My Complete ChineseClass101 Review: Is It Worth Upgrading from a Free Account?
It has been floating around on language learning forums that ChineseClass101 is pretty good in terms of course flexibility and catering to all levels of learners, so I thought I’d give it a go.
If you’ve been curious about the program, I hope my experience with it will help you decide if ChineseClass101 is the right fit for you.
- ChineseClass101 at a Glance
- ChineseClass101 Features
- How ChineseClass101 Works
- What I Love About ChineseClass101
- What I Don’t Love About ChineseClass101
- ChineseClass101 Plans and Pricing
- So Is ChineseClass 101 Worth It?
ChineseClass101 at a Glance
ChineseClass101 is one of the many courses from Innovative Language, which you might recognize as the creators of the Pod101 series. The program is composed of short audio and video lessons based on real Chinese conversations. These dialogues are relatable to the learner so the content can be applied immediately to everyday life.
With audio clips ranging between 10 to 15 minutes, the lessons are the perfect amount of time to keep learners engaged. Although the program is based primarily on these audio clips, there are also dedicated lessons on common phrases, grammar, reading, writing and culture to offer you a well-rounded Mandarin learning experience.
ChineseClass101 has a lot to offer, so let’s go over all the features I reencountered first, before making any evaluations or comparisons to other well-known learning programs.
Above is a sample audio lesson. Here are all the lesson components:
- Various audio tracks: The lesson itself is one track that includes the dialogue and review. These can be downloaded separately as three audio tracks. On the platform, you can also listen to the dialogue line-by-line, as well as the native recordings of vocab and sample sentences.
- Slow audio playback: This feature lets you listen to pronunciation slowly and carefully, making it easier for you to pronounce words correctly.
- Voice recording tool: This feature allows you to compare your pronunciation with native speaker audio.
- Vocabulary: This section compiles all the main vocab from the lesson and sample sentences.
- Lesson Notes: This is where you’ll find any grammar and cultural notes and other information relevant to the lesson.
- Lesson Transcript: The lesson is downloadable in PDF form.
- Quiz: This is a multiple-choice assessment available for Premium users.
Just be aware that the availability of each feature depends on the subscription plan you sign up for. I signed up for the free trial right away so I was able to access all the premium features. I recommend the free trial as a way to play around with all the components and decide if it’s worth continuing your subscription.
Now, let’s talk about the mobile app. The app offers a slightly different experience from the web program.
The key differences include:
- The Lesson Audio, Dialogue and Review show up as three separate tracks.
- The Vocabulary section only contains the terms and audio pronunciation.
- The Expansion section contains sample sentences using the lesson vocabulary.
- The Hanzi Close Up section is a PDF worksheet for handwriting practice.
- There’s no voice recording tool on the app.
Additional Program Features
There are tons of other functions to help you study what you learn in your lessons.
- Various vocab tools: This includes their Word Lists, Word Bank, Flashcards, Common Words and Key Phrases so there are plenty of ways to reinforce your vocab knowledge.
- Online Dictionary: The handy search function is on the top navigation bar. Results will contain lessons and dictionary definitions.
- Grammar Bank: This is a compilation of all grammar points covered in lessons.
- Word of the Day: This is a separate email service that you can sign up for right at the beginning.
- Audiobooks: These can be bought at their online store and are super handy for learning on your commute.
- My Teacher: Premium PLUS users can get a personalized study plan, assignments and corrections from a tutor via messenger.
- Innovative Languages app: If you want to learn on the go, the Innovative Languages app is the answer. But if you have a choice between the app and the web program, choose the latter. The app has limited functionality in comparison.
How ChineseClass101 Works
First things first, you’ll need to sign up with your email. Once you’ve registered for an account, you’ll be asked about the Word of the Day email service, then their $1 promotion and finally, your proficiency level.
Levels, Series and Seasons
Lessons are divided into levels, series and seasons. In the beginning, I didn’t understand what the difference was between series and seasons, so let me just break it down for you.
There are five proficiency levels:
- Absolute Beginner
- Upper Intermediate
The Upper Intermediate and Advanced levels align with HSK 4 and 5 respectively. You can change your level at any time so you can move up or down a level if you need to.
Moving onto series.
Series are the subcategories of levels, further pinpointing your proficiency. For example, the Beginner level is divided into series like Lower Beginner, Beginner and Upper Beginner.
Seasons are sets of lessons under series. The seasons average at around 25 lessons and are grouped together according to a theme. There are about 1,300 lessons in total.
Guided Learning with the Dashboard
There are essentially two routes you can take. If you’re not really looking for a particular learning “pathway” and just need a general Mandarin language course, then you can start off with the Dashboard.
Once you get to the Dashboard, you’ll already see a series under “My Pathways” and the very first lesson in that series under “Recommended Lesson List.”
Once you finish a series, the following series of a higher difficulty will be added to “My Pathways.”
