How to learn Chinese with online services (Part One)

The editors of this blog and myself are really luck people. Why is that? Because we are passionate Mandarin students and we have the chance to study in a university while living in a (almost) total Chinese environment.

However, we are aware that not everyone has enough means or time (especially if you already have a career, a family to take care of…etc) to move out in a Chinese speaking country or simply to attend a school in their own countries. Let’s be honest, learning Chinese outside a proper environment is a difficult operation. Mandarin isn’t really a complex language but it definitely needs to be practiced a little bit every day or you will quickly forget everything you’ve learnt before.

There are countless ways to learn Chinese, both online (Podcasts) and off (textbooks), but I’m not going to review them all here. Some are really well done but they all have one major flaw, they may be used to “train” or “review” your Mandarin abilities but can’t be used as efficient tools to “learn” mandarin in a proper way.

As I won’t be able (timely and financially) to attend my Mandarin Training Center indefinitely, I’ve passed the past few months searching and trying different services that could efficiently replace a class with skilled teachers while fitting a potentially busy schedule. It wasn’t easy but we’ve hopefully found two nuggets that could not only replace “traditional” way of learning but also definitely enhance the experience.

Our first nugget here is called ChineseTeachers.com, it focuses on oral training and will dramatically improve your ability to speak Chinese.

Chinese Teachers

Chineseteachers.com has been created to answer several simple but recurrent problems that languages learners often encounter:

  • You don’t speak that much during your class (usually 10 to 15 cumulated minutes during a two hours class at most).
  • One to one (private) lesson are usually very expensive, hard to afford on a long-term basis.
  • Online class often uses not very handy software that not everyone knows/wants to use.
  • You always have to book a lesson in advance prior to start, if it’s 1am and you feel enough energy to start a lesson, you just can’t, you can go to sleep.

Basically Chineseteachers is like a marketplace where students, eager to quickly and efficiently learn how to speak Mandarin meet a large (about 200) pool of professional native Chinese teachers located all around the world (therefore mastering different other languages such as English (mandatory), French, German, Japanese, Portuguese…etc.).

Once you’ve registered, filled your profile (better to let your teachers know who your are) and topped-up (you can start with an amount as low as $1), you simply go to the main pages and check which teachers are already online:

As I mentioned above, there is no booking needed and I can start a lesson right away without having to install any software, everything is made through your browser (make sure to use the latest one such as Firefox or Chrome).

If you have specific questions/exam to prepare or just want to improve your conversation you can chose a random teachers (I usually do that to train hearing different accents, from southern, Taiwanese to the heavily accentuated northern one). But realistically, you are here to learn seriously, you’d better to book the same teacher (or group of teachers) for a regular (daily in my case) period of time, the teacher knows what is your level/progress and will prepare/adapt the course in consequences.

Homemade materials (“guides”) are available but most of the teachers already possess widely used schools textbooks (PAVC, Integrated Chinese, NPRC…etc). Everything learned during the class is stored online and can be accessible anytime. At the end of the lesson you can provide a feedback about your teacher.

Of course a service like this one isn’t free, but the good part here is that it’s really not expensive, per hour basis I even pay less than what I was paying to attend a school with at the ends better results.

Basically you have 4 kinds of teachers:

  • Associate Teachers: Great for practicing daily dialogue in Chinese, they cost about $12US per hour (you pay per minutes, the first two minutes are always free)
  • Teachers: These teachers have official qualifications in teaching Chinese as a foreign language as well as teaching experience. They will give structured and relevant advice to learners of any level. Cost about $18/h
  • Senior Teachers: Very experienced, qualified Chinese Teachers who have taught Chinese to foreigner students for many years. Cost about $24/h
  • Professional: Business professionals with excellent teaching records. Cost about $18/h

This price are quite ok if you realize that we’re talking about a private one to one lesson, however it can become a little bit expensive if you plan to study more than regularly as I do (that’s is more than 5h a week) it would cost 240$ per month

In that case you can purchase one of their 30/90/365, which basically gives your unlimited lesson during 30 days for $199, 90days for $999 and a full year for $2999.

As you may have guessed here, I’m a happy Chineseteachers user (I am considering dropping school at the end of the month to exclusively use this service) and I definitely saw my oral ability dramatically increase since I started.

Let’s see together the pros and cons:

Pros: No booking needed, no external software, use my own materials, two hours class = two hours of speaking, 30/90/365 day pass, great complement to Skritter (reviewed next week), large pool of native teachers always available (no matter the day, the hour or the place where you currently are)

Cons: I don’t have much cons here as the service totally fulfill my needs but I’d say that people like me who aren’t that outgoing will have some problem during the first 10 minutes with a new teacher, it’s kind of intimidating.

Check back next week for the second part in this series as Jean-François reviews Skritter, the online service for reading, memorising and writing Chinese characters.

14 responses to “How to learn Chinese with online services (Part One)

  1. Good and interesting post.

    You wrote: “…will have some problem during the first 10 minutes with a new teacher, it’s kind of intimidating.”

