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Mandarin Blueprint Review — A Unique Teaching Method

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Quick Review

Summary

Mandarin Blueprint is an online course for learning Mandarin Chinese. It teaches the language through videos and flashcards on the Anki flashcard app. It also makes use of the Hanzi Movie Method, which is a mnemonic memorization technique involving visualizations. The course is very thorough and designed for absolute beginners looking to build a solid foundation in Mandarin.

Quality 

There’s some great teaching material, but the course relies on third-party resources like Google Slides and Anki.

Thoroughness

The course is detailed enough to take absolute beginners to the intermediate level.

Value 

The initial phases are time-consuming, but serious learners will get a lot of value from the course.

Languages

Mandarin Chinese

Price

A subscription to Mandarin Blueprint is $30 billed monthly or $288 billed annually ($24/month).

Have you ever heard someone talk about how easy it is to learn Mandarin? Me neither. It requires learning thousands of unique characters, tackling difficult pronunciation, and making sense of the cultural context in which it’s spoken.

Resources like Mandarin Blueprint aim to provide a step-by-step guide to mastering the language in the shortest amount of time possible.

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What Is Mandarin Blueprint?

Mandarin Blueprint (MB) is a comprehensive resource for learning Mandarin Chinese. It teaches material mostly through video lessons and flashcards via Anki, a spaced repetition system (SRS) program.

The hosts of MB are Luke and Phil from the UK and the USA respectively. They are both fluent in Mandarin, and they’ve used their language-learning journeys to create the course and offer guidance in video lessons.

Phil and Luke

They also involve a native speaker in the pronunciation course and have native speaker audio on flashcards, but they otherwise provide all of the instruction. They both have likable personalities, are fairly laidback, and do a good job of providing thorough instruction.

My level of exposure and knowledge of Mandarin is very low, but this course is supposed to cater to absolute beginners. In fact, they claim to be able to get an absolute beginner to master 80% of the language in just two months. I think quantifying language mastery in this way is misleading, but I do think the course can get you to a lower-intermediate level (at least in reading) in a short amount of time.

Course Overview

The Mandarin Blueprint material is heavily composed of videos. This is especially true in the pronunciation course and in the lower levels of the main MB course.

These videos were actually a source of frustration for me early on in the course. You have to sit through a lot of English. It takes the hosts quite a long time to explain the learning method, to give personal anecdotes, and to explain the importance of learning different language aspects.

The pace of the course and the amount of Chinese does eventually pick up, but you’ll need patience.

The Six Phases

The Mandarin Blueprint course is built with six phases, each building on the previous phase. Let’s take a quick look at each of them individually.

Pre-Phase — Pronunciation Mastery

The hosts of the program strongly suggest that you become comfortable with all aspects of pronunciation before you do anything else. This is so that you don’t learn any bad habits and should help you progress through the other learning materials much faster.

There is an entire MB course dedicated to pronunciation, which we’ll look at more closely later in the review.

Phase 1 — Character Building (Levels 1 through 6)

The levels in this phase focus on teaching you how to learn characters and their components using the Hanzi Movie Method, something you’ll use throughout the entire course.

You’ll spend time memorizing everything about a character, including the initial and final sounds, the tone and the meaning. You’ll also be learning characters in the Optimal Character Learning Order (OCLO), which is supposed to make the learning process more efficient.

Level 1 Review

As you can see, you start by learning the simplest characters and components. These will act as building blocks for more advanced content.

The lessons in this first phase happen at the slowest pace, primarily because you’re still getting used to the learning method. Things start to pick up in the next phase.

Phase 2 — Vocabulary Building (Levels 7 – 12)

In this phase, you’ll use mnemonics to commit new words to memory. Each level builds on the last, and you’ll be able to use more and more of what you’ve already learned to make faster progress. This is also where things begin to speed up, as you’ll finally be accustomed to the learning method.

Level 7, Character #51

You’ll get much faster at “making movies” in the second phase to memorize characters, and you’ll unlock new compound words as your character vocabulary increases.

Phase 3 — Sentence Building (Levels 13 – 20)

This is where you’ll start to acquire grammar by using the words you’ve learned and interacting with “comprehensible input.” The idea is that you should be able to understand almost all of the material given what you’ve already picked up in the course. You’ll be able to see words in context and get used to forming sentences.

The text in this lesson shows that the Chinese word for,

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While you should be able to understand the bulk of the sentence you’ll be introduced to, there will also be “top-down words,” which are words you haven’t fully studied yet. Luke from MB goes into detail about top-down and bottom-up learning in this video.

The MB course generally focuses on bottom-up learning and makes it clear when you’re being exposed to material that hasn’t been fully covered yet.

This is also the first phase in which you’ll come across articles that explicitly teach grammar concepts. These lessons occur after you’ve encountered a grammar construction at least ten times via comprehensible input, hopefully making the experience an enlightening one. The lessons occur in intervals throughout the remaining phases.