Customized Learning by Browsing Lessons
If you have an idea of what you want to learn or don’t necessarily want to study what’s been suggested on your Dashboard, the alternative is to manually search for lessons. You can filter your search by Audio Lessons or Video Lessons.
To add a pathway, just click on the course and click “Add to Dashboard.”
Before your first lesson, you’ll be asked to take a diagnostic or assessment according to your chosen level to get a better gauge of your proficiency.
If you’re learning Mandarin from scratch, you’ll begin your journey by learning pinyin first, then move on to an introduction to hanzi. From there, you can choose to take the Simplified or Traditional route. Both versions are shown in lessons, but you can choose to hide the Traditional hanzi.
If you sign up for one of the Premium plans, you can also get a better idea of your Mandarin progress with multiple-choice quizzes. For PLUS users, you also get handwritten assessments.
To see how you’re doing overall, you can view your Dashboard. On there, you’ll find an overview, including the number of lessons completed, flashcards reviewed and hours studied. It also displays the percentage studied of your current seasons, though you’ll need to make sure mark lessons as complete so everything is up to date.
What I Love About ChineseClass101
Emphasis on Pronunciation
Generally, podcast lessons focus on improving your listening skills, but I was pleasantly surprised to see all the features dedicated to pronunciation practice.
As you might have experienced already, Chinese pronunciation is probably the biggest hurdle for native English speakers. Thus, extras like slow playback, review tracks perfect for shadow practice and voice recording is extremely useful for refining your accent and pronunciation.
Though I didn’t personally try it, the “My Teacher” chat also seems like a safe space to practice your pronunciation with a native speaker.
Flexible Course Structure
I find that a lot of comprehensive online Chinese courses follow a linear path. It isn’t a bad thing—it’s definitely helpful for those who require structure in their studies.
ChineseClass101 has that structure too, but I do love that I can either go with their flow or pick up another season or two according to my interests and curiosities.
Because I’ve studied Mandarin in a formal classroom setting in the past, I tend to go for online Chinese programs that offer a sense of autonomy. ChineseClass101 may not be as flexible as other options, but I appreciate the control you have over what topics you study.
Offline Studying Available
Not only is it possible to study on the go, but ChineseClass101 also makes it convenient for you to study sans an internet connection. Whether you want a copy of all the audio files, a printed version of lesson notes that you can scribble on or PDF worksheets, ChineseClass101 offers a wealth of resources that make it easy to study on and offline.
Loads of these resources can be downloaded under the free plan, so the fact that you don’t have to pay extra for them is amazing.
Tons of Vocabulary Practice
From the spaced repetition flashcards to the Word Bank and vocab slideshows, there are so many ways you can practice new terms. It’s extra tools like these that help you interact with and reinforce the lesson content, and therefore remember new words in the long run.
Let’s not forget the fact that many of these tools are accessible with a free lifetime account, making it that much more convenient to build your vocabulary without breaking the bank.
What I Don’t Love About ChineseClass101
One of the biggest things missing from ChineseClass101 is feedback from native speakers, which is really important if you want to be able to speak in Chinese.
You can ask questions in the comments section of lessons, but it’s rather unfortunate that there are limited communication channels between you and native speakers. It would also be nice to connect to fellow learners.
Sure, you can still track your progress without a teacher, namely with the multiple-choice quizzes. They indicate what areas you need to improve, but you’d benefit more from teacher corrections than from computer-generated results. As mentioned earlier, teacher communication is only available through the most expensive subscription plan.
While there’s no doubt that the Premium PLUS subscription is an affordable option for a tutor, I can’t justify the cost in terms of the feedback offered. And as for the personalized program, the teacher just assigns you learning pathways that you could have figured out on your own.
Also, it can take a couple of days before you get any response from your teacher. For that reason, I’d rather pay an hourly fee on a tutoring app for immediate feedback than have to wait for a response that I’ll probably receive outside of my study schedule.
Lack of Writing Practice
While there are writing lessons and extra resources to help you with handwriting, stroke order and whatnot, I feel like ChineseClass101 is still lacking in the development of writing skills.
Yes, there are some handwriting lessons and assessments, but those particular assessments are only accessible to Premium PLUS members, which is extremely limiting.
Mandarin Chinese is a character-based language with a vastly different writing structure from English, making reading and writing Chinese just as important as listening and speaking in terms of overall fluency. As a tactile learner, I remember better by doing. I remember characters better by writing them. By writing, I essentially improve my reading comprehension.
I might be nitpicking over here. ChineseClass101 is a podcast-learning program, ergo the focus more so on listening. But if you’re going to market yourself as an app that covers all language skills, there needs to be a balance between all of them.
Too Much Spoken English in Lessons
To learn Chinese (or any other target language, for that matter), you need to constantly be pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That said comfort zone is English, assuming you’re either a native or fluent in English.
