Mandarin Monday: ChinesePod’s John Biesnecker dishes up some language advice

This is the first in a new series of posts, called Mandarin Monday, that will discuss Chinese learning. The series will deliver advice through interviews with long-time Mandarin learners, sharing resources and discussing learning techniques.

Our first guest in the series is John Biesnecker. John is an American software developer who has been in China since 2003, and has been working on his Mandarin since 2001. He, his wife, and his son live in Shanghai, where he works at ChinesePod.

Lost Laowai: What was the largest driving force in spurring you to overcome the challenges and actually learn Chinese?

John: I think more than anything living here was and continues to be the largest driving force. Lots of second language acquisition experts talk about having a high tolerance for ambiguity as being a good thing for learning a language, and I’m sure they’re right, but I have a very, very low tolerance for ambiguity :), and so not understanding pretty much drove me crazy. I’m an avid reader, too, and I couldn’t stand being illiterate. My only choices were to either learn Chinese or go home, and I chose the former.

Lost Laowai: How has the Chinese learning landscape changed since you first started learning — what’s better/worse?

John: There are so many more resources available now than there were when I took my first Chinese class in university in 2001. Pretty much every aspect of learning Chinese has been and continues to be touched by technology, making everything at least a little simpler and more convenient.

I don’t know that anything has gotten worse. In my eyes life as a Chinese learner is much, much easier now than it was a decade ago.

Lost Laowai: Do you believe a single method of learning works best, or would you recommend a multi-pronged attack?

John: I suspect that most everyone has one or a handful of methods that work really well for him/her, but that those methods aren’t the same for everyone. I’d say when you’re first starting you should try out anything and everything, and you’ll likely find yourself slowly settling into a few routines that work for you.

Lost Laowai: What do you feel as being the most effective tool in learning Chinese?

John: Honestly, books (and magazines, and newspapers). Obviously you need all four aspects — speaking, listening, reading, and writing — to really be able to communicate in Chinese, but I think reading trumps in terms of bang for your buck. The sooner you can read, and the more time you spend reading, the better off you’ll be (this is probably true for every language, including your native language). Sure, characters present a rather unique challenge that a lot of other languages don’t have, but they’re not going anywhere, so you might as well just suck it up and start reading.

Lost Laowai: Where do you think a new learner should start, and is that where you started?

John: If I were to do it all over again, I’d really pay attention to the fundamentals — pronunciation and tones, how pinyin works, the radicals, etc. My one semester at university sort of glossed over those and I didn’t pay them much attention, and a couple of years later I had to undo a whole lot of bad habits and learn them right. No sense in doing that to yourself if you don’t have to.

Lost Laowai: What mistakes, if any, did you make when learning that you hope others can avoid?

John: Well, the above, not paying enough attention to the fundamentals. Also, spending too much time trying to figure out the “best” way to learn things, rather than just plowing into them and learning. There are probably cases where a bit of strategic thinking will pay off, but most of the time it’s probably better to just put in the time and get the studying done.

Lost Laowai: What are some of your favourite resources (online or off) for learning Chinese?

John: Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary. I’m biased, but ChinesePod makes some pretty terrific learning material. Beyond that, bookstores and televisions are your friend. 🙂

Be sure to check out John’s blog, and follow him on Twitter. Also, check back next week for more Mandarin Monday.


  1. I second John’s favorite resources. I can’ t imagine life without Pleco. It is very diverse and the developer works tirelessly to add features and new dictionaries. He also is quick to personally respond to questions, problems and suggestions.

    I subscribe to ChinesePod as well. It is a great resource for genuinely useful (and current) conversational Chinese. There is one big caveat for ChinesePod though. They take very poor advantage of portable devices. There is still no iPad version of ChinesePod. Additionally, you have to use the ChinesePod website to manage the content sent to your iPhone. Content should be available on demand from the device itself. Their actual content gets an A+ though! They have great lessons, a very personable online staff, and an active online user/blog community.

  2. I have to agree with John. He should know after all, and he said it well when he said pay attention to fundamentals. I am having to learn Mandarin twice. Once to gobble up vocab and then again to say it right. Maybe that’s what it takes. Im not sure I could have done it differently. So many resources now. Cpod I also give an A+ on content. If only they had more developers like John.

  3. I’m not too big a fan of ChinesePod or Livemocha (, though some of my friends enjoy them.

    I much much much prefer MIT’s OCW, because it helps you learn to read and write characters in a very logical manner.

    The course pedagogy is amazing. I leaned to read pinyin fluently and accurately in less than a week.

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