Mandarin Chinese


Price: $29.99 on Amazon, free on Spotify

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Vocabulearn has so-called audio courses for numerous languages on Amazon and Spotify. We don’t believe you’ll learn much from them, but they could help you practice your pronunciation.

For this mini review, we tried out the Vocabulearn Swahili/English Level 1 course. It’s split into four CDs, each with its own theme, and then each theme is divided into four lessons. The themes are: Nouns; Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions 1; Expressions; Verbs.

In each track, we listened to long lists of words and phrases. First, it was said in English; secondly, it was said in Swahili. However, there were no grammar or contextual explanations, drills, or activities to help you remember the material.

In short, we’re not convinced that you’d be able to make your own sentences or even remember the vocabulary after listening to these CDs. However, if you’re studying a language with fewer resources, we think you could use it to practice your pronunciation by repeating each word after the speakers say it.


Chinese Breeze

Price: $8.95

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Chinese Breeze is a series of graded readers by Cheng & Tsui. The books range from level 1 (300-word vocabulary) to level 4 (1100-word vocabulary) and cover themes such as romance, fantasy, horror, and mystery. Their adaptation of 青凤 (Green Phoenix) from the short story collection 聊斋志异 (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio) is probably the most engaging story in the collection. The other stories are probably not grand pieces of literature, but rather books to help you improve your reading skills through repetition. 

At the end of the story, you will find a vocabulary list and a series of exercises to reinforce your understanding of the text. You can also stream an audio recording for each book by scanning the QR code on the back cover. Purchasing Pleco‘s OCR reader or handwriting function can help you identify new words, which you can then add to your Anki or Pleco flashcard decks. 

If you are looking for graded readers with engaging storylines, check out Mandarin Companion — they rewrite famous stories using vocabulary appropriate for earlier levels. Next, you can tackle the Readings in Chinese Culture series or the Tales and Traditions series for intermediate to advanced learners. You can also read plenty of graded articles and stories online with Du Chinese and The Chairman’s Bao.


Tales and Traditions

Price: Books start at $17.99

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Tales and traditions is another set of graded readers by Cheng & Tsui that focuses on providing level-appropriate, interesting reading material to support students in attaining Chinese fluency. In this series, you will find poems, stories, and anecdotes written in both simplified and traditional characters, with discussion questions and vocabulary lists to guide your learning. For additional support, Pleco‘s OCR reader or handwriting function can help you identify new words, which you can then add to your Anki or Pleco flashcard decks.

This series (or the Readings in Chinese Culture series) could be your next step after Chinese Breeze or Mandarin Companion. Volume 1 is appropriate for advanced beginners (A1 on the CEFR scale), while volume 4 is appropriate for Advanced (B2) learners — you can see the ACTFL and CEFR comparisons in this document.

While Volumes 1 and 2 contain fables, myths, and introductions to festivals and historical figures, Volume 3 focuses more on poems, myths, and love stories. Once you reach Volume 4, you will explore excerpts from classic Chinese novels. You may not find every text equally as engaging, but each of them will take you deeper into Chinese culture and refine your reading skills through repetition and level-appropriate language.

Alternatively, you can read plenty of graded articles and stories online with Du Chinese and The Chairman’s Bao.


My Language Exchange

Price: Freemium, Gold Memberships start at $6/mo

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My Language Exchange has been growing since 2000. Although the website seems out of date, it still has an active community of millions of language-learners who speak almost 200 native languages (including less commonly studied languages).

You can choose a pen pal by reading their bios, or there is a chat room available for you to instantly connect with a language exchange partner — note that if you create a Gold account, you can initiate chats with other users, but as a regular user, you will have to wait to be contacted.

Using the Cormier Method, the website provides tools to help intermediate speakers effectively practice with other learners. It advertises a Chat Companion with lesson plans to accompany your exchange, or lesson plans developed by teachers (although the quality of these resources varies drastically). 

You can also find language teachers on the site, but given that the transactions take place directly between you and the teacher, you may feel safer using a 3rd party platform like italki or Verbling

Although there are outlines on how to participate in language exchanges, how these outlines are followed depends entirely on you and your partner(s). My Language Exchange will help you build connections with other learners, but it’s up to you to plan how to practice. The concepts can also be used with any language exchange platform, such as Lingbe, italki, Tandem, and Amikumu.



Price: Freemium, with paid plans starting at $10/mo

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Although you can get unlimited reading practice through Du Chinese and The Chairman’s Bao for a lower cost, some people may be overwhelmed by having to remember to do their daily Chinese practice. Maayot helps to motivate you by delivering daily bite-sized reading activities to your inbox. The free activities include 5-minute stories for beginner to advanced learners (although the advanced lessons don’t seem to contain very complicated grammar structures), while the standard subscription adds audio recordings by native speakers and a daily quiz. With a premium subscription, you will get corrections to your daily writing responses and private tutoring once per week.

To customize a similarly enriching experience, you can get free written corrections from the LangCorrect community, and find a community tutor on Italki.

You can expect beginner stories to contain about 70 characters, while advanced stories contain about 250 characters. Clicking on characters you don’t know will send you to the MBDG dictionary website, so you may want to download the Zhongwen Chrome Extension extension instead.

The Gymglish Series (Frantastique, Frantastique Ortho, Hotel Borbollón and Wunderbla) also takes the daily e-mail approach, so if you are studying French, German, English or Spanish, you can check them out (although the series is quite pricey).


