The best way to learn a language is to completely immerse yourself in the country and listen to it anywhere and everywhere.
What’s that? Can’t pack your bags for China right now?
We hear you. So here’s the second best way—watch Chinese TV.
Why Should I Watch Chinese TV?
The most important reason why you should give yourself a legit excuse to watch television is because you get to watch and listen to the way that regular people actually speak. Well, the topics may not be too regular—since most people don’t solve crimes and find love every other day—but actors speak fluently and naturally, without exaggerating their pronunciation or slowing down their speech like in some audio learning tools.
You’ll also be able to learn the most common vocabulary used in everyday life that are actually useful in getting you to a great conversational level.
In addition, as you follow along a plot, you’ll be able to better understand the nuances of words and phrases and use them more appropriately. Not only that, but the dramatic and emotional scenes can also serve as visual aids to help you to better remember these new words that you had just learned.
“Well, I’m just a beginner, wouldn’t it be too overwhelming and ineffective?” you may ask.
While it may be exasperating to watch a program and understand only the credits, beginners can definitely benefit from watching Chinese television. Just be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself. To really learn a language well, you have to get as much exposure as you possibly can, and marinate in it even if you don’t know the vocabulary…yet.
It really doesn’t matter which level you’re currently at; it’s all about choosing the right program for you—which we’ll show you how to do after we take a closer look at how to learn from TV.
How to Learn Chinese While Watching TV Online
If you really want to gain the most from watching Chinese TV, you’ll have to put in a little work. These tips will help you turn an otherwise frivolous activity into something useful.
- Take notes. This may sound really nerdy, but taking notes while you watch TV is a small price to pay on the road to Chinese fluency. So grab a pen and paper, and with each episode or program that you watch online, pause and write down words that are new and useful. This should be easy if the program comes with Chinese subtitles, as some of them do. Learn the words, and observe the context in which they are being used.
- Re-watch. Another way to enhance your learning is to watch the episode—or part of it—again. But the second time, watch without the English subtitles, if you had them on the first time. Do this a few days after you first watch the episode, so that the scenes aren’t that fresh in your mind, and see if you can understand it just as well without any aid.
- Watch with Chinese subtitles. Intermediate and advanced learners should really try this challenge. Watching with Chinese subtitles will help you pick up the correct pronunciation and, more importantly, enhance your ability to make intelligent guesses based on context. You can check the actual meaning after that, just to be sure.
- Pick up the accents. Depending on your motivation for learning Chinese, accents could play a significant role. If you are heading to Taiwan, for example, it would make much more sense to watch Taiwanese productions since their accents are rather different than that of Beijing Chinese. Learning to mimic accents, and listening to yourself speak aloud, will actually help you sound like a real pro and be understood.
The disadvantage with everything mentioned above is that there’s still a lot of pain involved when you encounter unknown words. You’ll have to identify the pronunciation, and look them up in your dictionary. You’ll waste a lot of time and energy. If you’d like to be more efficient with this, you might want to check out our video-based Chinese learning site FluentU, which was designed to address exactly this problem.
What Chinese TV Show Should I Watch Online?
Chinese TV for Beginners
For pure beginners, the “Growing Up with Chinese” series on CCTV’s Learn Chinese channel is a good place to start. While it isn’t quite Chinese TV in the regular sense, the clips are really easy to understand and follow, short and wouldn’t overwhelm the elementary learner.
Chinese TV for Beginner to Intermediate Levels
If you’re a beginner to intermediate learner, you’ll have a good chance of success (and great entertainment) if you follow a Taiwanese idol drama. The Taiwanese accent is clear, and idol dramas are usually set in common everyday situations that you can easily relate to (e.g. schools, offices, home).
One of the most popular Taiwanese Idol Dramas to date is “Corner with Love” (转角遇到爱). It’s not a sappy love story that would bore you by the first episode, but rather one that infuses lots of humor and good acting by seasoned stars to keep you engaged.
Travel programs are also a great way to learn, especially since they are very descriptive with places and emotions, while keeping the vocabulary simple and direct. There are many types of Chinese travel programs, and a high-energy one like “iWalker” (愛玩客) would be perfect.
Chinese TV for Intermediate to Advanced Levels
For intermediate and advanced learners, you’ll be able to enjoy more than just idol dramas. There are some incredible Chinese period dramas that are packed with suspense, action and ingenious plot twists. Characters don’t speak in your everyday common-man language, but rather are a lot more poetic and profound. It kind of makes you wonder why people don’t speak so beautifully anymore.
And in addition to flowery expressions and vocabulary, period dramas also provide a glimpse into the ancient history of China. A popular series that you could start with is “Legend of the Condor Heroes” (射雕英雄传), an epic story of good and evil with a great dose of action.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is really nothing like watching the news to get a firm grasp of actual current events. The language will always be accurate and proper, and you’ll learn a more formal style of expression. You’ll also be exposed to specific terms related to politics and the economy, which will help get your Chinese conversation beyond asking someone what’s for dinner. Some news reporters speak rather fast too, so it’s a great way to sharpen your listening skills.
Game shows are to the Chinese what reality TV is to the Americans. Chinese game shows are very popular, especially among the young, and offer a nice glimpse of popular youth culture. People definitely speak a lot more naturally in game shows, so although Taiwanese female celebrities are known to speak in an exaggeratedly cute way, you really shouldn’t expect your regular Mandarin-speaking girl to sound so saccharine sweet.
One Chinese game show that has been extremely successful is “If You Are the One” ( 非诚勿扰). This is a dating game show that features mostly young professionals searching for a date or a soulmate, which may give you some insight on romance and the dating scene in China. If you’re searching for a Chinese partner for some reason, take notes!
I’m Sold. Now Where Do I Get My Free Chinese TV Fix?
Thank goodness that free Chinese TV online isn’t hard to find. Here are some websites that you should definitely bookmark.
Baidu, China’s largest search engine, has its own TV series channel. Dramas are up-to-date and the selection is huge.
Youku is a great resource and one of the nation’s largest video streaming websites, kind of like YouTube.
360 TV provides links to popular TV series on other websites, and you can easily choose which site works best for you. There are also review scores for each series represented by the color of the tomatoes, which is helpful if you’re overwhelmed by the number of choices.
Tudou is a really popular site for streaming TV series and movies—and not just Chinese, but international programs as well. There’s also a free app available for download on tablets, Androids, iPhones and iPads, so you could really make your long commute to work an educational and entertaining one.
Now tune in, start watching and enjoy!
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