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I'm Learning Mandarin

I'm Learning Mandarin

By Mi Kai
The goal of this podcast is to help you learn how to learn Chinese. I’ve been learning Mandarin independently outside China while working full time for five years. Each episode I will be discussing a new topic regarding how best to learn Chinese, drawing on stories and insights from my experience. For more content please subscribe and visit my blog at
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Achieving a Near Native Chinese Accent with Professor Karen Chung (Podcast)
Links:  Karen's Ted Talk: My Roadmap to Learning Mandarin Tones: On today’s podcast, I chat with a very distinguished guest. Someone  who has designed a technique she believes can help learners of any  language achieve near native accents. Karen Chung from the USA has lived in Taiwan for more than 30 years  and for most of that time has worked as a linguistics professor at the  National Taiwan University. In 2018 a Ted Talk which she delivered in flawless Mandarin received over a million views  and brought her methods to the attention of a large international  audience. In the video she explains her accent training technique which she  calls the echo method. The method which is based on her own learning  experiences takes advantage of our echoic memory. First we listen to a sentence or phrase in our target language,  waiting for the audio to replay or echo in our minds, before finally  mimicking it out loud. Doing it this way allows us to mimic native  speech much more closely than conventional listen and repeat methods. In this podcast, we explore her own language learning journey, how  she learned Mandarin to such a high level and why she disagrees with  conventional language learning opinion which argues accents don’t matter  as long as we can more or less make ourselves understood. She also kindly agreed to give me a brief demonstration of her method to help improve my own Mandarin accent.
June 26, 2022
How This Medical Student Became Totally Fluent in Chinese Within One Year While Living in the UK
Links:  I'm Learning Mandarin Facebook group: Will's YouTube channel: Will's interview in chinese: My Blog on Interviewing Will: My Blog on learning chinese tones: On today’s episode we delve into one of the most remarkable language learning stories I’ve ever come across. It’s the story of Will Hart, a 20 year old medical student who on the eve of the first UK lockdown in 2020 had never been to a Chinese speaking country, had no Chinese family and had never had any meaningful contact with the language in any form. Fast forward 12 months and he posted a short video to YouTube speaking with the kind of fluency many people fail to reach after more than a decade studying the language immersed in Chinese speaking countries. Recently, a second video appeared on YouTube in which he was interviewed in Chinese at length at the 1.5 year mark. Watching that video I was astonished by how fast he had progressed. A lot of people upload videos claiming to have reached fluency in as little as six months. I've written previously about why I'm usually not a fan of this kind of content. But Will's case really is different. His Chinese is genuinely phenomenal, as any native speaker or advanced learner who hears him speak will confirm. So I decided to invite him on the podcast to see what I could learn from his methods. What he told me is, I believe, utterly invaluable to all Mandarin learners, especially people with an interest in making their learning as efficient as possible.
June 12, 2022
Mental Health, Language Learning & the Psychological Highs and Lows of Learning Chinese
Links: I'm Learning Mandarin Language Exchange Facebook Group My blog on learning Mandarin tones: Karl's blog on using flashcards to learn Chinese: Many listeners of this podcast are people who, like me, get immense joy and gratification from the language learning process. However, it’s also worth being aware of the psychological pitfalls which those of us studying Chinese intensively commonly fall into.  On my podcast today I discuss this issue with two friends who have both experienced the ups and downs of Mandarin learning.  Karl Baker is a language app programmer who has appeared on the podcast before. Esther Spiering is a UXP designer who is currently on a secondment from work during which she is self-studying Mandarin intensively.  We talk about dealing with comments and judgments from native speakers, coping with those moments when we failed to live up to our expectations of ourselves and much more. If you enjoy this podcast please subscribe on Apple, Spotify or on to have new blogs and podcasts pinged straight to your email. 
May 31, 2022
The Final Verdict. How Effective is Duolingo Chinese?
