What’s the hardest part of learning a language?
I’m going to go out on a limb….
… and say that listening might be the hardest part.
Listening is fundamentally different from reading, writing, and speaking because listening is often in the spur of the moment.
When you’re talking to people, you can’t really expect to have people repeat things twice, thrice, four times and more just to catch up with what they say.
Mandarin Chinese language podcasts, then, might be a really great way to brush up your Chinese listening skills. And with the variety of podcasts out there, it’s pretty awesome in that you can learn some topic specific vocabulary while learning something interesting about Chinese culture.
Instead of spending most of our time on the usual suspects (eg. Chinesepod and Popup Chinese), we’re going to introduce some other options for Chinese podcasts which you might not have heard of. These are native language podcasts, which might be perfect for you if you’re looking to get to the next level in your Chinese fluency.
What Makes a Great Chinese Podcast?
First of all, I want to do a brief section on talking about how I gauged these Chinese podcast services, and if you’re looking for Chinese podcasts, these might be some things you wanna think about when choosing a Chinese language podcast to follow.
1. It has to be suitable for your level. It goes without saying, almost, but if the podcast is overly technical, and riddled with obscure words nobody thinks about using, it might not be immediately attractive to you. Instead, you might want to find Chinese podcasts that are suitable to your current Chinese level. Usually, the best podcast services designed for learning will sort their podcast lessons by level.
2. It shouldn’t have too much local slang or dialect in it. This is another biggie – I personally find slang to be very difficult, and mostly irrelevant when learning another language. It’s ironic…most people say that Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but surprisingly, it doesn’t have a lot of slang that finds its way into the Chinese language as with the colourful expressions you often hear in English. I’m not against slang per se, but I certainly don’t advocate it either, especially for learning in the beginning.
3. Avoid Chinese podcasts that are heavily accented. I’m sure you already know this, but China is a big place. Unfortunately, the Chinese language tends to have a lot more variation in accent that makes it difficult to listen to. For example, a heavy GuangDong accent may make Chinese sound very much like Cantonese, and someone who’s local Taiwan or who speaks the MinNan dialect often likes to throw in a couple of phrases here and there in the local dialect. I would recommend against these ones.
4. Great Chinese podcasts should have a transcript or subtitles to go with it. If you’re a beginner in Chinese, subtitles, transcripts and learning materials are always welcome. I tend to be a bit biased, but between two podcasts that have good content and mediocre content, I would choose the one with the mediocre content but with great learning materials (assuming the one with the good content doesn’t have it), that way, I know I’m actually learning!
5. Awesome Chinese podcasts should discuss interesting topics. Nothing beats podcasts that are overly political or just talks about news – I mean, why not just watch the news then? I tend to favour podcasts that talk about really niche-y stuff, or podcasts that are more casual (doesn’t sound like a recording taken out of a Chinese textbook), but the main thing is that it should be interesting, or else I find my vocabulary retention rates drop after a while.
6. Popular Chinese podcasts should be updated regularly. In a sense, you can look at it like a vanity indicator, but the more popular the Chinese learning podcasts, the more often it should be updated, right? Also great to choose a podcast you can stick to for a long time to come.
Okay, and after looking at many, many podcasts, I’ve picked out 7 Chinese language podcasts which I think are just flat out awesome, that you might wanna check out.
Mandarin on the Go: 6 Awesome Chinese Podcasts You’ve Never Heard of
Chinese Podcast #1: 青春愛消遣 (The Pastimes of Youth)
Podcast Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 與王小姐談心（Talking with Ms. Wong），青春朗讀社（Youth Reading club），青春藤解析英語（Youths dissecting English），青春智慧王（The Youth King of Wisdom），青春萊塢 ﹣ 猜猜是哪部電影（”Youth-lywood – guess the film”）
Best used for: Learning basic vocabulary and understanding Taiwan culture
Theme: Daily life issues (Taiwan younger audience)
One thing I love about Taiwan talk shows is that they’re always very relaxing – it almost seems like dropping in on a conversation between friends, so it always give you a homely feel…great for a weekend listening session to learn Chinese through podcasts…and to relax!!