Hacking Chinese Course

Price: Freemium, with paid courses starting at $97

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Hacking Chinese’s creator, Olle, is completing his graduate studies in teaching Chinese as a second language in Taiwan. His blog posts are just a taste of the two courses he developed to support you in your Chinese studies. These courses are more about how to learn Chinese and less about language content — they help maximize your studying efficiency, but they do not replace study time.

The beginner course, Unlocking Chinese, teaches you the basic principles of writing and speaking and can guide you in your studies. It includes about 5 hours of videos divided into five sections that cover: how to approach learning Chinese; how to improve your pronunciation; techniques for learning new words; how to write and remember Chinese characters; and a ‘roadmap’ for your continuing studies.

A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin is both a book and an e-course. The course includes the book, the audiobook, videos, and a study checklist. Olle has condensed the information he has learned in his years of Chinese study to teach you how to improve your pronunciation, which resources to use, study management and planning, and more.

Hacking Chinese may be a good investment if you want a clear and concise guide to learning Chinese. However, if you are looking for a course that will teach you comprehensive language content, check out Chinese For Us.


Domino Chinese

Price: Freemium, monthly plans starting at $3/mo

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Domino Chinese provides an affordable and entertaining path to learning Chinese. If you’re someone who has struggled to stay motivated, or if you have been overwhelmed with Chinese characters, Felix, the creator, has developed a manageable series of lessons to set you up for success. From lesson one, you will learn the logic of character composition and problem-solve the meanings of new words.

Each level is about 10 hours long, and after level 10, the courses are entirely in Chinese. For supplementary material, they have printable character grids with stroke order diagrams, a workbook, and vocabulary sheets. The workbook gets you to break down characters into different parts, create new words, and practice integrating the new concepts from each lesson.

Apparently you will reach an academic level of Chinese if you go through all of the levels. However, this seems far too optimistic. The success stories on the site are from students who have had private tutors or lived in China during their studies, so Domino Chinese alone will probably not take you to fluency. This course seems most appropriate for casual learners, as the earlier videos use lots of English and build the concepts quite slowly. If you’re looking for a comprehensive, faster-paced course, check out Chinese For Us.



Quick Review


Duolingo is a super popular free language-learning app. It’s available for desktop as well as mobile and offers over 90 different language courses in over 20 different languages — there are currently 35 languages with English instruction. The Duolingo approach is gamified and easy to use, but the bite-sized lessons don’t offer much in the way of in-depth practice. The Duolingo tag line is “Learn a language in just five minutes a day.”


It’s easy and fun to use, but some pronunciation and grammar instruction is of low quality, especially for Asian languages.


The app works well for learning the basics, but there’s little speaking practice and grammar instruction is limited.


It’s a lot of content for free, but you’ll need to use supplementary resources.

Languages: Duolingo offers 35 language courses with English instruction, three of which are constructed languages. Courses are available in most popular languages, including Spanish, French, German, etc.


Duolingo is totally free. Duolingo Plus offers a few additional features and is available for:

$12.99/month (paid monthly)
$6.99/month (12-month subscription)


Rosetta Stone

Price: Subscriptions start at $35.97 for 3-months

Quick Review



Rosetta Stone is one of the most well-known resources for learning languages. It takes an immersive approach to teaching and is widely used by corporations and individuals alike. High levels of repetition and an absence of translations or explanations are hallmarks of the course.

A Rosetta Stone course could be most suitable for learners that don’t mind repetitive exercises and prefer to learn from pictures and context rather than translations and explanations. It’s probably not a good option for anyone wanting to significantly improve their speaking or writing skills, or those looking for an engaging course.


The platform is a bit clunky on desktop, but the material is accurate and presented clearly; lesson mechanics are fairly intuitive.


Without much opportunity to build your own sentences, I don’t think you’ll reach a conversational level with any notable speed.


I think there are many more efficient and less expensive ways to learn a language.


There are courses in 25 different languages — popular ones like Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, and less-studied languages like Greek, Hebrew, and Swedish.


A three-month subscription to one language is $35.97, which works out to be $11.99/month.

A year-long subscription to all language courses is $179, which is $14.92/month. Both of these subscriptions are automatically recurring.

Lifetime access to all Rosetta Stone language courses is available for $199.


Polly Lingual

Price: Freemium, yearly subscriptions start at $2.99/mo

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Polly Lingual is a phrasebook app and website with a series of basic word lists, flashcards, and memory games. Some of the phrases are pronounced by native speakers, while others use text-to-voice.

Unlike other phrasebook apps that focus on phrases alone, Polly Lingual introduces the basic alphabet in languages with non-romanized scripts. You can quiz yourself on the basic vowels and consonants in Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, and Arabic. Polly Lingual may be helpful for a quick review of what you’ve already learned, but if you’re keen on learning to write a new script, you may want to check out Write It! or Write Me.

There are also Polly Ambassadors — tutors who will provide short videos of language learning tips throughout the site. You can send them a personal message or hire them as a private tutor.

Overall, Polly Lingual only teaches basic phrases and will probably not help you learn how to construct your own sentences. If you’re just beginning to learn another language, check out French in Action, Red Kalinka (Russian),, 90 Day Korean, Portuguese lab, or Pimsleur to get more out of your time. Also, Italki will give you more options for private tutors, if that’s what you’re looking for.