    Can you explain this? What kind of problems are you talking about?

  2. Hello 🙂

    I might have used a wrong word here, It´s not really a ¨problem, my point is that some people (as I do) are not really outgoing/comfortable to speak with strangers. It sounds ridiculous but sometime it just can be difficult, need to work/overcome this fear.

  3. Thank you Tortue for such a detailed (and nice) review!

    As we are now the featured article on ChineseHacks (and we love ChineseHacks), we have decided to offer its readers a special offer that will last until the end of November:

    You can register and top-up $10 (or less if you want, but you need $10 to book a teacher), have one lesson (or a few short lessons) with our teachers, and if you don’t enjoy learning with our teachers, we will refund you 100% and close your account.

    The only thing you need to do is register with this link to take advantage of this time-limited offer.

    We wish you all great progress in your future Chinese studies!
    ChineseTeachers.com

    1. @ChineseTeachers
      What exactly is the special offer, is that suppose to give me $10 to try out the system? or just the fact that I can be refunded if I am not happy?
      The link indicated just sends me to the regular Chinese Teachers website, so I don’t see what so special about it… I’m curious to try out the service though, it looks interesting.

        1. @wei,

          The link has an identifier that allows us to make sure that you come from ChineseHacks when you register.

          The offer is simple:
          1- Register by following the link we gave above
          2- Top-up $10 or less (you need $10 to book a teacher)
          3- Have one or more lessons with our teachers
          4- If you are happy, nothing to do 🙂 If not, we will refund you 100% and close your account, which is generous because we will pay our teachers for these lessons.

          Of course, we hope everyone will love their first lesson 🙂

          Less than 10 days to go!

  4. Very informative post! I am a ChineseTeachers student myself and have been very satisfied with the service. There are few things I would like to add.

    – The associate teachers cost only 12$ an hour but I think they all have official qualifications to teach Chinese. I have been with the same teacher for about 6 months and I can say that she is very professional.

    – ChineseTeachers has many teachers based in Taiwan which makes it a very good learning tool for those who want to learn traditional Chinese.

    – The site clearly shows how many hours you have studied, they also have an online certificate that you can use for job interviews etc. Here’s a link to my certificate.
    http://www.chineseteachers.com/certificate/guillaume

    – The service is really top notch, usually if you have a problem the staff contacts you within minutes. My teacher’s computer was once infected by a virus and we couldn’t have class for a few days, ChineseTeachers sent a technician to her home to fix her computer! Talk about service…

    – Extremely competitive pricing. Associate teachers cost 12$ an hour, but if you buy 200$ of credits you get 25$ free so the hourly price is less than 11$/hour. The passes are also a good idea if you want to do more intensive studying.

    Same as the author of the article, I was a student at the MTC in Taipei over 10 years ago. At that time, resources for learning Chinese on the net were still scarce and primitive. ChineseTeachers is a big step forward, along with ChinesePod they are taking Chinese learning to a whole new level.

    Here are a few points where I think there is room for improvements.

    – Sound quality, although quite good, I still feel that it is not as good as Skype

    – More study materials. Although ChinesePod and other materials are available, it would be nice to have actual textbooks in PDF format you can use during the class. I would not mind paying a little extra for that.

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  6. I also use chineseteachers.com, and find it pretty convenient. My online certificate is here, studied over 40 hours now.

    http://www.chineseteachers.com/certificate/simond

    I live in the UK, but not in any major city, so there aren’t many people willing to teach Chinese near me, and the ones that are tend to be pretty expensive, around twice the price of teachers on this site. It’s pretty good value considering the quality of the teachers.

    Really the pricing is competing with other online Chinese schools. The range of prices is similar to what you’ll get elsewhere, though you can find cheaper and more expensive. What you don’t normally get is people with the variety of life experience that you’ll find teaching on the site. Most other sites hire local Chinese. Some of these are good (I had good experiences with teachers from imandarinpod.com for example), but some have just graduated from 对外汉语 courses and are a bit green.

    Plus you’re able to find a teacher in the same timezone as you on chineseteachers.com. I’ve had teachers from all over, Brazil, Sweden, UK, US, Japan, Australia. None from the Middle East or Africa but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    Bad things about the site are that it doesn’t always live up to its dream of having someone online whenever you want to study on a whim, often the teachers are all busy or offline. The interface and sound quality can be a little bit worse than Skype, partly just because it’s a webpage, but things have improved here to the point where it’s not a big barrier. Even though it bills by the minute, I felt it doesn’t work that well I found for really quick chats, like 5 minutes if you have a quick question. The first 2 minutes are free, so I’d feel a bit guilty about not taking a reasonable chunk of time for a class.