Typical of Taiwan talk show hosts, this podcast is brought to audiences in a very conversational tone. It’s also targeted at a younger audience, so the dialogue is a lot less formal, and a lot easier to listen to.
Started by two college students, this show is pretty popular in Taiwan, and it basically talks about life issues from the eyes of younger people in Taiwan, so you can really see how Taiwan people live their daily lives, their cultural values, beliefs and such.
So if you’re interested in seeing Taiwan through the eyes of youngsters, this is definitely the show to go!
Chinese Podcast #2: Slow Chinese (慢速中文)
Podcast Difficulty: Upper Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 豆漿和油條（Soya bean milk and friend bread dough），中國好聲音（The Voice of China），舌尖上的中國（China on the tip of the tongue），逃跑計劃（Escape plan），古箏（GuZheng, a Chinese musical instrument）,長壽麵（Longevity noodles）
Best used for: Gleaning into the life of a Chinese college student
Theme: Daily life in China
Slow Chinese is a relatively new show, and it’s also pretty unique. It’s created by Chinese college students, and basically, these students talk about a snippet of what it’s like to live in China, often in short sessions under 10 minutes.
The most unique aspect of Slow Chinese is that it’s designed to be spoken out loud slowly, so even if the content is a bit more advanced than you’re used to, it’s much easier to make out the individual words because of the slower speed!
I think that in terms of learning materials, it’s not the most well equipped in the list, but in terms of podcast material, it can be interesting – these are genuine snippets of what life is like through the eyes of college students, so you can count on it that you’re not just going to learn new words, you’re also going to hear some unique stuff about Chinese culture from a native’s perspective!
The content isn’t exhaustive, but you can get a glimpse into China through Slow Chinese, and I highly recommend it for people who are at an intermediate level to really polish their listening skills here.
Chinese Podcast #3: 新浪視頻
Podcast Difficulty: Advanced
Materials: Video subtitles (but not interactive)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 女局長用假證與男子結婚同居（Female Police Chief uses a fake ID to marry a man and live with him）, 男子劫人質 特警一槍將其擊倒（A man takes hostages, a special officer takes him down with a single shot），92女孩同時高空跳傘（92 girls jump with parachutes at the same time），中國需提防個別國家搞偷襲（China needs to take preventive measures to fend off surprise attacks from individual countries），記者被工作人員缚手围殴（Reporter is tied and beaten by workers）
Best used for: Learning vocabulary to do with politics and current affairs
Theme: Chinese politics and current mainland affairs
Also available at: http://video.sina.com.cn/
Sina is one of China’s largest websites, and it’s also within the top 25 most visited websites in the world. Think of it as the Chinese NYT, except its operations cover a whole lot more than just news! But if you’re looking for more news and current affairs podcasts, this is definitely the way to go.
Sina podcasts cover a huge variety of topics, and there are almost 20 clips added daily.
However, be forewarned – this isn’t the easiest Chinese podcast to listen to! Because it’s a native Chinese show, it’s not designed to be used as Chinese learning material, so what’s said on screen is what native Chinese people hear, which doesn’t sound tough, but add on the non-Beijing accents used by some TV anchors, it can be a real challenge!
So, yes…that means you’ll have to slowly attune yourself to listen to a wide variety of accents…even from reporters!
If I had to recommend how to use it, I’d say you can treat it as a daily practice session to improve your listening flexibility, but I wouldn’t advocate it as a way to learn vocabulary (the topics are way too varied, not to mention way too dry for my tastes!).
Chinese Podcast #4: 鬼話連遍糗事百料
Podcast Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced
Materials: Video subtitles (but not interactive)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 超膽任務實驗工廠鬼屋（Super daring mission to experiment with a haunted ghost factory），靈動總回顧（Looking back at telekinesis），超膽觀眾實驗 度假村（Super daring audience mission – exploring the village house），空屋女鬼（Female ghost in an empty house）
Best used for: Learning general vocabulary
This is a pretty popular TV show in China based around a fairly unusual theme – supernatural stuff!
If you’re into supernatural things, this is definitely something you want to check out! Based on a reality TV show format, it shows episodes of audiences visiting places rumoured to be haunted, and their reactions are filmed on screen, and since a lot of this isn’t “staged”, you’re more than likely to hear a genuine scream permeating the set – sending shivers down your spine!