Links: My blog on DuoLingo Chinese: My blog on the best apps for learning Chinese: Karl's flashcard app: Karl's Twitter: Teo's Twitter: On today’s podcast we discuss the world’s most popular language app, Duolingo. I’ve long been a critic of Duolingo, having spent a ridiculous amount of time completing the Mandarin Duolingo Tree as a beginner. I’ve previously blogged that I found my progress during that time to be almost imperceptible and subsequently discovered other learning tools which I found to be far more effective for learning Chinese.  So on today’s podcast I wanted to open up a balanced discussion about the pros and cons of DuoLingo Chinese. Joining me to discuss this are two guests with experience of using the app and fascinating perspectives.  Teo Valdés is a Doctor of Education candidate at American University. He is an experienced language learner and Spanish teacher who has also studied Mandarin.  Karl Baker is a language app designer whose free flashcard app Mandarin Vocabulary Builder is available for android phones. 
May 15, 2022
Matt Vs Japan on why your accent matters, Stephen Krashen, the input hypothesis and much more
Links:  Matt’s YouTube: Matt’s Twitter: My blog on how to acquire Chinese tones: My blog on the importance of accent: On today’s podcast we have a very special guest, the YouTube superstar and fluent Japanese speaker Matt Vs Japan. Matt is a well known face in the language learning community who has risen to prominence thanks to his insightful YouTube videos which explain how he managed to reach a near native level in Japanese in the space of a few years, all the while while living in the US. Like me, he is a big fan of the linguist Stephen Krashen and is on a mission to popularise language learning methods which prioritise the importance of getting lots of reading and listening input. More recently he has also taken a keen interest in the question of how we should go about acquiring native-like accents when studying a new language as an adult. We discussed all this and much more in a very wide ranging interview, one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever done.
April 28, 2022
Debate: Is Talent A Big Factor in Language Learning Success?
Links:  My blog on Language Talent: My roadmap for learning Chinese tones: On today's episode I debate the concept of language talent with two guests. Yong Jun is a PHD student researching the philosophy of language. Katherine, who has appeared on the podcast before, is a Masters student in translation studies. Both guests are language learning enthusiasts and have ample experience of learning languages to high levels. We discuss whether it's meaningful to talk about having a gift for languages and whether it's true that some learners really are more gifted than others. 
April 17, 2022
Is Chinese Harder Than Other Languages? Interview with Langaholic
Links:  My best app recommendations for learning Chinese: Alej's Langaholic YouTube channel: Alej's Twitter: My Twitter: It’s often said that different languages shouldn't be compared with each other in terms of difficulty. I  understand this sentiment but also think it’s useful to be aware of  certain key differences between the challenge of learning Chinese  compared to that of taking on other languages, particularly those more closely related to our mother tongue. Many learners feel disappointed when they compare their speed of  progress to that of friends studying other languages. You might see people  online who appear to have reached fluency in Spanish in under a year  while you still don’t feel fluent in Mandarin after several years. It  can be easy to wonder if there’s something wrong with you as a learner. The reality is that there’s nothing wrong with you and there may not  even be anything wrong with your learning methods. I think it’s helpful  to be aware that there are particular challenges involved in learning  Mandarin which make it, if not more difficult than many other languages,  then certainly more time consuming. To discuss this topic with me on today’s episode is polyglot Alej, also known by his YouTube name Langaholic.  Alej has taken on a number of languages, including Mandarin, and is in a  great position to explore how the challenge of learning Chinese differs  from other languages.
April 04, 2022
Mastering Chinese Listening with Lei Lei
Links:  Facebook group:  Lei Lei's Blog: Blog on mastering tones: Blog on Netflix Chinese: Blog on best Chinese learning apps: My guest today is called Lei Lei. Lei Lei is a blogger and Mandarin Chinese learner who writes about the process of learning Chinese to a high level. After stumbling across Lei Lei’s blog a couple of months ago there were a couple of things I which I thought would make for a great discussion. The first point something we have in common which is that we are both bilingual learners. Lei Lei was brought up in Canada and was educated in French whilst English was always used in the family home. I was interested in exploring how being bilingual has affected our approach and attitude to language learning. The second point was that Lei Lei has written a very insightful blog about reaching high levels in listening proficiency. With so much focus on tones and characters, listening is perhaps the most underestimated aspect of Mandarin learning in terms of difficulty. The number of homophones as well as high variety of accents spoken across China and Chinese speaking countries means becoming good at listening doesn’t happen overnight. Luckily Lei Lei has some great tips on how to reach impressive levels of listening comprehension which we can all learn from. 