    All in all though I think it’s a pretty interesting service, especially if your Chinese is at a reasonable level and you can chat to your teacher about their life overseas and experiences. The variety helps a lot here, and the teachers are all very professional and enthusiastic. I’d recommend people studying Chinese to give it a go, even if it’s just to try out this type of service, it’s pretty unique in the space and though expensive if it’s your only source of tuition it’s pretty good value for what you can get from it.

  7. Thanks for the write-up. There are so many online tutoring services that it is so difficult to choose unless you have a serious third party endorsement. So far it’s still cheaper to get a face-to-face Mandarin tutoring in Malaysia, where I live though I must say online tutoring gives you more flexibility.

    好好学习, 天天向上

  8. I have studied for about 90 hours* on Chinese Teachers.com and currently it is my main study venue, supplemented by reading and language exchanges with a few friends.

    * http://www.chineseteachers.com/certificate/michael-h

    I can give testimonial with the faith of a new convert because I was originally skeptical of some aspects of CTC’s model, and also I put lots of demands on their teachers and technical support. Before committing to an annual pass, I quizzed the management on how their business model would allow them to commit to unlimited use and monitored the turnover of the teachers for many months. I put up a strong resistance, but now I am totally won over.

    Everyone comments on the availability of teachers around-the-clock/globe, the free 2 minutes, pay-as-you-go with no risk, etc. These certainly are convenient and lower the psychological barrier to giving it a try. Perhaps my skeptical nature, but I originally worried this would lead to superficial “Ni hao, how are you?”-type exchanges, with no framework or curriculum for long-term study. Also, because my spoken Chinese was far worse than my written (=thanks to my Japanese ability), and the original interface several years ago did not have a typing/chat feature, I was very nervous about how I could strike up a conversation with no eye contact (=audio only) or written text to go by.

    My actual experience, especially with the new and constantly improving platform, has been entirely opposite. Thanks to the new document sharing capability, I’ve been able to upload several thousand pages of texts to share with various teachers. Already in storage is my HSK grammar book, a conversational phrase book, several Chinese language culture books, and my first serious non-fiction book (Pin Sanguo by Prof. YI Zhongtian).

    To my surprise and delight, I’ve found teachers who will commit to walk me through these materials, tutoring me step by step. My HSK grammar prep teacher in Sweden (…I’m in Japan) estimated we need 47 lessons (about 1.5 hours each) to finish the book, but we’re working away at it quickly to finish by the March exam. I’m still proud to say most of my Chinese is “self-taught”, but I would flatter myself to say I have the willpower to absorb that much dry and challenging material without his help. Realistically, to study such material with a native speaker as knowledgeable about Chinese linguistics, I would either have to take classes at a university or hire a professional tutor with a master’s degree – either case would be place huge demands on my schedule or finances.

    With other teachers we’ve taken a less structured approach, sometimes just chatting about recent news or whatever. Even with just light conversation though, the teachers often provide lots of feedback, often sending detailed written comments afterwards so as not to disrupt the flow of conversation. There are teachers with backgrounds in journalism, business, sciences, etc. – and many have lived overseas – so they make great conversation partners.

    On the minus side, I had many technical problems for the first several months – dropped calls, time delays, poor sound quality, etc. To be objective, I must say they were quite serious and frustrating. I thought to give up then and there, but I was sentimental and couldn’t betray the efforts of their technical support staff — at one time, they actually sent a technician to visit a teacher to set up a router or something (she lives in the city of their head office). Slow improvements were made and finally a new dedicated server was leased in Japan, and I’ve had zero problems in many months.

    The question still lingers – why not Skype? Partly it may be CTC’s pride and “ego investment” in their proprietary platform. Working with their technical support staff, I became privy to what goes on under the hood and can say they certainly have devoted skills and investment to it. More important for the learners, I think they want to have control of the platform to customize the learning experience and protect the privacy of their teachers. Now the integration of the scheduling/note-taking/chat/document-sharing/etc. in the user interface is pretty good.

    Overall, I would say I came to CTC thinking I didn’t NEED a _teacher_ (i.e., conceit of the self-taught), but SHOULD (i.e., “eat your peas”) practice conversation…in the end, I’ve found many wonderful and committed people helping me as _tutors_, perhaps I could go so far as to say _mentors_. With a billion+ Chinese and Skype ubiquitous, finding somebody to practice Chinese conversation with is not going to be difficult or expensive – in Japan I’ve seen dozens of online schools come and go, some offering services truly at the “China Price”. For those making a long-term commitment to master Chinese, I would suggest looking at the quality and commitment of the teachers and the site’s management’s support for them and the students. I’ve found my niche with CTC and, while I’m making steady progress and hope to pass the New HSK level 6 in 2011, I don’t expect to “outgrow” their service anytime soon.

    1. Hello Michael,
      wow great review!
      I am also a new convert to CTC. I recently moved from buying credits to an unlimited pass and I think the value is amazing. I am also in Japan and I was wondering if you would like to get in touch? I often attend Chinese events in Tokyo in order to practice Chinese, it would be cool to talk another Chinese learner.

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