 

Phase 4 — Paragraph Building (Levels 21 – 30)

Beyond simple sentences, the fourth phase will expose you to more complex constructions. You’ll interact with dialogues, short stories, and be able to form opinions.

Chinese Dialogue

There are some more top-down words here, but only a couple. The video lessons in this phase are still mostly centered on choosing props and actors and the Hanzi Movie Method. Dialogues like the one above can be found in the text under the lesson videos.

To spice up the sometimes repetitive video format, MB brings in guests that have learned Chinese with the course to share their Hanzi Movie Method scenes.

Make a Movie Guest

It can be quite entertaining to see the visualizations that other people come up with. The comments sections are also full of ideas.

Phase 5 — Story Building (Levels 31 – 36)

This is the final phase, and it’s where you should be able to start reading and understanding stories using what you’ve learned in the previous phases.

As you progress through levels in this final phase, you’ll get notifications when you’ve come across 90% of the material in a story paragraph. You’ll then get another notification when you’ve learned 98% of the material.

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You won’t necessarily unlock paragraphs in chronological order, but having reading material relevant to your level is a good thing.

The stories are accessed through Google Slides documents.

Again, you’ll see some top-down words in the paragraphs, this time highlighted in blue. You’ll also be able to listen to readings of the paragraph, both by a male and a female at varying speeds.

The course progresses in a very logical and intentional manner. It’s so logical, in fact, that it can seem a bit tedious at times. A ton of explanation is required; not only to help you understand Mandarin but also to explain the learning method itself.

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Pronunciation Mastery Course
Pronunciation Mastery Logo

The hosts of the program highly suggest that you complete the pronunciation course before you do anything else. In it, you’ll learn how to make every initial sound, every tone, and every final sound in Mandarin through learning Pinyin.

This screenshot shows a diagram illustrating the rising second tone in Mandarin.

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This happens through visualizations, as seen above, and lots of examples and dictation exercises. The instructions are thorough, sometimes lengthy, and all in English.

While it requires listening to a lot of English, the hosts do an exceptionally good job of anticipating learner difficulties. They approach explanations from the perspective of a non-native speaker, which is helpful.

Anki Flashcard

In addition to learning how to make all of the correct sounds, you’ll also pick up some foundational vocabulary. Practice comes in the form of vocabulary drilling with Annie, a native speaker, and Anki flashcards, as seen in the image above.

As is true with just about all of the Mandarin Blueprint content, there are active comments sections where users can post questions about the material. The course staff seems to be pretty good at answering these questions, and they can make good supplementary instructions.

Mandarin Blueprint Comments Section

The best comments of the week are also addressed in the platform’s weekly podcast.

Another thing you’ll see in the pronunciation course is very basic multiple-choice quizzes that test your understanding and unlock more material. These are short and only consist of a few questions.

Multiple-Choice Question

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One of the shortcomings of learning pronunciation this way is that you won’t get any quality feedback on your pronunciation. You’ll get lots of information and practice, but no one will tell you how you’re actually doing. It’s not quite a substitute for the practice you’d get interacting with a real person.

The Hanzi Movie Method

This teaching method is the bulk of the Mandarin Blueprint course. Here’s a short video they put together giving an overview of the method.

The Hanzi Movie Method

The objective of the method is to enable learners to learn how to read, write, and say a new character in less than a minute. What they don’t mention in the above video is that it isn’t some miracle method that works right away, it takes a good deal of practice.

You’ll have to sit through quite a few instructional videos before you’re able to do it on your own or with any reasonable speed, but I think it’s worth it for some people.

The gist of the method is that you’ll use a mnemonic memory technique to assign visualizations to different aspects of Chinese characters. Specifically, you’ll use Actors to represent initial sounds, Sets to represent final sounds and tones, and Props to indicate character components.

With your actors, sets, and props, you’ll come up with scenes involving all three to convey the meaning of the character. This can lead to some pretty entertaining visualizations. A favorite that I ended up with was Ray Charles in the kitchen of my father’s home cutting open a giant banana with a samurai sword to free a person trapped inside the banana.

It takes time to get used to setting up scenes and using them to recall language information, but I found the technique rewarding, entertaining, and effective. Granted, it took some time before I felt comfortable with the technique or even fully understood it. Anyone interested in taking Mandarin Blueprint seriously will have to do just that — take it seriously. And that requires patience.

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Using Anki with Mandarin Blueprint

Interestingly enough, a great deal of the language practice happens on Anki, a third-party program. It’s free everywhere except for the Apple App Store, and it’s required to take part in the Mandarin Blueprint course. You’ll actually need to use it every day while you complete the course.

Anki is a great SRS program for memorizing just about anything. It’s lightweight, powerful, and totally customizable, but it isn’t super user-friendly.

The hosts walk you through the installation and use of Anki, but it takes some getting used to. I was already familiar with Anki, but I could see from the comments that a lot of users have some trouble getting things to work just right with the course. Fortunately, support seems to be able to get people sorted rather quickly.

