its use of a Flash animated classroom. The lessons begin with a short cartoon that displays the dialog. The dialog is then broken down word by word (and tone by tone) so the student can see the conversation construction step-by-step.

After you go through the dialog and get the basics of what the lesson is teaching you, the site delves into the rather smart Language & Culture Points section. Breaking from the rote memorization techniques of many of my written-by-Chinese textbooks, this section gives you some practical insight on the language being learned.

What I particularly liked about this part was that it doesn’t beat around the bush or shy away from explaining a bit of the grammar for you – even in the initial lessons. I’m that kid cum adult that just loves to ask “why?”… and Active Chinese’s cute little cartoons were happy to abide.

I was also the kid that just loved tests. I love the affirmation that I’m smart (and am incredibly good at ignoring all things that attempt to tell me otherwise – namely high school, SATs, IQ tests, my mom… etc.). In all seriousness though, I just really like having some way to gauge whether or not I’m getting what I’m being taught.

Active Chinese does well in this area too, equipping each lesson with a Self-Assessment section. Using smooth Flash-fed substitution sentences and word matches, you can immediately get a sense that you’re learning something.

When I first saw that the site was driven by Flash movies, I was concerned that it might lag in load times. However, in the few lessons I dug into for this review, I was never made to wait more than a couple of seconds for the session. A bonus for us GASGers.

Like similar Chinese language sites (ex. ChinesePod), Active Chinese offers a risk-free 7-day trial period. If you prefer to geta taste without signing up, the first lesson is accessible as a full-featured demo. I’ve not been through all the lessons yet, but it appears they increase with difficulty as you progress.

From the site: ‘Each lesson contains approximately 30 new Chinese Words. By the end of first 30 lessons, your Chinese should be equal to a Lower-Intermediate level. At this time, you should have a good command of simple spoken Chinese and can converse with a native Chinese speaker. You will also be able to write many Simplified Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese characters are also available.’

As it stands, this might not be enough of an incentive for those learners that are upper-intermediate or advanced level, but for a fresh off the (or not even yet on the) boat newbie, I could see Active Chinese being an amazing help in getting over those initial hurdles of pronunciation, what the hell “tones” are, the basics of Chinese grammatical structure and understanding the fundamentals of Chinese writing.

If the cute (and somewhat sassy) animated laoshi isn’t enough, Active Chinese also offers 24-7 live tutors for an additional fee of $16 per 1/2 hour. The price is a bit steep for anyone learning in China (and therefore able to get themselves a Chinese tutor for a fraction of that), but I could see the value for those overseas students with no direct or easy access to trained Chinese teachers.

Additionally, for those on the go, most of the lesson’s pieces can be downloaded. The animation is available in MP4 format, an MP3 audio file with related phrases is included with each lesson and PDF transcripts & word lists can also be saved.

One last thing I found entertaining about the site was its Culture Shocker section (also partially available via demo). A series of Flash-lady hosted comics give a bit of help for the fresh fish in the country. Toilets, ordering snake by accident, business greeting faux pas, and more are covered.

All in all, I think the site is quite well put together, and fun to use. It kept my attention for several hours, and I’ll be going back for more, which says something. The only short-coming I feel is the lack of free content. Though the demos offer you a good peek inside, they don’t give enough for the tentative nature of netizens to stick around for.

Perhaps as the site matures a little more gratis goodies will appear – 时间可以证明一切.


  1. I have worked through the lessons and have found this an excellent introduction to Mandarin. I am now able to converse with taxi drivers, shop staff, bar staff and restaurant staff. At last I am beginning to enjoy China. I have learnt languages before, using thick, dull and daunting grammar books. This site is entirely different – I have learnt more in less time – and enjoyed it. The designers of this course have created a virtual teaching environment that eerily draws you into an alternative world and arms you with a language to negotiate it. The result is a language you can then use in the most vital and non-virtual world of all – any thriving Chinese city.

  2. I don’t know if any of you have noticed but Chinesepod’s Mandarin is really bad.

    People complain about Shanghai people speaking Mandarin and she is an excellent example why.

    Active Chinese is much better I think. s/sh is difficult for many southerners and it is a huge draw back for Chinesepod.

  3. 你竟敢说朱小姐的坏话!

    Actually, I’ve not met a Chinese person yet that says the ‘h’, in any combination, with distinction.

    It was particularly bad when I lived in Jinzhou (near Dalian). In my seminal days in China, still struggling with “你好” I often had the following exchange:

    Them: ni si na guo ren?
    Me: Huh? Oh… wo sHi jia na da ren. Ni ne?
    Them: Hahaha… wo si zong guo ren. hahaha. Ni qu nali?
    Me: Qu huoche zhen.
    Them: huoche zan. hao.
    Me: What? nono hOOOwrCHer j-EN.
    Them: Dui. Huoche zan.
    Me: Duo qian?
    Them: sisi kuai
    Me: Huh? umm… never mind, I’ll walk.

    A similar problem often presents itself in the reverse when Chinese are learning English and after exchanges like the one above, I do understand why they insist on standard ‘American’ English (like us Canucks speak).

  4. I too lived in Dalian, not a great level of Mandarin up there.

    Can you imagine learning English with Snoop Dogg or Ali G? I guess it is my having been in Beijing too long. I have started to think that for language learning kouyin is important.

    having said that, I long southern Chinese speaking Mandarin. I especially like Guangdongers accent.

