In the past six months, I’ve studied, not skimmed, every single one of Chinese Pod’s lessons, from Newbie through Intermediate, and every single one of Popup Chinese’s Intermediate lessons. I’ve been through Chinese Pod’s 352 Intermediate lessons once, plus about another 600 sequential and random listenings. My estimate is quite accurate due to the way I maintain my playlists on my various devices. Coming to Popup Chinese later, I’ve just completed studying their 111 Intermediate lessons in order. I glanced at the structure of their Absolute Beginners and Elementary. I get the impression they’re quite similar to Chinese Pod’s, but not being at that level anymore, I don’t feel like actually examining them. As for each company’s Advanced, I’ve spot-checked them, and they’re too difficult for me. If you’re able to handle their advanced, then you’re able to listen to enough radio and TV talk shows to obviate the need for these companies’ services. I’m not going to address the entertainment factor here, or reading and writing skills. My review concerns how well these companies can help intermediate speakers of everyday Chinese attain advanced functionality in a real world Chinese-speaking environment.
Given their trajectories, the two companies’ products will eventually have virtually identical utility in terms of their pedagogical techniques’ effectiveness. But the quick evaluation accords the advantage to Chinese Pod, which proffers significantly more material. Intermediates can consume such lessons much faster than producers can make them. So a larger store matters, at least until Popup Chinese has built up a hundred or so more so that lessons can be usefully revisited. Along with some learning, I primarily use these lessons to produce an environment of comprehensible linguistic demand that keeps me prepared to spontaneously call up what I’ve already acquired in a natural delay-free way out in the real world. Unless I’m getting regular and frequent reenforcement, I get rusty—tongue-tied—in ways that won’t do in real life, and radio’s and TV’s difficulty still can’t reenforce my listening and speaking abilities. The pattern Chinese Pod settled into after its first thirty or so lessons works well: a fifteen-minute lesson that starts with a one-minute dialog, thirteen minutes of discussion, the dialog repeated, and a closing. The discussion is 50/50 between the native Chinese speaker speaking Chinese and the native English speaker speaking English. The seamless exchange about the dialog just heard is mostly comprehensible, especially because having just hearing the dialog aligns your expectations with the discussion. The input is highly comprehensible in the speakers’ natural exchange, and the Chinese speaker is good at seamlessly injecting an English word when necessary to maintain the rhythm of the discussion without dropping into English.
Popup Chinese at first provided a much less rich Chinese linguistic environment. The ten-minute lessons (33% shorter than Chinese Pod) up to July 9, 2010 consist of the one-minute dialog, an eight-minute discussion in English, then the dialog repeated. The native English speakers overbear the Chinese speaker, who is frequently reduced to saying “mmm hmm,” and even drops into English for long stretches. As with Chinese Pod, the dialogs comprehensibility is low, and Popup Chinese’s low-intermediate approach to intermediate material quite fails to provide an intermediate Chinese linguistic environment. Starting with the lesson of July 9, 2010 and continuing to the present for the most part without exception, you get the dialog, followed by a nearly 50/50 discussion, then the dialog again to round out the ten minutes. The discussion, however, is mostly taken up by a line by line translation of the dialog: the line of dialog is replayed, then the Chinese host repeats it more slowly and distinctly, then the English speaker translates it. That leaves about half of the total discussion time for a real 50/50 discussion between the hosts, leaving the meat of these lessons—the discussion—more spare than Chinese Pod’s. On some occasions, the English speaker still takes up the lion’s share of the speaking time. It would be a big mistake for either of these companies to believe that, in terms of fostering language acquisition, their lessons’ value resides in their dialogs rather than their discussions. But Popup Chinese manifests that mistake much more than Chinese Pod.
Both companies’ collections of MP3’s consist of standalone lessons rather than series, and thus they don’t assist in acquiring vocabulary. Despite many useful new words, there’s no systematic reenforcement in subsequent lessons. This avoidable design error provides an accumulating list of isolated items that you can then study and try to learn via flashcards rather than the frequent restaging that could have made acquisition possible. Once these companies stabilized their approach and could see that they’d be producing tens and even hundreds of lessons, they could easily have systematized an method to acquire vocabulary via a repetition scheme. Both companies can still start doing this, and thus set themselves apart from every other producer of language materials I’ve ever seen in any language. As it stands, however, I frequently encounter new stuff at both Chinese Pod and Popup Chinese that I excitedly see would be very useful in extending my capacity for expressive nuance, even as I know full well it won’t be available to me when the appropriate situation of linguistic demand arises in my real life due to lack of exercise. If either of these companies came up with a target vocabulary of five hundred or a thousand words beyond what intermediate speakers have already acquired, and then promise a systematic approach to acquiring that list over the next one or two or three hundred lessons, I’d give them the advantage on that count alone.
Perhaps Popup Chinese is more promising in terms of adapting its pedagogy toward acquisition over learning with the aim of leading intermediate speakers into the circle of the advanced. Chinese Pod has already erred with its Upper Intermediate series. Those two hundred-fifty lessons again lack a systematic approach to acquiring vocabulary. The discussions would be wonderful: the native English speaker, whose Mandarin is excellent I’ve been told by a local teacher, now speaks Chinese with the native Chinese speaker, and so that would double the amount of comprehensible input per lesson. The problem, however, is not that the dialogs are longer, but they are filled with so many new vocabulary items that must be learned and can’t be acquired that it renders the discussion non-comprehensible. For the time being, I can use the Upper Intermediate series for studying. But for everyday comprehensible stimulation, I’m stuck with using my intermediate Chinese Pod MP3’s as a long, randomized playlist that simulates a kind of comprehensible Chinese radio, but that’s still about 50% English. I really wish I had a comparable resource that was 100% Chinese. Popup Chinese currently has no level between their Intermediate and Advanced. Since they take a low-intermediate approach to their intermediate dialogs, the real promise here—unless Chinese Pod changes their established course—would be for Popup Chinese to begin an Upper Intermediate series. Preferably they’d try to pioneer a systematic approach to acquiring, not simply studying, vocabulary. They would still produce a valuable product, however, if they merely reused their existing Intermediate dialogs in a 100% Chinese discussion between two Chinese speakers that took a more advanced approach to that same dialog. Upper Intermediate users, having already gone through their Intermediate series, would find the reused Intermediate dialogs readily comprehensible, freeing up the Popup Chinese’s speakers for a wider ranging discussion. I heartily request Popup Chinese start producing such an Upper Intermediate series.