One thing that bugged me is the fact that I don’t think it’s updated anymore…but even with the current episodes count, you can get pretty busy with combing throughout the content.
Subtitles are available, and if you’re a supernatural fan (no pun intended), this might be an interesting show to catch.
Chinese Podcast #5: 開卷八分鐘（Eight Minutes Reading)
Podcast Difficulty: Upper Intermediate to Advanced
Example Chinese podcast lessons: 南非的啟示（The South African Relevation）, 介入的旁觀者：雷蒙：阿隆訪談錄（Le Spectateur Engage – The Bystander Engages, Raymond Aron）
Best used for: Practice listening skills and discovering new books to read
This is another niche-y type Chinese language podcast – it’s a show broadcasted (it’s still ongoing as of this blog post) in a major Chinese TV network, and it’s basically a show where the host talks about book recommendations in short 8 minute snippets (thus the title 開卷“八分鐘”), talking about his thoughts on the book, summarises it and talks about why he recommends reading this.
If you’re an avid reader and would love to expand your book selection to Chinese work, this is a great way to get a close up with Chinese books (literature, essays, short stories, etc.) in a more relaxing way, and get good book recommendations to read in the meanwhile.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to read Chinese books nowadays, so I haven’t bought any books recommended by the host yet. But, based on how he describes some of these books, I’d definitely be enticed to check out these books if I had the time, so this show gets my personal thumbs up for great book recommendations!
(Word of caution, though: reading these books require a fairly good grasp of Chinese literature – so while anyone can practice their Chinese listening skills with the show, these books are not for the faint of heart!)
Chinese Podcast #6: FluentU
Podcast Difficulty: Beginner to native
Materials: Yes (downloadable PDFs, online interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists, further word explanations, exercises)
Example Chinese podcast lessons: Crazy for Bitcoins, Falling Girl caught by Good Samaritans, TEDx: Taiwan from Above, In Need of a Miracle, “What is Love,” The Chinese Zodiac, “I Try Pantene” with Lin Chi-ling, Tomboy Can Fly, A Flower in the Mist, Looking After Those We Love, What Is an Aurora?
Best used for: Listening practice (video and audio) and learning vocabulary specific to different topics
Podcast Theme: Varied
OK, so actually FluentU isn’t a regular Chinese podcast or a TV show styled like a Chinese podcast – it’s actually a learning platform where you can learn new words through real videos and Chinese audio dialogues, check out annotated definitions, add new words to your own custom vocabulary lists, and much more!
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning, then suggests content and examples based on what you've already learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
And One More Thing…
On a different but not unrelated note, I also want to mention the name of a hugely popular talk show that I think deserves to be on the list, but isn’t because of reasons I’m about to explain – it doesn’t have subtitles, episodes are 45 minutes long (very long!), and can be a little localised at times – but I personally love the show a lot, so I can’t resist bringing it up at the end.
The show I’m referring to, of course, is the award winning Taiwan talk show – 康熙来了. The show’s name a play on the Chinese emperor 康熙，but is actually a portmanteau of the two host’s names. For near a decade now (as of this post), it’s a long running variety show in Taiwan, where the two hosts invite many different guests to the show, celebrities and normal people, talking about a huge variety of topics that people often find interesting and controversial.
Highly recommend this for some light hearted entertainment, humour, insight into Taiwan culture, and also learning a couple of phrases in the local Taiwan dialect!
In my opinion, Chinese language podcasts are a great way to learn Chinese, especially to help strengthen your listening skills.
And to sum up, here are my recommendations:
If you’re looking for Chinese podcasts to strengthen your listening and your vocabulary in an organised way, FluentU maybe the way to go;
If you’re looking for Chinese podcasts in the news category, Sina’s podcasts may be the thing for you;
Finally, if you’re looking for more niche-y type podcasts, you might want to check out 鬼話連遍糗事百料 and 开卷八分钟。
I hope you’ve found this post helpful, and that it made you consider adding podcasts to your Chinese learning approach in the future.
P.S. A user has also mentioned Learn Chinese with CSLPod as another great podcast worth checking out. Looks promising!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.