One of these is Popup Chinese, based in Beijing, which provides podcasts for free or as part of premium subscriptions, along with other study resources.
Before I get into the Popup Chinese review itself, it might be good to have a quick look at the general advantages and disadvantages of this kind of service. There are a lot of them out there, and Popup Chinese and ChinesePod are probably the biggest players.
The bulk of content on Popup Chinese is its growing collection of podcasts. All of these seem to be available for free; if you pay, you get access to extra tools and features like a customised lesson feed, flashcards, vocabulary lists etc. All of this is pretty standard for online podcast services. Popup Chinese does seem to offer a bigger range of exporting options than other services though, and I always like interaction between products.
One of the best features Popup Chinese has is the all-in-one Chinese converter, which converts characters between simplified and traditional and also into pinyin. It also does translation, although this isn’t quite as sharp (‘我从盒子里拿出来一本书’ → ‘I from box in to take out a book’). Users can submit improvements though, so this may well develop into something very cool.
Another extra feature that stands out to me is the ‘News in Chinese’ page, which looks like it should be good at getting people out there actually reading Chinese online. They’ve also got some downloads such as plugins and smartphone apps, which is good but there’s already a million and one of these available. There’s a writing pad too, but it’s not a patch on Skritter.
I think the HSK-focused content is a plus for Popup Chinese. There’s a dedicated series of HSK lessons, and premium subscribers can take HSK tests at various levels. Whatever you think about the HSK itself, it’s certainly useful if you’re studying Mandarin for your career, so thumbs up to Popup Chinese for this.
The best content that Popup Chinese offers is actually available for free. For me, the Sinica podcast series stands out not just in their own content but in general on the Internet. It really is a brilliant series. I’ll go into that more in the section below.
One drawback to Popup Chinese’s content is the quantity. Compared to ChinesePod, probably their main competitor, the lesson archive isn’t particularly big. However, it’s quality not quantity, and there’s certainly enough available to make full progress in learning the language.
Another thing I think Popup Chinese currently lacks is community features. They have a basic forum, and users can addf comments to lessons. However, when you’ve got a strong user base that is presumably enthusiastic about studying Mandarin, I think there’s far more potential for a very useful learning community. If Popup Chinese could encourage this with greater levels of interactions, and maybe social networking features etc., then it would add a lot to the service.
As I mentioned above, the Sinica podcast series is probably the best thing about Popup Chinese. It really could stand alone as a high-quality programme, and I listen to it regularly. The most striking thing about it is its maturity and depth. They seem to have an endless stream of interesting guests with thought-provoking views, and they’re not afraid of moving the discussion on to controversial issues. More of this please.
The maturity factor leads me on to another good point about Popup Chinese. Whilst you’re not going to learn a lot of Mandarin from Sinica, their language-learning content shares the same feel. I wouldn’t say it’s intellectual - it’s not an academic kind of study - but it does manage to avoid the slightly light, ‘fluffy’ feel that a lot of ChinesePod content has. It seems like Popup Chinese is more interested in studying Chinese for its own sake, whereas ChinesePod targets business-directed learning goals.
One issue that Popup Chinese has in common with most language-learning podcast services is a lack of clear structure. Some might see this as a good thing as you’re free to take your own path in studying, which can be very motivating. However, a lot of people find the learning experience from podcast services too ‘random’. Especially for beginners, it can be difficult to know how to approach learning a language, in terms of what’s important and what sequence to study things in.
Popup Chinese is a bit cheaper than most other services for its basic subscription, at $50/year (around £32). I always think that the 80 / 20 rule applies very much to online learning services - you get most of the benefit from the cheapest package, and then the law of diminishing returns really does kick in higher up the price range.
You have to shell out $150/year (~ £97) to get the cool features mentioned above. This is in line with prices elsewhere, and is still cheaper than classes. However, you could get a serious quantity of textbooks and CDs for that money every year.
There’s also a ‘university program’ at $400 (~ £250) for 3 months. My view on these ‘guided’ subscriptions is that classes offer far better value for money. I can’t really comment on this one though, as I haven’t taken the course.
One thing that would improve many podcast services, including Popup Chinese, is an option to make a one-off payment and download a structured series of lessons. This would tackle the ‘random’ problem described above, and would be financially more attractive to a lot of learners.
Overall I’d say Popup Chinese deserves its spot near the top of Chinese podcast services. It doesn’t offer anything considerably different to the market, but it does provide all of the usual benefits for a slightly lower price. It strikes me as having a better ‘attitude’ to Chinese studies, and offers a bit more depth than other providers.