The instructions for using Anki with the course come in the form of Google Slides and include somewhat intimidating diagrams like the following:

Anki Diagram

If you’re hoping for a plug-and-play experience, you’ll probably be disappointed with the level of independent setup required to effectively use the course. The Google Slides document with instructions for using the program contains no less than 76 slides. Luckily you aren’t expected to go through all of them at once.

The recommended workflow has users utilizing split-screen mode on their computers.

Split-Screen Workflow

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On the right, I’ve got a video playing from the course. Anki is open on the left side of my screen, and it’s where I’m unsuspending language items as they’re covered in the course so that they’ll show up in my Anki study sessions.

At first glance, the workflow seems downright clunky. There’s nothing intuitive about it, and I initially felt bogged down by endless videos, Google Slides, and the separate SRS app. The hosts have to continually reassure learners that things will eventually click and that everything will make sense and speed up.

Sticking it out through the initial phases is an act of faith. It’s one that paid off for me, as I eventually came to fully understand the method and enjoy it. I’m clearly not the only one, as evident from one of our email subscribers who shared their experience with Mandarin Blueprint.

However, I don’t think it’s a course that will be right for everyone.

Pricing

A 7-day free trial is available with a subscription to any plan.

Mandarin Blueprint Pricing

There’s a slight discount that applies to annual plans and a monthly subscription is $30. I think the pricing is reasonable for learners that are using the course seriously, as it contains a lot of value if used as prescribed.

You can also save 20% on the list price by using the coupon code “ALR20”

Alternatives

There are many resources out there for learning Chinese, and we’ve tried out a ton of them. Check out our favorites by visiting our Chinese page. Here are a couple that we really like.

ChineseFor.Us

This resource provides some of the most thorough lessons we’ve ever seen. The course is full of invaluable information for beginners and errs on the side of being overly detailed — it has the potential to provide learners with an exceptionally strong foundation in the language.

Lessons take the form of instructional videos accompanied by interactive quizzes, review lessons, and printable writing sheets. In addition to Beginner, HSK1, and HSK2 courses, there is a Pinyin Drills course and a Tone Drills course for teaching pronunciation. All of the teaching material is of high quality, and it’s available for a reasonable price. ChineseFor.Us Review

Yoyo Chinese

This is one of the most popular options for learning Mandarin online. It offers a variety of different video-based courses and includes interactive quizzes, flashcards, audio reviews, and speaking practice by way of recording yourself. The courses progress at a fairly slow pace, but the explanations are good and the lessons are well-structured. There are more practice opportunities here than with MB, and you won’t be forced to use a separate flashcard app if you don’t want to. Yoyo Chinese review.

Pleco

Although it’s not really an alternative to Mandarin Blueprint, or any other course for that matter, this one’s a must-have. It’s primarily a fantastic Chinese dictionary app, but it’s also much more. You’ll get extra information such as example sentences, audio recordings, character recognition, and the ability to make flashcards. It’s available for iOS and Android and some features are free while others are paid; it’s worth getting.

Final Thoughts

My experience with Mandarin Blueprint was a bit of a rollercoaster. My first exposure to the program was a couple of inspirational promotional videos that got me excited about the course. They do promotion well.

Then, I had trouble finding any quality independent reviews of the program and began to get suspicious. This was followed up by the beginning of the course, which involves a ton of English and a messy setup period.

After all of this, when I wasn’t feeling so hot about the course, things finally started to pick up and I found myself getting solid practice and enjoying it.

Although I was only able to find raving reviews for this resource online, I don’t think it’s for everyone. If you’re ready to fully commit to a new learning style and are willing to put up with a fairly slow start, you’ll be rewarded with a very comprehensive resource designed to take you from beginner to intermediate.

If you’re easily overwhelmed with technology or aren’t interested in hearing a bunch of English, on the other hand, Mandarin Blueprint probably isn’t for you. Also note that you’ll have to look elsewhere for speaking practice or feedback on any productive skills.

If you’re still not sure, take advantage of their free 7-day trial. It should be enough to get the hang of the learning method if you use it every day.

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Comments (1)

Christine Anderseen

I am taking the Mandarin Blueprint course at the moment and I am halfway through the Intermediate course. I have to say that to me, it is the perfect way to learn Chinese an I am absolutely loving the course. The advantages are that it really helps you with the most difficult part of learning Chinese, which is to get to grips with the characters. It takes me a few seconds to a few minutes to learn a character, and with the help of Anki reviews, that character sticks in my mind forever. Yes, you have to use Anki and you have to listen to a lot of videos in the beginning. But once you get used to Anki, and how to use it effectively in conjunction with the course, it becomes a breeze. And where you have a lot of videos to sit through explaining and handholding you through the initial levels of the Intermediate course, you can always skip the videos if you feel that they are too time consuming – the later levels actually don’t have the detailed videos any more.
I just love the way that the course logically build on previous building blocks – it makes it very easy to progress.
You still have to put in your own effort, learning Chinese is really not easy, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Christine

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