Chinese Learn Online (CLO) is an okay option for learning Mandarin. It’s not the best and it’s not the worst. It’s not particularly good or bad. I don’t typically give reviews based on stars or points, but if I did, CLO would be about a 6.5 out of 10. It’s useful, but I’m not sure it would be my choice to use it. At the same time, if I knew someone was considering using it, I wouldn’t strongly urge them to go look elsewhere either.
A bit more about Chinese Learn Online
CLO is based in Taiwan. I’m living in Beijing and have primarily heard Beijing accents, and haven’t had any difficulties understanding the presenters’ accents. There may be a slight one, but it’s not a reason to buy or to avoid CLO. There are 7 levels with 60 lessons in each level. These lessons range from absolute beginner to somewhere around the upper intermediate level. The amount of English used in each lesson varies according to the level you’re at. You can access the first three lessons of any level for free.
The lessons on CLO are audio based. The average length is probably about seven minutes long. Lessons are progressive and build on each other much more than some of the other courses or podcast options. For example, in one lesson you may learn some new vocabulary and they’ll discuss it. Then, in the next lesson there may be a dialogue. These follow up lessons can vary in structure a bit. They typically play the dialogue once at normal speed and once again slower. Sometimes they’ll go over the lessons line-by-line and add in extra comments. However, sometimes they only play the dialogue at the two speeds, leaving you on your own a bit more.
Along with the audio lessons, you’ll have other materials available to you. First, is the transcript. This is available in Simplified, Traditional, Pinyin and English. Unfortunately, it’s not the best design. My biggest complaint here is that it’s a bit inconvenient to look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word, as you’ll have to switch to the English tab and then find the place in the dialogue. However, combined with a browser popup dictionary (frill for safari, perapera for firefox, or zhongwen for chrome) it’ll be much easier.
Next, there’s a vocabulary portion. For the lower levels, this may often just be the audio of one word, but as you move up it’ll generally be full sentences. I actually like this part as it makes it really simple to practice mimicking the speaker. You can pretty easily record yourself repeating these sentences without the hassle of constantly pausing and rewinding the audio.
There are a few extra activities associated with each lesson. First, is the sentence builder. If you’re familiar with ChineseSkill, this is pretty similar in that regard. You basically just drag and drop parts of the sentence into the correct spot. Sometimes there will be several of these exercises and other times there may only be one sentence. Another thing I dislike is that if you make a mistake, it’ll just say wrong and highlight the characters you put in the wrong spot. This isn’t necessarily bad as it forces you to try again. But if you get stuck, you won’t be given the correct answer.
The next activity is practicing writing the new characters. I’m not a big fan of this. Here you’ll be shown some new characters from the lesson and see a visualisation of the stroke order. While it’s much better than Rocket Chinese, it’s still worse than other free resources like Arch Chinese. Of course, if learning to write characters by hand is a priority for you, then Skritter is a great resource. However, this part of CLO is pretty useless.
The next activity is the typing test and it is so close to being awesome. You listen to a short audio clip and are supposed to write what you hear in Chinese characters. I think this would be great if it were’t for one problem. If you make a mistake, it simply says wrong and doesn’t show you were you made your mistake. If this were fixed, I think this would be incredibly useful but as it is, it’s just sort of a so-so extra.
Next, there are flashcards. It seems every app or course has their own set of flashcards. I’m never particularly interested in this because I’d rather have all my flashcards together and available offline on either Pleco or Anki. I like how on apps like Du Chinese or The Chairman’s Bao, you can quickly click any word and add it to your flashcards. Here, however, it’s a bit different. You’re not really able to add any word you’d like to the flashcards. Instead, you can choose between which lesson or range of lessons and decide if you want to test characters, definitions or full sentences. One good thing is that you’re able to export any of these outside of CLO.
There may also be a fill in the blank activity. Here, you’re given sentences and obviously fill in the blank. Not all lessons have all of the different activities. But, for all the lessons you are able to look them up in Simplified, Traditional, Pinyin or English.
The notes are usually pretty useful. They’re fairly short but provide good information. For example, they may talk about how things are said differently in Chinese than in English and what the literal translation of a phrase may be. Here it shows that CLO wasn’t simply trying to put out a product as quickly as possible, and that they can relate to people learning Mandarin.
While there is technically a CLO app, you should probably just pretend it doesn’t exist. Only the first two levels are included in the app and it’s a bit unclear if you have to pay extra to be able to access it.
You can also bulk download the audio for all of the lessons so you don’t have to always be online to use their materials. However, it doesn’t seem like it’s possible to do this for the PDF lesson notes, which makes things a bit more inconvenient.
There’s a sorta-fun character game where you listen to a sound and try to choose the correct character as quickly as possible. There’s a timer and you get points. It’s interesting to try a few times but not much more than that.
There’s a useful wordbank. Here you can type in a character, pinyin or English word and you’ll find all the lessons that that word was used. You’ll see the translation, pinyin, characters and be able to listen to the sentence as it was used in the original lessons. This is a good way to get example sentences with the audio being recorded by a real person.
What I like about CLO
Unlike a lot of resources that use far too much English, CLO has a more appropriate mix. It’s used more in the beginning lessons but by the time you reach level 6, the amount of English used is very low.
The lessons progress well and build on each other providing you with useful topics to learn from.
The notes, activities and transcripts are all helpful learning materials.
What I dislike about CLO
It seems like the website was made 10 years ago and could use a thorough update. The app only covers the first two levels and you have to buy the lessons individually. It’s unclear if members can use the lessons in the app for free.
The activities don’t show you the correct answer if you made a mistake. This can be a bit annoying, as you have to keep trying different combinations to figure out the correct sentence order or fill in the blank item. However, for the typing test, it makes the difference between being an awesome feature and something not particularly good.
They also don’t always explain the information enough in the dialogue and sometimes just play it twice. The lessons are a bit shorter compared to some competitors. For example, at Chinesepod’s intermediate level, they’ll review the dialogue twice but also explain the nuances, while still using primarily Chinese.
The self-study plan (what I reviewed) in $19.95/mo, $49.95/three months and $149.95/year.
There’s also a guided with teacher plan. This is $49.95/mo, $119/three months and $399/year. This plan also includes assignments marked by your teacher, learning custom vocabulary, being able to ask your teacher questions, and a certification at the end of each level. I can’t speak about this personally but I don’t expect it to be very good value for the money. I prefer to find extra help and tutoring at Italki.
Chinese Learn Online doesn’t stand out or excel in anything. It’s not bad by any means. But, nowadays there are so many resources to learn Chinese that being okay isn’t really enough. CLO basically gets a shoulder shrug from me. If you want to use it, sure, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. But at the same time, you won’t find me going out of my way to recommend it.