March 20, 2022
“Wow! Your Mandarin is Awesome!” Decoding Chinese Politeness
Anyone who has learned Mandarin will be familiar with how encouraging Chinese people tend to be towards those of us who take an interest in their language. For the most part this is great. All we have to do is say 你好 in order to be showered with praise and encouragement. But at times it can also be quite tricky to navigate the unwritten rules of Chinese polite culture. To the new Mandarin learner it isn’t always clear when praise is sincere as opposed to merely small talk. Throughout my learning experience I’ve also found it a challenge to get honest feedback on my Mandarin as opposed to exaggerated and undeserved praise. On today’s podcast I invited three of my language buddies, Helen, Mingna  and Katherine. Helen, like me, is a fellow Mandarin learner while  Mingna and Katherine are both students from China. Together we explore  how Chinese politeness can impact language learners in both positive and  negative ways.
December 08, 2021
Benjamin Zephaniah on Learning Mandarin Chinese
For Today’s podcast I had the honour of interviewing a very distinguished guest. Benjamin Zephaniah is best known as one of Britain’s favourite poets. He is also a political activist, playwright and novelist who has been listed as one of Britain’s 50 greatest postwar writers by the Times newspaper.  One of the lesser known aspects of Benjamin’s life is his interest in foreign languages and in particular Mandarin. In his Autobiography, the life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, he writes about his decades long exploration of the Chinese language and culture. I wanted to find out more about why he took on the challenge of learning Chinese, how he went about doing so and why he believes language learning can be a powerful tool against bigotry and war.  Links:  For more blogs & podcasts: Benjamin's Website: Benjamin's autobiography: Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows:
November 11, 2021
Expectations Vs Reality of Learning Chinese (With Luke Truman)
On today's podcast I discuss how expectations often differ from reality when learning Mandarin. My guest is YouTuber Luke Truman who has been documenting his journey of learning Cantonese and Mandarin for four years. His experiences have given him some really interesting insights into studying using immersive methods, the limits of learning through input alone, how to improve pronunication and much more.   Links: Luke's Channel: What 80% Comprehension Feels Like: The Echo Method Ted Talk:
October 29, 2021
Learning Mandarin with Graded Readers
On today’s episode I discuss a topic I have previously blogged about: graded readers. For those who aren’t familiar, graded readers are books intended for beginner-intermediate language learners. They are typically  set at different levels according to the number of words used. They enable Mandarin learners to start reading extensively with as few as 100 characters and I benefited from them immensely in the past.  My guest today is Mandarin learner and entrepreneur Jeff Pepper from Imagin8 Press, a company he set up which publishes Chinese graded readers. His readers cover a diverse range of topics from novels to classic Chinese philosophy. I started by asking him how his own experiences of learning Chinese inspired him to start creating his own graded readers.  Anyone interested in Jeff's readers can check out his website at
October 17, 2021
The Key Predictors of Mandarin Success
On today’s episode I discuss learning Mandarin with a man who has not only learned the language for  himself, he’s also observed the trajectories of hundreds of other learners over the years.  Max Hobbs is Marketing Director at the leading Chinese language school, LTL Mandarin. He first came into contact with Chinese while backpacking in 2014 and he has since continued to study Mandarin whilst working. His position at the school has given him a real birds eye view, observing and documenting the stories of numerous students over the years at the school he works for.  I found it really insightful to talk to him about his learning experiences and in particular his observations of which attitudes and traits are the strongest predictors of a successful Mandarin learner.
