The alarm goes off. Time to pick up the textbook and get back to the Chinese study.
But wouldn’t it be so much nicer just to relax with a couple of YouTube videos?
Hey, why not do both?
YouTube is not only the internet’s most effective means of unproductive procrastination, it’s also a potential goldmine of Chinese language resources, videos and lessons. In this post we’ll look at three fun ways to learn Chinese with YouTube: (1) following tutorial videos, (2) watching Chinese clips with English subtitles and (3) listening to some great Chinese music.
But first, for our readers in China and those planning an upcoming trip, let’s take a quick look at how you can still get your YouTube fix despite the fact that the site is technically blocked in China.
How to Watch YouTube in China: Tips on Hopping the Great Firewall
Everyone has heard of the Great Wall of China, but these days it’s the so-called Great Firewall that seems to be getting the most attention. It’s no secret that the Chinese authorities keep a tight grip on the internet, blocking many sites which we from overseas take for granted.
The bad news is, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and, of course, YouTube are all blocked in China. The good news is that, with some technology, this is pretty easy to get around. I’m writing this post from Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, but I have no trouble getting on YouTube and finding the videos that you’re about to discover below. This is because I’m using a VPN.
A VPN is a “Virtual Private Network.” Hey, I’m a writer, not a programmer, and honestly I don’t completely know the technical side of how it works, but in practice it means your internet traffic is routed through another location. I’m sitting here in China, but my VPN is set to Los Angeles, USA. When I log on to YouTube, it’s as if I’m in LA. It’s certainly a bit slower than you’re most likely used to back at home, but it does the job.
I use HideMyAss! VPN, which isn’t free, but it’s easy to download and install.
Okay, all sorted? Right, let’s dive into the three best ways to learn Chinese with YouTube.
3 Fun Ways to Learn Authentic Mandarin Chinese with YouTube
1. Discover the Best Chinese Language Tutorials
With more and more people making the same wise decision to learn Chinese, YouTube is increasingly bursting at the seams with Chinese language tutorials for pretty much all levels, from beginner to advanced.
That being said, not all tutorials are created equal. Some can even be pretty dull. So, what should you be watching?
One good channel to keep an eye on is Off the Great Wall.
These fun, energetic and quirky videos present bite-sized Chinese lessons in an entertaining way that makes things much easier to remember. Here’s a great one they did on how to speak with numbers in Chinese:
If you’re looking for a way to be able to say everything from “I love you,” “I’m hungry” and “I’m bored” to insults like “you are wicked and cruel” merely by using numbers, then this video is a must-watch!
FluentU Chinese YouTube channels also has some rock solid tutorials which show you how to apply Chinese vocabulary in a real-life setting. Here’s their video on making friends and getting coffee:
To take your learning progress one step further, you can subscribe to the FluentU Chinese program.
The interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos, giving you an extra boost in Chinese reading and listening practice.
2. Learn Like a Local with Chinese TV Shows
Hmmm, is your cunning strategy of watching YouTube videos to study not working?
Tutorials still feel a bit too much like work and not enough like play?
Okay, then it’s time to take our YouTube strategy to the next level and go straight to Chinese-language TV shows that you can watch for free.
If you’re brand new to the language, you’re probably better off waiting a bit before jumping to this stage, as the rapid-fire dialogue and frequent use of idioms can be very confusing. However if you’re at an intermediate level or higher, there are some amazing finds on YouTube. Here’s a list of 10 to get you started.
My personal favorite has to be the CCTV-10 Education Channel’s “Happy Chinese” series, also known by the Chinese name “快乐汉语” (Kuài Lè Hàn Yǔ!).
This series is deliberately created for Chinese language learners and follows the adventures of Susan, an American exchange student staying with a friendly and dynamic Chinese host family in Beijing. The vocabulary used during the “show” part of the videos is normally pretty advanced, but they also contain bite-sized lesson chunks interspersed in each episode with useful vocab and grammar points (unfortunately illustrated with really rather dreadful cartoons).
Here’s the first video in the “Happy Chinese” series:
Hooked already? Guess what? There are 117 episodes in the series, and at the time of writing they’re all available for free on YouTube! Here’s a playlist with the first 75!
3. Jam Out to Great Chinese Rock Songs for Mandarin Learners
If you seriously need something 100% fun to fully satisfy the impulse to procrastinate (while still learning), then it’s time to turn to what YouTube does best—that is, if you don’t count cat videos, comment trolls and bogus news stories. Music videos!
When you think of Chinese music, most likely you hear the exotic sound of the 二胡 (èr hú) or, if you’ve spent time in the country, the pulsating wail of Mando-pop. But look under the surface, and China actually has a thriving alternative music scene ranging from Sonic Youth style indie-rock to grunge, heavy metal, country and pretty much everything in between. And hey, what better way to learn a language than to have Chinese lyrics stuck in your head!
Here’s a great one to get you started: “中南海” (Zhōng nán hǎi) by Carsick Cars.
These guys have toured in Europe and even opened for Sonic Youth, and they have a Radiohead-esque surreal quality which makes them well worth the listen regardless of the language factor. The cryptic title, 中南海 (Zhōng nán hǎi) could refer either to a popular brand of Chinese cigarette, and / or to the headquarters of the communist party in Beijing.
Also worth checking out are 谢天笑 (Xiè Tiān Xiào), the height of Chinese grunge, and 何勇 (Hé Yǒng), whose songs range from trash rock to soothing country. If you’re feeling particularly brave, have a go at listening to the Sichuanese rap below.
An obvious catch with using music as a language learning tool is that people do not always speak the same way that they sing. Chinese songs have a particular habit of using extremely abstract and poetic language which there’s just no way any beginner or intermediate language student should be expected to know, so don’t freak out if some of the songs above seem a bit bamboozling on the first listen.
If you’re having trouble distinguishing the words of these songs and picking up on the lyrics, you can do a lyric search online by using the song title plus the Chinese word for lyrics, 歌词 (gē cí). A browser plugin like PeraPera can help you easily translate any unfamiliar characters simply by hovering your cursor over them.
No more excuses!
Now that you know how easy and fun it can be to learn Chinese with YouTube, there are no more excuses to skip your next study session.
No matter whether you’re at home or traveling in China, YouTube is easy to access, free and full of fun ways to learn Chinese and discover Chinese culture.
Nathan J. Thomas moved from New Zealand to Chengdu, China in 2014 without speaking a word of Mandarin. He is traveling as a freelance writer and editor of the online travel magazine, Intrepid Times.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.