Mandarin Monday: Sinosplice’s John Pasden offers up some Chinese advice

For this week’s Mandarin Monday, we’ve hit up the juggernaut of Chinese learning, John Pasden.

John surely doesn’t need much introduction for anyone studying Chinese. In China for more than a decade, John’s been mastering the language for most of that time, including securing a masters in applied linguistics in Shanghai. He pens the popular Sinosplice blog, oversees academic content and serves as host at ChinesePod and founded AllSet Learning, a Shanghai-based consulting company that offers highly customized learning solutions for frustrated learners of Mandarin.

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

John: Well, I came to China specifically to learn Chinese, so it would have been kind of a shame to go home mission unaccomplished. I also have a stubborn side, and I was shocked and dismayed that no one could understand my Chinese when I first arrived in China after three semesters of university study. But that also strengthened my resolve to overcome the pronunciation hurdle.

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

John: Everything is better! There are better textbooks, numerous podcasts, plenty of videos, tons of blogs, iPhone apps, and desktop software. I came to China with a paper dictionary. That thing was my best friend for my first year in China.

I guess in some ways it’s harder to get started now because there’s so much “noise.” It seems like it was more work 10 years ago, but it definitely felt simpler.

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

John: Always multi-pronged. It’s not just that different methods are better in different ways, it’s that variety will help keep you interested. I think many learners jump in with a lot of enthusiasm, and they’re prepared for the mental challenge, but they’re really not prepared for being bored out of their minds. I mean, if your plan is to buy the whole New Practical Chinese Reader set of textbooks and just work your way through it, you’re going to have a very tough time. Diversifying your tools and sources of input is a must.

And, of course, don’t forget the “talk to Chinese people” prong. If your desire to speak the language is fueled by a desire to communicate with Chinese people, regular reminders that your hard work is starting to pay off in tiny dividends will do wonders for motivation.

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

John: Well, I learned Chinese mainly by just going out and talking to people. Every time they said something I didn’t get, I wrote it down and looked it up later and just kept truckin’. This method requires a thick skin and a tireless attitude, but it really pays off… as long as you have a decent dictionary. For me, the dictionary was key.

If you don’t have the environment on your side, then I’d say ChinesePod is a great resource. I’ve been working on the material there for over 5 years, and much of it is the stuff I wish I had when I was learning Chinese.

Above all, you have to find some material that interests you personally, and the tools that help make that material more accessible.

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

John: Pinyin and tones. Yes, I started there, but I should have stuck at it a bit longer!

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

John: Don’t underestimate the importance of good pronunciation. It was a huge bummer to study Chinese for almost two years, arrive in China expecting to hit the ground running, and then discover that no one could understand me.

Yes, the difference between “q” and “ch” matters. You really do need to learn to pronounce “yu.” Tones aren’t going away, even if you try to just talk really fast. Yes, getting all these right can be painful at times, but once you get them, they really pay off immediately as well as down the road.

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

John: You’re making me feel very self-promotional here, but I work hard to create what I feel is missing. So of course I recommend,, and the stuff we’re doing at AllSet Learning in Shanghai. My favorite dictionary is Pleco, and Skritter continues to do really cool things around writing practice. Of course the best “resource” ever is Chinese people!

This is the industry I’ve devoted my career to. I’m only 10 years in, and I’m looking forward to some productive years ahead.

For more from John, check out Sinosplice, and follow him on Twitter. Also, check back next week for more Mandarin Monday.


  1. Juggernaut, indeed, Pasden is a becoming a giant in the Mandarin-learning blogosphere.

    Beginners, listen to what John says: pinyin and tones. Chinese people are attuned to these much more than grammar and vocabulary. Chinese is a language/culture where accurate pronunciation will give you lots of points, because everyone who isn’t from Beijing is insecure about their own pronunciation. Speak with correct, standard pronunciation — even if it’s just 3 words — and you will hear Chinese people say “You speak better Chinese than I do!”

  2. John’s a really nice guy that’s got his linguistic act together. He helps you peel away the clutter and get down to business.

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