September 25, 2021
Overcoming the Intermediate Plateau
As an intermediate Mandarin learner, one of the main challenges I face is acquiring lower frequency words. In any language the most frequent few thousand words account for over 90% of words used in daily conversation. Mandarin is no different and, although I typically understand the vast majority of words in a sentence, it’s those rarer words which can throw me off.  So how can we overcome the intermediate plateau and learn enough low frequency words to become proficient?  That’s where today’s guest Andrew Methven comes in. Andrew first started learning Chinese whilst on a backpacking trip in China in 2002-03. He eventually went on to train as a translator and interpreter, before joining a startup in the UK focussed on China. More recently, he started the newsletter: designed to help intermediate and advanced learners fill in key gaps in the vocabulary.  Every week Andrew shares new words, phrases, idioms, colloquialisms and slang with the goal of helping readers maintain and improve their Chinese, while staying up to date with latest language trends. Andrew’s experiences of backpacking through China as well as his insights into overcoming the long intermediate plateau are fascinating and insightful. 
September 10, 2021
Learning Mandarin in a Global Pandemic
The global pandemic has has a profound influence on the way we study languages. On the downside, restrictions have made it  difficult to travel abroad. Yet the ongoing crisis has also led to record numbers of people taking on a new language.  On Today’s episode I explore the theme of learning Mandarin during a global pandemic with Chinese learner and friend of the podcast, Adam Morris. I first met Adam on a dream trip to China in 2018 organised by the Confucius Institute where we were both studying evening classes at the time.  Following the trip Adam decided to study a Bachelors degree in Chinese at the University of Leeds where he now in his his final year. In January 2020, his year abroad in Shanghai was dramatically cut short half way through and he was forced to return home to Leeds. I wanted to talk to Adam about his story and learn how he managed to overcome adversity and make the most of a difficult time for all language learners.
August 28, 2021
Learning Characters with Hack Chinese
One of the most daunting aspects of learning Chinese is the sheer number of characters required for basic literacy. It’s estimated that comfortably reading a newspaper requires around 3000 characters, whilst an educated native speaker will typically know in excess of 7000. Memorising such a high number of characters is not an easy task. But modern technology has made it easier than it once was. In the past, Mandarin learners had to rely on physical flashcards to review characters and commit them to memory but today a number of space repetition apps come with sophisticated algorithms which make the learning process more efficient.  Whilst these apps have facilitated the learning process they are still far from ideal. SRS apps are typically not very user friendly and most of them are not tailored to learning Mandarin characters in particular.  On today’s podcast I talk with Daniel Nalesnik, a Chinese learner who got so tired of badly designed apps that he decided to to create a new system himself. Hack Chinese ( is a space repetition learning system designed specifically for Mandarin Chinese. According to Daniel, using the website for just 10-20 minutes per day to review vocabulary can help you grow and maintain a bank of thousands of characters. I have been using Hack Chinese myself  for several weeks, and I’m impressed with how user friendly and efficient it is. So I wanted to get Daniel on the podcast to discuss his insights into learning Chinese and motivations for designing his system. 
August 15, 2021
Acquiring Mandarin: Naturalistic Immersion or Structured Learning?
Traditionally, highly structured approaches were favoured in classroom environments. But it’s fair to say today’s online language learning community has waged war on this idea. Language should be all about fun, enjoying yourself. The influential linguist Stephen Krashen argues that the most effective way to acquire a language is to expose yourself to content which you can comprehend and immerse yourself in activities which you enjoy. The more time you spend doing this, the more you will gradually progress closer and closer to fluency. I myself have been heavily influenced by these ideas and I think I’ve benefited from them immensely. It was largely through immersing myself in content I enjoyed that, despite not living in China, I was able to self study to a level where I could comfortably engage in meaningful conversations with native Chinese speakers. But, I have also learned from experience that relying too heavily on immersion alone when studying Chinese has its limits. This is particularly the case when it comes to tones and characters, two aspects of Chinese which many learners find hard to master. To discuss these issues with me I have invited a guest who is a friend of the podcast, Lionel Rowe. Lionel speaks fluent Chinese which he acquired while living in Beijing for a period of seven years. His learning methods were much more structured than mine, particularly at the beginning, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss our different language learning experiences with him on the podcast. 
July 25, 2021