  5. Ryan,
    Your hang-up on accent is strange. I’ve found this a minor obstacle in any language acquisition. I am Swedish and think I must have a southern Chinese accent. My English has a British English feel to it. Amongst nearly all Europeans and Chinese this is normal – I am not sure if this is consciously preferred or is simply a function of the excellent UK teachers around the world and the country’s respected media.

  6. Hey Jonas, thanks for stopping by. I’ve no hangup at all on accent. Not entirely sure what you mean.

    It was Sean that said he had issues with ChinesePod’s Shanghai-twang. I’m not at a level that it matters much to me.

    You’re not sure what Chinese accent you have? You have a Swedish accent mate 😉

  7. Hey! First, the S/sh can be a lot of fun if you relax!!! For exapmle, there is a tongtwister that is tons of fun and will get you a great response from chinese pp.

    Say in chinese 4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14 , and 40 is 40…! Try it, if you can say it, your tones are good!

    No, make fun of your si si taxi driver tell him

    the tongtwister but withou saying “Sh”!

    Then ask them from which country they are from, since they can’t speak chinese very well!

    Point is, if you relax, you can actually enjoy the way people speak differently, make fun of them back, and most importantly, MOST CHINESE DON’T say the s/sh well, so if you are able to work with that, you can get by anywhere!

    Try the tongtwister… only in chinese…

  8. Hey DaShan, that little tongue twister is a good one. I learned it shortly after first starting Chinese studies and haven’t played much with it since. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Pingback: Life In Suzhou China Blog | Adventures of the Humanaught » Blog Archive » Put Down The Chalk & Pick Up The Language

  10. Sean is misguided in his comments about the accent on ChinesePod. It has an occasional touch of the southern to it, but to say it’s ‘really bad’ is absurd. There are 1.3 billion people in China. Only a small percentage of educated Beijingers (an a tiny percentage of the total population) speak stylized, ‘perfect’ Mandarin. All the rest, including the tens of millions of highly educated people across China, according to Sean, are ‘really bad’? Even more importantly, ChinesePod is an effective tool. It works.Picking up on a a minor detail, like a slight variation in accent is so anal.

  11. Jordache This is a common conversation I have with students:

    -I have a great teacher that would like to teach you English.
    -Really, who?
    -He is my friend from Nigeria, he lives near BLCU.
    -Nigeria, oh no, I would not want to learn from someone that is not a native speaker.
    -But Nigeria’s national language is English.
    -I would only learn from a native speaker from the US, UK, or Australia, the rest have bad English.
    -But you need variety in your listening ability, only Londoners speaking English in your tapes all the time is not good.
    -Bu xing!
    And on and on. I think you get the general idea.

    IF people in China can constantly criticize our fluency and pronunciation, I do not see why we cannot too. After all Chinesepod is not free and is a subscription based service that is not cheap.

    This idea that her Chinese is not so great with the s/sh thing did not come from me. It came from Chinese that are teaching at Beijing Unis for duiwaihanyu.

    It seems to me that maybe you work with or for them or have some motive other than to tell me I am wrong.

    I feel I am entitled to my opinion about a product that is for sale. Call me misguided if you want, but it does not change my or other Chinese teachers opinions about her Chinese.

    Podcasts are great. but one must admit most are put together by amateurs trying to make a little money. Podcast quality is hit and miss at best with a small fraction being of any long lasting quality.

  12. Good reply Sean. I appreciate your need to defend your point of view.
    Maybe we are all anal in this repect – it seems there is not so much worry on this point amongst Chinese(except maybe in the Beijing centred learning institutions?)What I did find when I engaged a teacher after working through the Activechinese stuff was that Shanghai teachers themselves (mandarin language graduates) get a little fed up with the Beijing/northern vocabulary in texts, and having to handle the retroflex ‘r’ added as a suffix.
    Personally I would prefer to learn the language spoken around me rather than aiming for a distant accent.
    PS – did any of you hear Deng Xiao Ping’s Sichuan accent? (no need for a pure Beijing accent for the top job!)
    While I’m on that point – have you or any of your colleagues come across any Chinese regional dialect material available on the Internet? If you know the owners of Active Chinese, ask them to get their virtual tutor,Angelina, speaking Shanghainese!

  13. This was the third hit on google when I was looking to find an unbiased review of this program. Nice review. How much did they pay you to write it?

  14. Hey Lauren, not a cent. I was given unfiltered access to the entire site for the review, but that’s all.

    The review is pushing two years old though, so there are certainly a lot of new (and possibly better) tools out there for learning Chinese now. It seems in the last year alone the Web has exploded with Chinese learning material.

    Good reason for us to revisit the topic I suppose.

  15. Now that is funny. Chinese calling others lazy. I work on the mainland and I think these chimps are the most lazy, uneducated, sub-humans I have ever seen. The average American worker can do the work of 3.5 Chinese chimps. China is developing only because of foreign currency and an influx of western ideas and technology and the sheer number of people (i.e. cheap labor). It is obvious it’s not because the people are smart or motivated, it’s only the numbers. Look at Chinese history: 5000 years of watching the grass grow and NO innovation…

    Ohhh, one more thing. I think China is developing far beyond the sophistication of it’s populace…

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