Last week, we looked at how and why to learn Chinese through television. In this article, Luke Howard will introduce several different genres of TV programs and explain why and how they can be used to learn Chinese. There will also be many suggestions for actual shows. If your favourite programme in a particular genre isn’t mentioned, leave a comment and recommend it! In part 1 and 2 in this little series, most programmes are Taiwanese, but I’m looking for someone to write follow-ups about Mainland shows as well!
Level recommendations are just a guide
In the guide below, I provide a level recommendation for each genre. I’d like to emphasise that these are only a guide.
If you enjoy material that’s been recommended for a higher level of Chinese than you currently have, then you should absolutely keep watching it.
Likewise, if you’re still enjoying genres recommended for a lower level than you currently are, there’s no need to stop watching them. Keep it fun at all times!
Level Recommendation: Beginner
The progress of a sporting match can be followed even with the sound turned off, making it an ideal starting place for beginners as you’ll never lose the plot.
Pick a sport that you already understand well and enjoy watching, and then learn some of the key vocabulary for that sport before getting started.
Commentator’s rate of speech varies widely, and there is usually some specialised vocabulary and phrases used. These can be easily self-studied beforehand as there’s not a lot of them for any given sport.
You’ll then be in a good position to start piecing together more and more of what the commentators are saying. And best of all, you can ignore everything you don’t understand without impeding your ability to follow the progress of the game.
This also goes for E-sports as well. Large events with live broadcast and online streaming have become increasingly popular in recent years. Even when living outside Chinese speaking countries, it’s often possible to watch live streams of events for popular games like StarCraft with Chinese commentary (read more about how to use StarCraft to learn Chinese here). Not to mention all the videos on YouTube.
It should go without saying that if you don’t enjoy watching sport in your native language, you should avoid this genre in Chinese as well!
A show to get you started: Any sports match for a sport you enjoy watching that has Chinese language commentary.
Drama (and super idol drama)
Level Recommendation: Beginner to Intermediate
Beginners should start with Taiwanese super idol dramas. These are shows with a cast full of young, attractive men and women that are very famous (hence the name “super idol”).
There’s usually very little depth to the story, following very predictable plot lines of love triangles. Following the plot should be relatively simple even for beginners. But the charisma of the characters and plentiful eye candy (for both genders!) keep things interesting while you familiarise yourself with the sounds of the language.
Regular dramas are better suited to intermediate learners, because although the language used is still relatively basic (everyday language), the plots tend to focus more on familial relationships. Following the intricacies of these plots requires some cultural understanding, and a basic grasp of the many ways to refer to relatives in Chinese (of which there are many!).
A show to get you started: 痞子英雄 / Black & White (Super Idol Drama), 我們發財了 (Regular Drama)
Entertainment / Talk shows
Level Recommendation: Upper intermediate – Advanced
Talk shows are very popular in Taiwan. There is a great deal of variation in the content and format. Many talk shows also incorporate a lot of “game show” elements.
Topics range everything from University students discussing make up, relationships and parties, through to parents discussing how to raise kids, political discussion, sports, running businesses, and even highly specific topics like North Korea observers having a debate!
The level of difficulty will depend on the subject matter. Usually it will require some preparation work learning specialised vocabulary if you’ve never watched anything on the subject matter before.
Participants can often get very heated during debates, so you might be surprised to find that even not so interesting subject matter can be entertaining for a while.
A show to get you started: 大學生了沒 (Although not a pure talk show, the mix of game show with topic discussion makes it more accessible for learners just getting into this genre.)
Level Recommendation: Advanced
News is challenging for a few reasons. The news anchors speak very fast, they use formal language, and unlike regular TV programming, subtitles are not usually displayed word for word. Instead, the subtitles are usually highly abbreviated sentences of less than 10 characters that require a strong knowledge of the language to decipher, and are just a summary of the current news item.
Television news also has very little nutritional value outside the language learning aspect, so spending time mastering this genre should only be done if it’s something that really interests you (many people enjoy it just for the challenge of it!). This is true for news programming in Taiwan, but I’m not sure about mainland China.
A show to get you started: 台灣蘋果日報 (technically this is a newspaper, but there website has a video news section, with many new videos posted every day. The videos are often short and sometimes animated, with full subtitles, meaning it’s probably the only audio-visual news source that overcomes the issues learners usually face watching television news.)
Level Recommendation: Intermediate – Advanced
Many documentaries aired in Taiwan are just dubbed versions of English language documentaries (Discovery Channel etc). Still, this is one of my favourite genres as I can also learn a lot of really interesting things that are not directly related to the Chinese language.
A show to get you started: Anything that interests you on the Discovery Channel
Level Recommendation: Beginner – Intermediate
Travel shows offer an interesting look at activities you can do as a tourist in other countries (or places inside your current country of residence). They are usually very similar in format to English language travel shows. While you won’t understand everything, there are usually enough visual cues for beginners to know where the show is taking place and what activities/local food is on offer there. Lots of eye candy to keep it interesting at the lower levels.
A show to get you started: 愛玩客 / iWalker
That’s all for now, keep reading part 2 here! Please also recommend your favourite shows in the comments. If you feel you’re the right person to write a follow-up about Mainland genres and programs, let me know!