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.