Even with intermediate and advanced levels, the lessons weren’t as challenging as I needed them to be, meaning there was just way too much English spoken in the lessons. I understand the English usage in the beginning, but as you progress, the amount of English needs to minimize.
The lesson notes are mostly in English, anyway, so why can’t there be more Mandarin in the audio portion? It’s just a missed opportunity for more advanced Chinese listening practice.
At some point, you have to be fully immersed in the language in order to progress, which many existing language programs already recognize. For example, FluentU immerses learners in Mandarin through native media clips, like movie scenes and news reports, pairing them with interactive subtitles and other learning aids for full comprehension of the video content.
Too Many Emails
It’s good to have reminders for studying Chinese to hold yourself accountable, especially on days you’re feeling really unmotivated. But when you receive up to five emails a day, it can definitely have the opposite effect. It did for me, at least.
Obviously, you can change your settings so that you don’t have to be part of their blatant email marketing scheme. It’s just that these emails are excessive and totally unnecessary o begin with.
Even the Word of the Day email service isn’t worth signing up for. The emails show a term with a picture to match but no pinyin, which could be frustrating for beginners who need pronunciation clues. The email does include links to the website’s audio dictionary, though the least they could do is include pinyin in their emails.
I get that this is meant to motivate you to study on the website, but it definitely manifests more of a marketing tactic than anything.
ChineseClass101 Plans and Pricing
Earlier, I mentioned that some features are limited to certain plans, so let’s go over all of them. They do have sales pretty often, but I’ll only be noting down their regular prices which are pretty affordable anyway. There’s also a seven-day free trial and a 60-day refund policy.
The Basic plan gives you access to all lessons and some of the built-in learning tools. You’ll also have access to many of the vocab tools, except for 2,000 Most Common Words, Word Bank and Flashcards.
A Premium account grants you access to all the lesson tools, such as multiple-choice quizzes, Line-by-Line audio and the voice recording tool. You can also use all the additional program functions (except My Teacher).
As for the vocab tools specifically, you’ll be able to use the Word Bank, 2,000 Chinese Core Words and Phrases and create custom word lists.
If you sign up for Premium PLUS, you can take advantage of the $1 promotion instead of the free trial, where you only have to pay a buck for the first month. Other than Premium PLUS access, you also get exclusive freebies such as a free product download from their store and a bundle of 60 beginner audio lessons and worksheets. There’s also a 7-Day Fluency Fast Course that you won’t find anywhere else on the site.
There’s a considerable jump in price from the Premium to Premium PLUS plans because of My Teacher, which includes the following:
- A thorough assessment placement test
- A personalized program
- A messenger for feedback, chatting and sharing files
- Assignments and corrections
- Graded assessments
- A certificate of completion
Free Lifetime Account
What’s great about ChineseClass101 is that you don’t actually need your credit card to register. Once you sign up with just your email, you automatically have a “Free Lifetime Account.”
With this free account, you can view the first three lessons of every series. Also, new lessons are available for free (audio files included) for the first three weeks, so keep a lookout for those. And don’t forget that a few of the vocabulary tools (Chinese Dictionary, Word Lists, Word of the Day, 100 Common Words and Key Phrases) come for free as well.
There are also bonus resources and mobile apps in the Chinese resources section, though I wouldn’t really bother with the additional apps like Word Power since the interface is outdated. And just like with the Innovative Languages app, access to those bonus apps is dependent on your subscription plan.
Free Access Without an Account
If you don’t want an account at all, you can still take advantage of ChineseClass101 content. They’re constantly posting new stuff on Google and Apple Podcasts. On there you’ll find a mix of mini-lessons, learning tips and throwback lessons.
Before even signing up, I Googled some ChineseClass101 lessons and managed to listen to them. So yes, there’s a way around to these lessons without an account, but it’s a bit of a pain and not really efficient way of spending study time.
If you like learning on YouTube, ChineseClass101 also has a channel with video lessons.
So Is ChineseClass 101 Worth It?
For the most part, I’d say yes, but it really depends on the kind of outcomes you’re looking for.
Worth it for:
- Working on pronunciation
- Building your vocabulary
Not worth it for:
- People planning on taking the HSK
- Upper intermediate and advanced learners
ChineseClass101 is suitable for various types of learners. At the same time, it might not work well under certain circumstances. When you compare the website to this review, you’ll notice that they do exaggerate the services they offer, so I don’t see the Premium PLUS subscription being totally worth the extra money. However, a Premium account is definitely worth considering.
Personally, I don’t think I’m a good fit for the program. While the lessons were enjoyable, I didn’t feel challenged enough with all the English that was included in the lessons. As a comprehensive online language course, I expect a better balance between all the Chinese language skills. Overall, I still do believe that this is an excellent program for beginners.
Remember, we’re all at different levels of proficiency, so feel free to try it out for yourself. You very well might get more out of ChineseClass101 than I did!